Posted on August 14th, 2020


The 1971 JVP insurgency has been described as a romantic, innocent revolution, an unplanned spontaneous attack. It was nothing of the sort. It was pre-planned and well organized. The purpose was to bring down the SLFP government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. JVP was planning a putsch, to remove the government by force.

 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike would be taken into custody from her Rosmead Place residence. The army cantonment at Panagoda would be attacked.  Navy personnel at Ragama and air force personnel at Katunayake were to be immobilized by introducing a purgative to their food.  

To help this, JVP cadres were expected to take and hold certain Sinhala areas. There was method in their operations.  Before attacking police stations, the electricity supply was cut. Approaches to police stations were sealed off, in some cases, by felling large trees.

JVP took Vavuniya   in such a planned manner. JVP controlled the road at Iratperiyakulama and Omanthai, cutting Vavuniya off from Anuradhapura and Jaffna. JVP also controlled roads at Medawachchiya, Rajangana, and Polgahawela, which meant they had control of all key road and rail junctions.    JVP controlled Madukanda, a village   in Vavuniya which provided a link to Trincomalee.

 Vavuniya was one of the pockets where the JVP was able to hold out for a long time, observed Jayaweera.  They were eventually defeated, but   a hard core of about 25 stayed on in the thickly forested ridge off Mamaduwa village, north east of Vavuniya from where till mid August, 1971 they made regular incursions into town and torched school buildings and buses and sniped at army camps and patrols. Air strikes failed to flush them out,  said Jayaweera.

The JVP also tried to destablise the state. Once the new government came into power there was an unprecedented outburst of lawlessness throughout the country. JVP had infiltrated government industrial concerns and had intimidated the workers.  There were work stoppages, said Senator S.  Nadesan.   

JVP was from the beginning, trained for armed violence. On the night of the 5th of April, the J. V. P. was responsible for violence, on a scale which had never been experienced in Sri Lanka, observed Samaranayake.

JVP only killed in Sinhala areas.   JVP attacked 92 police stations.   They were all in ‘Sinhala’ areas. Estate owners were killed. At Deniyaya, there was the high profile killing of the popular Dr Rex de Costa, who had openly helped the Deniyaya police during the insurgency. A friend told me that three of her husband’s cousins, who owned tea small holdings in Matara, were shot and killed.

There were economic targets as well, also in Sinhala areas. A cotton processing factory had been set up at Mirijjawila near Hambantota In 1956, to encourage cotton cultivators in Hambantota and Monaragala. Cotton was a popular crop in the Eastern part of Hambantota and Monaragala, at this time. Cotton was cultivated under rain-fed conditions. This factory functioned satisfactorily and it had started processing their home grown cotton.  JVP set fire to it.  That was the end of the factory. It was never re-started.  

Garvin Karunaratne, who was GA, Matara during the insurgency observed that the insurgency affected the economy of the south.  Many well to do people from the rural areas, immediately transferred themselves and their moveable possessions to the towns.I was inundated with requests for petrol for this purpose, he said.   Karunaratne also observed that till then, houses with gardens only had two-foot high parapet walls. After the JVP insurgency, walls were raised   to six feet.

The notion that the JVP was only interested in taking over police stations is incorrect. This was only a cover. The target was the armed forces and the military installations. During the insurgency, JVP took over the Anuradhapura air strip and was eyeing the one at Vavuniya. Several members of the armed forces were recruited into the JVP and used very discreetly, said Indradasa. Wijeweera had tried to recruit SLFP army personnel arrested on suspicion of trying to over throw the UNP government, but they were not interested.

Wijeweera was more successful with the navy. Wijeweera targeted the Sri Lanka navy from the very beginning. This is not well known. A list of navy personnel were submitted to him by a contact whose name is given in Indradasa’s book. 

 Wijeweera met this group at Trincomalee navy base and spoke to them,   probably in 1965. Many naval personnel attended the JVP classes in 1966 and 1967. And a group of JVP navy men” was created. Naval ratings who were close to Wijeweera were among the instructors at the JVP training camps, said Indradasa.

Uyangoda alias “Oo Mahattaya” of the JVP had visited Karainagar naval base in 1971 and met one these JVP navy men.This navy man had succeeded in posting pro JVP sailors to work at the armories of the outstation navy bases, telling his superior that they were trustworthy men. The gullible superior had believed him. If the JVP plan had succeeded in 1971 it would have been disastrous for the navy as well as the country, said Indradasa.

Janaka Perera, former chief of staff of the Sri Lanka army described one navy episode. Towards the end of March, 1971, the Trincomalee Naval Base received a letter from the Peradeniya University requesting to arrange a football match between university students and Navy personnel on the naval base grounds n Trincomalee on April 5. The letter also requested the Navy to arrange for the university team to spend the night at the base, since it was difficult for them to return to Peradeniya the same day after the match.

The naval authorities were wary.  The Navy decided it was not safe to allow a football match between the Navy and University team at Trincomalee. The university authorities were informed that the naval base grounds could not be given for the match.

If the match was held as planned, one of the Navy men who would have participated was Able Seaman H.M. Tillekeratne, one of the Navy’s best football players. A strong well-built man, Tillekeratne was serving at the Navy’s Elara Camp in Karainagar at the time.

Tillekeratne was the ‘Coordinating Officer’ between the Navy and the JVP, which was planning to appoint him as North-East commander if they seized power.     He was in the habit of regularly travelling between the Elara Camp and the Trincomalee Naval Base.  He was conducting political classes for some Navy personnel. 

On April 4, Tillekeratne was on duty at the Elara Camp  when the JVP insurgency began. By this time the CID had got wind of Tillekeratne’s strong connection with the JVP. Within 48 hours of the JVP uprising Superintendent of Police Jaffna, received a message from Colombo of a suspected move by Tillekeratne to put sleeping tablets into the water filters at the Elara Camp’s officers mess.  The police took immediate action.

Tillekeratne was ordered to go to Chunnakam and thereafter proceed to Palaly Airport for the flight to Colombo.  He knew the game was up.  There was no question he would be arrested as soon as he arrived in Colombo. Tillekeratne headed for Chunnakam in a Navy jeep.

What happened next was like a scene from a gangster movie, said Janaka Perera. Upon reaching the power station Tillekeratne got off the jeep, instructing the driver to keep the engine running.  Tillekeratne then walked nonchalantly towards the power station, which was guarded by a detachment from the Elara Camp. They knew him well. When he entered the power station the naval guards who had completed their duty the previous night were relaxing. They had kept their submachine guns aside. Suddenly, Tillekeratne picked up one of the guns ordered the other Navy men to raise their hands.

All obeyed Tillekeratne, except Petty Officers Cecil Gunasekera, N.J.T. Costa and another. Since the three men were his close friends they thought he was joking. He then repeated his order. “This is my last warning. Are you putting up your hands or not?”  But the three men ignored him.

Then Tillekeratne opened fire, killing two of them –Gunasekera and Costa – on the spot. Several others were seriously injured, among them a Navy PT instructor, T.M.N. Abdul, who was crippled for life as a result. 

Following the shooting Tillekeratne, according to Abdul, had forced two other Navy men at gun point to load the jeep with all the weapons and ammunition he had seized from his colleagues, and accompany him in the vehicle.  Tillekeratne’s aim was to join the insurgents.

Suspecting that he would try to flee Jaffna, the SP Sunderalingam, promptly telephoned ASP Mendis, manning the Elephant Pass Police check point to be on the alert for the jeep carrying Tillekeratne.  As soon as the message was received, the policemen at the check point along with army personnel waited for the vehicle to appear. A short while later they saw the jeep at a distance. They waited until it came close and then ordered the driver to stop. Their guns were aimed at the jeep.  At first it appeared the vehicle was going to slow down. Suddenly Tillekeratne tried to grab the submachine gun on his seat. But those manning the check point were faster. Their shots killed Tillekeratne and the driver on the spot.

After Tillekeratne’s death, police searched his personal belongings and found secret documents, and several bottles of sleeping tablets which were to be put into the water filters of the Elara Camp’s officers’ mess.  His plan was to seize all weapons and ammunition from the camp’s magazine, before joining his JVP comrades, after making naval officers unconscious, concluded Janaka Perera.

 JVP gained control of some areas during the insurgency, but did not know what to do next. The hierarchical system of cells had kept members isolated from each other and ignorant of the JVP’s overall plan. Instead of taking over neighboring towns and cities and marching on to other areas, they simply waited until those areas were also captured.  They failed to set up a new government or new administration in the areas they controlled.  They were not trained for that. They were trained to await orders from a higher authority.

Analysts observed that JVP’s conspiratorial structure   was excellent for surprise armed attack, but not for long drawn-out guerrilla warfare. The cadres were not physically or psychologically prepared to continue an armed struggle either.  They only had a scanty and inadequate training in military tactics and weapons use.  The arms and ammunition such as shotguns and locally made hand-thrown bombs were not only inferior in quality but were in short supply as well.  (Continued)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2021 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress