How Kumar Gunaratnam alias “Gemunu” Fought a Guerilla War against the Indian Army in Trinco

by D.B.S.JEYARAJ

The India – Sri Lanka Accord was signed by former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and ex-Sri Lanka president Junius Richard (JR) Jayewardene on July 29th 1987 in Colombo. The 35th anniversary of the pact known generally as the Indo-Lanka accord will be observed this Friday (July 29).

The Rajiv-JR accord was signed with the laudable objective of bringing peace to Sri Lanka by ending the war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and armed Tamil militant groups. A ceasefire was declared and Indian army personnel with the nomenclature of Indian Peace Keeping Force(IPKF) were stationed in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the Island to maintain peace.

Sadly instead of ushering in a durable peace, the Indo-Lanka accord paved the way for more violence and bloodshed. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) led by its supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran refused to accept the accord and went back to war. Soon a full-fledged guerilla war was waged by the LTTE against the IPKF in the North and East. The national socialist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) led by Rohana Wijeweera also opposed the Indo-Lanka accord and engaged in armed resistance in the predominantly Sinhala areas.

JVP Campaign Against India

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 very 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 the current leader and general secretary of the “Peratugami Samajavadi Pakshaya” (Frontline Socialist Party) . As is well known the FSP was formed in later years by a break-away faction from the JVP including Gunaratnam. During his stint in Trinco , Kumar Gunaratnam operated under the nom de guerre “Gemunu”. He was the man who led the JVP/DJV war against the Indian army in the Trincomalee District.

Rohana Wijeweera

Under the leadership of Gunaratnam/ 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.

Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Paris and Moscow Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka in an article written to the Sri Lankan media some years ago 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.”

Kumar Gunaratnam

alias ‘Gemunu’

In my article about FSP leader Kumar Gunaratnam in these columns last week, I had concluded with the note that Kumar’s exploits with the Indian Army would be related in another related article. I would therefore like to focus now on the little known role of “Gemunu” during the Indian army period. The objective is not to portray Gunaratnam alias ‘Gemunu’ as a hero but to relate the tale of an important phase in the JVP’s history that is not known very much.

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 have also contacted knowledgeable journalists, authors, academics, research scholars, security officials and above all, some ex -JVP members in gathering information about Kumar Gunaratnam.Having written extensively about him in the past , I shall rely on much of those writings to relate the tale of the man who fought a guerilla war against the Indian army under the nom de guerre “Gemunu” three decades ago.

When Kumar Gunaratnam broke away from the JVP and co-founded the FSP,the JVP indulged in “historical revisionism” of its own. It obliterated all records of their erstwhile comrades turned FSP renegades. When Kumar Gunaratnam alias Noel Mudalige was abducted by white van goons of the then Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the JVP denied that Kumar had been a JVP stalwart. In blatant disregard for the truth the JVP said there had never been a person called Kumar Gunaratnam in the JVP.

Though Kumar broke ranks with the JVP and co-founded the FSP,his significant contribution to the JVP over a period of 25 years cannot be easily overlooked or dismissed lightly. The revolutionary antecedents of this colourful personality who was at one time a key leader of the JVP warrants interest. The JVP chapter of this revolutionary socialist’s life story is indeed unique and worthy of narration.

Elder Brother Ranjithan Gunaratnam

Kumar and elder brother Ranjithan Gunaratna were in the vanguard of the JVP in the eighties of the 20th century. They were among five children born to Aadhimoolampillai and Valliamma Rajamany Gunaratnam. The father was a Jaffna Tamil and the mother an Up Country Tamil of Indian origin.The family lived in Anguruwella, Kegalle.

Both Ranjithan and Kumar studied in the Sinhala medium and entered the Peradeniya University Engineering Faculty in different years. Both got immersed in Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (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. He 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.

Pallekalle Army Camp.

Younger brother Kumar who joined the JVP against the wishes of his elder brother was appointed field commander of the JVP unit that seized the arsenal at the Pallekalle army camp. This was on April 14th 1987.The JVP led by Kumar 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. 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. 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 as in the case of the film classic “The Great Escape”. On December 13, 1988 they put the plan into action and broke out of Bogambara Jail. Consequently, an open warrant was issued for the arrest of Kumar Gunaratnam.

“Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya”.

After escaping Kumar established contact with the JVP hierarchy. While he was in custody the Indo-Lanka Accord had been signed and the Indian Army deployed in the North and East. 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 in Trinco.

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.

Kantale/Kanthalai Area

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 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 sons 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.

93rd Milepost Area Attack

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.

IPKF soldiers – pic via: The Hindu

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.

Ambush in Mullippothanai

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 and started firing 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 those days 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. Incidently Dr.Jaishankar is now the Indian Foreign minister.

Dr. S.Jaishankar

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.

Tension Between Dixit and Sen

When the Mullipothanai incident occurred Dixit was in New Delhi. The biggest issue at that time was the deadline that President Ranasinghe Premadasa had given Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi. Premadasa wanted the IPKF to be withdrawn and insisted that the IPKF had to be restricted to the barracks by the deadline of July 29th. A furious Nirupam Sen wanted the Indian army to go after the JVP in full force after the July 25 attack. If the IPKF had expanded their scope to fighting the JVP, it would have complicated the situation. There was a lot of tension between JN Dixit and Nirupam Sen over this matter.

JN Dixit

Finally ,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.

Arrest at Monkey Bridge

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 and current MP Field Marshall 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 gone 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.What befell Kumar after his “escape” from Pallekalle has been recounted in detail in the article l written last week.

Escaping to India

The JVP’s second insurrection came to an inglorious end in 1989/90.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.

The JVP military campaign against the Indian army in Trincomalee was a brief one. Despite this short lived campaign, tales of “Gemunu”s military successes spread among surviving JVP cadres and sympathizers. Premakumar acquired a heroic image among the residual JVP.This helped him gain a new status within the JVP later. 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 to those politically opposed to him.

Kumar Gunaratnam

Kumar is someone whom his opponents and rivals are wary of. 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 (though he has been engaging in much speech -making in recent times) but excels in establishing rapport on a personal basis and converting others to his way of thinking through dialogue and discussion. Kumar is someone whom his opponents and rivals are wary of due to his personality and past experience.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an updated version of an article appearing in the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” of the “Daily Mirror”dated July 23rd 2022.It can be accessed here –

https://www.dailymirror.lk/plus/How-Kumar-Gunaratnam-alias-Gemunu-Fought-against-the-Indian-Army/352-241652

Indo-Lanka accord signing – July 29 – pic via: The Hindu