27 June, 2022


Pricking The Conscience On Reminiscences Of ‘Black July’

By Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

Six years back I wrote the article below.  The polarization I mentioned then remains more the same between Tamils and Sinhalese, though a little reconciled, even after eliminating the worst adversary- the Tigers.

Instead of the Tamils, Muslims are at the receiving end now, in a miniature size. The complaint by some is that Muslims fault by creating problems. Muslims complain of Sinhala extremist provocations. The venom against Tamils then has been diverted towards Muslims. One Muslim political authority has exceeded the limits by inferring to the internationals of a Muslim genocide. There was suspicion that business interests were behind anti-Tamil riots then, in addition to politicians’ engagement. The same objective is alleged now by Muslims- i.e. to kill Muslim economic prowess.

In turn, instead of domestic terror supported by the Tamil Diaspora then, focus has allegedly shifted now to domesticated international Muslim terror. As in 1983, extremists of both groups exchange allegations of fanning trouble. The government tries pacification, but it is suspected as much as the 1983 government had been for 1983 mayhem. Police were blamed for inaction then and it is repeated this time too. Instead of ethnic violence alone then, now the interpretations are communal plus religious, which is a deviation.

Black July 83 -  Boralla | Photo - Chandraguptha Amarasingha

Black July 83 – Boralla | Photo – Chandraguptha Amarasingha

Reasoning for the conflict, justification and finding truth will be a matter for historians, but always our national conscience will prick for our actions and inactions.  Fortunately 1983 is not yet repeated. I wish it will not. The Sinhalese and Muslims must prove that we are different from those who clashed 99 years back. Hence, I have a ray of hope that my child need not write a similar reminiscence 25 years afterwards.

With this introduction I reproduce what I wrote in 2008 to observe the human side of conflict based on Black July although some of my conceptualization have been proved otherwise;

Pricking the conscience on reminiscences of ‘Black July’

In July 1983, my Accountant Mr. Vallipuram at the Cooperative Department lived off Castle Street where his neighbor was a notorious Sinhalese thug. Until ‘Black July’, Vallipuram once told me that thug was the ‘assailant select’ in his mind, whenever he feared a racial riot.

When violent crowds ‘visited’ him early morning on the Day of ‘Black July’ around 3.30 a.m. he, his wife and son escaped through the back door in to the premises of the thug, as it was the safest. They hid behind some banana trees until the ‘Sinhalese nationalist friends’ disappeared.

Suddenly, who appeared in front of them? It was the nasty thug, the intended killer. They thought that that was the last of their breaths.

To their utter surprise, the thug invited Vallipuram and family in to his smoky slum for a plain tea, shelter and security. Vallipuram thought that the instantaneous death was postponed. Yes, they were in the slum for about two hours until a Police Jeep from Borella picked them up. Vallipuram learnt that the message to the Police had gone from the thug, the ‘killer select!’ He was the savior and not the killer.

Ms. Ponnathurai of Wellawatta
I also had a similar experience on this ‘day of the great divide’ when I had to save the life of one Ms. Ponnathurai who was brought to my house at Pamankada by two Sinhalese gentlemen who were employees of either Richard Pieris or Browns. Ms. Ponnathurai was a co-worker with them and could not reach her house in Wellawatta because it was burning. Uninvited, they handed over her to me. When she was inside my house, hidden in fear of death, the ‘nationalists’ visited us demanding to know whether we were aware of any Tamils hidden anywhere. If we were found we would have taken our last breaths that day!

Looking back

I narrate these incidents to show that there is unexpected humanity and reflection of justice, even in an underworld thug, whom one expects to be one’s worst enemy at a vulnerable moment and unexpected humanitarianism and reflected justice in civilians like me and those two Sinhalese gentlemen. Today, I reminisce on 25 years through this gloomy darkened tunnel of time and am reminded of the harrowing episodes faced by Vallipuram and Ms. Ponnathurai. I do not think Vallipuram ever met the thug after he left Colombo. I have not met Ms. Ponnathurai even once.

However, are we in the same frame of mind 25 years later to help others, if the same incident happens today? Will we be spared if we react in the same manner? Will I not be called a terrorist sympathizer if I do so today?

Twenty five years later, with the world open to us at the tap of a computer key or pressing a button on a remote control – while calling ourselves members of a global village / family, whom have we become?
Today, we are a society who practices hatred like a fundamentalist religion. We no longer are horrified when Tamil civilians are killed, abducted or disappeared. In fact, some of our extremists may be thinking that it’s worthwhile to kill them young as ‘they will grow up to be Tigers.’

The sentiments of most LTTE’ers and even some extremist Tamil civilians cannot be different towards the Sinhalese, when innocent men, women and children are blown to pieces by suicide bombers in the South. Those blown up children may be the future Army soldiers according to them!

Concurrently, will Vallipuram today reciprocate that thug similarly in Killinochchi, if the latter is faced with threat to life by ethnically motivated Tamil nationalists? If he or Ms. Ponnathurai does so, will they not be called ‘anti-Tamil stooges of the southern Sinhalese chauvinistic Government?’

Is there any solution against polarization?

All these threats will polarize us more. How long are we prepared to polarize like this? Has not Satan taken over our humanity?

Leave aside our brother or sister of a different community; we are unfazed even when one of our own communities dies in a bomb blast. Today, a LTTE blast is not fabulous enough or newsworthy unless at least 10-15 innocents have died. By being numb to our brother’s pain, we have instilled in ourselves how to be numb to our own pain.

For two decades, plus on numerous occasions, countless people from different walks of life have remembered ‘Black July’ at different levels of sadness, anger, loss and hopelessness. Very rightly, the politicians who allegedly engineered these atrocities, the thugs, the underworld, the Police have been blamed. Is blaming enough?

Twenty five years after ‘Black July’ we are more venomous, more polarized, and it’s a part of life to us- sometimes silently (or at other times openly) celebrating the deaths of our brothers. For this, no politician can be singularly blamed, no government can be totally held responsible. It is we who elected them and we should share the major portion of the blame in that event.

Today marks one generation that bypassed ‘Black July.’ Anyway, are we going to carry on this blaming to another generation? As much as senior politicians and Generals say that they don’t want to carry on this war, can’t we united reverberate with one orchestration – that we will permit peacemaking and break the shackles of polarization to the next generation or our successors?

This could happen the day we conceive that, as much as conflict or war is of national interest, peace too is of national interest. This message will never go down the throats of the people unless the politicians of all colors, public service, judiciary, and media and in the Sri Lankan case the LTTE swear on this dire need. It is my dream?

Blame, blame and blame!

Are politicians the only ones responsible for this erosion of our souls? Or is it the failing system? Are we a nation that has lost touch with our own conscience? I think each of us individually is to be blamed. We have become a nation that has failed to first understand the human realities in its totality. We have become a nation of men and women unable to have a decent relationship with this world of panoramic political and ethnic realities. In a sea of knowledge on coexistence and moving forward, we have become stubborn men and women who refuse to let go of hatred.

Learn from Emperor Dharmashoka

Emperor Asoka killed ninety nine of his brothers and their male offspring to sit on the throne to be Chandashoka – the violent Asoka. But one nephew of his who escaped – Nigrodha Thero preached a higher truth to him and made him Dharmashoka. Centuries later in our heart we are still ‘chanda’- violent. When will we stop killing our brother, with our thoughts, our actions, our words and sit on a higher throne as a nation? Do we just blame politicians- or do we take emotional and moral responsibility for this sinful behavior?


If we swear to this Buddhist ideology, then it would have been worthy of reminiscing the dastardly events of July 23rd, 1983. Otherwise, reminiscing would be a silent reminder of sins!

Today I end quoting a preaching sent to by a friend, which is appropriate to the current Sri Lankan environment. It said:

“The greatest Jihad is to battle your own soul, to fight the evil within yourself” – Prophet Muhaamad.

Please think! Challenges are not yet closed.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Some good insights, Austin. As you point out, this anti-Muslim campaign has appealed to business people among the Sinhalese and Sinhala patriotism is a mask for business greed. The JHU has a broad business base. When there isn’t enough for all, the deprived tend to engage in a kind of entrepreneur cannibalism. Our beautiful island will split to smithereens if proper leadership fails.

    • 1

      The main message Austin sending here is “Do we just blame politicians- or do we take emotional and moral responsibility for this sinful behavior?” but not “if proper leadership fails”..
      One of the issues of core Sinhalese values is even the word “Empathy” is not in usual Sinhalese usage. I checked the web to find out Sinhalese translation… Never heard anybody using these Sinhalese words below, do most Sinhalese really understand the meaning of Empathy and values of empathy? What we have in Sinhalese is “Sympathy”, which is, to my knowledge, ugly world which iterate superiority of observers “Mamathwaya”…

      Sinhala: Empathy : සහකම්පනය ; සහවේදනය
      Tamil : Empathy: பச்சாத்தாபம் Paccāttāpam

    • 5

      Shyamon Jayasinghe,

      You raised a good point: Tamil businesses were driven out by several riots and pogroms, which was also inspired partly by jealous Sinhala businesses. Large numbers of Tamil professionals were driven abroad over the years by sustained anti-Tamil discrimination and by the jealousy of the Sinhala professionals in management.

      Thus business and professional jealousy, together with basic racist nature of the state and regimes are responsible for the anti- Tamil and Muslim riots and the destruction of businesses and property.

      Now ‘they’ can’t put the blame on the British favoring Tamils or Muslims, so they have to do something about it: That something turns out as riots, and destruction.

    • 3

      ”will Vallipuram today reciprocate that thug similarly in Killinochchi, if the latter is faced with threat to life by ethnically motivated Tamil nationalists? If he or Ms. Ponnathurai does so, will they not be called ‘anti-Tamil stooges of the southern Sinhalese chauvinistic Government?’”
      is fully avoided by immensely militarising Kilinochchi and impunity for the armed forces all over the country:

  • 2

    Accountability has become a politicized process as the SL conflict has become internationalized. People, often not living in SL, are playing with geo-politics to one-up the “other”, be it Tamil Diaspora or the BBS supporters in Australia and Norway. All these games are not bringing about reconciliation or counteracting the polarization.

    The reason for the polarization is that there are groups that benefit from polarization. The less empathy one has for another, the easier it is for one faction to overpower another. The more empathy one builds, the lower the power of these factions.

    Amidst this polarization, stories such as yours – of people helping each other , across ethnic/religious lines, in times of crises – are intentionally ignored and suppressed. Such intentional ignorance is practiced to counteract efforts to build a better integrated society, because in such a society the nationalists and separatists would lose their bread and butter.

    I believe that true accountability comes from within. Here are some questions I can think of:
    -what was I doing while Colombo was burning? looting the shops/houses/factories? hiding a neighbour? helping a neighbour/friend/ stranger escape the mobs?

    -what did I think when the child buddhist monks were massacred? denounce it? justify it?

    -what did I think when a suicide bombing killed a politician/military personnel, along with many innocent people who happened to be on the road at the same time?

    -what did I think when reports of jets straffing the no-fire zone came out?

    -what am I doing now to prevent bloodshed?

    -Is what I am doing now in line with the teachings of the religion that I identify with?

    What identity is most important to me? my religion? my ethnicity? my social class? or my “humanness”?

  • 2

    Somewhere along the way the leader of the Tamil Arasa Kachhi quipped, “we would make such a nuisance of ourselves that they (the Sinhalese) would throw us out.”.

    Being a nuisance at national level has pitfalls. I suppose 58, 77 and 83 was the culmination of efforts of being a nuisance.

    With the Tamils leaving en-mass I suspect their leader’s goal was achieved.

    • 2

      Care to show proof of your quote? Or you making it up as you go along.

      • 1

        The words are by the prophet himself – SJV Chelvanayagam.

        Refer to page 110 – “Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth century”

        By Jeyaranam Wilson.

        • 1

          Thanks Vibhushana. It seems Tamils are experts at “illan kama” as Sinhalese put it.

        • 2

          Thank you – I will check it out.

  • 0

    ICJ report

    International Commission of Jurists issued a report on the pogrom. It was written by Paul Sieghart. This report suggests that the riots of July 1983 began even before the reports of the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in a claymore attack in Jaffna appeared in the local newspapers. Only on the fifth day, on 28th July the President of Sri Lanka appeared on television. In a brief address he blamed the violence and destruction exclusively on the reaction of “the Sinhala people” to the movement for the establishment of a separate Tamil state, and announced the Cabinet decision to bring in what in the event became the Sixth Amendment to the country’s constitution.

    “In his address to the nation on the 5th day of rioting president did not see it fit to utter one single word of sympathy for the victims of the violence and destruction which he lamented. If his concern was to re-establish communal harmony in the Island whose national unity he was anxious to preserve by law that was a misjudgement of monumental proportions… But what I find most extraordinary is that, to this day, there has been no attempt to find out the truth through an official, public and impartial enquiry, when the situation in the country cries out for nothing less.”

    ‘President’ in his report of course refers to J.R.Jayawardene, the person responsible for the plight of this country today with his 1978 Constitution aided and abetted by the present President with his 18th Amendment to the Constitution.One is from UNP and the other is from SLFP

  • 5

    “I suppose 58, 77 and 83 was the culmination of efforts of being a nuisance.”

    So Tamil Arasa Kachhi ask for it and had it.

    It has nothing to do with Sinhala/Buddhist ethnic cleansing since 1948, Sinhala/Buddhist greed, Sinhala/Buddhist rage, Sinhala/Buddhist racism, Sinhala/Buddhist stupidity, Sinhala/Buddhist brutality, Sinhala/Buddhists fascism, …………….

    • 1

      Well, if a bunch of Tamil Nazis are determined to provoke Sinhala people to attack innocent Tamils, there is nothing much one can do isn’t it?

      • 2

        Well; if anyone is interested in knowing the psyche of the Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinism, Vibhushana has eloquently outlined it here!

        The Sinhala Buddhists are benign beings; they were unceremoniously provoked by the “Tamil Nazis”, and the Sinhala Buddhists were totally helpless but to attack the innocent Tamils! By the way, state was helpless too; they just had to stand by and allow its security forces to aid and abet the angry Sinhala Buddhists. So, the minorities beware not to upset the Sinhala Buddhists.

        My advice to the minorities is; do not excel in education, enterprise, and prosperity; these are the types of advancements that will provoke the benign Sinhala Buddhist beings!

  • 0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 0

    AVB states that there is no Sinhala equivalent for the concept of empathy. This interests me as I wrote the first book on management in Sinhala and I have used the term SAHANUBHOOTHIYA. Prof Sarachchandra suggested this term to me.

  • 1

    Dear Austin,

    I am just curious!

    According to Austin,’If we were found we would have taken our last breaths that day!

    Austin is not the first or the last to make the above claim in respect of 1983 riots.

    But just let me know many Sinhalese were actually harmed for protecting Tamils in 1983?

    • 1

      Dear Ari
      The day when the “nationalists” walked in to my rented out house- one of 29 flats which were called “Demala Flats” as 26 were occupied by Tamils, 2 by Muslims, and one by me- the only Sinhalese, they came with swords, katties, knives, iron rods, and some young brats even sticks. Before they entered my house the first query was whether I was Tamil. When I said “no”, one queried me for confirmation. Then two entered my house and asked me for knives that would cut well, because they wanted to eat the bowels (Kevuthu) of Tamils. Hence my contention that we would have been killed on that day if they found Miss. Ponnadurai hidden in my house was not a faulty conception.
      I have not heard anyone being punished to have sheltered Tamils. Concurrently no one knows how many Sinhalese or Muslims were caught for having done the good turn of sheltering of Tamils.
      Of course the thug in case of Mr. Vallipuram would not have been ‘punished’ even if others knew of his good deed because he was a prominent thug in the Castle Street Hospital area.

  • 0

    BLACK JULY was well planned –

    “The attack on the Tamil people is pure ethnic violence planned well ahead and executed with ruthlessness by forces close to the Government. These forces include the armed forces for whom Mr Cyril Mathew always holds a brief in Parliament.”

    Professor Wilson, the author of “The Break-up of Sri Lanka” [vi] provides further evidence of the Government’s role in the planning that went into the July 1983 pogrom. He quotes a letter written to him by George Immerwahr, a United Nations civil servant and a US citizen who had worked in Sri Lanka in the late 1950s. The letter dated 13 February 1985 said:

    “ … the most shattering report came from a friend who was a civil servant; he told me that he had helped plan the riots at the orders of his superiors. When I heard him say this, I was so shocked I told him I simply couldn’t believe him, but he insisted he was telling the truth, and in fact he justified the Government’s decision to stage the riots. When I heard this, I telephoned an official in our own State Department, and while he declined to discuss the matter, I got the impression that he already knew from our embassy in Colombo what I was telling him.”


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