Posted on July 24th, 2022


The government of Sri Lanka had received reports from intelligence that an armed insurrection was planned by a select group of youth. This information was ignored by the government.

 A report submitted later to Criminal Justice Commission inquiry no 1 indicated that two years prior to April 1971, groups of young persons between ages of 18-25 were known to be meeting in secret. These groups were active in many part of the island. They had formed cells, each of   5- 24 unemployed youth from poor families. They were trained in jungles and remote areas in basic of jungle warfare such as survival techniques, rope climbing, self defense, living off the land. Police had recovered maps diagram sketches, and data relating on police stations and military establishments, arms and ammunition dumps from the JVP and had made arrests.

Information was received that JVP  attacks were to be at night, therefore  Capt FRAB  Musafer who  headed a  platoon deployed in Weerawila,  had sent  a wireless message, in consultation with the GA, to Temple Trees requesting for flares to assist in night fighting operations. There was no response.  Musafer heard later, from another officer that he had been ridiculed, saying that Musafer had unnecessarily got the jitters. It was no laughing matter when news of the Wellawaya attack at night was received.,

The government had not given any special powers to the army to search and detain. At times we did observe groups of cyclists travelling further south but they carried nothing on them. We suspected they were couriers but there was nothing we could do about it. We did search Wijeweera’s neat and tidy home occupied by his mother and sister but found only magazines titled Red China” said Musafer.

For the officials at Kegalle, it had been like sitting on a powder keg. From January 1971, the signs of an attack had been evident. Information flowed in from two sources: Police intelligence and also the spy network floated by SP Seneviratne using a special vote of Rs. 50,000.

 Reports were received of “various” happenings in the countryside. Small groups of youth meeting in secret in lonely places. The ‘desana paha’ (five lectures) being delivered. Collection, manufacture and storage of weapons. Jungle training of fighting cadres. Testing of devices in the jungle. Shooting practice. Strange explosions.

“There were also reports brought in by grama sevakas, DROs and informants such as school principals, of young boys going ‘missing’ from home for days. Tailors in the area told us how orders for a large number of uniforms had been placed,” GA Wijedasa said. 

“As a professional cop, I was able to interpret the signs and symptoms. Little incidents were brought to my notice. Six-foot lengths of barbed wire were being removed from fences. These were subsequently cut into 1-1 1/2″ pieces and used in anti-personnel bombs,” said SP Seneviratne.

JVP cadres were also collecting fused bulbs and jam bottles, tins and similar-sized containers to make bombs and Molotov cocktails. The containers were filled with kerosene or petrol and had a fuse. “That was what saved us. Kegalle is a wet area and they couldn’t light the fuse, because the boxes of matches they carried were damp.”

Often at night, when the SP and GA met for dinner in the Residency, they would hear the tell-tale ‘clink-clink’ of the insurgents making their way through the forest. They were carrying ‘Molotov cocktails’ in their haversacks and as they walked over the uneven terrain, stumbling over rocks and roots, the bottles and cans would knock against each other.  What would also give them away was the sound of the dogs barking. As they walked past a house, the ‘game-ballo’ would sound the alarm.

Early in 1971, as the unrest in Kegalle escalated, GA Wijedasa activated the District Security Coordinating Committee of which he was chairman. It comprised the SP, the head of the army unit stationed in the area, the Additional Government Agent and the Headquarters DRO.

Information about the activity in Kegalle area was collated and analysed and many reports sent to the government. But nothing happened. Daily dispatches were sent through special messengers. But no action was taken. Defence Secretary A.R Ratnavale put them to Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who discussed the intelligence reports at her Cabinet meetings with MPs from the area. But they only reassured her that “our boys” wouldn’t do such things. The matter was discussed and shelved many times. 

The Kegalle officials also made recommendations that in case of a massive attack, schools should be converted to detention centres. That was not taken seriously either. 

Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe, ‘Loku Athula’, (later MP for Gampaha and Deputy Minister of Power and Energy) was in charge of the Kegalle and Kurunegala Districts.  He was one of the four top leaders of the JVP. .He was responsible for armed wing of the group. He organized training camps. He was in command at Kegalle and Kurunegala.

Once the decision to attack was made Loku Ahtula moved into the area on the 3rd, meeting area Leaders at Weliveriya and coordinating operations with detachments in Veyangoda and Mirigama. About 600 JVP combatants were deployed across the Kegalle District, concentrated at Warakapola and Rambukkana. JVP had also established themselves in Aranayaka, Dedigama and Morontota and were dominating these areas. JVP had good knowledge of terrain n Kegalle .

Tholangamuwa Central College, located some five miles from Warakapola on the Kegalle road was the JVP headquarters. A bulldozer was parked across the entrance to the school so that no one could storm them.

The JVP insurgency at Kegalle  shows training and preparation well beyond that of a spontaneous uprising. It was clear that JVP were reasonably well trained in use of firearms, field craft, guerrilla tactics, and had numerical superiority said Cyril Ranatunge.

JVP had mastered the ambush technique which can be expected only from professional trained soldiers, noted the army. One patrol had been ambushed at Uthuvankande on Kandy-Colombo road, by about 75 JVP with rifles, sub machine guns, shot guns and homemade bombs. They had blocked the road with a lorry in a well selected site. One mobile patrolencountered stiff resistance in Aranayaka town and was ambushed  at Ussapitiya school premises.  The attack had been by 100 insurgents.

One captive JVP had told Cyril  Ranatunge, army officer in charge of Kegalle that he had been assigned to kill the Coordinating office (who was Cyril). They had been trained to hate the army, he said. Also, Ranatunge observed, the JVPhad their own transport system and their own courts of law where civilians were indicted. LTTE took years to establish law courts, JVP   did it in few days, Ranatunge remarked.

As soon as Government Agent K.H.J. Wijedasa and Superintendent of Police Ana Seneviratne heard of the Wellawaya attack, they put into action their secret contingency plans. All petrol stations in the Kegalle district were sealed to conserve fuel and police guards deployed at water supply stations, electrical sub-stations and the telecom exchange.  But the JVPers were one step ahead. They felled trees across the power lines, plunging whole areas into darkness. Cycle chains were thrown over high tension wires to cause short-circuits. Phone lines were cut and roads blocked with uprooted trees and lamp posts. 

Within the district, all 14 police stations had fallen. “There was minimal resistance by the Police.JVP had destroyed Warakapola police station, also Bulathkohupitiya, Aranayaka, Mawanella, Pindeniya, Rambukkana, and Dedigama police stations. Government was only in control of three acres which housed Kachcheri, police station, law courts. the police radio was their only link with the outside world.

The Army could only access the interior regions of the District on the 10th and initially had to focus on removing road blocks and repairing culverts and bridges to gain mobility. When they penetrated the countryside they were frequently ambushed as in Aranayake.

Once Wellawaya was attacked,  the government declared a State of Emergency, dusk to dawn curfew and the Army deployed two platoons of the 1st Battalion, Ceylon Light Infantry (1CLI) to the Kegalle District, which would soon become the centre of fierce fighting.

Colonel Cyril Ranatunge was appointed military coordinating officer for Kegalle in JVP insurrection 1971. This was the first military operation for his unit. At that time,  army and police were not experienced or trained to handle an insurrection of this scale and intensity.  However, we have learned too many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy them completely,” army said.

Cyril set up an intelligence cell at Kegalle to gather and disseminate information. he contacted all government agencies, headmen, now grama sevaka, public sector and private sector persons. We gathered information on the hide outs and movement of JVP and then took on targets without wasting time. No operations were planned without proper intelligence.

Operations were not in the form of attacks on JVP camps. there weren’t any except for those in Rambukkana Dedigama and Morontota. We caught them through ambush. We got info on where they go their food, how they moved from village to village. The ambushes were set as late in the evening as possible and troop got into position and stayed without a murmur and got the targets. The JVP thought they had the run of the land at night.

They quickly re-established the police stations. they set up temporary police stations. This restored public confidence.    Cyril had set up vigilance committee consisting of local leaders, frequent meetings with people in Kegalle town and suburbs and villages were helpful. With success against the JVP, there was not difficult in getting valuable intelligence unlike at the start. We trained a large number of home guards they gave accurate info   on any suspicious activity through the police stations. We never gave the JVP in Kegalle a chance to regroup, we kept them on the run. The fury and intensity of the violence dissipated as quickly as it came. 

On the 12th at Utuwankande the Army was ambushed by the JVP using rifles and submachine guns. But the battle was turning in favour of the Army which brought to bear superior arms to put pressure on the rebels and gradually reopen the abandoned police stations in the district. They received new Saladin armored cars.

Finally on the 29th led by Loku Athula the JVP forces began their withdrawal from the District, from Balapattawa via Alawwa and then north. As they retreated in the direction of the Wilpattu Park they came under attack from the Army and from the air by Air Force helicopters. The Army finally ambushed them near Galgamuwa, killing some and capturing Loku Athula on 7th June. Around 16,500 JVP members were captured, arrested or surrendered. The remaining combatants withdrew into jungle sanctuaries in the Kegalle, Elpitiya, Deniyaya and Kataragama areas. GA Wijedasa estimates 15,000 had been killed in Kegalle district. “There was not much burning of bodies,  they were thrown into the Maha Oya.” 

Some counter insurgency operations however continued into the following year. A forward base was established  in Horowapatana as late as November 1972 from where they carried out combing out operations until April 1973.  1CLI’s D-Company closed its Kegalle operations only in December 1974.

When I threw out the insurgents in Kegalle, they emerged in Anuradhapura, where I then went, said Ranatunge. A platoon of 1CLI armed with 82mm mortars was sent to Anuradhapura in May and participated in Operation Otthappuwa, to take control of this area. By the end of May the insurrection was completely crushed.

Lalin Fernando who was in   charge at Wellawaya  in 1971 recounts. At Wellawaya I observed a fence at the rear of the police station. Behind it was a vast  paddy field. I climbed over the fence and saw two very young lads lying down by the side of the ‘niyara’ (bund) of the paddy field. At first, I mistook them for villagers and asked them to scram. They wouldn’t move. I then drew my .38  revolver and aimed it at them. I asked them to stand up. They were frightened and  hesitant. I then yelled at them  and the two stood up slowly.

 I was unnerved. They must have been about 14-15 years old. They were unarmed and came up to me in great fear. I called the Platoon Sergeant Punchi Banda and asked him to give them a ‘ducking’ at the station well and bring them back to me. After the ‘ducking in warm water, which the two boys had apparently relished after a whole day in the sun, they were separated and each given a piece of paper and a pencil and asked to write down the names of those who came with them to attack the police station. Sergeant Punchi Banda supervised them. We had 25 (not 500) identical names. This was passed on to the Battalion HQ. We had cracked the Wellawaya gang.

One ‘insurgent’ we caught later was Sirisena. He was 12 years old. He was an orphan being looked after by his grandmother. His job had been to carry the boxes of matches to light the petrol bombs. He soon became the mascot of the platoon, eating and sleeping with them and helping in doing odd jobs. Concerned by the possible  Police response, I released him on the day we pulled out of the Police Station, concluded Lalin.

The JVP couldn’t hold on to the areas they had captured, such as parts of Kegalle, because they lacked popular support, said  Kegalle’s GA Wijedasa. The defeat of the  JVP was primarily due to the lack of support from the masses agreed the JVP. This, it should be noted,  is very different to the Eelam war, where the public supported the LTTE .

“The people were not used to violence. They were not happy about the destruction of public property – buses and government buildings being set ablaze and the disruption of essential services, said GA Wijedasa.

 The JVP’s contention that tea and rubber estates should be uprooted and manioc and sweet potato planted instead did not go down well with the common man. The thinking that big houses and bungalows had to be shared by five families was met with disapproval. This may have all been misdirected JVP propaganda or misinformation, but the people opposed it. 

At Morontota public were happy army had come and gave them information. .  JVP killed anyone they suspected was an informant. The JVP held Batapola till April 23. Then the army with the help of villagers attacked their camp. 

Two youths had visited the house of a retired school master on the outskirts of Mawanella town and demanded his gun. He had gone in, and loaded his double barrel gun and come out on the pretext of handing it over to the two youths he had shot them both dead, discharging both barrels. The schoolmaster and his family had taken their belongings, got into a lorry and immediately left the area.

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