Posted on July 27th, 2022


Initially, there was much sympathy for JVP in villages, said Rohan Gunaratna. Many people had genuine sympathy for JVP because they too when they were young, had experienced the frustrations articulated by JVP.  The lower and lower middle class thought JVP offered a better alternative to UNP and SLFP. They had high expectations from JVP. There was also the feeling that unemployed and underprivileged youth had the right to revolt, observed Chandraprema.  

One group of commentators  saw the JVP as innocent, idealistic activists. This view was soundly crushed by others. “It was a foolish dream. This insurrection was not cruel or ruthless. It was small and beautiful. Sundara gathiyak thibba,” says Victor Ivan, alias ‘Podi Athula’.  It was nothing of the sort, replied critics. It was a well planned action against the state

Dharman    Wickremaratne said that, as a working journalist, he had associated with many JVPers. They had a broad vision, much energy and strong voices, he said.  Neville Jayaweera and S. Nadesan were also sympathetic. These commentators have only looked at the JVP student and youth base, observed analysts. JVP was not a youth rebellion at all, said Chandraprema. The youth were merely used by the JVP.

 JVP sympathizers said that the JVP movement arose primarily   due to the poverty and unemployment in the country.  It is these two factors that drove the youth to JVP. That is not so replied critics. The poor and unemployed did not run to the JVP. The JVP came after them. JVP was a shrewd, externally directed movement, which needed an obedient cadre. They got one without any difficulty.

The JVP created two groups of members. One group was kept idealistic, ignorant of the JVPs real aim. This is the group commentators drool over, remarking on their innocence and young age. For this group JVP recruited schoolboys as well.

“Wijeweera, whom we knew only as Mahaththaya, spoke a lot about cultural imperialism and advised us, students, against aping the west, said Sunanda Deshapriya. We were asked to stop going for films and parties. This was done to stop what he saw as cultural degeneration. No diversions, no romantic relationships were tolerated. He wanted us to be completely devoted to the Marxist ideals. We were also supposed to identify with the poor, move away from our comfortable middle class backgrounds and start thinking about the underprivileged,” Wijeweera was creating a cult following. When Wijeweera was discharged from prison in 1970, he was treated as a hero and garlanded.

In recruiting cadres, JVP made contact with most downtrodden and desperate    persons. These were indentified and JVP made contact with them and convinced them that they should support JVP. JVP focused on the lumpen proletariat and used them for their own purposes, said Chandraprema.

JVP knew to exploit the envy and anger of those who could not make it, those who were unemployed or in low paying jobs with no hope of advancement for their children. JVP gave them ‘the psychological factor of hope’, said Chandraprema. The notion of revolution gave the youth a zest, he added. There was also disenchantment with the traditional left, pointed out Wiswa Warnapala.  

JVP also used caste. In 1971, JVP had support from Karawa, Wahumpura and Batgam in the south. Govigama, Navandanna and Berava did not support, said analysts. Mahawatte village consisted mainly of  Batgama, Wahumpura, Durawa, Nakathi castes and most of the villagers supported JVP. Menikhinna consisted mainly of Batgam caste and was a hot bed of JVP activity.

JVP leaders however, did not come from the unemployed group or the lower classes. They came from the middle class.  They were educated and employed. This is to be expected. An uneducated group could not lead an insurgency. There were professionals among the JVP leaders. Lalith Chandrasiri was an electrical Engineer of Steel Corporation. Viraj Fernando was a mechanical engineer at Steel Corporation.

Some were in stable employment. Somawansa Amarasinghe was a technical assistant in Irrigation Department. Jude Anthony was electrical technician at St Anthony’s Consolidated. Wijepala (1971 insurgency) was an employee of Colombo Port commission. Beli sira” was a bullock cart renter at Hambantota.     One member in the   Womens division was a teacher, another was a local government employee, and a third had worked in Singapore.

The JVP Politburo of 1980 had seven University graduates or drop outs, observed Rohan Gunaratna.  The JVP top rankers also included graduates and University drop outs. J.G. Wijegunasekera was a graduate in mass communications, University Kelaniya. Upali Jayaweera had graduated from University of Kelaniya with an honors degree in economics. Saman Piyasiri has been in University of Kelaniya. Lalith Wijeratne (Aravinda) studied in the Arts Faculty at University of Peradeniya.

The JVP leadership became politicized due to various factors. Ananda Idamegama was an engineering student at Peradeniya suspended for assaulting pro UNP students.  Shantha Bandara had studied at Trinity College, Kandy and Ananda College Colombo.   He was in the Science Faculty, Peradeniya, and was secretary of Socialist Students Union.  He was suspended from the university   few months before his final exams.

JG Wijegunasekera was an active trade unionist at Coconut Cultivation Board, and Small Industries Board.  He was dismissed after the 1980 strike. Palitha Dissanayake was a school boy when he went to prison in 1971. He became a full time JVPer. One JVPer had applied for dozens of jobs, but could not get a job because of his leftist leanings.

JVP seems to have had good intelligence and knew to sniff out promising recruits. Upali Jayaweera was the son of village headman, his mother was a school teacher, his brother was an engineer and Upali was in the Medical Faculty. He went back home when University closed in 1987. He was approached   when reading at the Nuwara Eliya Public Library.

 His potential was immediately seen. Upali was appointed leader for Maskeliya, and was sent to University of Colombo for training, as Peradeniya   University representative from Medicine, together with the representatives for English, science and arts.  Rohan Gunaratne was impressed by Upali Jayaweera, and said Upali would have commanded the party, if he lived.

Those at the top of the JVP survived 1971 and 1987 and went on to become leading professionals in the country. One became a respected political theorist; another became an MP and   Minister.

Most of the 10 engineers hired for the new Housing Authority, were ex JVP members, recalled Chandra Wickremasinghe.  They turned out to be very good engineers who were very enthusiastic about their official assignments. They were all an affable and competent lot and many of them obtained their post- graduate qualifications, some even becoming academics, securing senior University positions both here and abroad.

 Juana Hennadige Premasiri from Aluthgoda,   recalled the beginnings of the 1971 JVP uprising. He was an undergraduate just completing his first year at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, where he was pursuing a degree in Political Science, History and Sinhala, occupying Room 13 in the Marcus Fernando Hall.

He was one of the numerous undergrads who went to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens  and listened for five long days, to passionate and eloquent political speeches from a  the charismatic and powerful speaker ( Wijeweera) whose clothes  had  pus (mould) patches, giving an air of unwashed attire.” They were convinced that their motherland needed a new order. The seeds for the aragalaya (struggle) were sown.

At the end of the session, the youth were allocated different areas of the country, to work in. When Premasiri was assigned Badulla, he opted for Gampaha (where Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe alias ‘Loku Athula’ was the leader) as he had done his Advanced Level from the Batuwatte Maha Vidyalaya , Premasiri  left University, and began working in earnest for the movement.

Indrawansa de Silva was another JVP member of the 1970s. Here are his recollections of  1971. Fifty years ago, thousands of us took to arms in what we thought was the Marxist-Leninist revolution to capture power of the state overnight. That’s what our Dear Leader promised. We were made to believe that it was a well-thought out plan of action guided by field-tested Marxist theory.

Like many of my fellow comrades I was barely 17 years old when I was hooked”  in JVP terminology, to JVP .  Everything I knew about Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism and the glorious Cuban Revolution, I learned in my late teens from the clandestine classes and political camps as well as from  propaganda material .

We had no doubt, especially in the early days, that our leader, Comrade Rohana Wijeweera, with his commanding knowledge of Marxist-Leninist Maoist ideology and an intimate knowledge of guerilla warfare fine-tuned by none other than Che Guevara, knew what he was talking about.

Our devotion to the cause and the proletariat class made us feel unique and special. I knew” I was right and anyone who questioned what we were espousing or even dared to suggest that we could be wrong was either a reactionary, a traitor or class-enemy. Branding the enemy came quite easily. Their number would be up very soon. The secrecy of every aspect of our revolution kept my adrenaline running high at all times. . I even had my blue uniform made and waited for my tetanus shot. Ready to revolt.

I, like all of us, did not smoke or drank. No relationships. Even personal hygiene such as bathing regularly, was looked down as petit bourgeois and unkempt hair was part of the trademark. (Only later did we come to know that most of these cultist taboos did not apply to our leaders.

What would Sri Lanka have been if the JVP had captured power in 1971? I am not sure about the JVP establishing a proletariat dictatorship, but I am quite sure about Wijeweera establishing a dictatorship. And because of that, like many of my fellow revolutionaries, I am glad that we did not succeed in 1971, said Indrawansa.

Had we succeeded it is more than likely that Sri Lanka would have ended up worse than Cambodia under Pol Pot. I am not being just speculative here. The JVP has shown time after time its violent and authoritarian tendencies whenever and wherever it got even a small taste of power. The JVP doesn’t have a single democratic bone in its body.

Just take some early signs. If someone with an opposing view tried to sell a newspaper or distribute a pamphlet at our rallies they were promptly beaten up and kicked out. We did not hesitate to use power of the fist when met with opposition even within the organisation. Honest and sincere questioning of ideas and theories was seen as a threat to the movement and branded as reactionary, counter-revolutionary, or petit bourgeois tendencies.

I left the JVP in 1971 on principle, like many others, but we were always under its radar. In 1977, I was the President of the Students’ Council of Vidyodaya Campus and of the Inter-University Students’ Federation when Wijeweera was released from prison and held his first rally at the Hyde Park. He openly threatened me as we were a major challenge to the JVP on university campuses. The winds of terror were such that I left the country in the mid-1980s. There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that I would have been killed by the JVP, had I stayed.

It is quite clear that we believed in violence from the outset, said Indrawansa.. I was busy enlarging the maps of Colombo district, marking bridges to be blown up so we could immobilize the army. Pinpointing where the counter revolutionaries, reactionaries and traitors reside so we could take care” of them when we gained power.

Our writings, classes, publications, posters and public speeches were very open about our belief in violence. Destruction must precede construction, whether it is imperialism, capitalism, feudalism or the State machinery. And if we were to kill en masse to reach our goal so be it. We didn’t shy away from saying how brutal we could be. One of our posters read: The liberation of the masses won’t come until the last capitalist is hanged from the last imperialist’s bowels, concluded Indrawansa.

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