April 5, 1971: Miscommunication proved fatal for JVP
Posted on April 4th, 2013

Janaka Perera

 Friday April 5 marks the 42nd anniversary of JVP insurgency of 1971.  The uprising became a watershed in Sri Lanka’s post-independence politics.  It was the island’s first armed insurrection against an elected government. If not for a fatal error the insurgents made the country’s history would have taken a far different course.

 The JVP High Command on April 2 had decided to attack all police stations on the night of April 5 but the cadres at Wellawaya had mistaken it for a pre-dawn strike on the same day. The premature attack alerted the government.  

In Colombo, the Borella police reported hand bomb explosions.  The insurgents at the time did not have sophisticated weapons like T-56 or factory-made hand grenades but only stolen shot guns, improvised firearms (gal katas), Molotov cocktails and crude home-made bombs. 

 On a tip-off that all police stations were to be attacked that night the then Inspector-General of Police Stanley Senanayake rushed to Temple Trees to keep Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike Informed. SPs Cyril Herath (later IGP) and V. Vamadevan at Police Headquarters were permitted to take whatever action necessary till the IGP returned to HQ.  According to Vamadevan, he and Cyril Herath decided to enforce an unofficial police curfew, which proved decisive in preventing a major disaster.  Following the decision all police radio cars fanned out and told people by loud hailer to return to their homes and remain indoors.

 The Manager at Eros Cinema, Borella too stopped the film show scheduled for that evening.  Unknown to him this unforeseen development caused panic among a group of insurgents detailed to kill time at the cinema until the hour came for them to proceed to Rosmead Place and capture the Prime Minister dead or alive.  Now they had to quickly abandon their mission and vanish leaving behind the hand bombs they had brought for the operation.  Police later found the bombs at the cinema.

 Within 48 hours of the JVP uprising an island-wide official curfew was declared. (I recall during the first few days the curfew began around 10.30 a.m.)  About the same time SP Jaffna Ramachandra Sunderalingam alerted the police in Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Mannar, the Army Camp at Pallaly and the Naval Base at Karianagar.  His men took up positions among others at the entrance to the Jaffna Fort where JVP Leader Rohana Wijeweera was held having been arrested on March 13 along with over 400 JVP members in the jungles of Ampara.

 Patabendige Don Nandasiri Wijeweera alias Rohana Wijeweera first came to the lime light somewhere in 1970 when he was produced at the Nuwara Eliya Magistrate’s Courts with a comrade of his named Jayakody, a school teacher on a charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm. As a journalist then on the Observer editorial staff, Lake House, I was able to get photos of the two of them from Police Headquarters which were published on the front page of the evening Ceylon Observer.  Young Wijeweera had no beard then. That was the first time a newspaper carried a picture of the JVP Leader.

 Late in 1969 and early 1970 the then CID Special Branch got wind of plans to create disturbances by a group of youths who were collecting arms and committing robberies to collect funds for their cause.

 In 1969-1970 the JVP (popularly called the Che Guevara movement) was supporting the Opposition United Front’s election campaign against the UNP Government.  Simultaneously they were preparing for an armed insurrection if things did not turn out in their favour after the polls.  Hence their clandestine operations continued even though the UF won the Parliamentary Election of May 27, 1970.  Less than four months later on August 10 the JVP held its maiden pubic rally at Hyde Park, Colombo. 

 About this time, the SLFP, LSSP and the pro-Soviet Communist Party issued a joint statement branding JVP as a CIA trap, and Wijeweera a CIA agent.  The “ƒ”¹…”revolution’ had taken the Marxist old guard by surprise.  They had missed the bus.

On March 16, 1971 Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike declared a country-wide State of Emergency.  The decision to detain Wijeweera in Jaffna followed a high level security conference in Colombo so that he would have no contact with his party members since there was no JVP activity in the North.

  The instructions to the Prisons Superintendent, Jaffna from Colombo were very specific “”…” (1) Wijeweera to be kept in a single cell in one ward with no other inmates in the remaining cells and (2) have Tamil speaking prison guards there, although there were few Sinhala guards too were on duty in the prison.

 On the night of April 5 there was a passion play, with a large crowd in attendance at the Duraiappah stadium, adjoining the Jaffna police Station and the fort. Around midnight there was a noise similar to that of fire crackers. At first it sounded like part of the event at the stadium. 

 Says Sundaralingam: “Then I got a call from the police reserve sergeant shouting in Sinhala that terrorists were attacking the police stations with bombs, and urging me to be careful (thrasthavadiyo policiyata bomba gahanawa, sir prevesamwaenna). I called all senior police officers to report for immediate duty since it was a plot to attack the Jaffna prison and free Wijeweera. Police jeeps entering the main gate were pelted with crude hand-bombs.”

 It was during this time that the term terrorist (thrasthavadi) came into vogue in Sri Lanka

 The operation to free the JVP leader was undertaken by 150 Sinhala youths who came all the way to Jaffna by train from Colombo.    The SP rang the Palaly Army Camp and got a military unit to rush to the spot along with a police riot squad to do a search operation. They arrested nearly 90 youths running around the ramparts. 

 Says Sunderalingam: “The Defence Ministry’s orders via radio link to us were: “ƒ”¹…”No inquests, no postmortem. Take tough measures.’ My telephone link was completely cut off.  I made it very clear to Headquarters Inspector Jaffna Police that all arrested insurgents be kept in safe custody. Police officers were getting agitated following the news of JVP attacks on police stations island-wide and policemen killed.  I immediately moved the 90 youths to a separate ward in Jaffna prison after getting written orders from the then Jaffna Magistrate to cover my direction.  This prevented an ugly situation.”

 When SP Sunderalingam visited Wijeweera in prison the week following the aborted rescue attempt the latter was frustrated and angry. He had blurted out: “Your government has killed 10,000 of my comrades. They are traitors to your government but they will always be heroes in history. Give this message to your Prime Minister.”

 The SP conveyed this message of Wijeweera to PM Sirima Bandaranaike in a meeting at Temple Trees.  Her response: “Let him say it in the Supreme Court!”

 The JVP attacks in the North were in Jaffna and Vauniya.  Sunderalingam supervised 22 police stations in the province from Talaimannar to Point Pedro including the Vavuniya and Mulaitivu Districts.

 On the following night (April 6th) a renegade group of pro-JVP Naval ratings led by Able Seaman Tillekeratne planned to destroy the Chunnkam Power Station and proceed to Temple trees, Colombo. At the power station Tillekeratne shot dead Petty Officers Gunasekera and Costa. Another, a Malay Navy man survived but almost became a cripple due to the injuries. (I interviewed him for the Sunday Observer a few years after the incident.). But the attackers did not succeed in their mission.  The police ambushed them at Elephant Pass and killed the four renegades including Tillekeratne.    

 The JVP launched simultaneous attacks against over 90 police stations and cut off power to major urban areas. The attacks were most successful in the south. By April 10 the rebels had taken control of Matara District and Ambalangoda town in Galle District. They came close to capturing the remaining areas of Southern Province. The alert following the Wellawaya attack helped many police stations to repulse the insurgents.  It was mainly the stations which did not get the messages that Cyril Herath and Vamadevan sent, that fell to the rebels since these were taken by surprise. Rajangane was one such station. In those days all police stations were not on radio communication. There was no direct dialing either. Therefore the two SPs had to take trunk calls one by one to several of the remote stations.

 After the rebellion was crushed Sunderalingam was among the first to warn the then government on the rise of the Jaffna militancy but unfortunately it did not get the attention it deserved at the time. In his words “The consequences of the JVP attacks in Jaffna made history. The disgruntled Tamil youth in Jaffna considered the actions of the Sinhala insurgents who came all the way from Colombo to the unfamiliar territory of Jaffna a heroic experience “”…” an inspiration for Tamil youth to follow their footsteps. In a way Wijeweera created Prabhakaran.”

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