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Origins and growth of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna




By Jayantha Somasundaram

The 50th anniversary of the first JVP insurrection falls today. The 1971 rebellion was the first armed uprising against the state in modern times.

The JVP was the brainchild of Rohana Wijeweera. Born in 1943, at Hunandeniya, in the Matara District, his father was a supporter of the Communist Party of Ceylon (CPC). However, while studying medicine in Moscow, Wijeweera became critical of the Soviet Union, and, on his return, he joined the Communist Party (CP), which was Maoist. Not long after, in 1966, Wijeweera, along with his supporters, broke ranks with the CP to form their own movement, which would later become the JVP. Wijeweera had concluded that the agricultural labourer -̶ the rural proletariat -̶ was the largest and most important component of Sri Lanka’s working class, not the urban or plantation worker.

The JVP was able to attract university students to its cause. It gained recruits at Vidyalankara (Kelaniya) University by winning over students who were members of the PC-supporting Lanka Jatika Sishya Sangamaya (Lanka National Students Society) led by G. I. D. ‘Castro’ Dharmasekera. In 1970, the JVP wrested control of the Samajawadi Sishiya Sangamaya (the Socialist Students Society) at the Peradeniya University; while on behalf of the JVP, Mahinda Wijesekera led the Sangamaya at Vidyodaya (Sri Jayewardenepura) University.

In 1969, Wijeweera organised two Congresses, bringing together all his supporters. At the two-day conference in Madampella, Negombo, the leadership, which consisted of Wijeweera, Sanath, Karunaratne and Loku Athula, along with the District Secretaries, constituted the JVP Central Committee. Later that year, at Urubokka, in the Matara District, the movement took on its final configuration. Five-member cells formed the core structure, overseeing them would be area leaders who were in turn responsible to District Secretaries.

At the Urubokka Conference, the prospect of manufacturing weapons was taken up and the suggestion made that projectiles such as rockets would be effective against the Army’s Panagoda Cantonment, at Homagama. In early 1970, at the Dondra Conference, in addition to collecting and manufacturing weapons, the details of recruitment, training, uniforms, and collecting information on the Armed Forces, were discussed.


The JVP’s Ideology

The JVP was critical of the mainstream left parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party as they had entered into an alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and would be constituents of the United Front (UF) government, which came to power in May 1970. However, it was in those very areas, that had been worked on by the older left parties for three decades, that the JVP took root.

The JVP leaders, however, were from backgrounds and experiences quite different from that of the old left parties. They did not come from Colombo’s public schools, few of them had been to the British-styled residential university at Peradeniya, and none to Western universities. Many were teachers and students of small-town Central Schools and the Pirivena (Buddhist monastic) Universities. “Unlike the traditional left, the activists of the JVP were the children of the 1956 Sinhala-only struggle, with its attendant limitations and advantages,” writes Michael Cooke in Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story.

The rank and file of the JVP consisted of militant Sinhala-educated young men and women. They were underprivileged rural youth, with meagre job opportunities, constituting a potential army of frustrated school and university leavers. Overwhelmingly Buddhist Sinhalese, they were drawn from marginalised castes. Wahumpura villages in Elpitiya gave the JVP strong support, while, in Kegalle, the Batgam were won over by the JVP. In Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy, James Jupp explains: “The JVP appealed to the Buddhist Karawe, Durawe, Batgam, Wahumpura … both from the Southern Province and the Kegalle District, anti-Govigama feeling was a motive behind the mass recruitment to the JVP in certain villages.”

The JVP endeavoured to recruit sympathisers in the armed forces, with Wijeweera establishing contact, as early as 1965, with Tilekaratne, a rating in the Royal Ceylon Navy. Later Uyangoda held classes for Naval personnel, made contact with Air Force personnel in Wanathamulla and Katunayake, and delivered lectures to them. They also provided classes for soldiers stationed at Diyatalawa.

The Party evolved its own Marxist ideology which was a hybrid. It drew on Trotsky’s criticism of Stalinism and the ‘popular front.’ From Mao it asserted the primacy of the peasantry as the backbone of the revolution. And from Castro it learnt armed insurrection. The JVP training for its cadres emphasised neo-colonialism, attacked parliamentarianism and rejected the mainstream left parties.

In its economic teaching, the JVP differed little from the LSSP or CP. However, they did not only point out the neo-colonial dependence of Sri Lanka’s economy, but identified the UF as part of this neo-colonial system. They called for a halt to the expansion of the tea plantations while advocating the intense cultivation of food crops and the collectivisation of land to overcome landlessness. The JVP in its propaganda organ Vimukthi claimed that “the socialist revolution would succeed in Ceylon only when the oppressed peasantry became politicised … hey are the moving force of the Ceylonese revolution.”


Political Growth

The JVP recruited cadres who would attend political training, delivered through five lectures. These covered the economic crisis, neo-colonialism, Indian expansionism, the left movement and the Sri Lanka revolution. Those who completed all five lectures and volunteered for combat, around 9,000, had military training.

It was in tactics, however, that the JVP differed radically from the rest of the left, which had been concerned with trade unions, strikes, rallies and elections. With the passage of time, the JVP evolved a tactic, where they functioned openly as an agitational group, whilst, at the same time recruiting combatants into a clandestine military organisation. They held that the socialist revolution in Sri Lanka would have to be a sudden armed insurrection, launched simultaneously across the country. This is the most advanced and complex form of revolutionary combat.

Their ‘24-Hour Revolution’ was premised on the assumption that the police and the armed forces had insufficient ammunition to survive a simultaneous uprising throughout the country. However they also wrestled with a critical tactical dilemma: “How to attack the government, moving carefully enough not to outpace the disillusion of the masses, yet fast enough to hit before the government struck at it.” (Fred Halliday The Ceylonese Insurrection in Explosion in a Sub Continent edited by Robin Blackburn)

The JVP came into the open, in 1969, through public meetings, the first of which was held at Vidyodaya University. This public profile brought a large number of new recruits whom the leadership claim reached about 23,000 committed members. But it also resulted in the police responding with widespread arrests amounting to about a thousand JVP activists. Fearing all out repression, they established protected villages in remote rural areas, as logistical bases. “The movement took no root in the towns, nor in the industrial coastal areas around Colombo, nor in the Tamil areas,” wrote the Belgian Catholic priest and sociologist Francois Houtart in Religion and Ideology in Sri Lanka.

Shortly before the May 1970 general election, Dharmasekera allegedly informed the Minister of State J. R. Jayewardene, through an intermediaries, of the JVP threat. This triggered heightened interest in the media which gave them the appellation ‘Che Guevarists,’ and the establishment of a special CID Unit, which began arresting JVP members. Wijeweera himself was arrested at Hambantota on 12th May. When he was released in July, Wijeweera launched a series of public meetings across the country, going as far north as Anuradhapura. There was a pause after October and then came a massive meeting in Colombo at Hyde Park on 27 February 1971.


The Prelude to the Uprising

The JVP’s highest decision-making body was its 12-person Political Bureau (PB) which, at its Ambalangoda meeting, in September 1970 decided to begin collecting arms, with Loku Athula placed in charge of the armed section and directed to collect 100,000 bombs. At the next PB meeting, held at year-end, Loku Athula reported that 3,000 bombs were ready.

The hand bomb was the JVPs main weapon. But guns and ammunition were also being purchased and stolen and stored by the JVP, in one instance at the Talagalle Temple at Homagama, which was raided by the Police. Uniforms for JVP combatants were being produced secretly, mainly at Vidyodaya Campus; a blue shirt and trouser with pockets, a cartridge belt, boots and helmet. In addition, Viraj Fernando, an engineer who was sympathetic to the JVP, had at Wijeweera’s request went overseas in November 1970 to make contact with foreign rebel groups to procure weapons.

Wijeweera also gave instructions to Piyasiri to build under-ground storage facilities to hide their stock of weapons and explosives, but on 9 March an explosion at one of these hideouts, in Nelundeniya, killed five. This drew attention, nationally to the fact that the JVP was arming itself.


Then on the 16 came an explosion at Marrs Hall at the Peradeniya Campus, in a room occupied by Hewavitharne. When the Police arrived and searched the halls of residence, they also found a stock of detonators at Hilda Obeysekera Hall.

A faction, within the JVP, led by Castro Dharmasekera, wanted the movement to remain secret and prepare for guerrilla warfare. But the majority disagreed and Dharmasekera and his supporters were expelled. In response, on 6th March, calling themselves the Maoist Youth Front, they held a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Colombo during which a police officer was killed. Although the JVP denounced Dharmasekera, Wijeweera and hundreds of his supporters were arrested during March, the JVP claimed that 4,000 cadre were now behind bars.

Dharmasekera’s provocation and the bomb explosions led on March 16th to the government declaring a State of Emergency, dusk to dawn curfew and their warning of a JVP plot to take state power. In response, 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. This was followed by a further two platoons being sent to Kandy.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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