Failed Revolts in Sri Lanka (1971 and 1987-1989)

Book review:


The subtitle of this 190 paged book is: Indepth Analysis of a Senior Intelligence Officer

by Nanda Pethiyagoda

The publication is what it claims to be – an indepth analysis of the two JVP revolts in the years mentioned in the title and the author is Godahewa Indradasa, retired Senior Superintendent of Police.

At the very outset of this comment on the book, I must say that Failed Revolts… is informative and revelatory. I went through both the April 1971 JVP uprising and then the later 1980s more widespread and prolonged insurgency without much suffering but grave fear and concern. I did not know exactly what happened and why. Reading Indradasa’s 2012 publication, I have got a concise history of the insurgencies and the JVP itself, plus explanations. This I feel every Sri Lankan should know – how the JVP came into being, how it attracted adherents, built up a party, targeted the Establishment, came fairly close to toppling the government in 1971 and caused very many senseless deaths then and more later. The author gives insight to the workings of the JVP and the mind of its leader – Rohana Wijeweera.


My quoting chapter headings will give an indication of the details of the subject matter dealt with in the book. Starting with a brief history of the formation of the JVP and details of the content of the infamous five lectures, the author moves on to factionalism and the various groups formed within. Chapter 3 deals with propaganda, public meetings, education camps and very importantly the organizational structure of the group. The reader is led on to the arming of the JVP, raising funds and the decision to launch a revolution. This is the first phase into which the book is divided and runs through 1965 to 1971.

Phase Two (1971 to 1976) starts with attacks on police stations and the suppression of the revolt; the first insurrection was very short lived. Then come the brutal killings with the most daring being the murder of the OIC Kahatagasdigiliya. We who believed that the JVP, like the LTTE, was caste based and a revolt of discriminated against caste groups thought wrong. "Some analysts attempted to interpret the 1971 JVP as a ‘low caste movement’. It was not. The JVP Movement was unequivocally a revolt of youth and those who actively participated were predominantly males. 90%.... belonged to the 16 to 32 years category and 75% were from the 17 to 26 years category. The overwhelming majority of insurgents were Sinhala Buddhists which was about 94%. Roman Catholics were in the region of 03 to 04%." This quote indicates that what the author says is definite and substantiated with figures.

Phase Three - 1977 to 1983 - details the changed strategy of the party, its propaganda, foreign links, party manifesto and amended indoctrination classes.

After the failed insurrection of 1971 and subsequent imprisonment of leaders and death of many, the author notes that the JVP continued and gathered numbers and strength through subversion. The party with the amnesty offered by President J R Jayewardene in February 1978 and release of political prisoners including Wijeweera incarcerated in Jaffna prison only fanned the JVP’s ultimate goal of complete insurrection and taking over the government and making it a completely socialist regime. This was in spite of the party having come into mainstream politics and contested a few seats in the 1977 general election. There were splits after 1983; a change of strategy but preparation for violence continued unabated. The JVP’s stance as regards the ethnic question shifted from sympathy and even links with the LTTE to loud protest at the Rajiv Gandhi/JRJ Indo-Lanka agreement. These and the final chapters are categorized in Phase Four – 1983 to 1990.

Attacks on the armed forces and police; disruption of the life of the community; targeting the economy; silencing the media and emergence of armed groups are detailed. Chapter 19 is titled: ‘Tragic end of Wijeweera and Gamanayake’ and ‘Attempts to regroup". Chapter 20 deals with the aftermath of defeat and future strategy under the leadership of Somawansa Amarasinghe.

In his conclusion - Chapter 21 - Indradasa quotes from an article written by Victor Ivan to the Island newspaper of 04th February 1990. "There is no doubt that the government’s action in restricting the opportunities for democratic activity played a large role in making the JVP take up arms. But what Rohana Wijeweera, as a responsible leader of a massive youth movement, should have done was not to push his own movement to still greater violence. What he should have done was to understand that when in order to defeat violence, one becomes still more violent, the counter violence that would follow would be still more vicious … If Wijeweera had been wise as he should have been, his followers would not have died in tens of thousands. His opponents too would not have died by the thousands by the hands of his followers."

Plus points

The entire narrative is not merely statements or descriptions. Every statement made is substantiated with numbers, details of actual incidents and naming of persons involved. The authenticity of the book is assured in every detail since Indradasa Godahewa "served in the premier Intelligence Service of Sri Lanka for nearly three decades." He covered both the South and the North during the JVP insurgency and the civil war. He has undergone training with MI5, CIA ad DGSE. He was also a former Additional Director of the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB). In retirement he wrote articles to the press, advocating reforms in the intelligence service.

However, in his Preface, Mr Indradasa admits: "I had no access to any classified information since I retired from the Police and Intelligence Service over a decade ago. This book is based entirely on my personal experiences and recollections and statistics already published in the media and Criminal Justice Commission reports."

I do not think there is any problem here since we are seeking to know about the JVP and the two insurrections created by them. Also as the author notes: "a critical analysis from which many lessons can be learned …Systematic description of past events also makes this a book of history" which after carefully reading the book, I agree with. We want a history of the JVP and what they did to the country; not an erudite treatise on it; and we get a substantial historical account of the Party and the years when it was violently active.

In a review demerits too should be considered and mentioned, not as mere negative criticism but as a pointer to improvement in a second edition. Style is important in creative writing but pales in significance when the writing is factual reportage. Hence the lack of style in the writing and language used is not of great significance since the reader will certainly not read a book such as this for entertainment and to appreciate the finer points of literary writing. Facts are what will be looked for and these the author presents concisely and precisely. Editing however should have been much sharper; punctuation is awry and grammar mistakes have crept in.

Comments by others

The Foreword is by O. Charley Jayawardana, Retd. Ministry Secretary - SLAS and former Consultant to the UN-FAO. The back cover has a detailed comment by Patrick Fernando, Barrister (Lincolns Inn), retired District Judge, Chairman Public Service Commission among other eminent positions held. He congratulates his Dharmasoka College schoolmate and says: "He has expressed his thoughts in a most forthright and candid manner analyzing the issues which disturbed the stability and security of Sri Lanka."

Godahewa Indradasa’s Failed Revolts in Sri Lanka (1971 and 1987-1989): Indepth Analysis of a Senior Intelligence Officer is unreservedly recommended to anyone interested in the recent history of our Island.

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