19 June, 2024


Black July – Haunting Memories 

By Karikalan S. Navaratnam

Karikalan S. Navaratnam

“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.”President J.R. Jayewardene, Daily Telegraph (London) , 11 July 1983

Another July has just come and gone – 35th Anniversary of “Black July”. President J.R. made the egregious statement (cited above) in an interview to the “Daily Telegraph “ (which was reproduced in the Colombo “Sunday Observer” of 17 July 1983), just a few days before the July 1983 pogrom erupted. Not only that it foreshadowed the impending carnage and calamity, it had also been a  contributory factor engendering the pogrom.

Racial antipathy against ethnic Tamils was palpably evolving into an explosive situation. The political predator President J.R. had wilfully 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. Anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 was an organized effort, as were the series of massacres  routinely carried out against Tamils in a medieval milieu. In 1983, it was organized on a larger scale. Spiritual and temporal  forces – sections of the clergy, state security agencies, the police, bigoted press  and ‘patriotic’ politicians – had ganged up with the  like-minded rabid rabble to wage  war on the Tamil people. President J.R.’s  bellicose rhetoric was a call to arms addressed to this bloodlusted  nationalist fascist forces. With  his clarion call, the die was cast and the ensuing ethnic war was inevitable.  

Orgy of violence

The  pogrom claimed the lives of several thousands of innocent Tamils. And the orgy of killing was complemented by a host of other acts of atrocity – maiming, rape, arson, looting and what not. 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 Tamils’ political  agenda.  

Likewise, the genocidal  killings of 2009 and the post-Mullivaikal experiences have drastically changed our mindscape and pursuits..

Aide Memoires

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana, Philosopher/Poet). Lest we may forget, a brief review of the horrific events of July 1983, as recounted by discerning commentators/ observers may serve as a sort of aide memoires: “Acts of Genocide” – ICJ:

The crimes of July 1983 were a watershed for our country | pic by Chandraguptha Amarasingha – A Tamil boy stripped naked and later beaten to death by Sinhala youth in Boralla gustation – 1983 July

The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to Acts of Genocide.” (The Review, International Commission of Jurists, December 1983)

Mobs of Sinhala youth rampaged through the streets, ransacking homes, shops and offices, looting them and setting them ablaze, as they sought out members of the Tamil ethnic minority.” 

“… a mob attacked a Tamil cyclist riding near Colombo’s eye hospital  ………..The cyclist was hauled from his bike, drenched with petrol and set alight. As he ran screaming down the street, the mob set on him and hacked him down with jungle knives…” 

Motorists were dragged from their cars to be stoned and beaten with sticks… Others were cut down with knives and axes.”  (London Daily Telegraph, 26 July 1983)

”All over the city by mid-morning lorries jammed with young men shouting anti Tamil slogans, were moving into Tamil areas and into shopping centres picking out Tamil shops… Petrol was siphoned from cars into  buckets and plastic bowls to speed the work of arson.. By noon Colombo resembled a city after a bombing raid. Smoke obscured the sun, Main roads were blocked by burnt out vehicles.. The rioting surged into the heart of the city. In area after area Sinhalese rioters systematically picked out Tamil homes and shops, whether occupied or empty, and looted and  destroyed them...” (Guardian, 26 July 1983)

“The rioters seeking out Tamil homes and burning them had a particularly detailed knowledge of who lived where and who owned

 what.”  (London Times, 8 August 1983)

The violence was vicious and bloody……..Troops and police (almost exclusively Sinhalese) either joined therioters or stood idly by.  The events were so well organised no one doubtsthat there was a master list of targets.” (Financial Times, 12 Aug. 1983 )

‘A tourist told yesterday how she watched in horror as a Sinhala mob deliberately burned alive a bus load of Tamils… Mrs.Eli Skarstein, back home in Stavanger, Norway, told how she and her 15 year old daughter, Kristin, witnessed one massacre. ‘A mini bus full of Tamils were forced to stop in front of us in Colombo’ she said. A Sinhalese mob poured petrol over the bus and set it on fire. They blocked the car door and prevented the Tamils from leaving the vehicle. ‘Hundreds of spectators watched as about 20 Tamils were burned to death’………….( London Daily Express, 29th August 1983)

Welikada Prison Massacre

Welikada  massacre was yet another grisly 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 some 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 Convention

On Saturday, 23 July 1983, I was 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, 24 July. Members of Parliament A. Amirthalingam, (TULF Secretary), M. Sivasithamparam (President), 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, killing civilians at sight. Follow-up calls  from different sources, ominously informed us that attacks on Tamil targets were spreading out. Because of menacing military movements in Mannar we were compelled to cancel the Sunday political sessions. 

Lawyer Manouri’s Call

On 26 July morning some of us met at (Mannar MP) P. Soosaithasan’s residence. There was a call to Sivasithamparam (Siva) from lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama (Communist M.P. Sarath’s wife and Dr. Colvin’s daughter). She informed Siva that some of his clients in Welikada jail had been killed, the previous day (25th  July). She could not give details. Thereupon, Siva telephoned the Deputy Commissioner of Prisons 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 Jayawardene. He 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. 

53 Prisoners  butchered

Black July 83 – Boralla | Photo – Chandraguptha Amarasingha

Even as army threats intensified in and around the neighbourhood, 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 27 July 1983 said it loud and clear that it was a pre-planned operation, organized and orchestrated by Sinhala prison officers. 

Official complicity

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 Tamil prisoners were butchered to death and their bodies were piled up in front of a Buddha statue (within the prison complex) as an offering to Lord Buddha. 

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.. 

(Incidentally, 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, the local  post-office cum dwelling only 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. Mr. Rao expressed condolences on the loss of lives and his message to Amirthalingam was brief and poignant. He wanted Amirthalingam to travel to India early for “discussion”.

Watershed moment

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. J.R.’s response was sullen and subdued – a far cry from his earlier  grandstanding !

Mr. Amirthalingam arrived in India in 1st week of August 1983. I had left for India  before he did. In Colombo, my good friend Vasantha Obeysekera (the film director, who is no more) helped me at a moment of adversity and despair. 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 were already removed. Nonetheless, the cruel scenes, conjured up images of brutal attacks on hundreds of Tamils who were hacked to death or burnt alive.


The legion of Sinhala nationalist forces had crossed the Rubicon long ago. The remorseless perpetrators of horrendous crimes against our people have lately started shouting  a sanctimonious slogan: Peace and  Reconciliation”. Reconciliation on whose terms and with whom? Not on the terms of the Rajapaksas, the Rasputins and the Ranaweerayo, the tribalists who call all the shots. Of course, there are sections of the Sinhala polity, with enlightened views. But, theirs is a tame and timid voice –  a voice crying in the wilderness.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Sirs and Madams of CT, I am Rajagiriye Samantha. You remember me no? Sorry Sirs and Madams, not erite. Me in jail for Kadu problem. No Sirs, that not Kudu, is Kadu. Like sword in English. Me not deal with Kudu. Not permit other Kuddas to make business in my Bajar. What I say Sir is, Kadu Okay. But not Kudu. Me marry now. Soon become father. Me not want my son become Kudda. No chance Sir.
    Kadu need for control bad people. Me not use gun. My favorite weapon Kadu, Sir.
    Anyway, Sirs and Madams, we have Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim all in my Bajar. Me not care what them is. Me Rajagiriye Samantha treat all same same. Not even think what ‘Jathiya’ people is. Anyone putting Jathiya then my Kaduwa come out. Sorry Sir, must explain. Kadu I mean not English. I mean real Kaduwa Sir.
    1983 I was not even born. But my father tell no problem in our area even that time. Some bad people try enter and put Jathiya. But my father and others chase them. Me no education man Sir. May be that why I cannot understand why this fight. But not good Sir. That all I can say Sir.
    Thank you Sirs and Madams of CT, for give me chance. Now I go to pot for a little something to wet tongue. That OK sir. But no Kudu. Kudu over my dead body Sir.

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