5 March, 2024


Histrionic Voice As Spark For Ethnic Violence & Political Extremism

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

Anguish and grief are powerful emotions that can contort and wrack a body. While ‘suggesting’ helplessness, the anguish that engulfs a person can also empower that person … and others connected to that person by commonalities of interest/emotion. In this manner anguish can transcend obstacles, generate waves of bitterness and swell into paths of retributory hate and punishment. The ‘little’ drops of tears can swell metaphorically into ‘waves’ – and even inspire enraged mobs (mostly male) bent on punishing the purported root of the tears, a recalcitrant Other, an enemy family or “community” deemed to be the cause of that expressive anguish or deemed to have transcended local norms. In southern Lanka that community can be a neighbouring caste grouping or ethnic group or religious group (Muslim Moor,[1] Hindu, Buddhist, Christian).

Let me highlight the argument by presenting an unusual juxtaposition.

Clearly, the two images are quite disconnected both in terms of time and place. The absurdity of this juxtaposition is a shock tactic. The contrast is deliberately cast to stress the analytical connections in a hypothesis I am mounting here.

Most readers will be familiar with the context surrounding the first picture, so let me elaborate on the circumstances generating the second image from Bhagalpur. The second image was collected by me in 1995 when I spent several months in Delhi researching “communal violence” in modern India as a means of enhancing my examination of ethnic pogroms and violence in Sri Lanka.[2]

The Anti-Muslim Bhagalpur Pogrom of October 1989

The Indian English lexicon is firmly stuck in the British nomenclature of “riots” and does not distinguish small-scale local assaults from what are distinctively pogroms aimed at the minority in a city or region, usually Muslim in northern India (but also Sikh after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984). The violence in Bhagalpur embraced around 250 villages as well as Bhagalpur city and around 1000 people were killed, with over 900 being Muslim—making it the worst instance of Hindu-Muslim violence in independent India up to that moment. The scale of death and violence renders it into a “pogrom” in my categorical scheme, one which restricts the concept “riots” for smaller-scale violence and for clashes where both parties inflict limited death and destruction on each other.[3]

xpressive Grief displayed by a Sri Lankan Tamil woman at a protest demonstration before David Cameron by persons whose kin have been missing in the course of Eelam War IV

The general All-India circumstance that provided the background for the Bhagalpur pogrom was the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign seeking to construct a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in place of the demolished Babri mosque. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had organised a movement in Bihar to collect bricks (shilas) for this purpose. At this point two different rumours – both surely concocted and spurious — circulated among the Hindu populace, one stating that nearly 200 Hindu university students had been killed by the Muslims, while the other claimed that 31 Hindu boys had been murdered with their bodies dumped in a well at the Sanskrit College.[4] Mobs of Hindu men and boys set out to administer retribution …… and our image presents one such deadly crowd. Though Muslims in localities with some concentrations also fought back or sought vengeance themselves, the demographic imbalances meant that it was, for the most part, a pogrom targeting the minority Muslims.[5]

So, here at Bhagalpur in 1989, one witnessed the impact of rumour-mongers in sparking and sustaining assaults on a ‘party’ deemed to be at fault. This has been commonplace in the history of “communal violence” in India, Ceylon and Sri Lanka. It sets up my progression towards detailing this process of instigation in (a) the 1958 mini-pogrom aimed at Tamils and (b) the 1915 pogrom directed at the “Mohammedans”[6] (that is, Moors) in the south-western quadrant of what was then British Ceylon.

However, a detour is pursued at this point – one that links up with our first image of a wailing woman in order to illustrate the persuasive and empowering capacity of tears and grief.

Tears and Anguish as Empowering

I focus here on an ethnographic event from the early 1970s that has no connection whatsoever with ethnic confrontation. Living in Peradeniya then my family interacted closely with another middle-class family of similar composition: namely, a foreign wife and a local middle class man. Let me call the latter couple “Kiwi.” In the highly restricted economic and embargo circumstances of that time, presents of tinned food and other goodies from abroad were subject to restrictions. On a couple of occasions the Kiwis were told that parcels from the wife’s homeland were embargoed at the Customs office. Mrs Kiwi went to the office. When informed about the restraints and duties due, she burst into tears. The officer (invariably a man in those times[7]) relented and released the goods.

Mrs. Kiwi was not an experienced actress familiar with the forms of “method acting” associated with Konstantin Stanislavski.[8] Nor was she among the Sri Lankan women who were professional mourners who excelled in performative wailing and lamentation at funerals in some localities (Sinhala and Tamil both) in the island.[9] So I surmise that any population has some women and men with this natural ability to summon anguish at will[10] – and especially during volatile tension-ridden circumstances arising from local familial or political conflict or, alternatively, at moments of mourning. This capacity is illustrated in yet another second-hand anecdote: after Justin Labrooy informed me that he recalls a scene of wailing women at a funeral in the Christian belt on the Moratuwa seaboard, I asked a friend in Colombo if he had experienced the practice of wailing women in the past during his Moratuwa days. He had not. More recently, however, after the funeral of a relative in Colombo some of his Moratuwa kin had returned to their locality and announced that the “P… family” had forgotten HOW TO CRY. Such capacities must be kept in mind by Westernized personnel when addressing conflictual or traumatic scenarios in South Asia.

The argument here is that Mrs. Kiwi’s lamentation was transformative and enabling. It moved the official to action. As such, this example serves to highlight those displays of anguish which stir people, usually men, to retribution directed at the source(s) of anguish, whether a person, a rival family or political entity, a caste group, an ethnic group or a religious community.

Here, then, the focus is upon ANGUISH and GRIEF as energizers and incendiary sparks that foment HATE … and violent acts of retribution. By moving away from ethnic rivalries to a wide range of disputations, the intent here is to highlight the dangerous force of anguish … and its transformative power.

Acts of retribution can be restricted by relative scales of power because those poor or low in the caste hierarchy or outnumbered in a locality are constrained in the actions open to them.[11] However, in Sri Lanka over the last few centuries, as we know from anecdotal/experiential knowledge as well as numerous accounts and studies, such retributive incidents and pathways have been common. Vengeance in Sri Lanka takes many forms: (a) malicious rumour; (b) a court case; (c) recourse to a sorcerer or sorcery technique – often intended homicide at one remove;[12] and (d) violence involving verbal vilification, assaults, arson, fire-bombing, dynamiting. The more violent acts of retribution and vigilante action that merit the label “pogrom” occur where the ‘injured party’ as attacking party is in a majority and wields local or district power.

In the Sinhala modalities of thought the morality behind such retributory action was (is) embodied in the term guti dheema — teaching a lesson.[13] What was being pursued via such vigilante action was the disciplining of a recalcitrant other. Mutatis mutandis, this principle could even apply to the thinking of those (often weaker parties) pursuing retribution through recourse to sorcery or the institution of vexatious litigation.

The ethnographic findings of the sociologists, Obeyesekere, Kapferer, Spencer, Hettige, Bastin, Tudor Silva, Premakumara de Silva as well as the work of John Rogers and myself are among the sources that enable me to present the picture above. This summary in its turn provides the context for the focus on grief-stricken rumour-mongering as the spark for ethnic and/or religious violence in Sri Lanka – instances where the Sinhala majority in some localities have pursued violent assaults against either the Moors[14] or the Tamils in their midst. The most notable of these instances have been the (A) the pogrom against the Moors in mid-1915; (B) the mini-pogrom against the Tamils in 1958; (C) the “riots of 1977” involving localised ethnic clashes;[15] and (D) the pogrom against the Tamils in July 1983.

The incendiary power of rumour, and thus, invariably, the impact of angry and/or anguished voices, was deeply etched in every one of these violent eruptions. The best evidence comes from the 1915 pogrom, but let me begin with an account of the mini-pogrom in late-May 1958 because I was residing in Galle then and because of the details provided by Tarzie Vittachi and James Manor.[16]

1958 Violence

The violence on this occasion was preceded and set-up by the tensions associated with the Sinhala-Only campaign that brought SWRD Bandaranaike and the MEP to power in 1956, the violence to which Tamils in the Gal Oya locality were subject in 1956,[17] the Tamil satyagraha campaign in opposition to the government’s language policy which involved the tarring of the shri sign on buses in early 1958, and counter-campaigns defacing Tamil lettering in Colombo, the siege of Bandaranaike’s home at Rosmead Place by extremist bhikkhus,[18] and the unilateral abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957 in April 1958. Against this background the Tamil Federal Party’s convention at Vavuniya in May 1958 provided the immediate tension-raising political circumstance.

At this point on the 23rd May 1958 there seem to have been two incidents in the Eravur area involving the derailment of the Batticaloa-Colombo train, with one resulting in the deaths of three persons according to Manor and two Sinhalese, a policeman and a porter, according to Vittachi.[19] Sinhalese mobs in Polonnaruva and nearby towns (Giritale, Minneriya) went marauding for Tamils – with some of the initial attacks being launched around 6.00 pm as dusk commenced. Significantly, some of the marauding bands were referred to as “sinhala hamudaawa” (raising comparisons with the emergence of the bodu bala sena in 2014).[20]

While Tamil crowds on the Batticaloa coast (in Eravur?) went marauding as well, the reactions in many Sinhala areas were far more severe. The killing of a Sinhalese gentleman named Seneviratne at Gal Oya on the 25th May as a result of some private vendetta entered the array of wild rumours about Tamil atrocities. These fabricated tales included lurid specifics: a Sinhala baby had been thrust into a barrel of boiling tar; a female Sinhala teacher from Panadura had had her breasts cut off in Batticaloa.

The pre-existing prejudices and heightened political tensions of that day were adequate for some segments of the Sinhala population to be stirred into action – having accepted the veracity of such specifics. Sinhala mobs seeking revenge were spawned in several urban localities in the south west as well as the north central districts where colonization projects were centred. Tamils were assaulted and killed, with the burning to death of the Hindu priest at the kovil in Panadura being registered as one of the most horrifying episodes in this sorry tale.[21] One can suggest that the specific detail relating to the mutilation of a teacher in one of the fabricated rumours (see above) generated extra-passion in the retributions effected in the Panadura locality.

I was then in Galle town. As far as I recall, the violence there was limited and amounted to damage inflicted on Tamil businesses in the market area and the kovil at Kaluwella in the heart of the town. These acts are believed to have developed after the funeral at Ahangama of the Sinhala policeman who had died when a train was derailed in the Eastern Province.[22]

A funeral. These are emotion-laden moments. On this tenuous prima facie evidence, one can contend that grief and anguish spawned hate and retaliation through rumour and violent action. Such paths, needless to say, also created opportunities for looting and for business rivals to target Moor establishments competing with them.

In these types of violence an accurate figure of the death toll is unlikely. CR de Silva has indicated that in 1958 “at least 471 died – the vast majority … Tamil” (1987: 244). Perhaps the most revealing fact is the image unearthed by Victor Ivan (Pic 04) which shows of ordinary citizens enthusiastically beating up a passing Tamil citizen along a major thoroughfare i, Colombo. This was their Sinhala ‘nationalist’ administration of guti medicine upon a terrible other.

The Pogrom against the Moors in 1915

The widespread assaults on the persons, properties and mosques of the yoni (Moors, Mohammedans) in the south-western quadrant of the island in May-June 1915 were directed in the main by a desire on the part of Sinhala Buddhist activists to teach the Mohammedan Moors a lesson for “insulting our nationality and our religion” — sentiments that drew the support of some Sinhala Christians because church bells were rung in a few places (e.g. Mutwal, Kotahena, Kochchikade) to assemble crowds for purported defense,[23] though the majority of assailants and looters seem to have been Sinhala Buddhist. The violence occurred in a demographic context wherein the “Mohammedans (Moors) numbered 266,626 persons at the decennial census of 1911, making up 6.5 per cent of the total population.[24]

This event was not a sudden development and cannot be comprehended without heed to the history of religious tensions and small-scale disturbances between Buddhist and Moors in several towns in the same arena. As Ameer Ali has stressed, the religious factor was of fundamental significance in precipitating the tensions and, ultimately, the assaults.[25]

The root cause lay in what I have depicted as “the Imperialism of Silence” because the British principle of respecting other religions by silence near places of worship was alien to the religious world of Asia where specific forms of drum-beat and music are central elements in worship. This principle was embodied in the Sinhala language in the concept sabda pujā, which is a local embodiment of the Sanskritic concept of panchaturyanādaya.[26]

The British cultural conviction that “noise” was/is disturbing was embodied in the Police Ordinance No. 16 of 1865. These rules enabled specific congregations of Muslims and Catholics in a few urban localities to insist on the application of these rules in front of their place of worship. Inevitably, this flexing of muscle generated local conflicts: struggles to indicate who was kavuda raja, or “who is king,” in this or that place. In 1883 Catholics and Buddhists at Kotahena clashed on this issue during the Easter celebrations in March.[27] Contests between Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists took place at Galle from 1899-1903, Gampola from 1907-13, Balangoda in 1914 and Kurunägala in 1912.[28]

The dispute at Gampola arose from the building of a new mosque (by Coast Moors it seems) at Ambagamuwa Street in town along the traditional route of the annual perahära devoted to the regeneration of Walahāgoda Temple and Devāle (whose processions passed the mosque at Kahatapitiya in Gampola without any fuss being made[29]). When an unlicensed Buddhist pinkama (a merit-making ceremony) passed this mosque on the 27th May 1907, it was attacked by the local Moors.[30]

This small-scale disturbance in 1907 led to a court case where the Muslims had the benefit of high-powered lawyers (FA Hayley from Colombo). The issue arose again and the Trustees of the Walahāgoda Devāle filed a case against the crown on 3rd July 1913. This was (is) the famous Gampola Perahära Case. The District Court Magistrate who presided over this issue happened to be Paul E. Peiris, a Sinhala Christian Civil Servant versed in history and sensibility. His decision in June 2014 was in favour of the Walahāgoda Devāle. The issue then moved upwards in appeal to the Supreme Court. That court’s verdict in March 2015 was in favour of the crown (and thus the Moors) on the 2nd February 1815.[31]  

In short, this cause celebre ended in favour of the Muslim Moors. The Walahāgoda authorities were as disconsolate as unequivocal: the decision was an amāruvak (hardship) and an ayuttak (injustice).[32]

As the period of Vesak celebrations approached in May 1915, therefore, trouble was expected as religio-cultural animosities were fever-pitch in the Kandy-Gampola regions. A newly-renovated mosque[33] associated with domiciled Coast Moors at Castle Street in the heart of Kandy town was at the centre of anticipated trouble. Some Buddhist Sinhalese clearly prepared for physical confrontation: pinkamas were organized in the immediate surrounds of Gampola, while thugs from Wanawāhala off Colombo had been imported into the town of Kandy.[34]

This information about toughs from beyond the locality being imported to beef up power displays and/or retributory action connects with other evidence indicating that the samāgamas (associations) in the south-western regions of the island that had been engaged in village upliftment projects over several decades and in the anti-colonial temperance agitation mounted from 1912 had been kindled to prepare for action directed towards teaching the Moors a lesson if they continued their overbearing ways in the Wesak season. Whether the Colombo Total Abstinence Society, which had been the engine-room for the nationalist agitation against Western practices from the year 1912, served as a command centre is not known. Such central direction should not, however, be considered a prerequisite for the type of ethnic violence that occurred. The undercurrents of anger and tension as the cause celebre was aired during the Wesak season could have promoted local well-springs for punitary action.

On the night of 28thMay 1915 a clash broke out in the vicinity of the Castle Street mosque at Kandy after a police officer asked a Buddhist carol party to divert its progress away from the spot and the assembled Moormen hooted and jeered. From that night onwards and over the next nine days violent assaults were launched on the yoni (Moors) in the Central Province around Kandy and in many spots in the south west. On 2nd June 1915 disturbances occurred in as many as 116 “centres.” Though the Muslims had sufficient numbers and courage to indulge in resistance at a few spots,[35] for the most part they were at the receiving end of violence. The official data on casualties and damage is probably approximate and states that 25 persons were murdered, 189 wounded, 4 raped; while 350 houses and boutiques were fired; 4075 buildings were looted and 17 mosques burnt (with at least two being desecrated with pork offal, blood and feaces).[36] The scale and spread of violence supports the classification “pogrom.”

Bald statistics are inadequate for a comprehension of the reverberating impact of the violence heaped on the local Moorish population. One incident at Trincomalee Street in Kandy on the 30th May arising from a Moorman stabbing several Sinhalese (perhaps in defence?) indicates the histrionic repercussions: the Moors in the area were subject to a rounded assault and Vaughan (the GA, Central Province) describes the scene he came across thus: “I have never seen a crowd so excited—men were crying from excitement, and appeared to be demented.”[37]

The assailant mobs were quite substantial in some places: crowds of over a thousand were reported at Matale, Wattegama, Kadugannawa, Gampola, Panadura, Rambukkana, Godapitiya, and Akuressa; while the crowd at Gewilipitiya-Aranayake was variously estimated at 800 to 4,000. At Gampola and Panadura the authorities (both police and British civil servants) were forced to retreat. On at least five occasions the crowds, by sheer weight of intimidation or by storming (at Pasyala) a police station, effected a release of individuals who had been arrested; while a “village sergeant” was killed at Kottawa when attempting to quell a riot.[38]

The short-term improvisation of attacking formations in some localities was impressive, with the political associations linked to village upliftment and temperance serving as the foundational hand in several places. Thus, for instance, at Attanagalla in the Western Province the temple bell was rung on June 1st and the crowds from the surrounding locality who assembled were informed: “The Tambies are insulting our nationality and our religion. We must harass the Tambies, and they must be driven out of Ceylon.”[39]

Other summaries indicate that a primacy was attached to the grievance that Sinhala Buddhists were being subject to insult and hardship – the emphasis being on the insult to their religion. On several occasions, in fact, the assailants chanted “sadhu! sadhu!” as they burnt goods and fired houses.[40] However, in a few localities, such as Mutwal and Kotahena, church bells were rung and Catholics assembled to defend their churches from anticipated Moor assailants; while at Kochchikade Catholics were a prominent part of the attacks on the local mosque.[41] No study can therefore afford to downplay the influence of the nationalist currents that had been voiced over the previous three decades – declamations focusing on the downtrodden situation of the Sinhalese in the face of Westernization and the island’s economic decline.[42] Critical drivers of these lines of dissent were those I have defined as “intercalary classes,” namely, the overlapping categories “petit-bourgeois” and “lower middle class.”[43]

However, this was thinking that drew personnel from virtually all classes of the Sinhala population. Even though upper middle class participation in the hostility to the Moors in 1915 may – I stress “may” – have been limited, there is no doubt that some middle-class personnel were sympathetic towards the grievances that were peddled.[44] Both the middle class and the intercalary strata were important forces behind (a) the short-lived span of temperance agitation in 1904 which at one time had 600 associations and an estimated 200,000 members; and the more sustained temperance agitation dating from 1912 with the Colombo Total Abstinence Central Union serving as its font.[45]

Nor can any study of the anti-Moor pogrom of 1915 neglect the data collected by AP Kannangara, PVJ Jayasekera, Ameer Ali and myself on the force of “rumour” in instigating the violence at different points or arousing sympathy from middle class personnel who did not actually indulge in assaults. One mark of this power was the temporal sequence of the assaults on Moors. Beginning from the outbreak in Kandy on the 28/29/30th May, the attacks branched out in a temporal line over the next few days to Matale in the north, to Gampola southwards nearby and to Rambukkana, Kelaniya, Colombo, Panadura and thence further south to Weligama — with the railway tracks and main roads marking the trajectory of the violence, while the side-roads and the Kelani Valley railway spawned further spindly side-trajectories.[46]

Rumour! Ah, rumour! Here, then, moving beyond the documentation provided by Kannagara et al, my emphasis is on both the content and the fervour within rumour. It is the grief-stricken anguished voice that attracts support and persuades some people to join the mob and seek retribution. “Rumour” must be bolstered by the concepts of “anguish,” “histrionic voice,” “hate” and “retribution” in our examination of such events as the 1915 pogrom in British Ceylon, the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, the Bhagalpur pogrom of 1989, the several communal “riots’ in India and the assaults directed at the Tamils in Sri Lanka in 1958, 1977 and 1983.

We must recall here the manner in which in a different context and with different inspirations the grande peur (grand fear) was a striking dimension of the French Revolution, while also attending to Tilly’s elaboration of the power of rumour in fomenting the counter-revolutionary agitation in the Vendee area in the 1790s.[47]

Histrionic Voice: Its Power

As these accounts indicate, local disputes over prominence and specific acts of violence on the one hand and, on the other hand, spurious tales and magnified half-truths have generated ethnic and religious violence in Sri Lanka and India during the last 150 years or so. However, the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and northern India in 1984 was generated by an actual incident of All-India significance: the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi by her ‘trusted’ Sikh bodyguards on 31st October 1984 – presumably as a payback for the Indian government’s forcible entry into the sacred Golden Sikh temple at Amritsar in early June 1984 as one aspect of its “Operation Blue Star” against Sikh separatists.

The immediate response in Delhi was histrionic. A crowd had quickly assembled outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the hope that Mrs Gandhi could be resuscitated. I have a vivid memory of press images showing grief-stricken men trying to scale the spiked gates. When the Prime Minister’s death was announced, Wikipedia reports that the crowd “began shouting …. “Blood for blood!” and turned into an unruly mob.”

So, some Hindu people in Delhi, Haryana Province and elsewhere in the north were spurred to engage in retributory action conceived as “just punishment.” They turned on their Sikh neighbours or went on manhunts in the by-ways searching for Sikhs to maim or kill. Estimates of the death toll vary from 2800 in official reports (with 2100 in Delhi) to 8,000 in unofficial estimates (with 3000 in Delhi).[48] One of the principal weapons was kerosene, a tool that was sometimes supplied by Congress Party businessmen who owned petrol stations.[49]

There is strong evidence that personnel in the Congress Party, including government officials, were at the core of the short-term organisational operations that initiated and sustained the agitation. This included the use of voter lists to identify Sikh houses and establishments for assaults[50] (as in the pogrom targeting Tamils in Sri Lanka in July 1983).

In many instances the assaults, the maiming and the killing were instigated, preceded and accompanied by histrionic, grief-stricken, emotion-laden voices. Anguish, whether well-founded or concocted, can assemble people for protest, whether legitimate or ill-founded. Anguish can also promote unjust marauding action. In sum, anguish can be enabling, penetrating, persuasive and quite incendiary in its impact.

Ergo, embitterment and anguish also has the potential to undermine processes of reconciliation in the aftermath of violent ethnic conflict. Where embitterment encourages retribution through political charges that wield word-pictures and exaggerated figures on the Tamil death toll over four decades, as proclaimed to the world recently in Delhi by the TNA leader Sambanthan,[51] there, in the arena of high-profile declamation and the reactive responses to such charges, one sees the process whereby extremists on all sides of the existing divisions will continue to feed off each other.


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(Colombo: Marga Publications, 1979), pp. 214–42.

Roberts, Michael 1981 “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese plotters or local elite chauvinists? Directions and patterns in the 1915 communal riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences, 4:  83-126.

Roberts, Michael 1988 “Sri Lanka: ethnic conflict and political crisis. A review article,” Ethnic Studies Report, 6: 40-62.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “The political antecedents of the revivalist elite within the MEP coalition of 1956,” in C.R. de Silva and Sirima Kiribamune (eds), K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, Peradeniya University.

Roberts, Michael 1990 “Noise as cultural struggle: tom-tom beating, the British and communal disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s-1930s,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of violence, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 240-85.

Roberts, Michael 1994a Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 1994a “The imperialism of silence under the British raj: arresting the drum,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “Mentalities, ideologues, assailants, historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81… reprinted as “Marakkala kolahalaya…, in Roberts, Confrontations,

Roberts, Michael 1994c “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317-25. …. Reprinted in Nethra, 2003 vol. 6: 199-213.

Roberts, Michael 1994d “A biographical epilogue,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers. 1994: 331-3

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” South Asia, Special Issue, XIX: 205-20.

Roberts, Michael 2017 Professional mourners in Ceylon and Southern India,” 3 March 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/professional-mourners-in-ceylon-and-southern-india/

Rogers, John R. 1987a Crime, justice and society in colonial Sri Lanka, London: Curzon Press.

Rogers, John R. 1987b “Social mobility, popular ideology, and collective violence in modern Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies, 46: 583-602.

Rogers, John R. 1989 “Cultural Nationalism and Social Reform: The 1904 Temperance Movement in Sri Lanka,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, 26 (3), 1989, pp. 319-351.

Scott, Jr., George M. 1989 “The economic basis of Sinhalese-Muslim ethno-religious conflicts in twentieth century Sri Lanka,” Ethnic Studies Report, 7: 20-35.

Soboul, Albert 1974 The French Revolution, New York, Random House.

Somaratna, G.P.V. 1991 Kotahena Riot, 1983. Religious riot in Sri Lanka, Nugegoda, Deepaneee.

Spencer, Jonathan (ed.) 1990 Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, 1990

Spencer, Jonathan 1992 “Problems in the analysis of communal violence,” Contributions to Indian Sociology n.s. 26: 261-279.

Srinivasan, Amrit 1990 “The survivor in the study of violence,” in V. Das (ed) Mirrors of violence.  Communities, riots and survivors in South Asia, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 305 20.

Tambiah, S. J. 1992 Buddhism betrayed? Religion, politics and violence in Sri Lanka, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Tambiah, S. J. 1996 Leveling Crowds, New Delhi:

Tambiah, S. J. 2017a “Tambiah’s contemporary account of the Gal Oya riots of 1956: for Vice-Cahncellor Attygalle,” 2 February 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/tambiahs-contemporary-account-of-the-gal-oya-riots-of-1956-to-vi “the anti-Tamil Gal Oyce-chancellor-attygalle/ (from his book Leveling Crowds, 1998)

Tambiah, S. J. 2017b “The anti-Tamil Gal Oya riots of 1956,” 2 February 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/the-anti-tamil-gal-oya-riots-of-1956/

Tambiah. S. J. 2008 “Bridges across the ethnic divide,” in J. Uyangoda, Matters of violence, Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons, pp. 165-83.

Thalgodapitiya, W. 1963 Studies of some famous cases, Colombo.

Tilly, Charles 1975 The Vendee: a sociological analysis of the counter-revolution of 1793, Harvard University Press.

Tranchell, C. L. 1916 Evidence presented by Tranchell, SP, Kandy, Police Inquiry Commission.

Trawick, Margaret 1996 “Reasons for violence: a preliminary ethnographic account of the LTTE,” South Asia, sp. issue, 20: 153-80.

Uyangoda, J. (ed.) 2008 Matters of violence, Colombo: Karunaratne & Sons,.

Walia, Amarjit Singh 2014 “I lived through the Sikh riots …,” 21 October 2014, https://qz.com/289671/i-lived-through-the-sikh-riots-and-30-years-later-im-not-ready-to-forgive-or-forget/

Wickremaratne. L. A. 1969 “Religion, nationalism and social change in Ceylon, 1865-1885,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 56: 123-50.

Wikipedia n. d. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_anti-Sikh_riots

Van Dyke, Virginia 1996 “The anti-Sikh riots in Delhi: politicians, criminals, and the discourse of communalism,” in Paul Brass (ed) Riots and pogroms, New York University Press, pp. 201-20.

Vittachi, Tarzie 1958 Emergency ‘58, London: Andre Deutsch.


[1] In Sinhala the Muslim Moor is yoni and thus distinct from ja or Malay. The yoni had internal distinctions between Coast Moors (hamba) and those long resident; but the differentiation was not clear-cut to outsiders. The pogrom of 1915 targeted both categories of Muslims. It is erroneous to assert that the attacks were directed at the hamba only. In fact, in moments of heat the term hamba, and especially the rendering hambaya, is an epithet that was (and is) extended to all marakkala. For a clarification of some aspects of local terminology, see Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 183-84.

[2] My friend Neelan Tiruchelvam had been the spark for this journey on my part. Though I had written a seminar paper on the 1915 anti-Muslim riots in my empiricist phase at Peradeniya University, that line of interest had been buried. But in late 1986 when I was on a long spell of research in Colombo, Neelan persuaded me to re-visit the topic for a presentation at agathering of scholars from India, Pakistan and Lanka. That experience led me to take up the themes of Sinhala nationalism and the 1915 violence once again. In my reasoning, communal clashes in India were meant to provide comparative insights.

[3] I therefore disregard Sunil Bastian’s conceptualization (2008) where state involvement is rendered into a cardinal factor for the definition “pogrom.”

[4] This information is from Wikipedia. Though one must be extremely cautious about this source, in this instance I incline towards accepting the fact of concocted stories being circulated by designing individuals.

[5] See Warisha Farasat 2013 and Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1989_Bhagalpur_violence.

[6] In the official language of that time “Mohammedans” was the term in use. It was not till a decade or so later that the term “Muslims” replaced that label.

[7] One wonders whether a female official would have been less susceptible to these wiles?

[8] I have been directed by Michael Morley to these practices and to Stanislavski. One of the most striking examples of this method was in Marlon Brando’s performance in the film A Streetcar named Desire.

[9] See Roberts, “Professional Mourners in Ceylon and Southern India,” 3 March 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/professional-mourners-in-ceylon-and-southern-india/

[10] Another example is “Niromi De Soysa” (real name = Anandarajah) of Sydney who swelled into tears whenever she was on public platforms presenting her book Tamil Tigress, Whatever beneficial impact that outcome generated in the audiences at book fairs and festivals, it had the contrary effect on Jeremy Liyanage who was on the same platform as Anandarajah in Melbourne. Having had convivial conversations with her before the event this turn of events, her tearful presentation of self, alienated Liyanage. I surmise that he was/is culturally attuned and deciphered its inauthenticity.

[11] In the past, Govigama and Vellāla https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_anti-Sikh_riotslar families were best situated to venture on retributory actions against ‘offending’ others because they constituted the majority in most districts in the south and north respectively. However, there were some localities in the south-west where Karāva, Salāgama and Durāva families had localized clout and reach.

[12] Th classic study here is Gananath Obeyesekere 1975. Also see the writings of Bruce Kapferer 1983, 1988 and 1997.

[13] This argument is developed more fully in my “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” South Asia, Special Issue, XIX: 205-20.

[14] In the lexicon in use in British Ceylon those whom we commonly refer to as ”Muslims” were identified as “Mohammedans.” The change in nomenclature came in the 1930s or so. In using the term “Moors’ rather than “Muslims,” I am marking the distinction between the yoni (Moors) and the ja (Malays) – for the latter are also “Muslim” in the religious sense. Note that in 1915 the Jja were not attacked.

[15] CR De Silva (1987: 242) indicates that 98 Tamils and 30 Sinhalese died during the clashes in 1977. I have not been able to access to the Sansoni Commission Report, but CR thinks that that these precise details are derived from that report.

[16] Vittachi 1958: 32-54; Manor 1989: 284-99 and Roberts, “Epilogue,” 1994: 331-32.

[17] See Tambiah 1996: 82-84, now available in two posts within Thuppahi (see Tambiah 2017a and 2017b).

[18] Some of the bhikkhus and activists spoke of “the total annihilation of the Sinhalese race”                                                                                                                                                                                                                               and “the destruction of the chief race” (Manor 1989: 286, 287).

[19] Manor 1989: 287-99 and Vittachi 1959: 32-54.

[20] The similarity should not obscure an important distinction: namely the emphasis today on the Buddhist identity in opposition to the ‘new’ enemy within the island, namely, the marakkala in the sense yoni (Muslim Moors).

[21] The only incidents where I was present in the island when such violence occurred was those in 1958 when I was in Galle. While some looting and beatings occurred in the bazaar area and a few localities, I had no first-hand information on the troubles in that town and my recollections are vague.

[22] See Roberts, “Biographical Epilogue,” 1994: 331. The policeman was probably Police Sergeant Appuhamy who died in the rail derailment and is named by Tarzie Vittachi (1958: 36) – a link which I did not discern in 1994.

[23] Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b:

[24] Note, however, that the Moors had urban concentrations so that in 1911 they made up 18.1% in Colombo, 27% in Gampola, 17% in Kandy, 23.6% in Matale, 13.8% in Kurunegala and 21.2% in Galle. See Roberts, “Imperialism of Silence,” 1994a: 161-63 for tables.

[25] Ameer Ali 1981: 5.

[26] Roberts, “Noise” 1990; and “Imperialism of Silence” 1994b: 153-76.

[27] See Somaratna 1981.

[28] See Ameer Ali 1981: 10-11; Roberts, “Noise” 1990; “Imperialism of Silence,” 1994: 140-78.

[29] Ameer Ali 1981: 2.

[30] Roberts, ‘Imperialism,” 1994: 167.

[31] Roberts, “Mentalities,’” 1994b: 202-03. For the full text of the Supreme Court judgment, see Thalgodapitiya 1963.

[32] Roberts, “Imperialism of Silence,” 1994a and “Mentalities” 1994b: 202-03.

[33] The inauguration ceremony was held in March 1915 (Kannangara 1984: 134).

[34] Kannangara 1984: 148. Wanawahala has a Wahumpura caste concentration and this caste has long prided itself for its rejection of conversion to Christianity. Wanawahala’s proximity to Colombo and strategic location athwart river and road routes may conceivably have had a bearing on its production of toughs.

[35] Follow the detailed references in Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b, fn 8.

[36] Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 187-89.

[37] Diary entry by Vaughan (G.A., Central Province), 30 May 1915, DNA 18/46. Also see Tranchell 1916: 85.

[38] See Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 187 for more details supplemented by Kannangara 1984: 134ff.

[39] From Admin Reports 1915, Police, by H. Dowbiggin, 20 May 1916, Part III, B6. See Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 204 for full quotation.

[40] Jayasekera 1970: 288 and Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 200-01.

[41] Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 184 and fn. 2 & 3. In these localities, the Catholic congregations would have been a mix of Sinhalese, Tamil, Bharatha and Burgher.

[42] The literature on the various currents of nationalism in British Ceylon is substantial: see KM de Silva 1981; Roberts 1979a and 1979b; 1989 and 1994b; Wickremaratne 1969; Kannangara 1984: 136ff; and Rogers 1989 & Crime, justice and society in colonial Sri Lanka, 1987. I do not accept Kannangara’s assertion that “all elite groups demonstrated “unqualified loyalism” towards British rule and that the temperance leaders were “innocent of political radicalism” (1984: 137, 143). Indeed, I speculate that the pogrom could be deemed an “elliptical attack” on the British Raj (“Mentalities” 1992b: 205-08).

[43] Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 196-97.

[44] See Rogers 1987: 191 and Roberts, “Mentalities,” 1994b: 197.

[45] Rogers 1989: 327 and Roberts, ‘Mentalities,” 1994b: 196-97.

[46] See map and data in Roberts, “Mentalities” 1994b: 186ff and Kannangara 1984: 155.

[47] Soboul 1974: 144-47 and Tilly 1975: passim, but espec.318-19. Note Wikipedia account of the grande peur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fear.

[48] From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_anti-Sikh_riots). For ethnographic studies and overviews, see Walia 2014; Chakravarti & Haksar 1987; Veena Das 1989 & 1995; and Van Dyke 1996.

[49] On this point see Kaur 2006.

[50] Indian media personnel as well as human rights organisations were (are) convinced that a considerable measure of organization promoted the arson, assaults, looting and killings– see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_anti-Sikh_riots.

[51] News Item in Island, “Now, Sampanthan alleges over 150,000 Tamils killed, 50 % population fled the country,” 19 March 2017:


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Latest comments

  • 5

    When British invaded and ruled Sri Lanka, the inhabitant natives had no ability to control migration to their homeland. And the British brought people from India at will and facilitated migrations in large numbers from India which resulted in demographic engineering.

    It is this demographic engineering and gradual loss of the homeland by the natives that pushes people into violence acts. The reality

    • 6


      British did not invade Ceylon rather ceded by the Dutch as the direct consequence of Napolionic War! You stupid fool should realise the majority of the Colonial related migrants’ decedents are now Sinhala! This is how your numbers grew exponentially! Grow up you bigot.

      • 2

        LOL British did not invade SL…seriously are you insane?

        • 4


          If you tell me that the British invaded the Kandyan Kingdom, I would agree with you. Check the history, the Dutch ceded many of their colonial territories over to the British and Ceylon was one of them. New York was another!

          Your inherent bigotry does not allow you to look outside your little world!

          • 1

            Yeah i am being a bigot here…cos you do know nothing about this country!

          • 0

            Burning Issue:

            You are not the only TAMIL who is trying to write THE Sinhale history. there are many other Tamils who write in order to make your theory just lies and crap.

            Just exaplin, if it is a nomal human migration, why there are no sinhala people migrating to Tamilnadu and even the Tamils moved there are coming back.

            Even during the war, Tamils moved to south and colombo and the govt has to control it because LTTE fear. Now, south has more Tamils than those in the mythical Tamil homeland in Yapanaya.

            Once Pabakaran began the fake struggle more tamils moved to South.

            As part of reconciliation this should be taught in the school for anthropolical or social studies.

          • 2

            Are you a Tamil?

  • 3

    Many thanks, Michael, for making Jeyraj Tambiah’s report of the violence in Gal Oya available.

    Manel Fonseka

  • 0

    Your review paper type research article looks very biased. YOu have specifically targetted Sinhala people and you were careful not to use the word Sinhala-buddhist even though you meant mostly violence by Sinhala buddhists. You are talking about ethnic or religious violence by mostly HIndu, sinhala and Muslims just a touch by Catholics. You do not talk of any involvement of christians.

    It looks you are Anglican and should be descending from British desecendants of Sinhale.

    I have read, that one Tamil, in 1958, left Sri lanka in order to escape riots to soem where in Britain and he came accross with some other riots there. I can not remember whether he was talking about Belfast. Then most recently, France has riots by balcks, because french officials caused tsome migrent black to be burned by electrocuting. Another case, was Riots by blacks in Los anglees because the case of beating rodeny Jones, I suppose, was decided in favour of white officers.

    Besides, Chrstians are converting in buddhist asia like there won’t be no tomorrow. I heard in Mongolia, new christians are going hardships getting adopted to the new christian culture as they are bnot used to it. tghe reason is Christians are advertising that be becoming christiand they can come into the modernity. In south Korea, New christians are destroying buddhist temples saying the “Satan” got into them and satan made them destroy the temple.

    You cannot compare Indian culture and the Sri lankan culture unless you specifically target Hindus because they are related to buddhists.

    So my guess is that you are a christian NGO who has a specific role. There is no point of discussing this article as your objectives are clear.

    Anyway, only consolation for us is In christian hartlands Europe and some parts of North america christianity is just neglected. Forget the middleeast where it originated because Islamic influence is very high.

    • 0

      Jim, you must be referring to the race riots of Nottinghill, London, Aug/September 1958.

  • 2

    Where is the latest news from Geneva “Human Rights Council gives Sri Lanka two more years” in Colombo Telegraph??
    Does CT publish only negative news on Sri lanka?

    • 2

      That was a foregone conclusion. Here is something else for you

      This is from Al Jazeera



      Moderator please allow these links so that Nuisance can read these articles

      • 2

        Mr. Real SSS,
        Let me first show how bias Colombo Telegraph is. Many times I have given links to articles in my postings and CT had never allowed them; with their standard statement “[Edited out] Please write, instead of posting web links – CT ” I have seen this many times and have observed it is mostly on writers who are posting anti-Tamil terrorism, separatist Tamils and pro terror diaspora. I have observed your statements are always anti Sri Lankan, and pro separatist/terrorists. In your case CT allows posting Links!
        I would like if CT clearly state their real stand on posting links.

        Now for your irrelevant links. What are you trying to say with those???
        You should read the comments of that article than the biased author-less article written by a terror supporter.
        Indian politicians are protecting them selves by showing fake love for Tamils. All for Tamil Nadu votes! Don’t be fooled!
        By the way, expect another 2 more years at the end of these 2 year extension.

      • 1

        Mr Real SSS
        These are real human right violations and discrimination of minorities. Show me a single incidence like this happening in Sri Lanka. Can you explain why the UNHRC is silent on these but not on Sri Lanka where they have only second and third hand accusations ??


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