By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 8 –
Anyone trying to chronicle the events of Black July would feel a certain exhaustion by the time they come to 29 July. Those who carefully tried to trace the earlier events tend to be vague by the time they come to Friday. The more sensational developments had largely ended with the second jail massacre. What happened on the 29th appears a stray, unorganised outburst which closed the chapter. The people concerned on the 29th – of Sea street, Pettah – were Tamil merchants earning a living away from the mainstream of Tamil life and were not the most sought after by writers for their experiences.
What tended to be most talked about were the attacks on middle-class Tamils living in Colpetty and southwards to Ratmalana. Yet, if one looked at what some leading ministers (i.e. Mathew and Ranil Wickremasinghe) and spokesmen for Sinhalese mercantile interests had to say, Tamil commerce was the main target. (See Prospero in Counterpoint July 1993.) One need not elaborate on the interests driving them, even though their claims were thoroughly warped.
The Pettah, the hub of Tamil commercial activity, had been a key target of attack on the 25th. A number of dead bodies were seen on McCallum (Olcott) Road, Pettah bus stand and elsewhere. Tamil establishments of wholesale agents in food items, clothiers, traders in other goods and eating houses were looted and set on fire. The security forces and police in patrol cars simply watched. The head of Maharajah Organisation came with a Navy escort and tried to get the nearby fire brigade to put out the fire. The fire brigade got ready, waited for the man to leave, and did nothing. The one place that was spared was Sea Street, the one famed for jewellers. It has been said that to be a successful jeweller in any part of the country, one would do well to have a base in Sea Street.
With the onset of the violence on Sunday night, some of the leading jewellers – Palamuththu Muththukkarrupan Chettiar, Udaya, Ambika, Lalitha and Nithiyakalyani among them – put together a large sum of money, went to persons of great influence and got the place guarded. Several of the leading jewellers had dealings with Prime Minister Premadasa, and the owner of Udaya’s in particular was backing him financially, as well as canvassing for him. Just before the violence, Nelson, a right-hand man of Premadasa’s, informed some key people in Sea Street that their street would be guarded. Pickets comprising navy and police personnel were posted at the Main Street and Harbour ends of Sea Street. This street thus had the distinction of being the only Tamil preserve to survive intact from the 25th to the 28th, while the surroundings were engulfed in flames. How Sea Street was saved gives us a fair idea of who was involved or at least connived in the attack on the surrounding area. In his book, L. Piyadasa identifies the son of Aloysius Mudalali as the man who led the mobs in the Pettah on the 25th, destroying 442 shops and committing many murders. Aloysius was a lieutenant of Premadasa’s. Interestingly, a casino run by him in rented premises in the Fort was also burnt. On Friday the 29th, there was a seeming air of normality. The naval pickets were removed, people came out and there was a bustle of activity.
Our account of what subsequently happened is based on testimony given by persons from Sea Street. It was also the day the Indian External Affairs Minister, Narasimha Rao, had come on an inspection visit. Being the only survivors in a disaster zone was a disconcerting experience, and the Sea Street folk did not trust the apparent calm. They prepared themselves by filling glass bulbs with acid and other chemicals used in their trade. About 10.30 AM a large mob gathered at the Main Street end of Sea Street (a short walk from McCallum Road down 5th Cross Street). They made to enter Sea Street, but no attempt was made by the security forces to disperse them. The workers in the jewellery shops climbed onto the roof-tops and threw their substances at the mob.
The experience of the mobs in the past five days had given them a brazen confidence that there would be no retaliation from the victims. Sea Street promised rich and easy pickings. When retaliation came, they were thoroughly unnerved. To their simple minds the only Tamils capable of resistance had to be Tigers. The cry that the ‘Koti’ (Tigers) had come to Colombo went out from them with a shrill note of urgency. The Army was called out from their temporary camp at St. John’s fishmarket – a stone’s throw away. The soldiers came and opened fire at the Sea Street ‘Tigers’. Although a much smaller number was talked about, we have checked with several sources down Sea Street and at least 12 youths employed in the trade were killed. The employees were mostly Tamils from the Porativu division of Batticaloa and the rest were of recent Indian origin.
Our sources also said that the owners had in the immediate aftermath praised these young defenders who lost their lives as heroes and pledged to compensate their families generously. But this pledge is said to have remained unfulfilled. However after the first retaliation, the mob largely kept away from Sea Street, except for some minor robbery later in the day.
A partial breakdown of the number of workers killed is as follows:
Rajaram – 1, Palamuthu Muthukkaruppan Chettiyar – 2, Latha – 1, Kingsley – 1, Nandini – 1, Jeyachitty – 1, Muththumeenacchi – 1, Nithyakalyani – 2. At least two visitors staying in Sea Street at Nandini and Nithykalyani were also killed. The owner of (New) Meenacchi had been burnt with his car close by on the 25th. We give a little detail here not merely because our sources were good, but also because we stumble on to something that has been little explored. The mobs that came to the area on Monday the 25th were frenzied, probably under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In many cases, workers were burnt with the shops. These workers were mostly from the Hill Country and the rural North-East. There was no trade union to pursue their interests and the surviving owners themselves were in desperate straits. The dead workers themselves were reduced to ashes, leaving behind un-numbered and unrecorded voids in humble and distant homes.
There is another curious significance about the Sea Street incident. On Sunday 24th July, the Army had run amok firing in Jaffna killing at least 50 civilians. Following this, Sea Street was about the first incident in which the Army subsequently opened fire – and then at whom?
Who were the mob or mobs that came to Sea Street? An earlier witness who worked for a leading jeweller at the Main Street end had thought that the mob was mainly from Modera, a Sinhalese Christian area two miles to the north, but added that Premadasa’s men from Plantain Estate and Kochikade joined in later so as not to lose out. But the judgement of this witness was also coloured by a perception that Premadasa was their protector. Our sources however strongly opined that the initiative to attack Sea Street was taken by the men of Premadasa’s area whose territory it was. We should also keep in mind that underworld groups are extremely jealous in guarding their territorial interests. A Sinhalese journalist who was indignant about the violence unleashed and had done his own probing, was told that the Sea Street merchants had tried to contact Premadasa on that day, but failed to get through.
We may also note that Tiger Friday is chiefly remembered not for what happened in Sea Street where it began, but for the wild panic and massive retaliation against Tamils elsewhere in Colombo that followed rumours that Tigers were in town. Along Galle Road, vehicles were stopped and those found to be carrying Tamils were burnt with their occupants, leaving Galle Road looking like the charred remains of a battle. The event also helped to make ‘Tiger’ a magic word – on the one hand, a detested word, and, for Colombo’s angry minorities who never saw a Tamil militant, a charmed word.
It would be mistaken to seek a neat, simple explanation for Tiger Friday. It did not stem from organised violence gone out of control like during earlier days. Nor can it be described as a spontaneous reaction to a rumour. We could however gainfully list some of the tendencies at work.
- The State had justified the violence in the course of which the message got around that Tamil property is there for the picking.
- In the middle of devastation Sea Street stood out as an untapped gold mine which seemed foolish to leave alone in that carnival spirit of impunity. Premadasa too would have found himself under pressure from his underworld folk whom he had used, whatever the benefits he had received from Sea Street during his journey up the political ladder. The fact that Sea Street was spared had given Premadasa an undeserved reputation as a protector of Tamils, which has stuck to this day. This Premadasa may have found embarrassing given the credentials then required for competition within the UNP. In his broadcast on the same (29th) night, he talked about the harassment caused by the events to Sinhalese and Muslim brethren, but carefully omitted the Tamils.
- The elements who had been given complete freedom to enjoy an orgy of looting and murder would have been disappointed when it was coming to an end before the job was completed. They would have waited for a cue to go on the loose while the festive spirit was high. Jayewardene’s broadcast on the 28th which justified their actions could not have improved the situation. Sea Street also enjoyed a reputation far beyond the immediate vicinity. We have been told that two well-known robbers from Piliyandala took part in robbery later in the day.
Tamil merchants in Pettah had been left with the strong impression that what had saved them from total ruin was the interest shown by India and Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit that same day. In the early hours of the next morning (30th), the Police for the first time started taking action against looters in the Pettah area, and the Government hastened to blame the violence on the Left.
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
*From Chapter 9 of Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued tomorrow ..