Gunadasa Liyanage’s work Operation Elpitiya is centered around a series of encounters by a young doctor who is posted to Galle, in the month of April, 1971, when the JVP manages a temporary “alter-regime” in isolated pockets across Ceylon, following their unsuccessful revolution for power waged against the Sirima Bandaranaike government. The novel opens with the meeting of the said doctor — Karunarathne — and his university-attendant girl friend, Indrani. They meet when the latter is admitted to a Colombo hospital with injuries sustained at a students’ rally against the government, which is baton charged by the Police.
An abrupt transfer brings Karunarathne to Elpitiya on the 3rd of April, and he receives an unexpected visitor on the 5th: Indrani, who finds Colombo life dull without her new boy friend makes a surprise appearance at the Elpitiya Hospital. On the night of the 5th, the JVP launches its “mistimed” attack on the linkage of the Ceylon Police. The novel picks up from there, and submits to us what Liyanage has postulated as representational of the “happenings” in the month of April, where the rebellious JVP manages to set up an an alternative state of its own. Liyanage’s narrator is impartial on the whole, and is receptive to the terror and hurt caused by both the state troops as well as the rebels. But, a bias — either caused by compulsion or by the fact that the facts are just so — is equally obvious in the narrator’s characterization of the rebels.
Liyanage’s account portrays the JVP rebels (referred throughout the book as “Che Guevarists” or “Che Kollo”) as being passionate and earnest in their project, but at the same time, as being humane and considerate of the common people. Their attacks and ambushes are strictly targeting the Police and the military, while they assure the common people to carry on with their daily lives. A wounded sergeant of the Elpitiya Police — Sergeant Mendis — is admitted to the hospital after receiving gunshot injuries. The JVP boys come to check on his condition day after day, perhaps, waiting for him to recover before being “taken action” against. The medical staff prolong any fateful possibility by making it look as if the sergeant’s condition is critical. Meantime, a Police contingent that comes to “rescue” another policeman stranded with a convict-in-admission at hospital flees without tagging Sergeant Mendis along with them. Two JVP cadres return soon and shoot the sergeant in the hospital itself.
Later on, the JVP itself admits the shooting of the injured sergeant as a wrongful act which is attributed to the waywardness of two ill-disciplined cadres. In the “rescue” of Elpitiya, the Police brutality is more vocally showcased as they remove by force a rebel who had just been admitted with gunshot injuries and who was nearing his end. The doctor informs the Police that enough has been done “with that thing hanging from your neck” (the gun) and it is time to treat the wounded cadre in consultation with “the thing around [his] neck” (the stethoscope). The Police shoves the doctor off and drags the cadre off the bed, in spite of his critical condition to “give the treatment [the cadre] deserves”.
Liyanage foregrounds establishmentarian terrorism — that of the Police and army — as a more brutal and heartless form, when compared to the violence of the rebels. The Establishment, for one, shows very little concern for the welfare of the Elpitiya community, even as they launch a counter-offensive. Helicopters are seen dropping bombs and shooting from the air, with scant concern for the innocent townsfolk they might hit. A member of the volunteer civil force — Molligoda, a respected superintendent of Elpitiya — then takes over the operation, after expressing his displeasure of the coarseness of the operational tactics. In separate incidents, the Police is shown to arrest and detain people at random — and the detained are either disappeared or never seen again. Undocumented and unrecorded arrests, mysterious killings and burials by the Police and army create an ambivalent atmosphere where
“everyone seemed to be living…very indecisive and terror stricken, without being able to say when or how their lives would come to a tragic end. The cemetery behind Karunaratne’s quarters was full of mystery after nightfall” (82).
The more intenser form of terrorism arrives at Elpitiya with the disintegration of the rebels, as “the noise of graves being dug and report of guns brought fear, mixed with sympathy” (82) to the townsfolk, as the rebels are caught, killed and hastily buried by the Police and army. Two men — a carpenter and a cashier — are arrested on a false tip off and are asked to dig their own graves, before one is shot on the spot. The Police take away the cashier, but he is not seen or heard of again. Rohitha Munasinghe — a JVP activist who defected in the early 1980s — testifies to the Police brutality of 1971 as follows: “In the 1971 rebellion, the brutality of the rebels was at a minimal low, while the brutality of the state armies — specially of the Police — was comparatively at a high level” (ජවිපෙ, සැගවුනු ඉතිහාසයෙන් බිදක්, 1).
Earlier, immediately after the JVP’s taking over of Elpitiya town, they, too, execute after a tribunal hearing a local thug who had been posing as a JVP member. Upon a concern submitted by Dr. karunaratne, the JVP immediately finds ways of restoring the food supplies to the hospital and provides a dynamo (minus a generator) to get the electricity going. They break open co-operative stores to keep food supplies uninterrupted, even as Elpitiya is cut off from the rest of the island, and they encourage normalcy, even though the people are unsettled and ruffled. A convoy coming to save some of the family members of the Policemen and military is allowed safe entry and exit. This, as the narrator suggests, is because of the presence of Molligoda’s pregnant young wife among the company. In contrast, in Colombo, the Police is said to have raped and killed four female cadres who were taken into custody. The Police had been drunk and had got alarmed when one female started to bleed, after being gang raped. Then, they had shot all four and dumped them into the Wellawatte canal (116). Indrani, who had had early links with the JVP, had had policemen visiting her home in Kegalle. They had beaten up her father and arrested her younger sister, after setting the house on fire (117). Both Indrani’s brother (an activist) and sister remain “disappeared” to the end of the narrative.
Liyanage’s narrative also refers to names historically connected with the uprising of 1971. Names such as Hemasriya, Leena Irene, Leela and Nandaseeli — female cadres of the JVP — are given as friends / batch mates of the co-protagonist, Indrani. In a revealing later chapter, the fates of the remaining ringleaders who retreat towards the Sinharaja forest are given. In mainstream narratives of the 1971 uprising, the death of the Galle district leader “Sanath” (Wijesena Vithana) is left inconclusive. It is generally referred to as a death caused during the “retreat” towards Sinharaja. But, Liyanage hints that he was actually betrayed to the military by some villagers of Hiniduma and had been killed by either the Police or army (105).
Subaseela Kodikara is seen to die of fever and chicken pox, after a dire crossing of jungle terrain. Kodikara was known for composing the anthem of the JVP and according to Victor Ivan, he was also the editor of the JVP paper, “Janatha Vimukthi” (’71 කැරැල්ල, 291). Even in his critical condition, Batapola Athula and Cecil Chandra — both among the key accused in the trial of 1971 — carry Subaseela Kodikara into the deep jungles. But, he is finally captured by the pursuing military and taken back. In a moving paragraph, Batapola Athula is seen to look on at the spot where Kodikara had last been, moments before the capture: “with eyes welling, with tears, [Athula] stood for a moment looking at the rock-slab on which his beloved comrade had rested last. The ooze from the pustules was still there as a grim reminder of the ways of the fate” (103).
In what can be called a narrative that demands to be identified as an objective and impartial analysis of the uprising of 1971, Gunadasa Liyanage, yet, slants our sympathy with an eliciting of pathos to the camp of the JVP. Intent on political and social transformation, the JVP rule of three weeks at Elpitiya collapses and the military and police that take over unleash without mercy the gruesomeness of state-sanctioned, military terror. At the conclusion of the novel, the protagonist Karunaratne — a right wing sympathizer and an agent of the establishment — states that “it is (not) fair or correct for us to come to hasty conclusions about the whole movement without a proper study” (124) and that the JVP was “really devoted to their cause…and they had reason to revolt” (124).