By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 25
Kelaniya University: March 1978
What follows is an account of an early combined use of the JSS and private thugs in a prolonged and systematic use of intimidation and violence. The UNP had been building up the JSS as a violent arm from about two years before the 1977 elections. Non-party persons employed at its HQ Sri Kotha in Colpetty knew that something sinister was going on. They were not allowed to look into the backyard of the HQ. However, they came to know that outsiders were being brought there in batches and given training in violence. As soon as the UNP secured its 1977 election victory, its violent elements were let loose on the defeated parties while the Police and Magistrates took the hint and stood by, even as violence and arson continued before their eyes for several weeks. This was lawlessness of the new order.
In the meantime the TULF swept the polls in the North and won several seats in the East on a formal separatist platform. However, behind the rhetoric an understanding had been reached with the UNP that the UNP in government would resolve Tamil grievances, which were listed and acknowledged in its election manifesto. The TULF, then the leading opposition party, formally called upon the UNP government to put forward a viable alternative to a separate state. Having received an unexpected bonanza of a five-sixths majority, Jayewardene was not in a mood to give anything. As the violence against the opposition petered out, these same mobs were turned against Tamils in the South in August 1977. The use of state violence in turn against the Sinhalese and the Tamils seemed to have a cyclic fatality about it.
As moves towards the open economy were introduced by curbing rice rations and floating the Rupee, the Government became anxious to curb dissent and to demonstrate that its moves were popular. The following account of what happened at Kelaniya University is drawn from the testimony of the Ven. Batapola Nanda, a Left- leaning Buddhist monk who is active in resolving the ethnic issue through common understanding, and others with a similar outlook who were all then students at the University.
The student elections were held in Kelaniya University about January 1978. In the Arts Faculty, 8 places on the faculty union were won by the Left coalition and 5 by the UNP. In the Science Faculty 12 places were won by anti-UNP independents and 1 by the UNP. This meant that the student council was going to be overwhelmingly anti-UNP. Jayewardene’s old Kelaniya electorate, not a secure UNP seat, was later divided into Kelaniya (won by Mathew in 1977) and Biyagama (won by Ranil Wickremasinghe). It fell to Wickramasinghe and Mathew to tame the University. Wickremasinghe did the talking. He visited elected student representatives in the night at private boarding houses and tried to win them over to the UNP by promising them perks. They were told that a bright future lay before them and it made no sense for them to take on the difficulties of opposing the Government. Those whom he did not meet were sent messages asking them to meet him. But this method failed to yield tangible results.
As the next step groups of thugs were sent to harass the students and to beat up male students. Nanda and other monks advised the students not to retaliate as the female students were vulnerable. One day Gonalwela Sunil who was about the most feared thug of the day and was very close to Ranil Wickremasinghe, came on a bicycle and threatened the students. On another night thugs went to the boarding house where an NSSP student Benson was staying and shaved his beard. This kind of low intensity harassment was going on until 16th March.
On this day the students who attended the 7.00 A.M. lecture in German and were going towards the canteen for breakfast along Wewalduwa Road at 8.30 A.M. Along the road were several loiterers, ruffians in dresses such as shorts and T-shirts. Anticipating trouble Hubert and another student had already gone to Peliyagoda Police Station to make a complaint. But the Police were unreceptive and did not move.
It turned out that the leader of this new initiative was Welipara (Sandy Road) Member Piyadasa, a henchman of Cyril Mathew’s and appointed by him a director of the Hardware Corporation. That morning Piyadasa campaigned in the neighbourhood villages calling for men to attack the university students, promising them in return corporation jobs. This was among the JSS methods for recruiting goons. It was noticed by victims during the ’83 July violence that several of the goons were persons whose faces clearly showed that their heart was not in the violent deeds they were asked to perform. It was a job.
In the canteen the students told the monks, of whom there were about 35, and a Roman Catholic priest, “You prevented us from attacking them, but now we are going to be attacked”. The girls were sent away and the students and some of the clergy broke legs off canteen tables and got ready. In the meantime, vehicles with Tyre Corporation and Hardware Corporation markings, both under Mathew and located around Kelaniya, started arriving with more goons. (The registration numbers of the vehicles were published in the Aththa the following day – the same paper which was sealed just before the ’82 Referendum.)
Piyadasa came into the canteen and started attacking the student Podi (Small) Sarath. He was warned by the monks. Realising that there would be resistance, Piyadasa went away to fetch more goons from Yakkala. The RC priest recognised the thug named Christopher Hyacinth Jayatilleke, who was quite often seen with Mathew. The students got word that he was coming for a cup tea. He came in with others and picked up a chair and threw it at some students. Then several chairs were thrown back at Christopher. A melee began in earnest with a thug named Gamini attacking the monk Ven. Baddegama Samittha, vice president of the students’ council. Samittha chased him out, wielding a table leg. The students too exitted through a side door. Nanda and Samittha, a member of the NSSP, carried an injured student soaked in blood and passed him out behind through a toilet window, and then went towards the sick room to get Samittha’s wound treated.
In the meantime Christopher who had lain injured under a pile of chairs came staggering out. One of his companions came to his aid and, supporting him, set off in the wrong direction. Seeing the pair passing below an embankment, the students rushed into the attack. Passions were high. The women fetched stones from a pile in the folds of their frocks, while the men shied these at the pair. The companion escaped, but the helpless Christopher breathed his last. Coming from the sick room, Nanda and Samittha found the place deserted. The other students called them to a two-storey building. From there their lecturer Dr. Buddhi Weerasinghe, who was also student union treasurer, telephoned the University Grants Commission (UGC) and informed Prof P.P.G.L.
Siriwardene of the dangerous situation there. The Vice Chancellor and deans were then missing. It was subsequently at 1.30 PM, that the Police came with the Vice Chancellor. The University was closed and 36 students were suspended.
A significant event took place while the students sheltered in the building awaiting developments in anxiety and fear. Some moved to get hold of the pro-UNP students and throw them out of a top floor window. There was a mood where it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Fortunately others had intervened and stopped it.
A month later the University reopened amidst fear. The students prepared 120 posters, and given the situation, several of them went out and put up all the posters in about 5 minutes. They demanded that the 36 suspended students be taken back in view of the coming examinations and called for understanding between the students and the public in the area. Within an hour Ranil Wickremasinghe, minister for education and youth affairs in that government, came to the University and read the posters. This showed how closely he had been following the developments at the University.
About a month later three student representatives including Kumudu Kusum Kumara and Upali Amerasinghe went to the UGC by arrangement for talks on the suspended students. To their surprise Ranil Wickremasinghe was there to meet them. He delivered a homily, telling them that if they want to study they can study, but if they are going to have other interests, (such as political ones), then they (i.e. Wickremasinghe and associates) would have to deal with it.
The episode of 1978 is interesting for several reasons: It showed the Government’s mindset and methods in dealing with those who opposed it. It was also a case of unsafe UNP seats being transformed into safe ones by the attentions of the two ministers. This success was short-lived.
The arrogance and violence of the Government, coupled with the constant humiliation sustained by the students over a period clearly brutalised them to a point of almost attacking their own fellows (supporting the UNP) and mercilessly stoning to death an injured adversary. To most of those students, these feelings would have been short-lived. Many of them would have moved into a white- collar job under the same Government and moved on to other concerns. But to the Tamils who came under such treatment from the Government on a wider, more varied and sustained scale, there was for most of them no escape. It was to be a thorn in the flesh from the system, for life.
The incident also shows how the two ministers, Mathew and Wickremasinghe, persons from widely differing backgrounds, the JSS goons of the former and the latter’s thugs, worked systematically towards a common objective. Also of interest is the division of labour. Mathew’s primary task was to supply violence on demand. The episode is also a pointer to Black July (1983) and the motivation behind it. This was the general situation in the UNP and does not point to any special role for Wickremasinghe in July 1983.
Kelaniya, with its state corporations (e.g. Tyre), became thus a major centre for organised state violence and conspiracy. A particular need for it was that it lay in an area (i.e. Gampaha District) where the SLFP was traditionally strong.
We now move on to the Welikade prison massacres, the connection of which to the foregoing will become apparent later.
To be continued..
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
Part eleven – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers
Part fourteen – Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest
Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983
Part seventeen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Postscript
Part eighteen – July 1983: Planned By The State Or Spontaneous Mob Action?
Part nineteen – July 1983: Ranil Wickremasinghe Followed Cyril Mathew
Part twenty one – Events Of 24th July: What Were The Army’s Orders?
Part twenty two – Black July: Further Evidence Of Advance Planning
Part twenty three – Black July: The JSS Goon Squad Regime
Part twenty four – Institutional Implications Of The JSS And Black July
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued..