A growing sense of unease and anxiety had pervaded the air in those days leading to 1983 ‘Black July’ pogrom in Sri Lanka. It was just two years before, on the night of June 1,1981 that the Jaffna Public Library was burnt down. Tamil militancy started picking up momentum. In 1982, an Amending legislation was passed by Parliament making the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1979 a permanent feature of our primary legal literature. Armed with the pernicious provisions of this draconian Law, agents of the security apparatus adopted repressive measures to contain the upsurge in militant activities. Imbued with a false sense of patriotism, majoritarian political class appealed to arms to crush the menacing militancy. Nationalist passions posed a stark challenge to rationalist understanding and resolution of the real ethnopolitical issues.
It was in such a volatile political climate, President JR Jayewardene was interviewed in Colombo by London ‘Daily Telegraph’ reporter. A salvo of intemperate words rang out from President JR “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” – Daily Telegraph (London) , 11 July 1983. “ (The interview with JR was reproduced in the Colombo “Sunday Observer” of 17 July 1983), Racial antipathy was palpably evolving into an explosive situation. I believe that JR’s egregious statement had accelerated the process.
The die is cast
Alea iacta est (“The die is cast”) is a phrase attributed to Julius Caesar as he led his legion across the Rubicon river in 49 B.C. while he set out to take over Rome and became embroiled in a civil war. In crossing the Rubicon, Caesar had made a major military commitment. “The die is cast“- the metaphorical phrase suggesting that an irrevocable choice had been made and the process was past the point of return. With JR’s imprudent statement, the die was cast and the 1983 catastrophe and by extension, the ensuing ethnic war were inevitable.
Orgy of violence
Anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 was an organized effort. Unlike the periodical anti-Tamil riots of the previous years, in 1983 it was organized on a larger scale. The pogrom claimed the lives of several thousands of innocent people. And, the orgy of killing was complemented by a host of other acts of atrocity and brutality – maiming, rape, arson, looting and what not. Throngs of media persons from around the world had descended on Colombo city. Glimpses of the horrific events of those dark days were captured in their reports filed from Colombo and were splashed across the front pages of their newspapers. It will be very disconcerting to recount in detail and recapture the many gruesome incidents. Let me not delve into them. However, haunting memories of the horrors of Black July 1983 continue to cast a shadow over ethnic relations in Sri Lanka and tend to define the political discourse of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Welikada massacre was yet another cruel chapter in the Black July narrative. On Saturday, 16 July 1983 morning I visited prisoners Thangathurai, Kuttimany and Jegan at Welikada prison. Senior lawyer M. Sivasithamparam and I had represented them (and several other political prisoners) in the Colombo High Court. While leaving them, I promised to see them again the week after next. But, that was not to be!
TULF Party Convention
On Saturday, 23 July 1983, we were in Mannar to attend the TULF party Annual Convention. I was a Politburo member . The 1st day sessions were over and 2nd day sessions were scheduled for Sunday, 24th July. Members of Parliament A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparam, V. Yogeswaran, R. Sampanthan, Neelan Tiruchelvam and I were staying at Mannar Rest House. In the early hours of 24th there was a phone call from Jaffna M.P. Yogeswaran’s wife. She conveyed the grim message that a barrage of explosions were heard the previous night and that army in Jaffna was running amok on a shooting spree. Follow-up calls from different sources, ominously informed us that attacks on Tamil targets were spreading out. As it became evident later, the explosions heard the previous night were from an ambush attack by LTTE, targeting an army vehicle and 13 soldiers were killed in the attack. Because of menacing military movements in Mannar we were compelled to cancel the Sunday political sessions.
On 26 July morning some of us met at (Mannar MP) P. Soosaithasan’s residence. There was a call to Sivasithamparam (Siva) from his friend lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama ( Communist M.P. Sarath’s wife and Dr. Colvin’s daughter). She informed Siva that some of his clients incarcerated in Welikada jail had been killed, the previous day (25th July). She could not give details. Thereupon, Siva telephoned the Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Mr. Jansz in Colombo and the latter confirmed that there was “some bad news”, but politely declined to give details. Mr. Amirthalingam, who arrived there a bit later, telephoned President JR. The President confirmed that some Tamil prisoners were killed and added that he was “not going to hush it up” and that the victims’ names would be broadcast over the radio that night.
Even as army threats intensified in and around the neighborhood, we moved out to the house of a party stalwart, V. Kayilayapillai in Iluppakadavai village. On the way we came across a group of local TULF functionaries, including Mannar DDC Chairman Sebamalai, with bleeding injuries. Army men lurking under a culvert had attacked them, damaged their vehicle and left them bleeding. After arranging for them to be taken to hospital, we proceeded to Iluppakkadavai. It was a spartan house of a farmer and there was no electricity. In the evening we all gathered in the front yard, with a battery-operated radio, anxiously awaiting the broadcast. Those were agonizing moments. At 9.00 pm, names of 35 victims, including Kuttimany, Thangathurai and Jegan were announced. The government tried to make out it was a prison riot. Slaughter of further 18 Tamil prisoners on 27th July 1983 had given the lie to the official version and said it loud and clear that it was a pre-planned operation, organized and orchestrated by prison officials. They had served alcohol to hardcore criminals in the jail, armed them with machetes, kitchen knives, clubs etc, opened the cells for them and set them upon the Tamil prisoners. In the two days of gory attacks, 53 prisoners were butchered to death.
There was a strong contingent of army on guard outside the Welikada jail. Responding to the clamour and commotion inside, they had rushed to the spot and figured out what was going on. Waving at the armed convicts, the soldiers. continued to watch the “fun”. apathetically. Perhaps, to them, the victims were not humans, but vermin. (By the way, on 25 July 1983 Siva’s house at Colombo-Norris Canal Road was looted and razed to the ground , and my house at Cotta Road, Borella was attacked by a mob led by a saffron-robed monk).
Indian Foreign Minister calls
Late in the night, a messenger from the local sub-post office showed up with an urgent message: There was an important telephone call waiting for Mr. Amirthalingam. ( In that village, only the local post-office had the telephone facility). Taking care not to alert the restive army, we avoided using the vehicle headlight and instead using a torch light, gingerly proceeded to the post office. The call was from ‘India House’(Indian High Commissioner’s residence) in Colombo. The caller at the other end was Indian Foreign Minister Mr. Narasimha Rao. His message to Amirthalingam was brief and poignant. Mr. Rao wanted Amirthalingam to travel to India early for “discussion”. Evidently,
feelings were running high in Tamil Nadu over the killings of Tamils and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had dispatched her Foreign Minister with a strong message to President J.R. Though an impulsive small step that Mrs. Gandhi had taken, it was a watershed moment that had changed the course of Indo-Sri Lanka relations. Mr. Amirthalingam arrived in India in the 1st week of August 1983. I had left for India even before he did. When I arrived in Colombo my good friend Vasantha Obeysekere (the well-known film director, who is no more) sheltered me at his residence and helped me at that time of adversity and despair. In fact, he dropped me off at the airport. On my way to Katunayake airport, I passed by the skeletal remains of burnt out houses, business places and charred remains of hundreds of vehicles strewn all over. Mercifully, I did not come across any human remains. Probably, they had already been removed.
Nonetheless, the cruel scenes, conjured up images of brutal attacks on innocent people who were hacked to death, fatally wounded or burnt alive.
On the eve of the 21st anniversary of the Black July pogrom, in July 2004, the (then) President Chandrika Kumaratunga had tendered a public apology to the Tamils. Her benign expression of “mea culpae” had largely gone unnoticed and the gesture had failed to strike a responsive chord with the Tamil people. Why? Dr. Lionel Bobage has, in his comprehensive article on the ‘Black July’ 1983 carnage (Colombo Telegraph, 23 July 2023) given implicitly part of the reason why President Chandrika’s words of apology had sounded hollow. He has said: “The root causes of the national question that gave rise to this carnage have not yet been addressed by the successive governments of the last forty years. The prelude to it all was a series of discriminatory policies and laws the successive regimes implemented against the non-majoritarian communities, specifically against the Tamil community…..”
Forty years have passed since the horrific events of ‘Black July’ 1983 holocaust and fourteen years have elapsed since the Mullivaikkal massacre of 2009 in which tens of thousands of our people perished in the “No Fire zones” at the at the hands of the armed forces. The marauding mob and the military have from time to time tasted Tamil blood. Sinhala Buddhist Fascist forces have thus become brutalized.
Far from mending their ways, doing a course correction and healing the festering wounds, the SB political class in cahoots with the military, the monks and the Archaeological Department officials, have opened up new warfronts. Minority religious sites in the North East – Hindu temples and Christian churches- are their targets for land-grab wonder, an apology from Mrs. Kumaratunga rings hollow.