18 May, 2022


Madness In The Air

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Count Down To July 1983 – Part V

On 22nd July, Appapillai Amirthalingam made his final speech in Parliament until his brief reappearance six years later. It was the speech of a man plumbing the depths of despair. He was helpless against a State bent on a vindictive course against the Tamils in general, resorting to state terrorism. A news black-out too was in force. He asked, “Has the Government by exercising powers under Emergency restored food supplies to the North? The Government has failed to provide essential supplies to the North… Letters sent by the TULF to the President have not been published in the English Press… The burning of the train [by militants] is an act of madness. But an attempt is being made even to stop private buses going to the North. At Iratperiyakulam near the army camp, six private coaches plying to the North had been smashed. A bus from Pt Pedro to Colombo was shot at by the Army and the driver, who was a Sinhalese, has been injured…

Amirthalingam was far from being a man without faults. But from 1981 his conduct had been so restrained as to bring about dissension within his own party. His statements had been factual, for the most part avoiding emotional overtones. He had put his weight against provocative gestures such as a UDI. His appeal to Tamil sentiment across the Palk Straits had been minimal. All this was held against him by his erstwhile followers. Apart from practical considerations, he had worked in the belief that a satisfactory political solution could be arrived at through dialogue. He was too much of the leader to run away. He was later very much a party to the Indo-Lanka Accord. In trying to make it work, he would even take on his erstwhile protege, Prabhakaran, calling him a ‘Pol Pot’. It was Prabhakaran who finally determined Amirthalingam’s fate by the only weapon he had come to believe passionately in.JR

There was more than a touch of madness in the air, even a touch of the ridiculous. On the same day (22.7) the Sun gave a very short summary of the 33 page report prepared by SSP Tyrell Gunetilleke of the Special Investigation Unit on the ‘Naxalite Plot’ which was used by Jayewardene to override parliamentary elections. “The report”, it said, “has not set out any concrete finding, but has set out a tale of intrigue full of juicy tit bits and reveals several contradictions in statements of opposition personalities”. The report said in conclusion: “If the information being investigated is correct, the conspirators [apparently intending to harm Jayewardene, Mrs. Bandaranaike and her son] would have been acting from a position of power after their anticipated victory at the presidential polls. In these circumstances, there need be no external preparation and the principle of ‘need to know’in a coterie of hard core miscreants. In these circumstances if the conspirators were in power, all they had to do was to ensure that the Police and the armed services looked the other side.”

‘If’ is the key word here. The 33-page report was circumlocution for the conclusion ‘No substance’. It also showed Tyrell Gunetilleke as a policeman with a sense of humour. A few days earlier the Government had been moved to issue a statement on why it deported David Selbourne. The allegations against him were that he had after his visit in 1982 published articles in the Guardian and Illustrated Weekly about the harassment of Tamils by the Sinhalese armed forces which subsequently appeared in the Saturday Review (- the then recently sealed English weekly from Jaffna). It was further alleged that he had discussions during his recent visit with anti-government (i.e. democratic opposition) politicians, including the TULF hierarchy. The most novel allegation against Selbourne, was that his hotel booking had been made by Desmond Fernando, son-in-law of the late communist leader Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe. It was a sad commentary on the state of Sri Lankan society that the Government took it for granted that the people, civil society and the opposition would swallow all this without protest.

Another example of the madness that gripped the air was given by ‘Prospero’ – widely believed to be Ajith Samaranayake, who was among the editorial writers for the Island. In a reflection ten years later in the Counterpoint of July 1993, he said: “This unprecedented campaign described as a pogrom by the Tamils and dubbed the ‘Black July’ by concerned commentators was preceded by an equally unprecedented campaign against India in the Press, both government-owned and private. Following concern expressed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the Government’s move to dispose of dead bodies in the North without an inquest, national newspaper editors were summoned to the Foreign Ministry and requested to orchestrate a campaign of editorial vituperation against India and Mrs. Gandhi. Needless to say the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, most of whom do not even care to conceal their dislike of India, were only too willing to oblige the commissars.”

It may be added that the ‘pogrom’ commenced on the 24th of July. On the 29th the Government was forced to accept a visit by Indian Foreign Minister Narashimha Rao who came to assess the situation. Since then India which had never interfered previously came to have a firm influence over Sri Lankan affairs.

Yet, even the little democratic good sense that was left in the country would have made it difficult for the Government to go on with mounting abuses in the South, which were rooted in its lack of legitimacy. Thus whether planned or not planned, the communal holocaust came as a much needed diversion for the Government.

As fate would have it the country’s descent into the anarchy of the holocaust came on the heels of an important military breakthrough. On 15th July the Army in Jaffna ambushed and killed Charles Anthony alias Seelan, a trusted lieutenant of Prabhakaran’s, and one of his companions, in the Chavakachcheri area. The Colombo Press was highly elated by it. Evidently the Army in Jaffna under Brigadier J.G. Balthaazer had made an intelligence break into the movements and safe-houses of some key LTTE men. On the night of 23rd July, there was to be a commando raid to get Sellakili in one of his hiding places. A routine patrol from the Mathagal camp had been asked by radio (see T.D.S.A. Dissanayake) to shorten its route and get back to base early. This patrol was caught in a land mine ambush at Tinnevely, led by Sellakili of the LTTE. Thirteen soldiers including an officer were killed. Two survived. The commando raid was called off and reinforcements were sent to the area – which was known from regular radio contact maintained by the ill-fated patrol.

Ironically, on the LTTE’s side it was Sellakili alone who was killed. To this day few would swear how he was killed. As a senior man who was very free with Prabhakaran, and whose personal life was a little wild, he was something of a liability for the new image Prabhakaran was trying to give himself and his organisation. If the Army had kept its cool and been disciplined, the event would have been a minor set back. But by going on the rampage and killing more than 50 civilians in Jaffna over the next few days, the Army threw away all its intelligence gains and started a process which by mid-1985 confined it to barracks.

The anti-Tamil build up in the South launched by a volatile and paranoid Government was in no way conducive to maintaining discipline in the security forces. Out of this build up came shock troops to conduct an anti-Tamil pogrom. All the fantasies which the Press in Colombo had been feeding the Sinhalese in accompaniment to the chorus, by waxing loud about Tamil Conspirators International and Perfidious India, became in one rush of insanity, a self-fulfilling prophecy as developments in the coming years showed.

There were indeed several developments being driven, mainly by the Government, to such crisis proportions that their culmination could not have been contained within a society committed to civilised norms. They were all inter-linked aspects of the State’s repressive outlook. Propaganda had softened the South to an extent where, whatever the reservations people had about the Government’s attitude, conviction was lacking to call a halt to a disaster that would in five years cost the South even more grievously. The several developments converged to explosive proportions in July, contributing to the violence of the pogrom.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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  • 3

    And so Dr Rajan Hoole prepares us for the necessary recounting of the horrors that are to follow in the next installment. Yes, this is a necessary dispassionate catharsis-inducing account of what we did in our madness.

    The description of Appapillai Amirthalingam in the second paragraph above; how dare Dr Hoole give us that! To this day it is a donnee among all Sri Lankans (Tamils don’t count, don’t you understand? Just yesterday I saw “jim softy” telling us that there must be only the Sinhalese language in Sri Lanka; well, those who don’t know it had better use English! Else we’ll have to allow Arabic and Malay and . . . . Yes, we are capable of talking such rot.) As I said, it is a donnee that Amirthalingam was the “Father of the LTTE” – and didn’t his wife say something about skinning the Sinhalese, and making . . . ?

    Yes, the country went mad, but I must claim that I didn’t. I was in a Peradeniya to which the Tamil students had returned. We were determined to counter the madness, but, well, the next installment will have me acknowledging that we were helpless.

    We know the story, some of the details forgotten. Masterful writing by Rajan Hoole!

    • 1

      Mrs. Amirthalingam never said about skinning the Sinhalese and making slippers out of it. She is often misquted. What she actually said was ( I listened to it at several election meetings) one K.M.P. Rajaratne had publicly said that he would like to wear slippers made out of Tamils’s skin. I am not certain whether Mr. KMPR actually said this. But this is what Mrs. Amirthalingam mentioned in her election speeches.

      • 2

        Dear Mohanasundaram,

        You are quite right. K.M.P. Rajaratne, a clever lawyer, was SLFP M.P, for Welimada for many years – let’s say centred upon the year 1960. He was racist precursor of the UNP’s Cyril Matthew. Both may even have been sincere in feeling that the future of the Sinhalese was in jeopardy. Both were MAD RACISTS!

        My comment above has FOUR paragraphs, the second is the longest. In it I was using irony. That is all rubbish. Amirthalingam was a politician, and no politician is ever able to be totally honest or consistent if he is going to ensure his continued re-election.

        Basically, Amirthalingam was a fairly decent and intelligent man; Dr Hoole makes it clear that he did what he could to PREVENT ethnic dissatisfactions spiralling into violence. I am a Sinhalese man who would like to apologise to you for the actions of JRJ, KMPR, and CC Mathew.

        I hope that I have made my stand very clear. Dear Mohanasundaram, let us work together to ensure that ALL people currently on this island live happily. I hope it is going to be as one country, but remember a smaller island like Cyprus has had to be politically divided because the two communities could not co-exist.

        • 1


          I very much appreciate your comments, there is is nothing to prevent us from working together for the betterment of our country. In fact if the FP could be in the national government( in 1965) in which Mr. KMPR was a member why cann’t we ordinary people who have so much in common co-exist peacefully appreciating one another.

          • 0

            Mr K.M.P. Rajarante was from the SLFP. So the guy with whom the FP was able to cohabit was Cyril Mathew. That does not invalidate your generous comment in any way.

            When I once saw Rajaratne he looked very distinguished and cultured in a National Dress, as a lawyer in a Court House. His wife Kusuma, was M.P. for Uva-Paranagama. The UNP strong man in the area was Percy Samaraweera, and he may have been the Welimada M.P. when the UNP formed the government in 1965. He was English educated (Uva Collge, Badulla) but also a racist thug etc. I remember that he had been jailed for arson in the 1958 Communal Riots, and was disqualified from contesting the seat around 1960. Yet, even he could be fair in certain matters and became Chief Minister for Uva. His nephew, Ravi Samaraweera (who is currently an M.P), is a quiet gentlemanly guy, but the same cannot be said of another nephew, Upali Samaraweera, who WAS also an M.P.

            Cyril Mathew was M.P. for Colonne, which is rather a remote electorate in the Ratnapura Electorate. He was succeeded by his son, Nanda Mathew, who is quite a balanced old man, and who was the Governor for the Uva Province for a long period. I think that Colonne is adjoining Kalawana where the famous M.P. was Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party. His wife, Manori (Colvin R. de Silva’s daughter) is still active in promoting ethnic harmony.

            Hmmm! Having said so much, I wonder whether Dr Rajan Hoole will get mad at me for revealing that he spent 1963 and 1964 in a school in the Welimada Electorate. The name, M.R.R. Hoole, is even now displayed on on a panel for having been the “Best Scholar” in 1994. This link will actually lead you to a picture of the school:


            That deals with the present state of the school. Here is how an octogenarian Jaffna man remembers it in the 1950s, when Nanda Mathew would have been in the school:


            Lastly, I’ve mentioned so many people above: the following also actually studied in the school mentioned there: Charles Sarvan, Sarath Muttetuwegama, Nanda Mathew, Ravi Samaraweera, Keheliya Rambukwella, and a Pushpakumara who is M.P. for the Moneragala District. And, by the way, they are looking for more Tamil students who can pay the fees – and now there even are a few girls in the hostel. Up to O. Levels only.

            I don’t know where KMP Rajaratne, Cyril Mathew and Upali Samaraweera were educated.

            I know that all of this information is available on Wikipedia, but this sort of interaction, Mr Mohanasundaram, adds that personal touch that is very necessary if we are to understand one another.

            There is a little too much about elite schools up there! What is important are the little village schools for rural kids. That’s where the most important education can be meaningfully imparted.

  • 3

    yes if only the Govt of the time led by yankee dickee royalist JRJ had been mature in handling this then the 83 riots would have never happened and Sri lanka a better place,even the LTTE would not have been able to swell its ranks too

    bte Brig Balthazar was a real gentlemen in charge in jaffna town i think he was half tamil half burgher from batticoloa if im not mistaken?

  • 2

    Dear friends,

    Major General Kamal Gunaratne says (Road to Nandikadal)

    “Communal unrest and riots sparked by the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranayake reared its ugly head several times over the years, with ‘Black July’ riots of 1983, being the most shameful(Chapter -6 ‘Dawn of the Cyanide Cilture’ P – 47 – 49).
    “The Sri Lankan Culture, which is deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy with a strong belief in a ‘Dharmista’ (Equqnimous) society, ‘Black July’ was an aberration.
    In the aftermath of large scale burning of properties, looting, assaults and killings, it became a curse to the entire nation. Tamils had to suffer in majority Sinhala areas and Sinhalese also had to suffer inmajority Tamil areas.
    As a young 2nd Lieutenant in Rajarata Rifles, I too witnessed the riots of Black July. The lethargy and disinterest displayed by the army and police to prevent the communal riots left the country permanently marred.
    However, within e few days we all realized the gravity of the damage caused to ethnic harmony Realization also dawn that these riots under the guise of Nationalism, was in fact driven by individuals, to loot and avenge for personal gains.
    The police simply turned blind eye with the blessings of the highest authorities in power, within the government.
    Later, the army was brought in and they managed to finally defuse and control the situation fully.
    Members of the army, who were later identified as having supported the riots, were charged and punished, but I doubt if all of them were identified or punished.
    The results of the Black July were appalling.
    Many Tamils, who were living peacefully in areas with majority Sinhalese, left their homes and settled down in the majority Tamil areas of the North or East in fear of a repetition. Similarly, Sinhalese living in majority Tamil areas left their belongings and ,moved to Sinhala areas in fear of revenge.
    Tamils who could afford to migrate to other countries seeking asylum and their voices built awareness and caught the attention of the world…… Every successive government has tried to erase the ugly shadows of the Black July, but its scars stll remain in memories (Chapter -6 ‘Dawn of the Cyanide Cilture’ Page – 53, 54).
    The selfish and opportunistic acts of such veteran politicians, also led to the birth of Tamil militant organizations.
    A new youth movement called ‘Tamil New Tigers’ was started on 7th September 1972. Perhaps the politicians of the time considered it as just another organization and never realized that it was the start of a cancer which almost destroyed the country later.
    They never expected it to be the beginning of a killing spree of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, irrespective of their age, race or gender……
    When these events unfolded, I was still a student.
    Had our politicians of the time correctly identified the consequences of their actions and had our senior military commanders of this era taken the necessary steps to root out the cancer, the country would have been saved of three decades of tragedy, bloodshed and mayhem. The lack of astute leadership over time, led to the deepening of a wound, which could have been healed with right approach, instead of the temporary plaster they pasted over it.
    The great saying of our forefathers ‘Break it off with the nail before an axe is needed’ is an apt description of what transpired. The political and military leadership at the time should have assessed the situation correctly, drawn the right conclusions and taken the necessary steps to address the concerns, in the right manner at the right time.
    Had they done so, we need not have sacrificed the lives of tens thousands of children, who were brought up so tenderly by their parents or left thousands more to suffer in total or partial disablement for the rest of their lives.
    Further, the country would not have lost all those intellectuals and professional who left the country and migrated seeking safer abode for their families, who could have otherwise contributed productively to the development of oir nation. They also would have deprived the opportunity for traitorous sons our very own soil from falsely depicting to the entire world, that the Sinhalese were a nation of animals. It would have also deprived the so called human rights pundits the opportunity to falsely discredit the honour of the motherland. … “

  • 0

    “Amirthalingam was far from being a man without faults. But from 1981 his conduct had been so restrained as to bring about dissension within his own party. His statements had been factual, for the most part avoiding emotional overtones. He had put his weight against provocative gestures such as a UDI. His appeal to Tamil sentiment across the Palk Straits had been minimal. All this was held against him by his erstwhile followers. “

    “A– was far from being a man without faults”: that takes the cake for understatement.

    A’s peace was the peace of a coward.
    He got what he needed badly with his emotional speeches. (He even encouraged the foul murder of ‘traitors’.)
    Having got maximum benefit from emotion, he had to face the consequences at home where he raised expectations with his election pledges.
    If dared not dream of UDI, because there was no such option before him. Even Mother India waited for an opportune moment to sell the separatist dream, and of course retreat when its mission was accomplished.

    What muted him was his failure as a leader. He let JRJ make him look a fool by accepting the DDCs, after ditching a potential alliance with the Left and the SLFP, thanks to the right-wing political broker Prof. AJW.

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