Precursor to Black July
by Esan Satkunarajah, July 23, 2006
My whole perception of being a proud citizen of Sri Lanka changed forever. I arrived at the stark realty that no matter what, if we are not prepared to stand up to the Sinhalese hegemony, then we would have many May 11th attacks against us and many riots like July 1983.
Rue d'Arlon 39-41
The precursor to what was to befall Tamils on Black July 1983
July 23rd 1983 was a sad and unforgettably black day for the Tamils. Many people, including local and international historians, still believe the killing of 13 Sinhalese soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the main reason for the July, 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka. Contrary to this belief, the gap between Sinhalese and Tamils widened well before the July 1983 riots due to an unprovoked attack on the Tamil students by the Sinhalese students in Peradeniya University on May 11th, 1983.
The May 1983 attack on the Tamils students in the University had a very damaging effect on the Tamils and their sense of belonging to Sri Lanka. I was at the University of Peradeniya studying first year science at that time. The ugly face of majoritarianism cropped up in a leading educational institution in Sri Lanka for the very first time. I did not realize that the precursor to the July, 1983 pogrom would take place in a leading educational institution like Peradeniya University.
I had a feeling of shock and numbness as I witnessed the educated Sinhalese students' violence against their fellow Tamil students first hand. It was doubly shocking and horrifying to witness those Sinhalese students, many of them our own batch-mates, whose hands were soaked with Tamil blood. Tamil students experienced the brunt of hatred by the majority Sinhalese students' community for 3 consecutive days. The University authorities, intellectuals, and the country's ruling authorities did very little to stop the violence against the Tamil Students during those 3 days.
I was living and sharing a room in James Pries Hall in the Peradeniya residences with 3 of my colleagues. The leading UNP student wing of Peradeniya had planned their blood-thirsty attack on the Tamil students meticulously. Weapons like steel rods, cycle chains, wooden rods from broken chairs and tables, knives and ropes were gathered and well hidden in many surrounding places where they could easily be accessed for the attack, which was about to take place against their fellow Tamil colleagues. Tamil students, including myself, were unaware of what would be the worst night of our lives in the educational institute where we were living and studying with our wonderful dreams and hopes about our futures.
A fist year engineering faculty student, Balasooriyan, who was a co-editor of a University Tamil Magazine, was accused of being "Tiger" just because he prepared a cartoon with a picture of a dove in a cage chained to a large metal ball. This picture actually was famous in Sri Lanka at that time, as Amnesty International (AI) used this picture and lobbied around the word to free the political prisoners. The Colombo media angrily reacted to the AI stand and accused them as being biased towards to the freedom fighters. Reproducing AI's cartoon was enough for Balasooriyan to be accused of being a member of the Tigers. In sharp contrast to what he was accused of, the magazine Balasooriyan was a co-editor of was critical of the Tigers and their methods of struggle.
In spite of this fact, Balasooryan was beaten up by the Sinhalese students and including his own batch-mates. The university authority handed him over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Colombo, he was taken to Colombo for interrogation and he was assaulted severely by the CID for several days before he was released without charge.
As continuation of this event many Tamil students were attacked and beaten up severely with all kinds of weapons by their fellow Sinhalese batch-mates and other students in the University for three days; some of them even fell from balconies to escape the attacks and broke their legs.
The conduct of the University administration and the authorities was unprecedented at that time. Tamil students were asked to continue to attend the lecture sessions during these periods even though the Tamil students felt they needed to go away from the University to their homes to reflect on what had happened to them from May 11th to May 13th, 1983. The University authority failed to provide the Tamils students with a safe environment to continue their studies.
The motive of the attacks on the Tamils students was to evict them from the University permanently. The unprecedented behavior of the university administration helped the attackers to reach their aims. Almost 95% of the Tamil students left the University and went back to their homes.
While the majority of the Tamil students stayed in their home, the conduct of the University was unprecedented again, as they continued to conduct lectures and even the yearly exams. The university authority shown very little - if not no - sympathy at all towards the Tamil students at the time of these crises.
July 1983 witnessed thousands of Tamils being killed and hundreds of them burnt to death by the Sinhalese mobs, which were well aided by the state forces. Many hundreds of Tamils also lost their hard-earned properties and they were made refugees overnight in their own country by their fellow citizens and sent back to Jaffna from the Sinhalese area.
The Sinhalese government and its law enforcing agencies did next to nothing to prevent this pogrom against the un-armed and innocent Tamils.
My whole perception of being a proud citizen of Sri Lanka changed forever. I arrived at the stark realty that no matter what, if we are not prepared to stand up to the Sinhalese hegemony, then we would have many May 11th attacks against us and many riots like July 1983. I was much more than convinced that our legitimate plights should be brought to the attention of the International Community , the international community should be educated enough to see our sufferings in the hands of the Majority Sinhalese, and the international community should be lobbied to stand with us to find a just and fair solution. We Tamils are united and strong wherever we are living; we Tamils stand up against the second-class treatment we receive in Sri Lanka; we stand up against the Sri Lankan state oppression, we are united in seeking International Community assistance to free us from the chauvinism of the Singhala nation. We want to live with freedom, we want to live with dignity, we want to rule ourselves in our homeland and look after our own affairs like any other people in the world.
More on the Same Incident at Peredeniya
I just want to add some more info to Easan's note. I was an assistant lecturer at that time at Peradeniya University. Here is what happened and how this was triggered by the UNP'ers.
Some of the students of the UNP front got hold of some Tamil students from James Pieries and Hilda Obeyasekara halls and took them (First year students) by force and starting from the Medical faculty that is closer to the main entrance, they forced the Tamil students to strike out the Sinhala names on all the signs and name boards. When they reached the Hilda area after erasing all Sinhala names along the way, those Sinhalese students shouted that they have caught some pro-tiger students who were painting the Sinhala names out. Then, as pre-planned, their fellow UNP students fanned the flame by shouting and hitting the Tamil students. The message was passed on to other halls and all the students started hitting and chasing away the Tamil students.
Some students came to my residence at the campus and informed me. I had a motorbike at that time and, as I was able to speak thoroughly in Sinhalese, I was able to save some Tamil students to a certain extent and helped them to move away from the campus. Most of them climbed Hantana Hill, stayed for the night and flew to Kandy town and escaped from there.
I want to mention two interesting things that happened at that time. While the UNP'ers started this, the students who saved the Tamils were JVP student activists. As most of us know, Akbar Hall was out of the campus area and it was difficult to escape from there as it was very visible. However, JVP students took most of the Tamil students to their rooms and prevented the other Sinhalese students from attacking those students. I heard that the JVP'ers even fought with the UNP'ers to safeguard the Tamils. (It is sad that the attitude of the JVP is changed now).
The plan, as I heard from some Sinhalese students, was to close down the campus and send all the students home. The returning Sinhalese students would start riots from whereever they went. Being a staff member I attended staff meetings and I metioned this in the meetings. Thanks to the authority for not closing the campus and keeping all Sinhalese students in the campus. By this, the plan to start the riots was prevented.
We can re-call how the 1977 riots started when Jaffna Campus Sinhalese students left the campus and spread the story that Sinhaese girls were raped and boys were manhandled and started those riots.
This incident at Peradeniya campus was clear additional evidence that the July porgrom was a pre-planned, organized event.