by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The enforced “disappearance” and dramatic “re-appearance” of Premakumar Gunaratnam alias Kumar/Kumara Mahathaya a.k.a. Noel Mudalige has evoked much interest into the revolutionary antecedents of this colourful personality who was at one time a key leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People’s Liberation Front.
Even though Gunaratnam alias Mudalige has now broken away from the JVP and together with comrades of a similar mindset, formed a new political party known as the Frontline Socialist Party (Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya) his significant contribution to the JVP over a period of nearly 30 years cannot be easily overlooked or dismissed lightly.
Due to current political differences his erstwhile comrades from the JVP are estranged and against him. One former comrade now a cabinet minister leading a splinter outfit is suspected of “ratting” on Premakumar to the Defence establishment and intelligence agencies. Much of his present problems with the state were allegedly caused and fuelled by this “lemon puff” eater.
On the other hand senior members of the parent JVP are feigning ignorance of him. They are denying his very existence saying they have no knowledge of such a person. Perhaps they are engaged in wordplay based on his name change and saying there is no Premakumar Gunaratnam because legally he is now Noel Mudalige
Earlier as a JVP activist Gunaratnam was known both as Kumar Mahathaya and Kumara Mahathaya. He preferred to call himself simply as Kumar or Kumara.
Whatever the attempts of former JVP comrades to falsify history there is no doubt that Premakumar and his elder brother Ranjithan Gunaratnam were in the vanguard of the JVP in the mid and late eighties of the 20th century.
Ranjithan is no more but Kumar is active still and continues to make waves. He has assumed a new identity but continues to travel on the same path leading towards the goal of transforming Sri Lanka into a true Socialist state.The current controversy around him demonstrates that this 47 year old revolutionary socialist is someone whom his opponents and rivals are afraid of.
One reason for this may be due to his personality and past experience. Kumar Gunaratnam is not a just a theoretician or ideologue. He is a man of action. A doer and not merely a thinker. He possesses excellent organizational ability and has a knack of inspiring comrades to face overwhelming odds. He is not fond of platform oratory but excels in establishing rapport on a personal basis and converting others to his way of thinking through dialogue and discussion.
Furthermore Kumar is arguably the ablest military leader the JVP has ever produced. He led the JVP in a military campaign against the Indian Army in the Trincomalee District in 1989 until he was arrested. Some of the skirmishes in Trincomalee were successes from the JVP point of view.
There is a widespread belief that the JVP campaign against “India” in 1987 -1990 was twisted in the sense that the “Rathu Sahodarayo” killed people in the South as perceived collaborators of the Indian “invasion” and urged boycotts of Indian products including “Mysore Parippu” and Bombay Onions but never ever took on the Indian army directly.
The JVP is often mocked for this as cowards who could only kill unarmed people in the South while not daring to lift a finger against the armed Indian soldiers in the North and East
While this accusation is correct to a great extent, there was however a notable exception. This was in Trincomalee District where the JVP engaged in armed action against the Indian army and even drew blood in a few instances.
The JVP’s anti –Indian military wing known as “Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya” (Patriotic People’s Movement) was commanded by “Keerthi Wijayabahu”. Its area leader for Trincomalee in 1989 was none other than Premakumar Gunaratnam, operating under the nom de guerre “Gemunu”. He was the man who led the JVP/DJV against the Indian army in the Trincomalee District.
Under the leadership of Gemunu the DJV-JVP accomplished a few military strikes against the Indian Army but these incidents did not gain much publicity due to the concerted efforts of the Sri Lankan and Indian authorities in deliberately suppressing information. They did not want the JVP to gain publicity and political credit through these operations. Besides most incidents of that nature in Trincomalee were believed to have been committed by the Tigers then.
There was also an opportunistic shift by the JVP and Indian authorities later. As the going got tough for the JVP at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces, some among the crimson comrades struck a tactical deal with the Indians. This was similar to the understanding reached by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with President Ranasinghe Premadasa when the Tigers were gasping for oxygen at the hands of the Indian Army.
So Kumar Gunaratnam alias Gemunu was chastised by senior JVP Leaders who “apologized” to Indian diplomats interacting with them for the attacks, particularly the one in which 14 Indian Jawans were killed.
Sri Lanka’s ambassador to France, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka in an article written to the Sri Lankan media last year had this to say about the incident:
“Kumara Gunaratnam’S older brother Ranjithan (said to be dead) was one of the most intelligent, able and disciplined cadres I have met anywhere. By comparison, Kumara himself seems to have had more guts than brains, but those guts were in abundance. While the JVP cadre was busily murdering Sinhala leftists and minor state employees in the name of a patriotic war against the IPKF, Kumara was a true believer who actually planned and possibly participated in an ambush of an IPKF unit. The morning after, the JVP leadership contacted the Indian Deputy High Commissioner and profusely apologised, promising never to repeat that.”
With Wijeweera and Gamanayake being killed , some of the remaining JVP members began escaping to India. In another Kautilyan exercise, Indian officials facilitated their travel. Somawansa Amerasinghe alias Siri Aiya allegedly used the Indian connection to reach Europe.
Meanwhile Premakumar alias Gemunu was also arrested and detained. With that the JVP military campaign against the Indian army in Trincomalee ended. Despite this short lived campaign tales of “Gemunu”s military successes spread among surviving JVP cadres and sympathizers. Premakumaran acquired a heroic image among the residual JVP.
This helped him gain a new status within the JVP later. Gunaratnam devoted his time and energy along with the two Gunatilakes , Senadheera and Nandana,to resurrect and revive the JVP. Although he was junior to Somawansa Amerasinghe , Premakumar now referred to as Kumar/ Kumar Mahathaya or Kumara/Kumara Mahathaya became the dominant leader in the new JVP of the nineties. Very little was known about him outside the movement as he opted to adopt a low profile and function behind the scenes while letting people like Wimal Weerawansa hog the limelight.
A noteworthy aspect of the JVP military campaign commanded by Premakumar alias Gemunu in Trincomalee was its non–terrorist nature. The attacks were essentially of a guerilla type and against military targets.
Though the JVP engaged in mass scale terrorism in the south through its assassinations of civilians including politicians, administrators, media personnel and families of security forces, the operations against the Indian Army in Trincomalee cannot be classified as terrorist.
Kumar Mahathaya’s cult status and heroic image among JVP members and his organizational ability and tactical skill made him a feared adversary in the eyes of his political “enemies”. His experience as a military field commander presented a potential threat.
There was also his Tamil heritage and possible access to elements in the global Tamil Diaspora. The systemic racism in the security apparatus made the “Tamil” JVP stalwart an automatic suspect allegedly having LTTE links.
In the present situation the Government is paranoid about a resurgence of the LTTE. It is feared that subversives in the South could be instrumental in establishing links with fellow Tiger travelers and revive the LTTE again.
This is why organizations striving for better understanding between the North and South are highly suspect. This is why progressive southerners reaching out to their brothers and sisters in the north are obstructed, harassed, assaulted and even made to disappear.
Premakumar Gunaratnam alias Noel Mudalige’s abduction along with Dimuthu Attygalle has to be seen in this light. It is very likely that both comrades may have increased the tally of the disappeared but for the commendable humanitarian efforts of the Australian High Commissioner Robyn Mudie, who went the extra mile in matter. Once again International intervention was instrumental in upholding human rights in the island.
The Kumar or Kumara affair with its Noel Mudalige angle provides much food for deep thought and analysis. There are many dimensions to be delved into and many loose ends to be tied up. While leaving those issues for another occasion , I would like to focus now on the little known role of “Gemunu” during the Indian army period as well as some events leading to it.
The objective is not to portray ‘Gemunu’ as a hero but to relate the tale of an important phase in the JVP’s history that is not much known. Although the mass media of the day have not publicized this phase, there is some important material available in books, monographs and research papers.
Chief among them are the books “Sri Lanka: A lost Revolution (The inside story of the JVP) and “Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka” by Prof. Rohan Gunaratna. I am writing this article after contacting knowledgeable journalists, authors, academics, research scholars, security officials and above all, some ex -JVP members.
The Gunaratnam brothers were of mixed parentage with a Tamil father and a mother of Sinhala–Tamil mixture. The younger sister is Niranjana. The family lived in Anguruwella in the Kegalle District where the mother taught for 34 years at St. Mary’s Kegalle. The three children studied in the Sinhala medium and were fluent in Sinhala. They could understand and talk in Tamil but could not read or write.
Both brothers entered the Peradeniya University Engineering faculty in different years. Both got immersed in JVP politics and as a result had to drop out from undergraduate studies at different times.
Ranjithan later functioned as convenor of the JVP backed Inter-University Student Federation. He was much liked and respected. Ranjithan became a member of the 21 member JVP Central Committee and later the 7 member politburo. He was a personal favourite of JVP supremo Rohana Wijeweera.
Ranjithan was the district secretary of the JVP for Kurunegala District. On one occasion he was sent to the multi–ethnic Trincomalee District by the JVP hierarchy. Ranjithan set up a Trincomalee District committee of the JVP that functioned even during the time when the Indian Army was occupying the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Ranjithan was captured by the Sri Lankan security forces in January 1990. He was tortured and interrogated while in custody. Later he was summarily executed by a para-military death squad aligned to the state. His body was disposed of. Ranjithan Gunaratnam is classified among the “missing” still. He was born in 1960 and was 30 years old at the time of his death.
Ranjithan’s “Thamby” Premakumar was born on November 18th (which incidently is the birthdate of President Rajapaksa) 1965. He studied at St. Mary’s College, Kegalle from January 2nd 1971 to December 3rd 1980. He continued studying at Pinnawela Madhya Maha Vidyalaya from June 15th 1981 to March 22nd 1985. He became involved with the JVP in a limited manner at the age of 15 in 1981. His elder brother did not encourage him in this.
Premakumar known generally as Kumara or Kumar entered Peradeniya University in 1985. He was admitted to the Engineering Faculty under student identity number E/85/58. His National ID Card No was 653231890V. When he entered University the JVP was a proscribed organization as President J.R. Jayewardene had banned left parties during the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, without taking action against UNP leaders like Cyril Mathew.
While Kumar had been associated with the JVP since 1981, he formally joined the organization only in 1985 after he entered Peradeniya. It is said that his brother Ranjithan was not in favour of his younger sibling getting involved in politics. He wanted the “malli” at least to graduate as an engineer instead of disrupting higher studies like himself. But Premakumar went ahead and joined the JVP through the recommendation of Sisira Kumar Devapriya, a fellow undergraduate.
Initially he was engrossed in student activities in the University and held office in the JVP controlled student unions. He was a popular guy particularly among girls. Contemporaries say that he was involved with quite a few girls though he ultimately settled for a wife he met in campus as a medical undergraduate.
The young man from Kegalle was a deep thinker, tactician and man of practical action. Faced with state repression the JVP was slowly beginning to strike back and engage in counter action. Forced to function clandestinely the party was urgently in need of arms and cash. It was against this backdrop that Kumar Gunaratnam had his baptism of fire. Interestingly it was twenty-five years ago in 1987 on the auspicious Sinhala-Tamil new year day.
A group of young JVP members consisting mainly of undergraduates or ex-undergrads assembled clandestinely at the Marrs Hall premises in the Peradeniya University. It was the night of April 14th 1987. Senior leaders of the JVP told them of the plan to be carried out. A former military man briefed them of the layout of the Army camp in Pallekelle.
The JVP team was picked up by a van at 2am in the night. The cadres wore army uniforms. Kumara was appointed field commander of the group which included two women. They had only one shot gun and several knives of different sizes as their arsenal.
The JVP had begun infiltrating low level personnel within the police and armed forces and there was an “insider” in the camp to help out. Thanks to this the JVP squad entered Pallekelle camp from a less conspicuous side. The guards taken by surprise were overpowered. The JVP made off with a sizeable cache of firearms and ammunition using a route along the river.
The nation was rocked by the Pallekelle raid. An intensive manhunt was launched to apprehend the perpetrators. Most of those involved including Kumar went underground. But he was arrested within six weeks on May 23rd 1987 at Galagedara. He was taken to Galagedara Police station and then Kandy Police Station.
Kumar Gunaratnam was later taken to Colombo and detained at the Magazine prison under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as Detenue No D3301. He along with seven others (Chandrasiri, Samaranayake, De Costa, Jayantha, Lakshman, Sisira and Ranjith) were indicted at the Colombo High Court in 1988 (case No 3591/88) for the Pallekelle armed robbery.
While in Magazine prison he began conducting political classes for the JVP suspects in custody. Subsequently he was transferred to the Bogambara prison in Kandy. There in Bogambara, he and another JVP Central Committee member, “Ragama Somay” devised a plan to escape. This included the digging of a secret tunnel. On December 13th 1988 they put the plan in to action and broke out of Bogambara. Subsequently an open warrant was issued for his arrest
After escaping Kumar established contact with the JVP hierarchy. It was while he was in custody that the Indo-Lanka Accord had been signed and the Indian Army deployed in the North and East. War had erupted between the Indian army and the Tigers. In the South the proscribed JVP was mounting a campaign against Indian occupation and unleashing a campaign of violence.
In the changed situation Kumar was issued new directives by the JVP leadership. He was appointed secretary of the JVP District Committee in Trincomalee and elevated to the Central Committee. He was also assigned the nom de guerre “Gemunu” and instructed to conduct a military campaign against the Indian forces under the aegis of the “Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya”. Thus the younger brother took over the District Committee set up by the elder brother.
Trincomalee was the only district under Indian army control in which the JVP was functioning. It had about 15 to 20 cadres under the command of the committee. Kumar alias Gemunu was immediately made secretary of the committee and placed in overall charge. The committee comprised five persons, namely Gemunu, de Saram, Sanath, Arjuna and Pindeniya.
One of the plus points for the JVP in Trincomalee was that it had acquired some arms in 1987 from the army camp in Kallar. The gradual takeover of the North and East by the Indian army was resented by some sections of the armed forces who began connecting with the JVP. When the garrison at Kallar was required to be downsized some soldiers conspired with the JVP to “stage” an arms robbery.
A pre-planned “JVP raid” took place on October 25th 1987 where a number of weapons were reportedly taken away by the JVP. While some were returned unofficially to some soldiers the rest were retained by the JVP.
Thus when Gunaratnam alias Gemunu took up command in February 1989 the JVP had in its possession a small quantity of weapons like T-56, LMG, SMG, shotguns, mortars, grenades and explosives.
Gemunu based himself in the Kantale/Kanthalai area and began a rapid campaign of recruitment and indoctrination. He concentrated only on the Sinhala residents of the area.
Meanwhile the JVP had established links with the People’s Liberation Orgaqnization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) led by Umamaheswaran. This link up was greatly facilitated by the relationship between the JVP Secretary Upatissa Gamanayake and PLOTE military commander Manikkathasan. Both were children of two sisters
The PLOTE however was not strong in Trincomalee and not in a position to help the JVP but Gemunu did interact with the Eelam Revolutionary Organization (EROS) that was well entrenched in Trincomalee. He avoided the pro-Indian TELO, EPRLF and ENDLF. Likewise he shunned the LTTE which he regarded as fascist and pro-western.
Gunaratnam alias Gemunu did not want to enter even into a tactical alliance with the Tigers. Ironically the LTTE soon aligned with the Premadasa regime in May 1989 which helped the state to hunt down the JVP easily.
According to information available Kumar Gunaratnam alias Gemunu recruited around 100 youths in two batches and conducted two week long educational classes for them. Of these about 20 – 25 were specially selected and given a rapid weapons training course for three days.
Being explicitly instructed by the JVP hierarchy to confront the Indian army directly , “Gemunu” of the Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya began aiming at the Indian army convoys and vehicles as targets. He was lucky because an army deserter codenamed “Sarath Kule” teamed up with the JVP. He had quit the army after the Indian air drop of June 4th 1987.
Sarath Kule had some training in explosives and could set up landmines. Since Kumar too had an engineering background the two together were able to engage in explosive attacks. The JVP high command had already instructed Gemunu that attacks on the Indian army should be launched in July to denote the second anniversary of the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord on July 29th.
The JVP picked the 93rd milepost area on the Kandy–Trincomalee road near Kantale/Kanthalai as the ideal location for a landmine attack. Initially a landmine was placed on the road but was detected by an Indian army mine–clearing foot patrol in the morning. The LTTE was suspected and not the JVP which was yet to make its mark.
Kumar Gunaratnam alias Gemunu being a shrewd tactician made the unorthodox decision of placing landmines again in the evening in the same 93rd milepost vicinity. He calculated that the Indians would not expect a repetition on the same day in the same location.
So Sarath Kule and Gemunu set up two landmines in close proximity. A JVP cadre was placed at a vantage point and tasked with the duty of watching out for Indian army trucks and signal that vehicles were approaching. Unlike the LTTE the JVP had no walkie-talkies.
Unfortunately the JVP cadre assigned this duty developed cold feet at the last minute and ran away. So the leader Gemunu had to replace him. He saw an Indian army truck approaching and signalled to Sarath Kule. Then he ran back furtively to the target area. Instead of a convoy only a truck and jeep arrived. When the landmines were set off only one exploded and hit the truck. The jeep braked and then reversed rapidly.
In the meantime an Indian army post had been set up on the other side of the milepost after detection of the landmine in the morning. That was not known to the JVP which had not conducted any reconnaissance or “recce”. Indian soldiers began running towards the scene of the explosion firing their weapons. The soldiers in the truck also started firing wildly and running. In the melee the JVP cadres led by Gemunu managed to retrieve an LMG and SMG and escape into the jungle without injury.
It was after this attack that the Indian security forces realized that the JVP too was now confronting them directly. Some sections of the Sri Lankan security forces were excited by this development. Several security personnel began contacting the JVP, encouraging them to launch attacks against the Indian army and pledging clandestine cooperation.
Accordingly Gemunu and Sarath Kule took the bold step of entering Trincomalee town and placing a landmine in the dockyard area. They were aided and abetted by Naval personnel. An Indian army truck was targeted but the landmine went off prematurely near the jetty. Both men escaped from the area with the help of sailors.
With July 29th fast approaching the JVP under Gemunu wanted to make a decisive impact through a major attack. The opportunity came on July 25th 1989. On that day the JVP launched an ambush in Mullippothanai, a Tamil village to the west of Thambalakamam/Thambalagamuwa.
An Indian army truck was hit by a JVP landmine. The JVP cadres then surrounded the vehicle, firing in the same mode as that of the LTTE. Fourteen Indian Jawans were killed and three injured. The JVP made off with the seized firearms. It was a big success for the JVP and sent alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power.
What commander Gemunu of the JVP did not know then was that sections of the JVP through iniatives of the Indian espionage agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had set up a back channel of communication with Indian officials.
The Deputy High Commissioner at the time, Nirupam Sen had encouraged such a liaison with the JVP and other Southern leftist entities. Sen was to be High Commissioner in Colombo years later.
The Indian High Commissioner Jyotindra Nath Dixit dubbed as the viceroy of Sri Lanka, had himself re-organized the Colombo mission’s structure after the Indo–Lanka Accord.
Two political secretaries had been appointed with Dr. S.Jaishankar, a Tamil Brahmin looking after the North and East and Gurjeet Singh, a Sikh overseeing the other seven provinces. First Secretary Joseph Thariyal, a Keralite Christian was the RAW point man at the Indian High Commission.
The line of communication to some JVP elements was allegedly maintained by the trio of Nirupam Sen, Gurjeet Singh and Joseph Thariyal. When the JVP under Kumar Gunaratnam struck forcefully on July 25th, the Indian officials were shocked and angry.
The JVP elements in contact with the Indians had to tender an apology for the incident to Nirupam Sen and promise that it would not happen again. An urgent message was sent to Gemunu to suspend attacks against the Indian army. A lull set in thereafter in JVP operations against the Indian Army.
Gemunu was thoroughly disappointed at this turn of events but continued to strengthen the JVP in Trincomalee. He intensified recruitment and also began garnering more arms. He also embarked on a mission of interacting with and wooing disgruntled members of the security forces.
It was on such a mission that he set forth on September 24th 1989. A meeting had been arranged with a soldier who had promised to give him a few firearms. But when Gemunu reached Palampottaru or Monkey Bridge he was arrested. He had walked into a trap which apparently had been devised by former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka, who was the commanding officer of the area at the time.
Though in army custody, Kumar was treated kindly. Many army officers liked him and were sympathetic. Instead of placing him in a cell, the army kept him in the officers’ quarters in Kantale. He acted as a batman to a senior officer. Kumar also advised the army officers on how to handle and treat arrested JVP suspects. He even liaised with them.
After the Indian army left in 1990 March, war broke out with the LTTE in June 1990. Kumar Gunaratnam was transferred to Pallekelle , the place where he began his armed militancy. He was housed at the rehabilitation centre in Pallekelle.
There are two versions about what happened thereafter. One version says Kumar was a model detenue at Pallekelle. After a period of rehabilitation he was released along with 15 others to be sent to Japan for employment. According to this version Kumar had dropped out from going to Japan and went underground.
The other version alleges that he escaped from Pallekelle under mysterious circumstances and went underground thereafter. According to this version he was assisted by security personnel to escape from Pallekelle.
Gunaratnam known to JVP cadres as Kumara or Kumar Mahathaya, began to adopt a low profile in public while setting about quietly on a JVP renaissance mission. Together with senior JVP leaders he began to revive and re-organize the JVP. He succeeded in this to a great extent.
In 1993 he got married to Dr. Champa Somaratne, a medical doctor attached to the Chest Hospital in Welisara. He reportedly used an alias to get married.
After marriage Kumar lived at the medical officers’ quarters ar Welisara with his wife, whom he had met at Peradeniya University. She too was a JVP member and had contested elections in Kurunegala on the JVP ticket in 1994.
Later his wife relocated to Australia and subsequently Kumar too joined her. It is said he adopted another alias to go to Australia and then again changed his name while there.
Apparently he acquired a new passport and began travelling back to Sri Lanka frequently to engage in political work. Kumar maintained a low profile and operated under different names for personal security.
“Noel Mudalige” also used his stay in Australia as a period of reflection and thought into the future of the JVP. He arrived at certain conclusions and succeeded in convincing the rank and file of the JVP into agreeing with him.
He played an important role in mobilizing the “Jana Aragala Vyaparaya” (People’s Struggle Movement) that was the forerunner of the Frontline Socialist Party.
Kumar Gunaratnam was poised to attend the launch of the new political party on April 9th when he was abducted on the 6th.
A spontaneous call for his release was made from diverse circles such as family members, party comrades, media personnel,varsity academics and human rights activists. The emotional appeal made by his wife,sister and mother were very moving. Mrs. V Gunaratnam his mother who made her appeal in Sinhala,Tamil and English touched the hearts of many and personified the anguish of all Sri Lankan mothers whose children were reported “missing”.
After his release and return to Australia it has transpired that his passport was issued under the name Noel Mudalige.
Although he was not officially deported and is technically eligible to return to Sri Lanka if he pays the fine of Rs. 40,000 for overstaying, it is highly unlikely that Colombo would let him enter Sri Lanka again and engage in politics.
Given his traumatic experience and close brush with death, one doubts whether he too would want to return to the land of his birth in the near future. It is also unclear as to whether Kumar would face difficulties with Australian bureaucrats over his antecedents and the irregular procedures allegedly adopted by him.
After his traumatic experience in Sri Lanka, the 47 year old political activist was re-united with his wife, 17 year old daughter and 8 year old son in their home in Dural, Sydney, NSW.
While no definite prediction is possible at this juncture, it does seem likely that Noel Mudalige will have to live in the sun-burnt country Down Under for quite a while.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written exclusively for “News First” website in Colombo is also being posted on my blog.The original can be accessed on www.newsfirst.lk