April 5th has significance to Sri Lanka due to the JVP uprising of 1971. The word uprising has been used for this event by way of an exaggeration. The exaggeration came mainly from the then-government and its propaganda machinery, supported also by UNP, who were the main opposition party, in unleashing unrestrained repression to suppress whatever that was taking place. It is this massive suppression that is being justified by the use of the word ‘uprising’ for what happened in 1971.
The events of 1971 do not compare in significance in any way with the 1953 hartal, which was in fact a mass uprising in which most of the population directly or indirectly participated. That uprising came as a result of a call by several political parties, led mainly by the Lanka Samasamaja Party, as a protest against the increase of the price of rationed rice by the UNP government, whose Minister of Finance was JR Jayawardene.
The 1953 uprising virtually shattered the political arrangements of the country and the impact of this great event has not yet been properly grasped. As compared to this, what happened in 1971 was a few activities by groups of young rebels who were loosely organized and who believed in taking up arms against the state. However, between the idea of making an armed uprising and the actual performance, there was a vast gap. Perhaps that was due to the exposure of the attempts to make hand bombs in a few places. The government, which was alerted, immediately went into action, granting license to kill anyone who was suspected of having any kind of a connection with the JVP.
In the first days that followed there were large numbers of killings after arrest and the usual conservative figure that is mentioned is around 10,000. Some even give the figure as 21,000. Due to the intervention of many persons, the government was persuaded to declare an amnesty for those who surrendered. Literally thousands of young persons surrendered, mostly at the encouragement of parents who just wanted to ensure that they would be kept alive.
At the inquiry before the Criminal Justice Commission, the Attorney-General stated in court that the existence of the uprising will be taken as a presumption, and that therefore there was no need to prove the existence of an uprising. The defence did not challenge this position. Perhaps it was to the advantage of the JVP leaders to appear as leaders of a great uprising. Some of the JVP leaders cashed in on this, comparing themselves to the heroes of the 1918 and 1948 rebellions.
What the 1971 uprising in fact showed was a great discontent spread throughout the country, particularly among the younger generation. Large numbers of youths showed willingness to support a call for rebellion, even without any convincing theory or practical, organizational structure to convince them of the validity of the political thought and strategy of the JVP. In fact, there was hardly any kind of political thought, going by the famous five lessons and the lengthy answers given by the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera during the interrogation relating to the April 5th events. That long document that consisted of his statement to the Criminal Investigation Division showed enormous confusion about a strategy for Sri Lanka, but also about the history of revolutionary movements, and particularly about Marxist thought and history.
The repression of the JVP in 1971 had its impact felt on the political events that were to follow later. All who took to arms in the south and in the north and the east expected the worst by way of repression and therefore were themselves willing to take to the most brutal forms of violence. The nature of the violence that took place in the 1980’s and after in Sri Lanka can only be fathomed by understanding the nature of the repression that was unleashed in 1971.
The greatest advantage of 1971 fell on the United National Party and its leader, JR Jayawardene. This party had had an ignominious defeat in 1970, when the coalition parties won a massive electoral victory with more than 2/3 majority in parliament. This was to be reversed in 1978, when the United National Party won over 80% of seats in the parliament. One of the major reasons for that victory was the political confusion that followed the 1971 April events.
JR Jayawardene, one of whose main ambitions in life was to crush the labour movement in Sri Lanka, utilized this event to maximum use by supporting the coalition government to take whatever repressive action without posing any limits as an opposition party. He saw that his aims would be best served at this point by supporting the coalition government rather than by opposing it.
With the easy victory won in 1978, JR Jayawardene proceeded to displace the basic democratic system itself by giving himself powers and legally destabilizing the system of checks and balances. It can be said that the greatest beneficiary of the 1971 events was JR Jayawardene. His political scheme was to displace the country’s rule of law system and the notion of the separation of powers. When such a drastic change was proposed in form of 1978 constitution there was hardly any serious discussion within the country. The nation is still trapped by this political scheme and all attempts to escape from it have failed. Subsequently, JR Jayawardene’s own party fell victim to Jayawardene’s scheme.
The way the repressive forces within Sri Lanka used the 1971 April events needs far closer study and analysis.