Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Black July 1983

An epochal episode in the Tamil freedom struggle

by Dharakan, Brisbane, Australia

J.R. Jayawardene said, "The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here. Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”

Early Ground Work for Genocide 

Black July 1983 / Young Asia TV

Burning Tamil houses, July 1983

Ceylon attained its independence from British colonial rule on February 04, 1948. Before the ink could dry on the new constitution, the Ceylon parliament seeded its “genocidal intent,” passing the Ceylon Citizenship Act No.18 of 1948, which deprived a million Tamils of Indian origin of their citizenship.  As predicted with remarkable foresight by “Thanthai” S.J.V.Celvanayagm in parliament during the debate on this Citizenship Bill, the next blow was dealt to the Tamils when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Government of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake enacted the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhalese the island's official language in June, 1956. A non-violent Satyragraha campaign protesting the Act launched by the Tamil Federal Party in the northern eastern provinces, which paralysed civil administration, was ruthlessly broken up using the army.

The enactment of this Sinhala Only Act, quite contrary to the hitherto official policy of recognising both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages, made Tamils second-class citizens in their country of birth overnight.  Politically, it was a masterstroke by the majority Sinhalese to deprive education and employment opportunities for the Tamils in the government and state corporations, which comprised the bulk of the island's economy. The Tamils were humiliated to a degree that left generations of Tamils to feel rejected and politically marginalised.

In 1970, the government of Mrs.Srimawo Bandaranayke (widow of Mr.S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake) rubbed salt into wounds by introducing the notorious "Standardisation" of education. This discriminatory policy required higher marks from Tamil students for University admissions and further shrank their numbers in education and employment.

The 1972 constitution enthroned Buddhism as the foremost religion to be fostered by the state. Amendments moved by the Tamil Federal Party to the draft constitution, demanding a federal constitution and parity of status for Tamil along with Sinhalese, were rejected and defeated by the government. In protest, the Federal Party withdrew from further deliberations of the Constituent Assembly and boycotted it. As a mark of protest, Mr. Chelvanayagam resigned his seat in Parliament and challenged the government to hold an election to test the acceptability of the new constitution. He simultaneously sought a mandate from the Tamil people for the restoration of the defunct Tamil state and won the by-election by a landslide.

The rewriting the constitution removed the few safeguards for minorities contained in the Soulbury constitution. This infamous constitution created the conditions for the political alienation of the Tamils and a deep wedge between the Sinhala and Tamil nations.

State Terrorism and the Great Divide

Sinhalese ruffians broke up the peaceful Satyragraha by the Tamils to protest against the Sinhala Only language policy at Galle Face Green overlooking the Parliament in Colombo. This was followed by island-wide riots in which hundreds of Tamils lost their lives and property worth millions was destroyed. The 1956 riots were the beginning of a series of racially-motivated mass scale racism by Sinhalese covertly encouraged by successive governments and overtly supported by the security forces. This state-sponsored pogroms, with increasing ferocity and venom, were repeated in 1958, 1961, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1983. Violence against the Tamil community is continuing to this day in 2006.

In July 1957, Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake signed a pact with Mr.S.J.V.Chelvanayagam of the Tamil Federal Party, popularly called the Bandaranayke- Chelvanayagam Pact, which would have given a measure of regional autonomy in the spheres of land, language, education, and employment. However, the pact was torn apart by Mr.Bandaranayake under pressure from Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinists. Foremost among those protesting the pact was none other than Mr.J.R.Jayawardena of the United National Party, who undertook a march to Kandy in protest. A similar pact signed by Mr.Chelvanayagam with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake in 1965 also met the same fate.

In 1975, confronted with the steadily mounting national oppression, frustrated with the failure of the democratic political struggle, the Tamil national parties converged into a single movement to fight for freedom either by peaceful means or by direct action or struggle.  In the elections that followed, the TULF received an overwhelming mandate.  By fortuitous circumstances, the TULF also emerged as the official opposition in Parliament. Mr. Amirthalingam, as the Leader of the Opposition, started talking about an alterative to the Eelam demand and eventually settled for District Development Councils. This experiment failed in the face of a chauvinistic and intransigent Sinhala government.  In any case, the Tamils felt that the DDC was a “sweetener” and that the Tamil leadership had been taken yet again for a ride by crafty Sinhalese politicians, especially by Mr.J.R. Jayawardena.

Pouring Oil on the Cauldron of Racism

In 1978 yet another Constitution was enacted which tightened the enslavement of the Tamils further. The TULF, like in 1972, walked out of the constitutient assembly and took no part in its deliberations. In 1979 the Sri Lankan government enacted the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act to cope with the growing militancy, notably of the Liberation Tigers. This act, and the subsequent crackdown by the army on Tamil youths, made the situation worse and confirmed the fears of the Tamils that the Sinhalese government was hell bent to exterminate them. The pogroms of 1977 and 1979 poured oil on an already burning fire.

From 1979, because of the Sinhalese army occupation of Jaffna and the state terrorism let loose on the people, hostility began to grow and the emotional division between the Sinhalese and the Tamils became more acute. A group of highly organised young Tamil militants, first calling themselves the New Tamil Tigers and later The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976 emerged to confront the government's terrorism by bearing arms.   

Vanguards of Tamil Liberation

In 1978, J, R. Jayewardene, the first Executive President of the racially named Sri Lanka [this is a Sinhalese name for the island -- Editor], crowned himself with constitutional power and became like "Emperor Bokassa I" of the Central African Republic. Jayawardene introduced the 1978 constitution, giving all power to the executive president created under that constitution and then declared himself the first executive president. He was determined to suppress the freedom call by Tamils via any means. He was ruthless to the Tamils people in the NorthEast. He suppressed the Tamil minority violently and used his party members to organize pogroms against them – notably in July 1983 and these days of violence is known as Black July.

The origin of “Black July” can be traced through some of Jayewardene’s notorious speeches and newspaper interviews during his Presidency. By 1983, J.R. was in his last term in office.  At this stage, his ambition to weaken the Tamil community became very evident with the Black July pogrom.  He declared a “war for war” slogan against the Tamils in an interview with Ian Ward of the London Daily Telegraph.  He said, "The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here. Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” Two weeks after J. R’s interview with Ian Ward, a vicious widespread attack was launched on the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka.  On 24 July 1983, and the succeeding weeks, 2-3,000 thousand Tamils were killed. Tamil owned businesses were scientifically extracted and burned, with 95% of the Tamil-owned commercial and industrial capacity in Colombo destroyed. Many people were burnt alive. Over a hundred thousand were rendered homeless.  Widespread attacks against the Tamils in Colombo, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and elsewhere were executed by the state-sponsored racism and terrorism. 

J.R unleashed a new and more ruthless wave of massive violence against Tamil civilian population, who were completely unarmed and innocent of any crimes. His choice of words and comments accompanied the violence of Black July. J. R, as the elected president, did not care for the lives of the Tamil people. He not only did not express sympathy or remorse for the violence against the Tamils, he actually blamed them for bringing it on themselves. Tamils regarded his comments not only as a license, but also as an invitation to kill the Tamils.

The Tamil were killed in streets, inside houses, inside buses, cars, and everywhere and anywhere.  One of my own family members was thrown alive into a burning lorry and killed.  I can still see the images of fire, death, property loss, refugee camps, and carnage through the state-sponsored terrorism unleashed against the Tamil people. 

Sri Lanka’s Bokassa (J.R) has achieved what he intended to achieve – the genocide of the Tamil community. When he disappeared, his system of genocidal process was carried on by the next clan – Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga.  Despite all protests, the Constitution of 1978 survived and still remains in use as a “tool” of genocides against the Tamil people.  In the perception of the Sri Lanka government, the claims of the Tamil people for the basic right of self-determination has assumed a dimension that demanded a response - but, strangely, a response that did not have regard for the lives of the Tamil people or for that matter, their fundamental human rights.

One third of the Tamil population has left the island, another third were displaced at the time of the 2002 ceasefire (of whom 315,000 remain displaced today), 40,000 have been newly displaced since April, 2006, the economy and infrastructure of the NorthEast has been destroyed, and the population completely impoverished. Infant and maternal mortality has more than quadrupled and gone from being the best in the island to the worst. In many parts of the Tamil areas more than half the children are out of school, where before the war literacy was the highest in the island. Hundreds of temples and churches have been reduced to rubble. If this is not destruction of a community, what is?

In July 1983, the Tamil Tigers ambushed a convey of Sinhalese army in the north and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers. This attack itself was a retaliation for a gang rape of a Sri Lankan Tamil doctor by Sinhalese soldiers. The Sinhalese and their government used this ambush as a trigger to unleash yet another porgrom surpassing all the previous ones in its intensity and destruction of lives and properties. The government of J.R. panicked at the growing militancy of the Tamils and the cry for separation, and sought to defuse the situation by the 6th amendment to the Constitution by compelling all office holders, including Members of Parliament, to take an oath of allegiance to the unitary constitution. Unable to comply with this forced allegiance, the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front political party) boycotted parliament and lost their seats. With the forced political exile and eventual marginalization of the moderate leadership of the Tamils by the constitutional amendment, the Tamil militant groups, notably the Tigers gained ascendancy. Today the LTTE is the undisputed, authentic, and sole leaders of the Tamil people in the vanguard of the Tamil liberation war.

The many battles and the recent low intensity fight after four years of “talking about talking peace,” which has assumed most of the hallmarks of a conventional war between the Tamil Tigers and Sinhalese army, established the fact that there are not only two separate nations on the island, but two separate armies as well.  Since Black July 1983, the “great divide” between the Tamils and Sinhalese has further accelerated into two nations with two distinguished races, two armed forces, two cultures, and two traditions.

Count Down to Tamil Freedom

It is 23 years now since Black July 1983. Black July was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance by the Sinhala government and politicians during the 25 years preceding the “epochal event” in Tamil history.  The genocidal pogroms in which Tamils were killed; maimed, robbed and rendered homeless are no longer isolated episodes.  They are intentional, ongoing “crimes against humanity” that encouraged the Tamils to take up arms to fight for their freedom. In fact, “Black July" is the start of full-scale armed struggle between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. 

Black July was officially unleashed by the decision taken at the highest political level, namely by the then president J. R., to "teach" a lesson to the minority Tamils. It was carried out by his hard-line and rightwing ministers such as Cyril Mathew and the local thugs who were aligned to the ruling party.  This is the way terrorism was introduced to the Tamils.  Tamils were taught violence by the Sri Lankan government.  Now, the Tamils do not have any other choice other than using their own State forces to overpower Sri Lanka's “State Terrorism” to regain freedom for the Tamils.

The Tamils are an ancient people with a history dating back to at least 2,500 years. The Tamil language, the lingua Franca of the Tamils, is one of the five oldest living languages of the world. Tamil classical literature, popularly called the Sangam (Academy) literature (1st -4th Century AD) is a collection of poems of lasting quality and artistic merit. They reflect faithfully the high level of civilization and literary attainments of the ancient Tamils.

The Jaffna Kingdom was ruled as a separate polity both by the Portuguese...

This demand came to be known as 50-50 envisaged allocating 50% of the parliamentary seats to the Sinhalese and the balance 50% to the Tamils, Muslims, Burgers and other minority groups. This was rejected by the Soulbury Commission, which curtailed the legislative power of Parliament to that of "making laws for the peace, order and good government of the island." The then constitution provided that no such law should impose any disabilities, or confer any advantages, on members of any one community only.

Freedom Call Should Continue to the Finish

The genocidal operation planned and executed by the Sinhala government was the result of actions of a Sinhala -Buddhist majority which regarded the island as the exclusive home of Sinhala Buddhism and the Tamils as invaders from Tamil Nadu in South India. These chauvinists proclaimed, "The history of Sri Lanka is the history of the Sinhalese race.”  Thus, the Sinhalese encouraged the Tamils to divide from them.  They treated the Tamils as a “threat.”  Thus, the Sinhalese never considered the Tamils as equal within a “pluralistic” Sri Lankan community. and this is the case now. too.  They cannot live within a nation as a united group.  After all, the Sinhalese have asked the Tamils to go back to India.

This is just one example of what has become the battle cry of the Sinhala-Buddhists - sole and exclusive claim to the whole of Ceylon. The 'Tamil issue' has been nurtured, refined and exploited by successive Sinhalese political leaders, who sought to perpetuate their rule over the Tamils. Thus, Sinhalese devastated the land, destroyed ancient temples, burnt valuable libraries, and nearly annihilated the historic Tamil race.  The idea that Tamils’ freedom must be restored and continued does not warrant further justification.  The freedom fight, either by violent or non-violent means, should be based on a nation-state model.  Our struggle is primarily an ethnic and political struggle. The Tamils should not continue to talk with the Sinhalese who do not recognise the homeland and the self-determination of Tamils.  Please, no more talk with the Sinhalese.

The continuation of the freedom fight without “talk on talking peace” is the one and only method for the restoration of Tamil freedom. Therefore, the people of Tamil homeland, both in and outside, must make efforts and learn to believe in our freedom, as indeed we must internalise the habit of freedom lobbying.  It will be too much for the faint-hearted and too incomprehensible for those with no firm appreciation for Tamils and their rights.

Many selfish-minded people assume that Tamils should follow the non-violent method because Sri Lanka’s enormous population, international support and military strength leave no other choice for us. These people believe that we should accept the Sri Lankan government and its empty promises. Certainly, believing the Sinhalese and their government will lead to a complete demise of the Tamil humanity.  The Tamils have gone through the non-violent path and failed time and time after in the past 58 years.  Tamils cannot have genuine peace talks with the Sinhalese.  Any involvement in a random and “not so serious” peace talks will be a serious mistake on the part of Tamils. Whether one has confidence in the freedom fight whereby virtue results in happiness - or whether one views the situation from a purely political standpoint - the philosophical understanding here is that one cannot achieve wholesome goals if one does not rely on wholesome methods. Even if peace talks could guarantee us freedom with justice tomorrow, we must firmly continue the freedom fight until we feel freedom in our hearts and minds.  Until we can get such a guarantee, our freedom fight will be a powerful instrument for achieving our goal – the homeland and self determination for Tamils.

Brighter July is Just Nearing

Our freedom fight so far shows how our fighters struggled for the past 23 years to bring things together – our homeland, our economic development as well as our culture, religion and political institutions. Confronted with Sri Lankan government genocidal intent and actions, compounded by the actions of the international community with their bias and aggressive political policies, and in the absence of any acceptable solutions to our grievances, Tamils have no other option but to mobilize and face the "aggressor" head-on.

All Tamils have a universal responsibility to fulfil the demand for freedom of the Tamils.  It is a duty that we all incur simply by the fact of our birth as Tamils. If we do not live up to that birth-duty, then we are not worthy of being Tamils and we are unable to act in a way that does justice to our heritage. Not only is there nothing ruder and base than being unable to live up to one's birth-duty, even from a worldly point of view, one scarcely merits the life of humanity that one enjoys.

Truth is on Our Side and It Will Win Us Our Rights

Our homeland and cultural tradition were preserved and enhanced over thousands of years by the Tamils of early generations, who considered these gifts more precious than their own lives. In modern times, these traditions have a close bearing on the well-being of the entire humanity. If we allow the Sri Lankan government and Sinhalese to destroy this Tamil tradition, it will be a great loss not only to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, but also to the Tamil humanity as a whole in the world.

Having ascertained this reality, it should be said that the Tamil heritage cannot be protected unless we have complete freedom and unless equal parity and power balance is maintained by preventing the destruction of Tamil homeland. Therefore, the ultimate goal is not just political freedom for Tamils. Rather, our ultimate goal is the preservation, maintenance and development of the sublime cultural traditions of the Tamil nation.  However, without proper means and favourable conditions, it is not possible for us to fulfil this responsibility. We must, therefore, first undertake liberating the Tamil homeland immediately. Unlike the freedom struggles of other peoples in other countries, our struggle must continue with a sense of urgency, as we cannot wait for yet another generation for our freedom. We must plan and revitalise the freedom fight with the popular people support in order to achieve a concrete result no later than 2010.  We must recognize that truth is on our side and, with this conviction; we must engage ourselves in a search for a brighter July.

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