Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 859

The Insurrection that Turned Sri Lanka’s Political Culture Violent

Professor Laksiri Fernando, University of Colombo

Laksiri_fernando_0.jpgAlmost four decades ago, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), now ostensibly a democratic party contesting parliamentary elections, launched its first insurrection on the 4th April 1971.

It attempted to capture state power through extra-parliamentary means but miserably failed without popular support to the purported revolution. Compared to the previous radical events in the country, the uprising was extraordinarily ferocious and created a chain of violent political cycles of which Sri Lanka has not yet been in a position to fully recover.

Since independence in 1948, there had been only four significant violent political events prior to 1971 that could have destabilized the country in any serious manner. None of them in fact did, other than disturbing the peace in a temporary fashion. The first was what has been called Hartal in 1953, a worker rebellion associated with a general strike, however, without any motives for capturing political power. The death toll was 12.

The communal riots in 1958 did disturb the relations between the two major ethnic communities in the country - the Sinhalese and the Tamils - with 159 people killed but did not have any immediate impact on the state power. Followed was the assassination of the Prime Minister, SWRD Bandaranaike in 1959, again without any motive to change state power or even the government. More serious would have been the military coup in 1962, nevertheless failed, even before it was launched without any significant event or death.

Legacy of the Insurrection

The JVP insurrection was completely a different story. It was a serious threat to the political stability of the country and greatly eroded the legitimacy of democracy. Although the major danger disappeared after three weeks, it took nearly three more months to completely eradicate the rebellion outposts in the jungles and remote villages. The official death toll was 1,200 but unofficial figures reliably estimated it to be around four to five thousand.

The insurrection by its very nature was to capture state power. It was not a spontaneous rebellion by the youth facing unemployment or any such hardships. It was a planned insurrection by the JVP, working as an underground insurrectionary party, of course utilizing and exploiting various socio-economic issues. It considered the supposedly unemployed rural youth as its political support base or vanguard. No serious attempts however were made to appeal to the other sections of the society.

On the night of the 4th April, the attempt was to simultaneously attack police stations and capture them while plans were also afoot, though amateurish, to arrest the Prime Minister, Sirimavo Badaranaike, and other key Ministers. The plan to apprehend the PM and Ministers was a flop. The JVP did not attack the military, apparently believing that the armed forces could be won over to the side of the revolution. The police was the JVP’s primary enemy.

Altogether over 100 police stations were attacked and 40 of them were either captured or abandoned for security reasons. After assessing the security situation, when the army moved in, the revolution however failed and failed miserably.

The 1971 insurrection did not produce anything positive. Instead it created a culture of political violence that has been the bane of the country since then. The promulgation of the 1972 Constitution was completely unrelated to the event. The standardization of university admissions in 1972 could be considered a distorted outcome of the insurrection, which on the other hand created grievances on the part of the Tamil youth. The insurrection was solely by the Sinhala rural youth.

One impact of the insurrection was the de-legitimacy of the incumbent centre left United Front (UF) government that slowly created conditions for the right wing to take over the country in 1977. Judging by the facts that the JVP itself supported the United Front to come to power at the 1970 elections, and launched the insurrection within a year, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the objective result of the insurrection was the strengthening of the right wing politics in the country. This conclusion is more pertinent considering that the UNP which came to power in 1977 made dramatic changes in the economic and political landscape, largely detriment to the future of the country, and governed authoritatively until 1994 for seventeen years.

The JVP, the party that launched the insurrection did not draw its lessons for posterity. Only admissions of ‘error’ came from some leaders who left the movement for various reasons. Although the number of the ‘deserters’ was significant, the impact remained inconsequential. Even there can be doubts whether they have drawn the correct lessons judging by the type of politics or activities that they have been involved in later. A kind of extremism characterized many activities of many of them. Some of them in fact came in a full circle and directly and indirectly supported the ‘JVP-Fonseka alliance’ at the last presidential elections.

There was some temporary admiration of the bravery of those who were involved in the insurrection by local and international commentators. Undoubtedly they were brave to mean that they risked their lives or future for a ‘cause that they believed in.’ That was mostly at an individual level and some of the leaders involved apparently proved to be some of the best brains in the country. They could have done a better service to the country if they were not lured to violence in that instance. The second generation of the JVP did not have that caliber of people and the third generation was much worse except those who broke away form the outfit in the recent past to form the National Freedom Front (NFF).

Interpretations of the Event

There were a plethora of literature or theories that attempted to understand and explain the event and its causes. HAI Goonetileke’s Bibliography on the subject documents almost all the initial studies conducted on the insurrection. The most popular theories were in the sphere of sociology or political sociology that in fact argued for valid socio-economic and other reasons which supposedly led the leaders to lead the insurrection or the supporters to join the rebellion. There were around 16,000 who were supposed to have followed the movement directly and indirectly.

The population explosion, dysfunctional education, stagnation in the economy, rural poverty and more precisely the unemployment and graduate unemployment were highlighted as the salient socio-economic factors behind the uprising. All these undoubtedly were objectively verifiable factors that remained more or less on the same level or ferocity throughout the years of 1960s or 1970s.

Why then the insurrection took place in April 1971 was the question. There were several political scientists who went slightly deeper into investigate the political circumstances of the insurrection and the ideology of the JVP, but soon conveniently fell back into the socio-economic explanations and more or less concluded that there had been something wrong in the society that led to the insurrection.

There had always been something wrong with the existing society no doubt. The left parities in the country were in fact were formed even prior to independence to fight against these injustices or infirmities, and later on, the SLFP broke away from the ruling UNP in 1952 with the objective of reforming the society gradually giving vent to those who suffered from these grievances particularly in the rural sector.

But to wage war against the state on those grievances or injustices was completely a different matter. It could have come, under the prevailing circumstances, either from ‘utopian idealism’ or from ‘outright opportunism’ for power. While in the case of the 1971 insurrection, the first possibility was undoubtedly prevalent to a great extent, the second strand of motivation cannot be ruled out, particularly on the part of the leadership, considering the way the insurrection was waged and the track record of the leaders thereafter until today.

It was this ‘subjective aspect’ of the insurrection and the movement that many of the initial theories and interpretations of the 1971 insurrection neglected or failed to grasp. This subjectivity of the JVP ideology has been abundantly clear thereafter in their second failed attempt of insurrection in 1987-89 and even in parliamentary politics since 1994 and in the recent presidential elections. When they had an opportunity to participate in governance they were reluctant to do so in 1994 as if they wish for total instant revolution.

The frustration-aggression theory and the theories based on the same premises have failed to understand that frustration or underlying socio-economic grievances themselves would not automatically lead to aggression or rebellion without intermediary factors such as leadership, ideology and organization. This is what I mean by subjective factors in this article. It is basically a particular kind of ideology and theories that instigate violence and violent insurrections. Violence is not inherent; it is basically constructed, cultivated and taught.

In the case of the JVP, its mastermind Rohana Wijeweera was instrumental in bringing a particular kind of violent political ideology to this country. It was during his studies at the Lumumba University in Moscow that he acquired a distorted version of Marxism and revolution, like what Pol Pot of Cambodia did in France. Wijeweera did not acquire his theories from the Russian revolutionary literature but from some contemporary pseudo-revolutionary theories popular among his contemporaries like Kassim Hanga of Zanzibar and Che Ali of Indonesia. Kassim Hanga and the group led a ‘one day revolution’ in Zanzibar in January 1964 which was successful and that was the model initially Wijeweera wanted to follow in Sri Lanka.

The broad spectrum of the theory argued that revolutions are possible in different ways. The workers and peasants are not necessary. What is needed is the cultivation of a committed cadre organization. Armed struggle and simultaneous uprising was the strategy. Undoubtedly, the prevailing economic and social grievances helped the JVP to convince 2,000 to 3,000 cadres to participate in the insurrection and over 10,000 youth and others to help them. The ideology of the JVP at that time was a combination of a type of socialism and an extreme form of nationalism. The main thrust of the ideology was the justification of violence under different pretexts and reasons.

Repercussions of the Insurrection

The way the insurrection was treated was extremely mild in contrast to later events. There were of course excesses on the part of the counter-insurgency operations but they were limited compared to many other situations in the contemporary world. The suppression of the communist insurrection in Indonesia in 1965 was a contrast. But it cannot be denied that both the insurrectionary and counter-insurrectionary measures since early 1971 finally led to the April insurrection.

Perhaps without much intention, some of the measures such as the declaration of emergency and arrest of suspects for security reasons left no option but Wijeweera to call for the insurrection somewhat haphazardly on the 4th night of April. He was in jail and kept in Jaffna by that time. One objective of the insurrection was to rescue him from Jaffna Jail by paralyzing the country. The rape and murder of Kataragama Beauty Queen was a high point of army excesses. I myself lost two of my friends who were active in the teachers union but did not have any connections with the JVP. It was later revealed that they were killed to avenge a personal grudge by a police officer.

Violence it appears contagious. It is like a horrible epidemic. The insurrection changed the mindset of many people both in the authority and those who almost naturally opposed it. The reasons for the distinction were not easy to figure. The insurrection opened the flood gates.

Sri Lanka never could become the same. Recurrent cycles of violence were to follow after small interlude in almost all spheres of political life from elections to ethnic relations and political party competition.

Unlike in many stable societies, there were theories and theories merely to oppose the social system that people otherwise have to preserve, change and develop for their own benefit. Instead of constructive criticism and peaceful action or protest to change conditions, violence in many forms was advocated as a ‘higher value’ or appropriate action and a means of so-called ‘liberation.’ Even by the time of the insurrection, there were police reports that radical youth in Jaffna were following the path of the JVP in the South. The insurrection justified their intentions. Although the respective theories were different there was a close congruence.

A recent publication by Professor Gamini Samaranayake titledPolitical Violence in Sri Lanka, 1971-1987 (Gyan Publishers, New Delhi) has outlined many similarities and differences between the JVP and the LTTE movements in terms of social bases, ideology, leadership patterns, political strategies and tactics. The study outlines both insurrections by the JVP and the terrorist violence by the LTTE until the end of the period, explaining them within a broader socio-economic and political context. It is a useful reading to understand how far the JVP insurrection influenced the LTTE to legitimize its own ambitions and plans for a separate state and terrorist violence.

The JVP insurrection and Tamil separatism of course were two different phenomena. The common factor between them however was the indulgence in violence and disregard for the larger society. The most vicious nature of the JVP, of course along with the armed forces, came to be revealed during the second insurrection in 1987/89. Until the 1971 insurrection, the question of the ‘right to rebel’ or such a claim for violence was not raised in any significant manner in political discussions or debates. The leader of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera, in his defense before the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) in fact claimed for the first time the right of what he called the deprived youth to rebel against the State. The 1971 insurrection thus was the major turning point which changed Sri Lanka’s political culture violent of which the country has not yet been in a position to fully recover even after defeating terrorism.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this


.