Colombo Telegraph

Violence Against Tamils At Peradeniya University: A Portent?

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Count Down To July 1983 – Part VI

Before we quit this chapter, we will take a closer look at events in Peradeniya University between 11th May – 10th June 1983. These events have in retrospect an important bearing on the violence of Black July. Their occurrence overlapped with attacks on Tamils in various parts of the country and particularly Trincomalee. The similarity of methods seems more than a co-incidence. We also see how the gullible and those wanting to be heroes on the cheap were readily drawn into a vortex of hate, while those dissenting were most often reduced to silent spectators. We are fortunate in being able to draw upon an excellent report prepared by a committee of inquiry appointed by the Vice Chancellor Prof. B.L. Panditharatne. The members of the Committee were Kenneth M. de Lanerolle, Dorai Calnaido and Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake.

The incidents

On the afternoon of 11th May 1983, by broad daylight in a very public place – the entrance to the University where Galaha Road branches off from the Colombo Road – the Sinhalese lettering on the plaque, with University of Peradeniya written in all three languages, was defaced. Some paint with cement-like substance had been used. The action was undoubtedly witnessed by many, but no one testified as to the actual culprits. Rumours were then spread that the defacement was the work of Tamil students. The report alludes to, and we heard separately, that Tamil nationalist slogans and posters were found in the University and outsiders had come in and made threats that they and their supporters among the students would teach the Tamils a lesson.
That night, some Tamil students were watching a Tamil film in the Science Faculty canteen. At 9.30 P.M. the males among them were dragged out by a group of Sinhalese students led by W.A.D.T. (Thulsie) Wickremasinghe and A. Ekanayake – both of them 4th year science students from Arunachalam Hall. The Tamils were accused of defacing the Sinhalese lettering on the plaque, and were forced to deface with black paint the Tamil lettering on the name boards from Galaha Junction to the Arts Faculty. This was followed by attacks in several student halls of residence.

According to the Report: “Throughout the night of the 11th, gangs of students rampaged along the road and made mayhem in the halls. Yet the Security Service (which believes only in ‘acting on information received’) saw nothing and heard nothing. We are left to wonder why these blind and deaf men remain on the pay-roll of the institution. During this critical period what authority existed within the campus was in eclipse. Not only did the Security Service signally fail in its duty, but wardens and sub-wardens appear to have abdicated their responsibility. Here was a situation which could not be handled by the University’s own structures. Yet were serious attempts made to call in the Police?…. The only happy feature of these disturbances was the kindness shown by several Sinhala students to the victims by warning them of possible attacks, advising them how to avoid them and agreeing to look after their belongings in their absence. One outstanding gesture of compassion was made by a Sinhala boy who had led Mr. Navaratnam away to safety after he had been mauled and abandoned in front of Wijewardene Hall.

The main attacks on students on the 11th night took place at Hilda Obeysekere hall (HOH), James Peiris Hall (JPH) and Marrs Hall (MH). HOH was attacked about 9.45 PM by students armed with staves and parts of furniture. They were from other halls looking for particular students, some of whom were pointed out by fellow Sinhalese students. “….they were aided and abetted by students resident in the hall who pointed out rooms occupied by Tamils and generally helped in the identification of victims. In the process of discovering their suspects, the attackers were not averse, however, to threatening and doing bodily harm to other Tamils interrogated and when they forcibly entered their rooms.

A particular target was a first year engineering student P. Balasooriyan who was editing a Tamil magazine and was accused of being a ‘tiger’. In trying to escape Balasooriyan jumped down a floor and injured himself. He was then identified by two fellow first year engineering students, Shantha Ratnayake and Bandara, and was assaulted by several students including a batch-mate W.M.V. Fernando. He was later found sweating and kneeling on the floor. Amidst the clamour of the mob demanding that ‘Tiger’ Balasooriyan be handed over to the Police, the Warden Dr. K.N.O. Dharmadasa contacted the Vice Chancellor and Balasooriyan was handed over to the Police the next morning. The CID later exonerated Balasooriyan.

The Report adds on this ‘tiger episode’: “The sub-wardens of Hilda Obeysekere Hall do not appear to have correctly assessed the situation on the night of the 11th. Evidence has been placed before us that the assaults and harassment of many Tamils had taken place prior to and concurrently with the very long drawn-out ‘tiger episode’. A prima facie case by appropriate authorities does not appear to have been made against Balasooriyan before taking a very serious step of sending him to the Police…. Dr. Dharmadasa himself admitted that their prime concern was to defuse the situation… Had a less hasty step been taken, regarding Balasooriyan, it would have saved the authorities and his 300 accusers the ignominy of learning (later) that the ‘tiger’ was only an ‘unoffending cat’!

During the incident the Warden had been shown a bag containing some blocks, rubber stamps and a Tamil magazine that were considered proof of Balasooriyan’s involvement with the ‘Tiger Movement’. It turned out that Balasooriyan was openly editing and selling a cultural magazine Pudusu (‘New’) which he had started while at school in Mahajana College, Tellipalai. Much later Balasooriyan joined the NLFT, a small left group started by Viswanandadevan, also a product of the Engineering Faculty, Peradeniya. The NLFT was noted for its pungent criticism of the ultra- nationalism of the Tigers. Balasooriyan later went to Britain. It further highlights the ridiculous nature of the incident at HOH. It was this that led to reports of subversive literature in the Colombo Press. Evidently, in the country’s premier university where about 25% of the students and staff were Tamil speaking, the authorities had no way of verifying the contents and nature of some writing in Tamil!

At Marrs Hall ‘C. Maruthainar was trod on so mercilessly that he defecated, while a Sinhala batch- mate who had helped to identify him averted his eyes’. E. Sritharan who was hiding in the ceiling fell down, suffered four broken ribs, damaged vertebrae and was hospitalised. S. Nagendran was assaulted for the crime of contesting the Medical Students’ Association elections by a group of students led by Dr. S. Gamage, a passed out dentist, staying in the Hall illegally.

Mr. M. Sivasangaram, a lecturer in economics and a cripple, was living in room No.1 on the ground floor of Arunachalam Hall. The ramp which he used to move from one level to another in his wheel chair was taken away by students on the 11th evening. Perturbed by this he left Peradeniya with the bulk of the Tamil students on the 12th. Three members of the staff (K. Selvarajah, instructor in electrical engineering, K. Jayanthakumaran, lecturer in economics and R. Navaratnam, lecturer in geography) stayed behind.

About 9.00 P.M. on the night of the 12th, the three staff members were pulled out, taken to the roundabout near Arunachelam Hall and attacked. The first two managed to escape from them, Jayananthakumaran with a fractured and bleeding nose. Navaratnam was dragged along the road and was injured in his knees and shoulders by being beaten with bamboo poles and a belt. Thulsie Wickremasinghe, the fourth year science student identified earlier, was the man with the belt.

On the 13th the attackers had become bolder. The Teaching Hospital is just outside the University, bordering the Medical Faculty at Galaha Junction. Here it was thought safe for the Tamils to reside outside and attend by day. But the student assailants committed trespass by broad day light to attack Tamils on those premises, even though notices warning students about their conduct had been put up. Two final year medical students, V. Muralitharan and K.R. Saseendran, were caught near the house officers’ quarters, forcibly taken under the railway bridge on Galaha Road and were severely assaulted. The man whipping with the belt was again our hero, Thulsie Wickremasinghe.

The Tamil students later began to come back after the university authorities set a deadline for 31st May for their return. There were then sporadic attacks and attempts at arson in Akbar- Nell and Marrs Halls. Notable however were the very similar masked attacks on Tamil students at Arunachalem Hall and James Peiris Hall on 4th and 5th June respectively.
The Report also observed that this was the first time that the University had been affected by communal tensions from outside.

Salient Features

The Report cites the memorandum of Dr. Premasiri, Director of Student Welfare: (1) the seats of trouble are in the Halls and (2) that there is an anti-Tamil element working insidiously in the University; and adds, “This view is expressed quite independently of him, by us in our Interim Report.” Apart from Dr. Premasiri, the Report names Dr. Ashley Halpe as one of those who provided crucial information for the Inquiry.

Modus Operandi

The modus operandi of the assailants had some striking similarities to the far greater violence of July 1983:

* The start of the violence was a real or contrived provocation. But a plan and preparations were ready in advance.

* Students attacking a particular hall came from outside armed with lists of targetted students. Residents mainly helped in locating the victims.

* Even though the ring leaders were widely known, it took the university authorities four weeks to suspend Wickremasinghe and Ekanayake, and that was after a masked attack on returned Tamil students in Arunachalem, the hall in which the two resided.

The Security Service behaved as though it was what the powers that be wanted and did nothing. The Police were apparently not called on the 11th and 12th May. When a medical professor called the Police on the 13th, the day the Medical Faculty and Teaching Hospital came under attack by broad daylight, the Police apparently told him (p.23 of the Report) that the D.I.G’s authority was needed (even though the Teaching Hospital was outside the University).

The Purpose

(Page 5 of the Report): “The purpose of the campaign was to evict the Tamils from the Campus. In complete defiance of authority and acting with blatant violence, the attackers succeeded in achieving their ends”.

Mixed motives and effects of Propaganda

The Report notes (p.6): “At some points, personal grudges appear to have taken precedence: jealousy at examination performance, some earlier quarrel, an inferiority complex etc.” It says on p31: “Among the remarks hurled by the Sinhala inquisitors at their victims are some which give the impression of an uninformed – even childish – attitudes towards the Tamils of this country;’ Tell Amirthalingam to build you a university in Jaffna!’ ,’ You are tigers!’,’ You belong to the Gandhiyam Movement!’,’ You must learn Sinhala; don’t speak in Tamil or English!’ and so on”.

Refutes Justification for Attack

Some justifications for the attack too have similarities to those given for the July 1983 violence: – viz. provocation by Tamil separatists and the inadequacy of the response from the State.

The Report observes (p.29): “It may be argued that the students who staged this campaign against Tamils were forced to do so because the authorities had done nothing to counter subversion in the University. Not one iota of proof has been produced that the authorities had been apprised of such a situation nor is there any evidence that they had heard such complaints and ignored them.

Background to the attack

One reason why the University had remained insulated from the communal violence outside until 1983 was that the Left was strong in the universities. Even though there had inevitably been a certain amount of communal polarisation, it had been possible to discuss the ethnic issue quite openly without rancour, and many lifelong friendships were made across communal divisions. During the December 1982 Referendum there had been major clashes in the University along UNP and anti-UNP lines. It was a turning point. The UNP Government had secured itself by this stratagem of the Referendum a further six years in office with no effective opposition. In reinforcing its brand of absolutism, the right wing sections in the University received a shot-in-the-arm where they could act with impunity with the forces of the State backing them. This was happening throughout the country. This was the context behind the attacks. The Report gives strong indications of planning behind the attacks:

We have therefore to conclude, that there is no substance in the accusations made by the chief actors in this drama when they confronted the Tamils on the campus, and that the slogans and defacing of the plaque were part of the strategy to implicate the Tamils, and so to precipitate unrest in the University”. (p. 25)

Apart from the nature of the simultaneous attacks on the 11th night, another feature is pointed out in the Report. It says, “We have noted with some misgivings the role of the President of the Peradeniya Students’Union before and after the night of terror (the 11th), his assignment in the halls of residence, (at meetings, which we understood, were unauthorised,) his solicitude for the victims of the campaign [i.e. the suspended perpetrators], and his ubiquitous presence at focal points of the campus during the disturbances.

Tell-tale signs of UNP involvement

Although the Inquiry Report did not comment on this, its own evidence points to UNP involvement. What took place on the 11th, 12th and 13th on the campus was organised criminal assault with intimidation and danger to life, with the authorities unable or unwilling to make any impact on the situation. Yet no attempt appears to have been made to summon the Police (p.7). We may take it that the Vice Chancellor did not call the Police. When the Police were called to intervene by a medical professor, they avoided the issue by bringing in the fictitious need for the DIG’s clearance.

This is extra-ordinary because the Police were involved by the University only to take into custody and interrogate for terrorist links an innocent Tamil victim. On the other hand Thulsie Wickremasinghe was brazenly open in his belt- wielding assaults on three successive days. No attempt was made to check him. The Tamil students who fled were given a deadline to return leaving the belt-swinging-hero free to start the mischief all over again. Wickremasinghe appears to have been extremely confident of the impunity he enjoyed.

Those who have been through Peradeniya over the decades would know one thing for sure. Whenever there was a disturbance within the Campus that the Government considered a challenge to itself, the Police were promptly dispatched with riot gear, virtually to camp inside. The Vice Chancellor had little say in the matter. Why the indifference on the part of the Government and the Police this time? Why the silence of the Vice Chancellor on what action he took regarding summoning the Police to protect the Tamils? Did he try and did someone dissuade him?

The Jayewardene Government was extremely sensitive to what was going on in the universities. In Chapter 11 we will see the alacrity and violence with which the Government interfered in Kelaniya University in 1978 when student elections showed poor support for the Government. Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe intervened personally with a view to influencing the elected representatives. The Government was undoubtedly far more concerned about Peradeniya. The experience at Kelaniya does indicate something about the prominent students going about with impunity causing havoc, while ‘what authority existed within the campus was in eclipse’. The latter was something Jayewardene would hardly have tolerated for three days, leave alone four weeks, unless it was sanctioned by persons having his confidence.

A particular feature of the violence shows through in the 18 students identified by the Committee of Inquiry against whom punishment ranging from 1 year’s suspension to dismissal was recommended. 13 of them were from medicine-related courses (medical – 9, dental – 3, veterinary – 1), 4 from science and an engineering first year. Nearly all of them are from courses to which competition is high with the students tending to have an elitist outlook and being significantly more receptive to ideas of the Right. There was none found guilty from the Humanities. Also in earlier years the Engineering Faculty had far healthier traditions such as welcoming freshers instead of ragging them. We may also note that the Press, which leans towards the UNP, did not touch in any depth the horror of what happened at the University.

It is also of interest to note that there were very senior persons at the University, who were also highly influential in the UNP hierarchy. The vice-chancellor’s brother was N.G.P. Panditharatne, the powerful UNP Secretary General. Also influential with the UNP were Professors K.M. de Silva and G.H. Peiris. K.M. de Silva co-authored a biography of Jayewardene. We have no doubt that Prof. B.L. Panditharatne did not want to go down in history as the vice-chancellor who presided over the ethnic cleansing of the University. Neither would have any of the others relished the distinction of being professors in such an institution. It was perhaps this inhibition that prompted some kind of action. Although there was no public note of indignation against the attackers who were well known to the authorities, restorative measures were put into motion, although they were long delayed and inadequate. We also understand that the Report of the Committee of Inquiry was suppressed, apparently on the grounds that one person in the three-member committee did not sign. Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake, who was then the principal of Girls’ High School, Kandy, resigned from the Committee of Inquiry at the latter stages on 14th November 1983. There is an indication in the Report that her place was taken by Mrs. Chandra Ranaraja at the Vice Chancellor’s request. However, the final report of 6th December 1983 was signed by only two of the three members. They were Kenneth M. de Lanerolle (Chairman) and Dorai Calnaido (Member). As to Jayewardene’s personal interest in universities, we may note that during his presidency, he was also minister of higher education!

*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


Back to Home page