Reflections on the 1971 Insurrection: Old Tropes and Lessons for Today
By Harini Amarasuriya
5 April 2021 marked 50 years since the JVP’s first insurrection in 1971, an event that shook the Government in power to its core and set in motion actions that on the one hand, led to radical changes such as land reform, but on the other, strengthened the repressive instruments of the State. In less than 40 years since that insurrection, Sri Lanka managed to become the country with one of the highest rates of enforced disappearances per capita in the world.
The insurrection also marked the beginning of the trope of ‘youth frustration’ and ‘youth rebellion’ as explanations for violence in our society. The 1971 insurrection and the JVP has been forever associated with ‘youth’ especially university youth. Even today, despite the obviously older leadership in the JVP, demographic changes to its constituency, participation in electoral politics for several decades the JVP, in the popular imagination is a party of educated, angry, rebellious youth from rural villages.
Anthropologist Gananath Obeysekere analysed the demographic features of those who were arrested or detained after the 1971 insurrection in a landmark paper published in 1973. According to his analysis, the insurgents were predominantly Sinhala youth – (average age was 20). While the leadership was drawn from universities, the majority were not university students or graduates, but had completed general education – and were primarily from madyamaha pasal – the central schools that were established to make high quality education more accessible to the masses. Obeysekere noted that the majority were either unemployed or under employed.
But what is interesting about the JVP insurrection is that unlike in many other parts of the world at the time which were also experiencing revolutionary political movements, this was not simply a rural, peasant revolt. The high levels of education along with unemployment or under-employment among the insurgents led to yet another trope that has remained powerful especially within education reform policy circles: the mismatch between education and employment.
Simply stated, this trope claims that youth unrest and violence is a consequence of the inability of the education system in Sri Lanka to produce employable graduates or those who meet the needs of employers. Education reforms intent on improving ‘employability’ have dominated the policy landscape for decades. Yet, can we simply explain the 1971 insurrection as well as subsequent violent anti-State movements simply as an effect of frustration or unfulfilled aspirations among educated but unemployable youth?
Gananath Obeysekere described the 1971 insurrection as a revolt against Sri Lanka’s elite class. Obeysekere defines ‘elite’ in terms of a particular lifestyle that cuts across ethnic differences. One of the most striking aspects of this lifestyle is belonging to a powerful network of ‘old boys’ from prestigious schools. The majority of this elite use English at home and for social interaction. Political leaders as well as administrative and business leaders were drawn from this class. While there might have been differences in political ideologies, most of the leaders of the main political parties belonged to this elite class. Their educational paths were amazingly similar: prestigious local school followed by university – for the more affluent, foreign universities.
A well-established patronage system within this elite however, ensured that even those who did not perform well academically were assured some of the best jobs – especially if they had participated in sports in their schools. Obeysekere describes all political parties in Sri Lanka as factions of this elite striving to get political power. On the other hand, free education led to a highly politically conscious electorate with no access to political power or to the economy, because both were controlled by the elite class. The only times that the masses experienced power was during elections as evidenced by how Sri Lanka’s electorate regularly dispatched governments home despite the best efforts of successful regimes to hold on to power both through constitutional and non-constitutional means.
The 1971 insurrection was a huge slap in the face of the elite class – particularly its political leadership. It marked the first instance, where a vernacular educated, highly politically conscious and articulate political movement challenged the established status-quo. Their challenge did not end with the insurrection: soon after the military crushing of the insurrection a controversial Criminal Justice Commission was set up to try the arrested. However, the accused refused to accept the legality of the Commission. They refused to stand up for the judges, sang revolutionary songs during the proceedings and used it as a platform to present a justification for revolution against an oppressive, capitalist class. JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera who presented his own defence with legal advice from the late Bala Tampoe, lawyer and union leader, laid out a comprehensive justification for the use of violence and revolution and argued that historically, the proletariat is provoked into violence by the suppression of peaceful protest by the capitalist class.
Unsurprisingly, the political leadership at the time, came together across ideological differences to crush the upstart movement. Many in the leadership including Rohana Wijeweera were sentenced to prison and hundreds of others were sent for rehabilitation. Little less than 20 years later, yet another commission, the Youth Commission of 1990 set up after the JVP’s second and bloodier, more violent insurrection during 1988/89, concluded as follows:
The oral and written representations made to the Commission indicated virtual unanimity that politicisation and perceptions about the abuse of political power are some of the main causes of youth unrest in contemporary Sri Lanka. The Commission is well aware of the important role that politics plays in a democratic society. However, what was underscored during our deliberations was not politics as ‘the art of governance’ but the abuses and excesses of politicisation which give rise to strong perceptions of injustice, especially among youth’.
Despite events, scholars and commission reports, the sense of injustice, political abuse and excess, a ruling and economic elite within whom ideological differences are barely discernible today, and a politically conscious electorate that only comes alive during elections, remain strong features of post-Independence Sri Lankan society and polity. The old boy school network (and increasingly, old girl network) is also alive and well – though the schools that are part of that network may have changed.
The educational qualifications of our political leaders may be subject to far more scrutiny today than in the past – yet the strategies through which the political elite cling to power has barely changed. We can blame our current economic woes on the COVID pandemic – but the precarity of our economic systems extend beyond COVID. Another armed revolt seems unlikely – not least because State monopoly of violence and repression have demonstrated the bleak prospects for achieving success from armed revolution. But sadly, there is little evidence that the bloodshed and violence our little island has experienced, have taught our political leadership and ruling elite any useful lessons apart from increasingly undemocratic means of remaining in power.