23 June, 2024

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40th Anniversary Of ‘Black July’ 1983

By Karikalan S. Navaratnam

Karikalan S. Navaratnam

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.

JR’s interview

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.

Welikada Massacre

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.

Official complicity

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Latest comments

  • 17
    1

    Anyone who lived in Colombo on that day, knows well that the pogrom was well planned, organized and sponsored by our own Govt, instigated and in some cases lead by Monks, supported by security forces, where thugs were send to kill, loot, rape and burn down properties of Tamils.

    • 3
      5

      Chiv,
      .
      I don’t think Black July was a well-planned act. You can closely compare it with the events that followed 2019- Easter Sunday and last July 9 . “Dr Safi -WOMB War” how Muslims were oppressed after the Easter Sunday tragedy and how our Sinhalese stood behind an extremely despicable act against the Safi family.
      All these will definitely help to understand the general psyche of our srilanken people in this country.

      It will be clear to anyone who has some common sense that our people are easily caught in subversive activities regardless of caste.

      Not only Sinhalese but also Tamils and Muslims become their supporters in this country when they incite riots. They make people do anything for small profits.
      I hope intelligent CT readers will focus on our own mistakes in recent times and discuss the nature of our people.
      .
      It is a trend in Sri Lanka. If someone were to throw big buses into Baira Lake, there would be far fewer groups to stop it. It’s just that there are too many followers of “schadenfreude” in our population. I really don’t know if this is in their genes. Due to the lack of strict law and order in this country, they do not think twice.

      • 11
        3

        LM, I’m fully convinced and have no doubts whatsoever. There are plenty articles, reports and other evidences available, mostly provided by then administration including police, civil servants, politicians ,and people working closely with the JRJ government . . . . . etc . . . . etc. There was even an article here in CT , published few years ago. (do not exactly remember the name of author). Like now, there was no social media, mobile or other means to coordinate such wide spread violence, which is still considered the worst among all. Burning of Library was a dry run before pogrom, organized by the very same people. ( not to forget violence during World Tamil Conference, many years prior to that )

      • 9
        1

        LM,
        with all due respect for your ability to discern, various factors of this sordid episode, would dare say, that without “planning”, you couldn’t have had electoral lists (Not digitalised to download or even internet) abounding with every group or MOB (in excess of 500 groups) to start on Sunday Night and Go on Marauding the victims all through the week!!!
        By Tuesday mid-day 70 to 80% destruction has been completed!!!???
        After that except ‘Kotti’ Friday, when private buses were going berserk to avoid being hunted by Tigers purported to be Marauding Colombo, all that has to be destroyed and looted has been accomplished!!!???
        Add, Gamini Dissanayake’s, warning 1982, central hills, “not rely too much on Indian assistance”- help event of Communal riots that before Indian Army could land in SL all destruction would be accomplished!!!???
        There was PLAN, BY EXTREMISTS, well known fact, and methodology & effect proved that damnably!
        biggest ‘FAILING’ of THOSE STRATEGISTS’, who planned, was ELECTORAL LIST IN HAND at HEAD OF THE GANG unmistakably!!!??? Total “GIVE-AWAY” OF THE SORDID PLOT!!! Exactly how many inhabitants in each assessment number – GIVES AWAY THE LIE!!!???
        SUCH TOM FOOLERY/BUFFOONERY EXHIBITED, SL “WENT BANKRUPT 03/2022”

      • 4
        0

        LM,
        “I don’t think Black July was a well-planned act.”
        No, it was in fact very well planned. The mobs carried householders lists to target Tamil houses, which they couldn’t have got without official help. Government Ministers like Cyril Mathew were involved. The police and army simply watched. JR himself made inflammatory statements to the media. It is said that only Indian threats finally woke him up. He eventually sacked Mathew, but not before putting the blame for the riots on the JVP and “Naxalites”. By the way, one of the prominent actors was Elle Gunawansa.

    • 4
      1

      Instead of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, it would have been more appropriate to pass an act to prevent activities that cause Terrorism.
      e.g. Sinhalese Only Act, Buddhism being given the foremost place in the Constitution, Colonization of the North/East by the Sinhalese to change the texture of the population, the Army grabbing the Private lands of the Tamils, and many more similar activities.

    • 0
      2

      Sadly, this pogrom was planned when the bodies of 17 soldiers killed in the north were brought to be buried in Colombo. This is like Jenin terror camp kills jews praying in synagogues and provokes Israel to attack the palestinians, supported by the Gaza hamas. Why cant we live together in peace.

  • 8
    1

    Not only Black July 1983 but also 1981 Burning of Library and 2009 masscre of Tamils and 2019 Easter Bombing are planned, organised and sponsored by the Sinhala governments.

  • 7
    1

    ‘Black July’ 1983 is over emphasized.
    The seeds of ‘Black July’ 1983 were sowed long before 1983.
    In 1958, I had to jump off a bus to save myself. Saved by some presence of mind.
    Of course, July 1983 was a defining moment. Had it not been July 1983, it would have been another day.
    .
    Our political Heads were groping in the dark. Prabhakaran emerged.

  • 2
    7

    There are people who cannot appreciate a sincere apology for whatever it is worth.
    Such people also denounce the apology by Sumanthiran to Muslims for what was done to them by the LTTE (something that Jaffna Tamils watched helplessly when it happened)

    • 5
      1

      SJ,
      Your real face is now very clear which states who you are and what you are.

      • 3
        4

        My real face has always been clear, and I do not pretend to be anything that I am not.
        If what I said above hurts you, that may say something about yours.

        • 4
          1

          Self-trumpeter is not the one who is trusted. You are always a supporter of Buddhist Fundamentalism.

    • 4
      1

      ok have the Muslims apologized to the Thamizh in the east and south where despite being ethnically Thamizh of South Indian immigrant origin, they in the name of Islam and a largely fake Arab origin that only a few hundred families amongst them partially have, joined the Chingkallams to kill loot, destroy Thamizh homes and businesses down south and in the east Islamic headguards heavily armed by the Sri Lankan state did all this and also large scale ethnic cleansing of ancient Thamizh Hindu villages, especially in the Amparai and Trincomalee districts. Funny thing is they arrived in the ancient Thamizh east, as refugees fleeing Chingkalla and Portuguese persecution and begged for refuge claiming to be ethnic Thamizh Muslims from South India. They were accepted on this basis and also given Hindu Thamizh Mukkuva women to start families. Now with Chingkalla help and instigation trying to take over the east from the native Eezham Thamizh and the Thamizh Veddha, and make it their homeland, when they have no historical or any other basis for this manufactured claim, that is deliberately backed by the Chingkallams and certain Islamic states with an agenda.

      • 3
        2

        Arrive as refugees and immigrants claiming to be Thamizh and were given refuge and a place to stay on that bass and now once established and grown in numbers due to their high birth rate and the large-scale killings and ethnic cleansing of native Thamizh denying to be Thamizh but Arab and in the name of their religion.

        Soon after the war was over in 2009 Muslim politicians and masses in the east and south were dancing in joy on the streets and claiming the ancient Thamizh east and large parts of the north as theirs, thinking that the defeated Thamizh now cannot do anything. They were busy Ismalising/ Arabising large parts of the northeast, with funds from overseas, trying to settle hundreds of outside and even foreign Muslims in many large parts of the north under the guise of resettling displaced Muslims. Even in places where there was no history of any Muslims living previously. They were building Islamic Sharia universities with the help from certain Gulf nations, with the intention of promoting, Wahabism and Arab culture and language over the head of the native Thamizh language of the region. Arabic name boards and signs started to appear everywhere in the east where Muslims predominated. Even now Kattankudi in the east looks more like some Gulf Arab town and not part of the Thamizh east.

        • 3
          3

          It takes a very petty mind to find excuses to not apologise for a wrong.

          • 2
            1

            Apology should come from correction of the mistakes or wrongs. Why you are hiding the name of the person who apologised and what corrective measures he or she took when they were in power?

  • 5
    1

    Even up to now, the Tamil Politicians or the Sinhala Politicians have not learned a lesson from the 1983 riots. The 1983 riot was not a civilian riot, it was planned and implemented by politicians. It was “State Terrorism”.
Just to save the political future of the then President, where even the present President was in the Parliament under the same President, when 13 soldiers were killed the then government organized the riots. The result of this is even continuing today in a different form where laws of the land which are enshrined in the constitution are not implemented due to racism. Take the 13th amendment, although it’s applicable to all PCs, the Sinhala politicians look at it as if it’s only applicable to the North and the East.
    Solomon Dias Bandaranaike ruined the country by first moving against the Tamils followed by his wife Sirimavo who took dragodian decisions against the minorities. Even their daughter Chandrika did not do anything about it although she was educated abroad and has seen developed political movements. All the presidents have only manipulated race-related issues but never were able to find a solution.
    At this juncture, I must also say that even the Tamil politicians are not free of blame. They too have been using the racial issues as a tool to come to the parliament.

  • 0
    2

    KSN, 40 years after “Black July” 1983, the picture emerges that the devil and his human agents have their set times and focused events. On April 5th 1942 easter resurrection sunday, Japan bombed Colombo harbour and Ratmalana airport. On April 21st 2019 easter resurrection sunday, politics used Zaharan group suicide bombers to come to power, trying to defy resurrection power. Did it work?
    July 26th is considered a day of mourning for jews who saw giants in their promised land in 1313 BCE and disobeyed God’s command to enter with Moses. It was the 9th day of their month called Av, 26th of July. Later, Solomon’s{423BCE) and Herod’s (70AD) temples in Jerusalem were destroyed and jews sent into exile, and later from Spain and England too on that same day. Both world wars began on that day. Many other sad events too.

  • 0
    0

    DTG you are right. I blame the devil and his creator and sustainer (God) for all of it.

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