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Home > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > July 1983 Pogrom - Victims and the Rascals
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
July 1983 Pogrom - Victims and Rascals
23 July 2008
American humorist Russell Baker (born 1925) once wrote in his column, “History is constantly being revised these days. It’s because there is a glut of historians. Revising history is the only way to keep them busy” (New York Times syndicate, April 20, 1994). This ‘historian glut’, aptly noted by Russell Baker, is an issue that has become somewhat nauseating in the South Asian scene.
Pedddlers of Sri Lankan Pop-History
The peddlers of Sri Lankan pop-history slice, twist, spin, hide and scribble about people, places and events according to their whims and jaundiced visions. Here is my select list of such peddlers:
It is unfortunate that the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 also has been a victim of distortions in the hands of licensed Sinhalese historians. For instance, the pro-UNP slant and the selective omissions of Prof. K.M. de Silva (the biographer of President J.R. Jayewardene) in his re-telling the horror of Black July 1983, leaves much to be desired. That the virulent seeds for the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 were sown nearly nine months earlier in the first executive presidential election held in October 20, 1982 was noted by a few international journalists and Prof. Colvin Goonaratna (who had volunteered as a medical consultant to Hector Kobbekaduwa, the SLFP opponent of President Jayewardene).
The editorial of Wall Street Journal and the caricature of Economist
The Wall Street Journal of Oct.29, 1982, editorially commented on President Jayewardene’s victory with an irreverent caption, “Sri Lanka Keeps Its Rascals In”. Here is an excerpt, from this editorial:
It is pertinent to mention here, what the Wall Street Journal’s editorialist had omitted. The chief rascal who enacted the Sinhalese hero role during the anti-Tamil pogrom was Jayewardene’s another brash side-kick, Cyril Mathew, who belonged to Wahumpura low caste among the Sinhalese. To a degree, Cyril Mathew was the Sri Lankan version of Chicago’s mob leaders of yore. While Al Capone and his gang members were not recognized as orators spewing muck, Cyril Mathew (being a politician) had a venous tongue to brandish.
The Economist magazine (Oct.30, 1982), commenting on the presidential election victory of Jayewardene incorporated a caricature of Jayewardene as a bare-bodied snake charmer playing magudi pipe and to make the ‘Sri Lanka’ cobra to dance. It is not incorrect to infer that the ‘Sri Lanka’ label in the cobra’s head could aptly serve as an euphemism for ‘Sinhala racism’. Three favored cabinet ministers (Cyril Mathew, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali) Jayewardene performed cobra dances during the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983.
Cast of Chief Characters in the Anti-Tamil Pogrom of 1983
Here is the cast of eight characters who figured prominently in the events that happened during (and aftermath) the Black July 1983.
The roles played by each of these individuals, as leaders, in 1983 deserve scrutiny and remembrance. As from Eelam Tamils’ angle, among the notorious ‘Gang of Four’ (Jayewardene, Mathew, Dissanayake and Athulathmudali), Mathew and Dissanayake pranced the roads and played to the hooligan gallery; Jayewardene and Athulathmudali were too timid and muted to act. Indira Gandhi, with calm and cool, picked up on the mis-steps of her political adversaries and did something to soothe the pain of Eelam Tamils. The ‘Minority’ three (Amirthalingam, Thondaman and Hameed), though sympathizing with the Tamils, lacked real power to exercise their will and lead.
Nine Seminal Features
A new generation of Tamils, as well as Sinhalese, has sprouted in the diaspora since July 1983. To counter the Goebbelsian propagandists (like the chameleonic Dayan Jayatilleka) of the current President Rajapakse regime, the essential background information on what really happened during the anti-Tamil pogrom in July-August 1983 deserve highlight. I have transcribed nine features that appeared in the Economist, The Week (Kochi) and the India Today magazines during August-September 1983. These features deserve electronic accessibility. How each of the above-named eight individuals reacted to the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 is noted in these eight features.
It may be presumed that the ‘Special Correspondent in Sri Lanka’ who contributed the reports to the Economist magazine was Mervyn de Silva. One should not assume that the four Indian correspondents (V.S.Jayaschandran, B.M. Radhakrishna, Chaitanya Kalbag and S.H. Venkatramani) who authored the features that appeared in The Week and India Today magazines had been transparent in their coverage of the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. Cumulatively, their features cast a pro-Indian spin; but fail to focus on the vital aspects of
I wish to add that most details and interpretations presented by the authors of these nine features are missing in the version of the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 recorded by K.M.de Silva and Howard Wriggins (vide, chapter 29: Disaster – J.R. and the Riots of July 1983, J.R.Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, vol.2, 1994, pp. 551-565).
Please note that the words or phrases in parenthesis, dots and sub-headings in bold fonts are as in the originals.
Communalism and terrorism are both activated by hate, and both are exacerbated by appeasement. The Sri Lankan government clearly does not appease Tamil terrorism: this is why its army was on patrol near Jaffna on the night of July 23rd, when 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush. But two weeks alter, as the spiral of vengeance between Tamils and Singalese set off by the ambush continues to whirl, President Jayewardene and his colleagues give the impression of pandering to Singalese chauvinism.
Government spokesmen have offered two linked explanations for the violence – ‘a foreign hand’ and a left-wing conspiracy. The president has conjured up the threat of an invasion from India; others have hinted at the possible expulsion of Soviet and East German diplomats. On July 30th three Marxist parties were banned and their presses sealed. Looters have been denounced and at least 1,000 arrested, along with a number of left-wingers. Calls for a separate Tamil state in the north have been declared unconstitutional. Yet there has been little official public disapproval of the racist hate behind the attacks on the minority Tamils by Singalese.
Some Singalese have also been injured in the firestorm, and tens of thousands of them have seen their jobs disappear in the wreckage of Tamil-owned firms. But the overwhelming majority of the victims of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war have been Tamil: hundreds dead, many thousands homeless and millions of pounds worth of industrial and commercial property turned into smoking ruins.
This catalogue of destruction is not in itself evidence of a failure of official will to contain it. A security force of 30,000 soldiers and policemen that cannot cope with some 200 Tamil terrorists is not likely to do well against Singalese mobs. But for days the soldiers and policemen were not overwhelmed: they were unengaged or, in some cases, apparently abetting the attackers. Numerous eye-witnesses attest that soldiers and policemen stood by while Colombo burned. Were they following their own communal instincts, or signals from above?
What the troops and the rioters did not get was a clear public order to stop the mayhem. After two days of violence, and the murder of 35 Tamils in a maximum-security jail, the only editorial in the government-run newspaper was on ‘saving our forest cover’. It was five days after the precipitating ambush and a day after a second prison massacre that the people of Sri Lanka heard from their 77 year-old president. On July 28th, Mr Jayewardene spoke on television to denounce separatism, and proscribe any party that endorsed it, in order to ‘appease the natural desire and request’ of the Singalese ‘to prevent the country being divided’. Not a syllable of sympathy for the Tamil people or any explicit rejection of the spirit of vengeance. Next day Colombo was a battlefield: more than 100 people are estimated to have been killed on that Friday alone, and 30,000 Tamils fled to refugee camps.
The president is known to have held out against demands in the past from his cabinet for harsh anti-Tamil moves. Is he now a prisoner of the army and of his own hard men, such as the minister of industry, who is a public critic of the Tamils? If so, it is partly the fault of his own highly centralized presidential system. Although there are Tamils in his cabinet, and the attorney-general, Mr Pasupathi, and the inspector-general of police, Mr Rajasingham, are both Tamils, Mr Jayewardene has no minister for Tamil affairs and no contingency planning staff.
The president was not in conciliatory mood when the Singalese backlash began. His offer of a conference to discuss terrorism had been rejected a few days earlier by the opposition parties, and he had been compelled to widen its agenda to include Tamil grievances. Then there was India. Just when the president was feeling beset by his own bumptious Tamil opposition, its friends in Delhi expressed concern about Sri Lanka’s emergency regulations. These irritations may have affected his judgment when the storm broke. Anti-Indian stories in the local press were undoubtedly one reason why the mobs turned against Indian nationals, including diplomats, and Indian-owned property. A few days after a lightning visit by the Indian foreign minister, Mr Rao, on July 30th, the president continued to ride the anti-Indian tide with a leaked allusion to a possible Indian invasion.
It will be some time before the full toll of these weeks of fire and brimstone is known, partly because so many Tamils have fled their homes. The refugee camp population had reached 76,000 by the end of the first week, according to official figures released by diplomats. On July 29th the first boatload of displaced Tamils set off for the relative safety of Jaffna. Other boats, including three lent by India, will continue the sea-lift.
In Colombo, top-level civil servants and industrialists – members of a once-privileged Tamil elite which was never touched by any previous communal disturbance – have been cowering in the homes of Singalese friends. The 17 members of parliament in the Tamil United Liberation Front, the largest opposition party, stayed underground until they surfaced for a strategy session in Jaffna this week. They had already decided to resign their seats, in protest at Mr Jayewardene’s six-year extension of parliament approved in a referendum last December. Now, unless the party gives up its ritual commitment to a separate Tamil state, it will be outlawed and its members barred from all employment.
A swathe of burnt-out shopfronts across the country is visible evidence of the flattening of the country’s most vigorous class. Two weeks ago Tamils owned 60% of the wholesale trade and 80% of the retail trade in the capital. Today that trade is gone. Food shortages and inflated prices are one result. The Tamil industrial base, built up over generations, is no more. Censored news broadcasts are mainly about the efforts of government agencies to fill the food gap. These two weeks of terror will cripple Sri Lanka materially for years, but the damage to the national psyche may be even longer-lasting. A separatist movement can sometimes be stamped out by determined repression. Two alienated communities cannot be welded back together by similar means.
Indira’s Dilemma [Specical Correspondent: Economist, August 6, 1983, p. 26]
Nowhere do passions run stronger about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils than in the Tamil homeland in south India. The state of Tamil Nadu closed down completely on August 2nd in sympathy with the beleaguered Tamils across the Palk Strait, which divides India from Sri Lanka. On the streets of Madras effigies were burnt of Sri Lanka’s President Jayewardene. The strike was supported by all the local parties and by the central government of Mrs Indira Gandhi, which shut its offices in the state.
Pressure from Mrs Gandhi’s own 50m Tamils both complicates and justifies her responses. She can point to the demonstrations as justification for Indian diplomatic intervention with Sri Lanka, but she does not want to accept Tamil demands to internationalise the issue. Such a precedent could be turned against her the next time communal violence erupts in Assam or elsewhere in India.
On July 31st the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr Ramachandran, led an all-party delegation to Delhi calling for a United Nations peacekeeping force for Sri Lanka. The delegation also proposed that India offer refuge to displaced Sri Lankans, although so far there has been no report of an exodus to India. Until now India’s Tamil parties have vaguely supported Sri Lankan Tamils, but without endorsing their separatist aspirations. However, since the riots, Tamil Nadu’s opposition leader, Mr Karunanidhi, is arguing for a separate state; he is also one of several prominent Tamils calling for the dispatch of Indian troops to Sri Lanka. The ruling party has been more cautious, partly because the crisis catches the chief minister in mid-courtship with Mrs Gandhi over a proposed alliance for the next general election.
Perhaps India’s most dramatic demonstration of solidarity with Sri Lanka’s Tamils was the release on July 28th of three Tamil militants who had been jailed in Madras a year ago after a gunfight. The young ‘Tigers’ were publicly greeted as heroes. Tamil terrorists are known to use Tamil Nadu as sanctuary, although no political party has openly supported them. This, too, may change now.
In Gandhi We Trust [Specical Correspondent: Economist, August 20, 1983, pp. 34-36.]
A signal flashed across Sri Lanka’s communal divide last week. For the first time since the upsurge in terrorism a few months ago, some soldiers were withdrawn from the peninsula, four army camps there were closed and the remaining troops pulled back to barracks. The moves were partly defensive: to prevent another lot of army men falling into another terrorist trap and provoking another round of bloodletting. No public announcement was made for fear of stirring up Sinhalese anger. But the message got across where it matters – to those Tamils who know that in the end they have no choice but to talk with the government in power.
Tamil moderates, a vanishing breed, say they need more concessions from the government before they can risk confronting the militants on their own side. The government has another signal ready – the release of some Tamil prisoners – but it wants reciprocity, preferably in the form of a ceasefire. The terrorists replied to the first signal by murdering a Tamil organizer for the ruling party in Jaffna. Posters went up in Jaffna last week warning the Tamil diaspora to gather into the northern enclave before reprisals resume.
It is the extremists on both sides who have emerged strengthened from the recent butchery. Singalese chauvinists in the south have achieved two of their prime aims: the destruction of the Tamil economic base and an outlawing of Tamil secessionism. The Tamil terrorists have achieved two of theirs: geographical as well as political polarization of the two communities, and an upsurge of international sympathy for Tamil victims of Singalese oppression.
The Tamil-baiter the Tamils fear most is an influential cabinet minister, Mr Cyril Mathew. He has been accused of having engineered the Singalese counter-terror through his followers in the party’s trade union. He denies this vigorously, but goes on to prosecute his anti-Tamil case with files of underlined clippings and his own speeches, glossily bound under such titles as ‘Diabolical Conspiracy’. His arguments about the folly of placating the Tamils and the need to crush terrorism before talking are echoed by many of his fellow ministers. But not by the president.
President Jayewardene has now reaffirmed an earlier offer to the Tamils which stops short of meeting their demands; he would withdraw the army from Jaffna, repeal the anti-terrorist act and declare an amnesty for Tamil prisoners, provided Tamil leaders publicly disavow secession. This week Tamils in top public jobs were compelled to swear the same loyalty oath to a unitary state that is now required of members of parliament.
This is a hard pill for Tamil politicians to swallow, even though few of them actually believe in the secessionist cause, because, in the wake of the recent communal carnage, it savours of surrender. Just before Sri Lanka exploded four weeks ago, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) had adopted a flexible, face-saving formula, replacing secession with a demand for Tamil ‘self-determination’, in a manner to be negotiated. But the government is refusing to budge beyond its own formula for devolution through district development councils. The councils, which have been empty shells, will be given some money, and hence some powers, next January. But this will not satisfy any Tamil leader.
Local autonomy for the Tamils of Jaffna has long been the central substantive issue between the government and the non-militant Tamils. But now the TULF also has an identity problem, because of the new constitutional proscription on secession. It does not want to become an underground movement, but neither can it be seen simply to knuckle under to the government.
One alternative being canvassed in Jaffna is for the TULF to disband and reconstitute itself as a non-parliamentary movement. Another is that it should re-enter parliament under the resuscitated name of the old Federal Party, possibly after by-elections to secure a mandate. The snag in all these rational solution is that compromise under any name will be opposed by the Tamil militants.
Before July 23rd, the Tamil terrorists were constrained to some degree by the presence of Tamils and Tamil properties in Singalese areas. Now, with so many of these hostages gone, the so-called Tigers are said to be thirsting for unrestrained revenge. And their ranks have been joined by young Tamil refugees in a confrontationist mood.
The militants themselves are not a united force. They are split into factions which indulge in bouts of fratricide; the latest took place last weekend. But they have the capacity to block any deal between the TULF and the government, since only they can deliver a ceasefire. The terrorists have, in fact, talked secretly to the government – there were two sessions in June – but their spokesman was killed, along with 51 other Tamils, in the two prison massacres that were part of the anti-Tamil rampage. The government says it is still promising safe conduct to any Tamil prepared to come and talk.
One group of Tamils took its grievances directly to the government this week – the unmilitant underclass of tea estate workers, whose leader, Mr Thondaman, is one of three Tamils in the cabinet. Mr Thondaman’s vote bank went to the government in three successive elections; now he feels betrayed by the government’s failure to protect his people. He has not made common cause with the more prosperous and more political Jaffna Tamils, but he has laid down his own gauntlet: he will lead his 600,000 followers out of Sri Lanka unless the government can promise them security and development funds.
Mr Thondaman’s threat is an embarrassment not only to President Jayewardene but also to Mrs Indira Gandhi, who has carefully refrained from offering to open India’s doors to refugees from Sri Lanka. Tamil entrepreneurs have no difficulties resettling in India; and influx of unskilled workers is something else.
Mrs Gandhi is now the chosen saviour-mediator for all the combatants in Sri Lanka. Mr Jayewardene’s brother left Delhi last weekend after asking for Mrs Gandhi’s good offices in bringing Tamil hotheads under control. This week the leader of the TULF, Mr Amirthalingam, went to Delhi to ask Mrs Gandhi’s help in reining in the hotheads on the other side. India will be sending an emissary to Sri Lanka soon. If Mrs Gandhi can succeed in imposing a Pax Indira, there will be handsome political rewards for her at home, especially in the Tamil south. But the wounds of Sri Lanka are too raw for a quick cure.
The Wages of Envy [Specical Correspondent: Economist, August 20, 1983, p. 35.]
‘The Tamils have dominated the commanding heights of everything good in Sri Lanka’, explained the soft-spoken Cambridge-educated finance minister. Mr Ronnie de Mel is too sophisticated to use the term on the tip of many Sinhalese tongues these days – the need for a ‘final solution’ to the Tamil problem. But, even for him, the ‘only solution’ is to ‘restore the rights of the Singalese majority’.
Restoring Singalese rights is a code phrase for dislodging the Tamils from their disproportionate influence over large sectors of the Sri Lankan economy. This is what the Singalese mobs set out to do when they put their torches to thousands of carefully targeted Tamil factories and shops. Now the government is about to advance this process by expropriating all damaged properties. Many Tamils will assist them by leaving the country. The result will be decisive shift in the balance of economic power in Sri Lanka from Tamils to Singalese.
The stated aim of the government’s takeover of riot-ravaged homes and businesses is to prevent distress sales and to promote an orderly reconstruction programme. Government funds are to be injected into salvageable industries, with export-earners a top priority. In exchange, the government will take a share of the equity and appoint directors. In theory, former owners will be free to buy back government shares in time. But ministers do not disguise their redistributive intentions. Many are talking about following Malaysia’s example of writing preferences for the majority community into commercial law.
The trade minister has already reorganized rice wholesaling to break the Tamil grip. ‘It is no longer in my interest to allow one community to dominate the wholesale trade in any commodity’, insists Mr Lalith Athulathmudali, who doubles as a government spokesman on Tamil questions. Making room for the Singalese in trade also has a literal meaning. Ravaged city centres such as the Pettah commercial district in Colombo are to be redeveloped; when prime sites are reallocated, former occupants will not necessarily get them back.
The central bank governor, Mr Rasaputram, has another justification for taking ownership out of Tamil hands: their companies might otherwise be hostage to another wave of communal attacks. Better to make Tamil family firms go public and broaden their ownership. The trouble is that this argument may well frighten off Singalese investors, who have also been shaken by the vision of mob rule. So the main new partners in Tamil-owned companies are bound to be the government and the banks.
The state stake in Sri Lanka’s injured industries is meant to be temporary. But, if the alternative is returning economic control to the Tamils, the government may decide to hold on. The World Bank, among others, is worried that this will mean the expansion of an inefficient state sector; it would prefer to see the financing and management of reconstruction left to the banks. The banks are anyway involved because of the high level of lending to the ruined companies – how high nobody yet knows.
The losses are still being added up in the statistical department of the central bank, which has sent out teams of accountants and surveyors to do an on-site census of destruction. The preliminary estimate of $150m worth of damage to commercial and residential property – equivalent to about 4% of Sri Lanka’s GNP – is almost certainly too low, because it is based on book value; replacement costs might be five to 10 times higher. It also excludes the value of lost stocks, lost output and lost export orders.
The destruction of nine coconut mills, for example, could cost Sri Lanka its position as the world’s second largest exporter of coconut oil; all oil exports have been suspended. Although half the factories making clothing for export have been put out of action, the net losses in this $150m-a-year trade may be made up by surplus capacity.
Optimistic ministers are predicting that recovery will take two or three years. But this will depend partly on the government’s ability to raise capital at home and abroad. The International Monetary Fund is sending a team to Colombo later this month to reassess its agreement to provide $100m in three tranches over the next 18 months.
Another key factor in Sri Lanka’s recovery will be the brain-drain of Tamils. Thousands of Tamil professional people are said to have left the country since the violence began last month. One leading Tamil entrepreneur – and Sri Lanka’s most successful entrepreneurs are Tamil – estimates that 90% of his fellow-industrialists are now contemplating emigration. If they go, Sri Lanka will lost more than their capital assets, many of which went up in smoke last month. It will lose commercial instincts and management skills which have aroused Singalese envy but not yet imitation. This could prove the most serious casualty of the conflagration of ’83.
Lanka Burns [V.S.Jayaschandran: The Week, Kochi, August 14-20, 1983, pp. 16-21]
Sarayu Subramanian quickened her pace. She had got off the bus near the Colombo General Hospital after calling on a friend and now had to walk nearly two furlongs to reach her house. Dusk was setting in and if she didn’t get home before sundown, even her little brother in the orthodox Brahmin family would be furious.
Sarayu shivered at the thought of walking down the narrow lane leading to her house as she turned the kerb. Oh, there is nothing to worry, she tried to console herself. Then she heard the wild howling. About a dozen people were running towards her. She saw they carried hatchets and iron rods, the murderous hate in their gleaming faces and, beyond them, flames leaping from houses at the end of the lane. She tried to run, but the legs were treacherous, they stood rooted to the ground. ‘Kill her, kill that Indian bitch’, someone shrieked.
After the first blow on the head, Sarayu did not feel the wrath of the senseless attackers. She did not know she had also received a deep stab wound on the left shoulder and an ugly gash on the back. ‘They left me for dead’, she later told her father, who is a teacher, and all of her family have sought asylum in a refugee camp set up in a government school along with hundreds of others.
Far from the General Hospital, Eli Skarstein from Stavenger stood on the balcony of her hotel room, gripping the railing. ‘Pack up, Kristin. Quick’, she shouted to her 15 year-old daughter and rushed to the room. The Norwegian tourist, who was in the tourists’ paradise that was Sri Lanka for a two-week holiday, had a minute before seen the most horrible sight of her life. A mini-bus carrying Tamils had been set ablaze after pouring gasoline on it. All the 20 persons inside the bus, including women and children, burnt to death while hundreds stood witness. ‘It was ghoulish’, Skarstein, once back home in Norway, told Oslo newspaper Verdens Gang.
Yellow and red tongues of fire leaped high from houses all over the capital as the Sinhalese rioters set their flaming torches to homes of Tamil settlers as if they were possessed by a demon. The fire, which cannot discriminate nor knows ethnic differences, spread to nearby Sinhalese houses also and reduced them to ashes. Streets were littered with burning vehicles, stones and sticks, and smoking corpses. Under the cover of the darkness diluted by the haze of the full moon, hundreds of homeless Tamils ran to temples and churches for shelter where many lay prostrate, mumbling agonized prayers. It was Sunday, July 24.
The night was tense with fearsome rumours like massacre of the Sinhalese minority in the northern Tamil-dominated peninsula of Jaffna, sighting of a mysterious ship off the Colombo coast, and attack on the Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner in Madras. There were even reports that foreign troops had landed on the island. The rumours which would later be proved false had, however, served their purpose. Sinhala passions were inflamed.
The rumours were floated after the announcement of the defence ministry that 13 soldiers were killed on July 23 in an ambush in Jaffna by Liberation Tigers, Tamil extremists demanding a separate state called Eelam for the Tamils who form 20 percent of the total island population. The soldiers were traveling in a truck when a detonator activated from a distance exploded. Some of them jumped out and ran for cover but fell victims to a shower of bullets sprayed from all directions. The truck was blown up with hand-grenades.
Colombo, 375 km south of the perennially troubled Jaffna, was plunged in Sinhala mob fury once the news reached the capital through the government controlled radio. The fuse of the holocaust that was to follow was thus lit by the government itself which also had taken much pains to conceal the fact that the army had carried out reprisals to avenge the ambushed soldiers. It also did not deny or confirm the terrorists’ version that the soldiers had raped four Tamil women, two of whom killed themselves out of shame. The Tamil extremists too were not clear about the immediate provocation for the armymen’s ambush. Some said it was in retaliation of the killing of ‘Lieutenant’ Lucas Charles Anthony, alias Seelan, and another Tiger at the Meesalai forests of Jaffna on July 15.
As whirlpools of insane anger drowned the precariously kept peace all over the island followed by the wave of looting, killings and arson unleashed by the rioting Sinhalese mobs, the government clamped down curfew on Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara and Jaffna. Colombo looked like a battlefield, with army men chasing looters and shots ringing out from throughfares and bylanes. Despite the curfew, armed gangs rampaged through Tamil settlements like Bambalapitty and a Ganesha temple in Wellawatta was burnt down.
Those who slept on Sunday night slept fitfully. Those who did not, tuned in the BBC, hoping for a correct version of the developments. It was in vain. The Sri Lanka government was scrupulously censoring all news and it seemed Jaffna was no longer a part of the earth. It was completely cut off, the Liberation Tigers had blasted off the main bridge connecting it to the island and telecommunications links were all down. On Monday morning the rumour spread that the Tigers had poisoned the water supply mains but it was never substantiated. Then came the news about the shocking massacre in the maximum security Welikade prison of Colombo.
The violence of Sunday was only the prelude to the horrid death-dance the Sinhalese would stage throughout the week and after. The next day the voice of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation sounded desperate. ‘The city is full of lies. Believe us, don’t believe anybody else’, it said. Just before the announcement, 37 Tamil prisoners held in the Welikade prison, had been brutally beaten to death by Sinhalese prisoners after wrenching sticks and iron rods from prison walls. Among those butchered were Yogachandran alias Kuttimani, whom the opposition Tamil United Liberation Front had nominated to Parliament, and two other Liberation Tiger leads Thangadurai and Jagan. They were facing death sentence for killing two policemen in Jaffna last year. Top leaders of Tamil Eelam Liberation Front and Gandhiyam party too fell prey to the rabid frenzy.
Across the shallow Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, the people of Tamil Nadu and their political leaders were becoming restive. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M. Karunanidhi, who also has in the past voiced separatist demands on behalf of Tamils in India, called upon the Indian government to send its troops marching to Sri Lanka. It was also an opportune moment for Karunanidhi to embarrass the Union government, his party having severed all connections with the Congress (I) after the dismissal of the DMK government of Pondicherry. He was trying to gain political capital out of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s reiteration that there was no question of India intervening in the Sri Lankan affairs.
Tamil Nadu Kamaraj Congress president P. Nedumaran, back from a Tamil United Liberation Front meeting in Mannar, brought gory tales of inhuman violence and hinted that a 57-member boy scout team of Tamil Nadu visiting Sri Lanka was in grave danger. (The boy scouts returned safely to Madras last week.) Ruling All-India Anna DMK leader, M.G. Ramachandran, not to be outdone, announced that a government-sponsored bandh would be organized on August 2.
In Colombo the situation was worsening with every passing hour and riots were spreading to the port town of Trincomalee in the upland belt were the famous Temple of Tooth containing a dental relic of Lord Buddha is located. Sailors of the Lankan Navy went on a rampage in Tamil plantation labour settlements in the pilgrim centre and burnt nearly 200 shops.
Hundreds of tourists, who had come well in advance to watch the glorious Perahera celebrations at Kandy pilgrim centre on August 23, rushed to the airport with their bag and baggage. At the Pettah bazaar, the big business centre of Colombo, Industry Minister Cyril Mathew, who has been accused of leading an attack on a former Tamil minister’s residence, stood watching the shops burn and the rioters pursue their victims with drawn weapons. Besides the lungi-clad Matthew was Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake. A little away from Galle Face the body of a 12 year-old boy was found dangling from the staircase of an apartment with a broken beer bottle stuck in his stomach.
At Kandy in the central hills, once a powerful Sinhala kingdom which did not experience subjugation till the British ousted the Portuguese and the Dutch from the island, hundreds of Tamils were bludgeoned and burnt. At Anuradhapuram, after a lull in the violence on Tuesday, Sinhala mobs rampaged through the ancient historical town and unscrupulous elements and anti-socials joined in the looting. In a Jaffna prison, warders opened fire after three Sinhala inmates were lynched. For the first time, Sri Lanka President J R Jayewardene noticed a pattern in the violence and looting which he said was engineered by an organized force. His cabinet members, including Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed, repeated the charge like obedient choir boys.
Before the shock waves could subside, came the report that 17 more prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the notorious Public Security Ordinance were murdered in the Welikade prison by Sinhalese inmates. Amidst rumours that Jayewardene had lost control over the army, the soldiers concentrated on a two-pronged attack: against the rioters and against the Tigers who had come in large numbers from the northern parts to Colombo and were sniping at the soldiers from vantage positions the had taken on roof-tops. The civil strife on the Resplendent Island (that is what ‘Sri Lanka’ means) had become a pitched street battle. The attacks on the army by the Tigers were quick and sudden and they were in military uniforms.
There were violent reactions in other parts of the world. In Paris a Sinhala student was thrown out of the window from the seventh floor of a building on July 28 after a clash between Tamils and Sinhalese and two more would be killed later. In London a petrol bomb was thrown at the Sri Lankan embassy while before the Indian high commission in London, hundreds of Tamils lit candles and sat up the night. In Tamil Nadu, a Sri Lankan student was shot dead at St Thomas Mount and a Sinhala student was injured. In Tiruchi, far away from Madras, a private bus driver lost his cool after being stopped by an anti-Jayewardene procession and went on a rampage, crushing 13 persons to death.
As Indian External Affairs Minister P V Narasimha Rao was closeted with Jayewardene in Colombo, 13 Tamil youths were roasted alive at Colombo’s main Fort railway station by the security forces who had caught them while trying to sabotage the track. At Galle, south of Colombo, armoured cars patrolled the streets and at Borella, Air Force copters were flying low, almost strafing the houses.
Maradana looked ghostly, and a million uprooted Tamils headed for the clannish safety of Jaffna, their stronghold. The State Department of the United States issued a statement in Washington, conveying the impression that it would stand by in case of any eventuality. The statement read: ‘The Department is deeply concerned by this violence because of our warm relationship with Sri Lanka and our support for its independence, territorial integrity and unity.’
Sharp differences of opinion in the Jayewardene cabinet were meanwhile becoming explicit and in desperation the government tightened the press gag, forbade Tamil United Liberation Front leader A Amirthalingam from leaving the country and in a sudden move banned the three communist parties – The Communist Party of Sri Lanka, the militant Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Nava Lanka Sama Samaja Party. A bill would soon be introduced in Parliament to proscribe all separatist demands.
Stewart Slavin, a UPI correspondent, dropped a red hot brick saying that Jayewardene had sought military assistance from the US, Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh and that it was planning action against Russian and East German diplomats. Shockingly enough, it was found that the Soviet embassy had 300 personnel on its staff in Colombo which was viewed by the government with grave concern. In Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, the Union government gave open support for the bandh organized by regional parties and in Parliament many members cried for Jayewardene’s scalp.
Ten days after the start of the orgiastic riots, the death toll crossed 2,000 though officially it was less than 300. Tamil organizations put it well above 4,000 and about a lakh refugees who might eventually land in India were lodged in filthy, barbed-wire fenced relief camps even after evacuation of about 800 Tamils to Jaffna by Indian ship Bharat Seema. Nearly Rs 500 million was lost in the looting and the burning of factories, business houses and banks which would prove to be a hard blow to recover for the Sri Lankan economy which has been very delicate even otherwise. Said the state-run Daily News: ‘It was apparent that apart from the human misery, the damage caused to the country by this violence which left piles of smouldering embers where homes and prosperous business once stood, would be tremendous.’
More than the appalling blood-bath in ethnic riots which have assumed the dimensions of a civil war, the charge that some foreign powers are planning to invade the island has to be viewed with utmost seriousness. President J R Jayewardene has not yet divulged who the foreign powers are but the targets of his attack are obvious: India and Soviet Union.
Whatever the truth of the matter – whether the aged president is seeing phantoms, or it is just a gimmick to gain the sympathy of the western nations in an hour of dire need, or his fears are justified - it is a fact that Sri Lanka has made moves to bolster its defence forces in anticipation of an invasion. Sri Lankan forces are woefully inadequate to defend the country in the event of an invasion, having only 17,000 personnel in its three services. Likewise, the number of weapons and armoured cars and aircraft it has is limited.
Though Sri Lanka had denied, that too not very categorically, that it had approached the United States, Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh for military assistance and expelled Stewart Slavin who flashed the news. There was no doubt in New Delhi or elsewhere that Jayewardene did seek help from the four nations. External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao was very positive when he said in Parliament that there was substance in the UPI report and that India was considering ‘options’ to meet the developments.
While the British foreign office has confirmed that it had received such a request from Sri Lanka, the United States said there was no question of giving weapons to Sri Lanka. But the same day, the United States agreed to deliver sophisticated Harpoon missiles to Pakistan, for whom it would not be embarrassing to place the weapons at Sri Lankan disposal if it so desires.
What is significant is that Sri Lanka did not seek help from either India or the Soviet Union which had rushed military equipment to the country to quell the insurgency of 1971. In fact, most of the aircraft the Lankans now have are those left behind by the Russians under an agreement of long term deferred payment scale.
Jayewardene has been making provocative statements ever since he assumed office in 1977. Heading the liberal, social democratic United National Party, he has been avowedly pro-west and under him Sri Lanka has been drifting towards western powers. One of the few non-aligned countries to openly denounce the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka also has indirectly welcomed American and British naval presence in the Diego Garcia. Further, Jayewardene had virtually signed a deal with an oil company of America, giving it lease rights over oil storage tanks in the strategic harbour town of Trincomalee. The deal was abandoned in the last minute following protests that the arrangement would give formal access to the US navy in the area. Jayewardene now plans to call global tenders but it fools nobody since the contract can still be bagged by the Americans.
When the Indian government voiced apprehensions over the issue, an overly confident Jayewardene said: ‘We will give it to anybody we like. We must have friends in the world.’ Equally nonchalant was his observation when questions were raised about Sri Lanka’s stand on Afghanistan. ‘If Indians invade us for taking a different attitude, that’s the worst they can do. What are we frightened of anybody in the world?...If I am alive I will carry on the movement against that invasion.’
‘If India invade us’ has been an explosive refrain in the litany of charges Jayewardene has been making all these years. Barely two days before he conferred with Indian External Affairs Minister on the strife-torn island, Jayewardene repeated the refrain. He was quoted in Colombo’s independent newspaper Sun as saying that ‘if India by any chance even decided to invade us, we will fight and maybe lose, but with dignity. Then we will go into exile and come back to our country later.’ This was despite Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi’s repeated assertions that India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
In fact, Jayewardene had tried to whip up anti-Indian feelings by making a statement a few months ago that former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had feared an invasion by India during the Bangladesh war for having given refueling facilities in Sri Lanka for Pakistani air force planes and that she had rushed to the then US president Richard Nixon for help against possible Indian reprisal. Sirimavo in her rebuttal reminded Jayewardene that she had met Nixon in October, two months before the Bangladesh war started in December 1971.
Jayewardene government’s stunning accusation that the Communist parties, which have now been banned, had instigated and trained the Liberation Tigers and infiltrated the Sinhalese rioters with the help of the Soviet government cannot be dismissed all too lightly. Jayewardene’s pro-West policies and increasing connections with his ‘friends in the world’ of whom he often boasts cannot have been to the liking of Moscow and the Communist parties who would have been happy if Sirimavo could come back to power.
Sirimavo has always been looking the Moscow way and in 1964, during her first term as the prime minister, had expressed displeasure at the US sending nuclear warships to the Indian Ocean. It is also to be noted that she had prior information about an aborted coup in 1966 against her successor ministry led by UNP leader Dudley Senanayake. Later, when a Soviet naval squadron entered the Colombo harbour for a four-day visit, The Times of London noted that ‘the ships, a cruiser and anti-submarine frigate, are part of a Soviet fleet which has been in the Indian Ocean for several weeks.’ However, the connection, if there was any, between the attempted coup and the presence of the Soviet fleet was never established.
Soon after her return to power in May 1970, one of the major foreign policy decisions Sirimavo took was to grant recognition to the Communist governments of North Korea, North Vietnam and East Germany and suspension of all relations with Israel. Ten days later, on June 24, she expelled the US peace corps from the country. And it was with Soviet weapons and sophisticated MiG aircraft that Sirimavo suppressed the insurrection led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, whose Che Guevara style guerrilla attacks were considered by the Soviet Communist party to be left adventurism.
The bonds between the Soviet Union and Sirimavo are still strong, despite the acute Sinhala chauvinism practised by her Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the allegation that the Russians had actively encouraged the Liberation Tigers and also the rioters in order to topple the Jayewardene government and bring Sirimavo back to power cannot be easily brushed away. The allegation gains some respectability from the startling revelation that the Moscow embassy in Colombo had at least 300 personnel at the time of the riots. In normal circumstances, the embassy need not have had more than a dozen personnel, especially in a tiny and unimportant country like Sri Lanka. It is also noteworthy that Moscow has suddenly recalled its charge d’affairs in Colombo, Yezchov, who was at one time the No.2 man at the soviet Asian desk at Kremlin. The embassy has told the Colombo foreign office that he has gone ‘merely on a short holiday. ‘
Yankee Dickie’s Dirty Politics [B.M. Radhakrishna : The Week, Kochi, August 14-20, 1983, pp. 22-27]
Ethnic violence or racial riots, in the Sri Lanka context, are euphemisms for well-organised attacks on the hapless and helpless Tamil minority with the connivance of the government. There is a pattern and President Jayewardene seems to have patented it.
Replying to notes from the UN Secretariat at Geneva on human rights, the government of Jayewardene gave the following statistics for 1978 (based on 1971 census): total population 14,177,329; Sinhalese 10,195,837 (72 percent); Sri Lanka Tamils 1,623,926 (11.5 percent); Indian Tamils 1,276,894 (9 percent); Sri Lanka Muslims 930,599 (6.6 percent). The government’s reply emphasized that “of the 1,276,894 Indian Tamils, the majority are neither citizens of Sri Lanka nor of India”.
Any discerning Sri Lanka watcher cannot fail to see the sinister implications of showing the Muslims as a separate entity since the people are divided into two linguistic groups – Sinhalese and Tamils. The Tamils include the Muslims and Christians while the Sinhalese include Burghers among whom there are both Buddhists and Christians.
The Sri Lanka Tamils also know too well that no government can give them a fair deal without antagonizing the majority Sinhalese and losing power at the hustings. Since independence in 1948, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have shared power for almost equal periods of time. The UNP was in power from 1948 to 1956. In the 1956 elections, its strength in the national state assembly was reduced to eight. What caused this debacle? Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala had antagonized the Buddhist clergy, using very strong language in his election speeches. Sir John dismissed as ‘bullshit’ claims that the Sinhalese were Aryans. ‘Your forefathers came from the Malabar coast of Kerala,’ he told the Sinhalese in the south eastern coastal areas. ‘The monks who are dabbling in politics and whipping up racial passions should be driven to the sea with their heads shaven and arses sealed with coal tar,’ Sir John was reported to have said. Sir John was so outspoken that he failed to see his rival, Solomon Bandaranaike who had formed the SLFP making political capital of his tirade against the Buddhist clergy.
From 1956 to the end of 1964, except for three months when Dudley Senanayake was prime minister, the SLFP was in power for eight years. Thereafter from 1965 to 1970 the UNP with the support of the Federal Party of the Tamils ruled for five years. In 1970 the SLFP again got the mandate with the left parties supporting it. They were in power till July 1977, two years of its tenure being an extension granted to herself by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike under the state of emergency imposed in 1971 in the wake of an insurgency masterminded by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna which is the Sri Lankan version of the Naxalites.
Political commentators in Sri Lanka would have the world believe that political events in India have influenced the course of developments there. This was not so at least until the 1977 elections. However, in 1977 when Mrs Gandhi lost power the UNP leaders unwisely drew parallels. But then, wisdom had never been a strong point of the UNP leaders or SLFP leaders. ‘Today Indira, tomorrow Sirimavo’ was the slogan the UNP leaders shouted. Believe that it was this slogan that caught the imagination of the Sri Lankan voter, who in any event, had never before voted for a second consecutive term to any government. The UNP secured a massive five-sixths majority while the SLFP could win only eight seats. The Tamil United Liberation Front with 18 seats emerged as the main opposition party in the unicameral Parliament.
The history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka since 1948 has been one of deterioration. In a speech made by TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingam in a national state assembly on Augus t 3 1978 the case of the Tamils for a separate state (Eelam) was put on record. Amirthalingam said: ‘In the then Parliament of 95 elected members, there were eight Tamil members representing the estate Tamil population who are today not there. They have been replaced by Sinhalese members now in double that number. The eight Tamil members were there by the grant of the vote to the bulk of the workers on the estates. This was thought to be a just decision on the question of Tamils of Indian origin by the United Kingdom government. As soon as Ceylon became independent, the first thing the Sinhalese government did was to deprive the Tamil worker in the estates of the vote. This was carefully manoeuvred through a citizenship law that deprived them of citizenship…The entire structure on which the Constitution was based collapsed.’
Amirthalingam conveniently forgot to mention that the bill to deprive the estate workers of Indian origin was backed by the Jaffna Tamils’ leader Ponnambalam. The stateless Tamils of Indian origin have to this day not forgotten, much less forgiven, his duplicity. The next important thing that took place was the passing of the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act by the Bandaranaike government in 1956. This was followed by another important event – the framing of a new Constitution in 1972 which, to put in the words of Amirthalingam, ‘gave everything to the Sinhalese and nothing to the Tamils.’
The TULF which was formed with four parties – Suntheralingam’s party, Ponnambalam’s party, the Federal Party of Chelvanayakam and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress of Thondaman – did not participate in the making of this Constitution. Today, Suntheralingam’s party and Ponnambalam’s party are not there. Thondaman’s party left the TULF and he is a cabinet minister of Jayewardene.
The return to power in the July 1977 elections of Jayewardene who is nicknamed ‘Yankee Dickie’ for his pronounced pro-American views, had raised hopes that he would redress the grievances of the Tamils and end, once for all, the problems of the statelessness of the Tamils of Indian origin. In fact, Thondaman joined the UNP government in the fond hope that his people could feel more secure than was the case when Sirimavo was in power. It was Sirimavo who had nationalized the tea estates which were in the hands of British companies. Subsequent events have belied Thondaman’s hopes.
But it must be noted that Jayewardene did some good for the Tamils of Indian origin. The 1964 Sirimavo-Shastri pact had provided for granting citrizenship (from the Sri Lanka list of three lakh registered applicants) to four persons for every seven persons repatriated to India. The grant of Sri Lanka citizenship was subsequently linked to the physical repatriation of those granted Indian citizenship. This was de-linked by Jayewardene’s government in 1981 and it was provided that for every seven persons issued with Indian passports, Sri Lanka would grant citizenship to four persons.
When this amendment was discussed in Parliament, it was opposed by the SLFP group leader Maithripala Senanayake who saw in it a political motive. He was right. At that point of time there were about 80,000 Indian passport holders who were overstaying in Sri Lanka for the simple reason that the government had not settled their dues on provident fund and gratuity. The measure facilitated granting Sri Lanka citizenship to about 45,000 estate workers. This meant these 45,000 persons earning the voting rights and being put in a position of enhancing the electoral fortunes of the UNP in a number of constituencies where the margin of votes secured by the UNP and the SLFP was narrow.
The 17-year extended operative period of the Sirimavo-Shastri pact expired on October 30, 1981 and the Indian High Commission stopped entertaining applications for Indian citizenship. There are many Tamils of Indian origin who have not applied for citizenship either of Sri Lanka or of India. They are mostly uneducated poor labourers. In point of law they simply do not exist and they can be dumped in the detention camps in Sri Lanka. This aspect of the problem, a human problem, does not seem to have engaged the attention of India.
Why is it that Jayewardene has not been able to settle the dues of at least those who had been issued Indian passports? The government would have to part with at least Rs 20 billion which amounts to about 66 percent of the national revenue budget of 1982. The tea estates are already in very bad shape and tea is no longer the number one foreign exchange earner that it was. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka and a Canadian team which prepared the master plan for tea plantations had arrived at the conclusion that repatriation of the Indian Tamils was the chief factor responsible for the bad health of the estates. Jayewardene is conscious of this hard fact. But, for reasons purely political, he would not come to grips with this problem.
Thuggery is part and parcel of Sri Lanka politics. Every party has thugs and the UNP has more of them. Thugs are used to break strikes of government employees and for silencing voices of dissent side by side with employing the police and the army. In 1958 there was outbreak of violence but the estate workers were not touched. They became victims of organized attacks for the first time in August 1977 after the UNP came to power. Four years later in August 1981, there was another wave of violence, directed against the estate workers. A number of victims fled to Colombo where they were sheltered in the two temples managed by affluent Indian Tamil businessmen. They were looked after there by some good Samaritans including the TULF leaders. Not a single minister of Jayewardene’s government nor he himself went to wipe their tears. A sad Thondaman, Minister of rural development, met Jayewardene and submitted a memorandum in which he said:
‘The very fact that even plantation workers, innocent of any political crimes, have been singled out for murder and mayhem, has created a feeling among the people that the thousands of hooligans covertly enjoy the patronage of powerful personalities’. (Thondaman clearly had in mind his cabinet colleague Cyril Mathew, well known for his anti-Indian feelings). ‘If the government is unable to put an end to the mob rule forthwith, it should say so, so that the people themselves could take the necessary precautions.’
At the very next weekly cabinet meeting Jayewardene took exception to that portion of Thondaman’s memorandum which said ‘if the government is unable…’ and insisted that these words made no sense as Thondaman was a member of the government. Thondaman grasped the point and apologized. Thondaman now knew his people had been attacked to teach him a lesson for opposing the no-confidence motion against Opposition leader Amirthalingam in parliament on July 24, 1981.
During the debate on that no-confidence motion which has no parallel in the world, the sponsor of the motion, Neville Fernando, called Amirthalingam ‘a liar, a murderer and a traitor’ and proclaimed that ‘we will hang you on the Galle Face’ in front of the parliament house. Thousands of copies of the Hansard, containing the official record of the proceedings of the House of July 23 and 24 were printed and distributed in the countryside to arouse communal passion. Observers then confidently predicted that another wave of violence was coming. But nobody expected that the poor estate workers, who were after all the voters of the ruling UNP, would have to bear the brunt.
India, as usual, was slow to react. It did so not until an Indian tourist was hacked to death. It made Foreign Minister A C S Hameed rush to the telephone not only to ring up P V Narasimha Rao but also to contact MGR, chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
The violence currently going on in Sri Lanka has assumed much bigger dimensions and affected all three categories of Tamils and others of Indian origin. Hundreds were killed and thousands displaced. Hameed did not rush to ring up Narasimha Rao this time nor did he give a damn to MGR’s protests. Why? It is here that we should review the foreign policy objectives of Sri Lanka and India in the very special context of military presence of the major powers in the Indian Ocean.
The beefing up of the Indian Ocean and the strategic importance of Sri Lanka in the region, India’s isolation from among her neighbours on the Kampuchean issue and the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, the presence of Rapid Deployment Force of the US in the region, the US proposal to establish a security system in south-west and west Asia giving Pakistan the option to participate in such security system and the massive aid generously given by the US and western countries to Sri Lanka are responsible for this hardening of attitude on the part of Jayewardene.
He has thrown the Colombo and Trincomalee ports open for visits by warships after a 12-year ban, given facilities for the Voice of America to set up a number of transmitters, which in their sweep of coverage are comparable with the facilities they have in the Philippines and in Greece for the NATO region. The facilities given were among the reasons mentioned before the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives for motivating the liberal aid given to Sri Lanka.
The co-editor of Asian Survey, Dr Leo E Rose, who is professor of political science in the University of California, said in Colombo on November 13, 1981 that the basic objectives of the Indian foreign policy from early 1950s onwards had been to ‘isolate South Asia from broader global politics by reducing the capacity of external major powers for involvement in the region while that of Pakistan was to attract their involvement to serve its foreign policy objectives. China’s policy was to make South Asian states take policies that created complications for India.’
‘The Soviet Union’, Dr Rose said, on the other hand sought to expand its involvement in the region but it was rather unsuccessful in doing this. The only way it could do this to any extent was really in cooperation with India and you have the rather curious development of the Soviet Union operating in south Asia, to a considerable extent, as a client state of India.’
‘I realise’, Dr Rose said, ‘there is some of international press in my country and in other countries which likes to portray India as a client state of Soviet Union, both in the past and in the present. But when you look at the actual situation, it has been in the reverse to a considerable extent, at least in my judgement. It has been rather amusing to find the Soviet ambassador in a number of southeast Asian countries having to explain that their government is not a supportive force for what is loosely defined as a third power, meaning India.’
Dr Rose then went on to explain the success of the Indian foreign policy objectives and acknowledgement of India as the ‘dominant’ power in the region for the first time by US President Richard Nixon soon after the 1971 war, the re-adjustments Pakistan made after the realization that China could not give the kind of assistance it needed in the 1971 conflicts and the re-emergence in the region of the major powers in a big way and its implications.
It should be clear to all Sri Lanka watchers in India by now that threat to India could come, as Mrs Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha on July 19, 1980, from directions other than those in the past. Jayewardene felt triumphant when he left New Delhi after the Non-Aligned summit which had to accept, for the name of consensus, Sri Lanka’s insistence on dropping mention about Diego Garcia from the declaration. That Diego Garcia was mentioned in a separate chapter in a different context does not give any comfort to India. Sri Lanka which has drifted away to the US-China axis and formalized it by applying for membership of the ASEAN must be watched.
The one casualty Jayewardene has suffered is his credibility. That is what happens to whose who pride themselves in pretending to hit in the face but actually hit the somach. The denial of the UPI report about Sri Lanka having asked for military assistance from the US, Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh, conveyed as it was, through the Indian high commissioner, only minutes before Narasimha Rao made his statement in the Lok Sabha on August 2, should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The situation facing India from the neighbours is pregnant with possibilities. India knows it too well. The people too should know about the sinister implications of what is happening in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil Tragedy [Chahanya Kalbag : India Today, August 31, 1983, pp. 14-22.]
The 35-km ride from Katunayake International Airport into Colombo in a slow Mitsubishi coach driven by a nervous Sinhala is enveloped in silence. Almost every Indian visitor is heading for the Lanka Oberoi, or the Galle Face, or the Ceylon Intercontinental hotels that have escaped the attention of mobs in search of hiding Tamils. Suddenly the colour of a visitor’s skin is crucial; if it is dark, and he looks nervous, he is liable to be mistaken for a Tamil, and Tamils venturing out of doors in Colombo are asking to be lynched.
Sri Lanka’s capital city for most of last fortnight looked like it had been taken by a conquering army. Street after street lay empty to the gaze, although the dawn-to-dusk curfew had been lifted, and small, watchful groups of Sinhalas dotted the side-walks, providing flesh-and-blood counterpoints to the hundreds of burnt-out shops and factories and homes that lined the once bustling markets and roads. The arson was professional – charred shells fallen in on themselves, with blackened signboards announcing Tamil ownership hanging askew, here and there a liquor shop with hundreds of broken bottles littering the floor, or a jewelry mart with the showcases battered in and the gold and gems carefully removed before the torching. Fifty yards from the Indian High Commission, right next door to the police headquarters, a stone’s throw from the presidential palace, stood a huge block, blackened and devastated. ‘The shops in this block had heavy grill doors.’ Recalled an eyewitness, ‘so an army truck was used as a battering ram to break through them, and then the soldiers sprang in with Sinhala battle cries to claim the lion’s share of the loot.’
Violent Orgy: That burnt out hulk was only one of the scores of landmarks of violence; shells of destroyed buildings, wrecks of cars and, above all, the scars in the minds of people that remained from Sri Lanka’s week-long orgy of violence that erupted with lightning speed at the end of last month and left in its wake not only a nation embittered and embattled, divided perhaps irretrievably along ethnic lines, but a relatively prosperous economy in ruin. Indo-Sri Lankan ties strained close to breaking point and a country at war with itself.
One-fourth of Colombo’s population is Tamil, and by the first week of August, three-fifths of the Tamils, 90,000 in all, had crowded in terrified disarray into 15 refugee camps, euphemistically called ‘care and welfare centres’, fleeing from the marauding Sinhalas. Almost every refugee had escaped with just the clothes on his or her back, and for days on end the women sat surrounded by their squealing infants, eyes glazed unable to comprehend the catastrophe that had sliced their lives in half.
The Sri Lankan press was censored, and so was the foreign press corps, and foreign correspondents were granted curfew passes that restricted their movement between their hotels and the office in the Fort area of the Director of Information where Don John Francis Douglas Liyanage, a brisk, balding bureaucrat and secretary to Information Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis, presided over daily press briefings. Liyanage’s daily message of increasingly rosy pictures of a ‘normalising’ situation constrasted too sharply with the reality of Colombo, a city like a pressure cooker with the lid on; of streets pocked with gutted buildings and sprinkled with long lines of people queueing up during non-curfew hours to buy a few eggs, or some rice or even cigarettes.
Frightened City: In the short space of a few vicious hours of bloodletting it had become a city thickening with anger and fear, the Tamils expecting a knife in the back at every step, or the Sinhalas freely giving way to a bubbling rage. The most dangerous of all misconceptions abroad that frenzied week was that every Indian is a Tamil, and that every Tamil is a terrorist.
Tamils in Colombo had benefited vastly from President Junius R. Jayewardene’s open economy. They opened thousands of retail food outlets, or small groceries called ‘boutiques’, or jewelry shops, import-export firms, and there were even a few millionaire tycoons controlling coconut processing, textiles or construction material. But that prosperity is now in jeopardy, perhaps forever. The tragedy was that most of the Tamils in Colombo did not want a separate nation, Eelam, which is the cry of the Tamils in the northern districts centred in Jaffna. Indeed, the majority of the victims of the latest violence were the so-called Indian Tamils; those who migrated to Sri Lanka in the last century to work on the estates, and they have traditionally been uncomfortable with the ethnic Jaffna Tamils who have been there for centuries.
Discrimination: According to the 1981 Sri Lanka census, there were 8.25 lakh Indian Tamils (5.5 percent of the population), and 1.8 million Ceylonese (Jaffna) Tamils (12.6 percent of the population). The Indian Tamils live mostly in the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Ratnapura and Kegalle – traditional tea-garden and Sinhala areas. The Jaffna Tamils are concentrated in Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Mullaitivu, along the island’s northern and eastern coast.
Successive Sri Lankan governments have discriminated against the Indian Tamils. In 1948 they were disenfranchised, and two agreements signed between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments in 1964 and 1974 provided for the repatriation of 6 lakh Indian Tamils to India, with Sri Lanka granting citizenship to the remaining 3.75 lakh. Until February this year, only 4.05 lakh of the Indian Tamils had been granted Indian citizenship, and over a lakh of these still await repatriation. Sri Lanka has also been tardy with its side of the arrangement and owes 1.96 lakh citizenships.
The Jaffna Tamils, however, have historically been a distinct entity, and even under the Portuguese and the Dutch the Tamil kingdoms in the north were separate and independent. The British brought the two communities together for the first time in order to facilitate administration, but since independence in 1948, there have been outbreaks of Sinhala rage against the Tamils in 1956, 1958 and then four times so far in Jayewardene’s regime. In recent years, the Tamil desire for a separate nation has crystallized into armed revolt from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla band consisting of not more than 200 armed youths. The Jaffna Tamils feel they are second-class citizens in Sri Lanka, and echo their late leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who said in 1975: ‘Our basic mistake was not to ask for independence when the British left.’
Inadequate Sops: When elected by a landslide margin in 1977, Jayewardene held out a few sops to the Tamils. These included a provision in the new Constitution, which came into effect in September 1978, whereby Tamil joined Sinhala as a national language, although Sinhala continued to be the sole official language; the setting up of District Development Councils (DDC) which the president promised would lead to devolution of power; and a new admissions policy for universities, which has led to a rise in Tamil admissions, in contrast with the discriminatory policy followed by Mrs Bandaranaike’s government.
But such measures did not evoke satisfaction among the Tamils. The DDCs were given few powers, and most district ministers, even in the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna, were Sinhala. The use of Sinhala as the official language posed tremendous problems for the Tamils, whose schools rarely taught the Sinhala language. And since university admissions were based in large part on the basis of districts only six of the country’s 24 districts having a Tamil majority, Sinhala students once again enjoyed an advantage over their Tamil counterparts.
The Jayewardene Government’s Tamil slate is far from clean in other respects. An Amnesty International report released on July 6 details the reign of repression and terror let loose by the security forces in the north and east of the island. Amnesty Internaitonal points out that the Sri Lankan Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979) is far more draconian than similar acts in South Africa and Britain, allowing for 18 months’ detention without trial, arbitrary arrest, and practically unchecked powers of torture and interrogation of suspects.
Seeking Sanctuary: After last fortnight’s violence, the wealthier Tamils either fled into the sanctuary of luxury hotels or took the first flight out of the country. During the first week of the violence at least 20 Indian High Commission staff with their families had to be placed in expensive hotels because they had all been staying in the lower middle class suburb of Wellawatta, where the rents are low, but where the houses, densely bunched together, made easy targets for the mobs.
The eradication of the Tamils led to another piquant situation; there were no outlets for essential food supplies during non-curfew hours, and while looted video-recorders were selling for 500 Sri Lankan rupees on the pavements, the Government desperately asked for help in distributing food. Most of the makeshift refugee camps were in school buildings or Hindu temple courtyards. Inside the camps, the cowering Tamils talk in whispers. ‘The CID is all around us, in plain-clothes.’ Says Dr Ganapathy Raja, at the Vinayakar Kovil camp in Bambalapitiya, ‘and we have to smuggle ourselves in and out of the camp. We can’t even reach outside for help.’ The sanitation is atrocious in the camps, and by week’s end dozens of refugees have come down with acute dysentery, some say even cholera, and an entire wing of the Colombo General Hospital has been cordoned off to house sick refugees.
The violence spread, the inferno engulfed other towns Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee. The Government chose to explain it as a ‘spontaneous Sinhala reaction to atrocities committed by Tamil terrorists’. But there was a cold-blooded method to the madness. The mobs were armed with voters’ lists, and detailed addresses of every Tamil-owned shop, house, or factory, and their attacks were very precise. There was little honour among the marauders. On the second day the Tamils were set upon by Colombo’s Moors, or Muslims, but on the third day the Sinhala mobs turned upon the Muslims too, at Nugegoda in Colombo’s south.
At fortnight’s end, most government offices in Colombo had lost their substantial Tamil staff. Senior Tamil officials, like the food commissioner of Sri Lanka, the director of Sri Lanka Telecommunication, and officials of the Indo-Sri Lanka Microwave Network had been missing from their homes for weeks.
Also badly hit were three of the island’s biggest industrialists; K. Gunaratnam, whose empire included textiles, film distribution and transportation; A.Y.S. Gnanam, who started life as a street peddler and rose to control a major manufacturing firm St. Anthony’s Hardwares, and the Syntex and Asian Cotton Mills, and was formerly a member of the Board of Governors of the Free Trade Zone; and Rajamahendran Maharaja, whose group was one of the largest in Sri Lanka, manufacturing cosmetics, trading and distributing imported products, and contracting large chunks of the Mahaweli project programmes. Along with the Hirdaramanis and the Jafferjees, Sindhi and Bohra businessmen who have established strong footholds over the last 50 years. The total loss suffered by these industries was estimated at 2,000 million Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 800 crore) and their destruction led to the loss of 1.5 lakh jobs.
Most astonishing of all was the manner in which President Jayewardene reacted to the violence. For a leader who does not want his country to break into two, the president was singularly chary of identifying and condemning the very forces that were pushing the Tamils into a corner and the country into disintegration. Almost as though he were a Nero fiddling while his Rome burnt, Jayewardene went on the air only four days after the carnage exploded with a speech unique in its rationalization of lumpen frenzy.
With not a word of sympathy for the terrorized Tamils, who had never before been set upon with such ferocity in the Sinhala heartland, the president said that ‘the time has come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhala people’ by outlawing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) - the Tamils’ only legitimate political party in Parliament and the largest opposition group with 16 MPs in a house of 168 where the ruling UMP has 139 seats.
In fact, only after the violence had abated by August 8 did Jayewardene admit to western correspondents that the news of army atrocities in Jaffna two weeks before the ambush and killing of 13 soldiers on July 23 had been ‘deliberately’ withheld from him. ‘Discipline is a problem in the army.’ admitted Jayewardene blandly.
At one stroke, instead of firmly taking things in hand, Jayewardene had chosen the path of appeasing Sinhala sentiment. ‘I cannot see, and my government cannot see,’ he said, ‘any other way by which we can appease the natural desire and request of the Sinhala people.’
Harsh Measures: After appeasement came the search for a ‘hidden hand’. On July 30 the Government banned three left parties – the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – which had, under Rohana Wijeweera’s leadership, led an insurrection against prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government in 1971, the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), and the Communist Party (Moscow). Twenty of their leaders were arrested over the following days, but Wijeweera and NSSP leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara went into hiding.
Simultaneously, government ministers, and the press, raised the spectre of a communist-inspired plot to destroy Jayewardene’s open economy and to divide the country. Despite censorship, the Sun, a virulent Sinhala paper, demanded the closure of the Soviet and East German embassies. By fortnight’s end, however, allegations that the Soviet Union was fomenting trouble, and that a number of Soviet diplomats were about to be expelled, had died down.
Ironically, the JVP’s Wijeweera had been released from imprisonment by Jayewardene in October 1977, and JVP cadres, the vanguard of the ‘new’ left, had even been cosying up to the UNP Government. All three banned parties in any case had been roundly rejected by the electorate in the 1977 elections, and the Communist Party’s sole MP, Sarath Muttettuwegama, was unseated by the Supreme Court on July 22 after an election petition filed against him was upheld.
Hardline Threat: None of these manoeuvres, which later events have proved to be red herrings, deflected from the unpalatable fact that the president was facing a strong threat from hardliners within his government, and that the violence had been encouraged by these elements as a means of scaring the Tamils. What Jayewardene did not bargain for was a combination of jumpy and rebellious troops and a shadowy group of Sinhala Buddhist fanatics, led by militant Bhikkus (monks) of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna, which first came into prominence in 1956. Currently, Jayewardene, who is 76, is facing sustained opposition from different power groups in the Government, all jockeying for the first position in the race to take the president’s place. The groups:
The security group, with close links with the armed forces and staunchly anti-Tamil, led by Cabinet Secretary G.V.P. Samarasinghe, Presidential Secretary W.M.P. Menikdiwela, and Defence Secretaries Colonel C.A.Dharmapala and General S.Attygalle.
The party caucus, led by Industry Minister Cyril Mathew, a militant Buddhist zealot, UNP Chairman N.G.P. Panditharatne, minister Ranil Wickremasinghe – who controls a large youth cadre, and UNP Secretary Harsha Abeywardena.
The prime minister’s cabal, led by Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. Although Premadasa belongs to the lowly Hinna caste, his acumen and manoeuvrability have made him a front runner in the succession sweepstakes.
The Gamini Dissanayake faction, led by the young minister of lands, land development and the Mahaweli Project. Dissanayake has emerged as Jayewardene’s protégé after the death of heir-apparent and tycoon Upali Wijewardene in an air crash earlier this year.
The Ananda Tissa de Alwis faction, led by the unprepossessing information minister. De Alwis may be a stop-gap arrangement if a leadership vacuum arises after Jayewardene.
Sources say that Industries Minister Mathew, who also controls the powerful labour union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya, was directly responsible for pinpointing Tamil-owned shops and factories to be destroyed. In Parliament, on August 4, during the debate on the Sixth Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution, which has effectively banned the TULF on the grounds that it advocates separatism, Mathew defended the violence by saying: ‘The Sinhala were frustrated for years, they were discriminated (against). If the Sinhala is the majority race, why can’t they be the majority?’ Mathew is also the leader of the island’s backward Vahumpura community, which comprises over a third of the population and has been ata disadvantage traditionally vis-à-vis the Tamils in jobs and business.
Most disturbing of all, however, was the carefully floated rumour that India’s armed forces were about to invade Sri Lanka, possibly to bring off a Cyprus-like division of the island. In what was obviously an orchestrated lchorus in the censored press, the Sinhalas were swamped by news of the angry and emotional reaction to the carnage in Tamil Nadu, where the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) vied with each other even resorting to an all-state bandh on August 2 to protest against the genocide let loose against the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Most Sinhala Sri Lankans, and even many Tamils, believe that India is a safe haven for Tiger guerrillas on the run from the security forces, for the Tamil Nadu coast is only 40 km by sea from Talaimannar. The Madras High Court did not help matters by ordering the release on July 28, on conditional bail, of three Tiger leaders held in prison in Madras, Uma Maheswaran, Jotheeswaran and Sivanesan. The Tamil Nadu Government added fuel to the fire by not opposing the Tigers’ bail application.
The anti-Tamil sentiment in Sri Lanka, therefore, metamorphosed into distinctly anti-Indian feeling as the troubled fortnight drew to an end. On July 31, a pseudonymous columnist, Migara, wrote in Colombo’s Sun that Jayewardene feared imminent attack by India, and that Sri Lanka would seek external assistance if the attack came. When UPI Correspondent Stewart Slavin was expelled from the country on August 2 for reporting that Sri Lanka had asked for military assistance from the United States, Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Government merely cited his violation of censorship rules, but only four days later officially denied his report, after the Lok Sabha had been agitated by the report. External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao said the Government of India felt there was substance in it, and the External Affairs Ministry politely warned foreign missions in New Delhi that any armed interference in Sri Lanka would be considered as a move hostile towards India.
Indian Concern: When similar Sinhala violence against the Tamils was unleashed in August 1981 – and in Jayewardene’s regime it has exploded with clockwork precision every two years since 1977 – an Indian tourist was killed and the president telephonically apologized to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This time, at least 2,500 Indian citizens, most of them shoestring-budget tourists from Tamil Nadu journeying to Kataragama, a temple in Sri Lanka’s deep south, were trapped in the violence.
Narasimha Rao was refused permission to visit any camp when he flew to Colombo on July 28. ‘Rao ostensibly came to express India’s concern.’ says an official of Jayewardene’s secretariat, ‘but he held out a veiled threat to the President that India might be forced to take drastic action if the killings continued. Jayewardene told him to go ahead and carry out the threat.’
Nevertheless, on August 7, two days before he sent his brother H.W. Jayewardene to New Delhi to discuss the crisis with Indian leaders. President Jayewardene directly accused India of harbouring and helping Tamil terrorists. ‘If India decides to invade us,’ he had told the Sun, ‘we will fight and maybe lose, but with dignity.’ The message wasn’t new, and indicated a deep-rooted anxiety, for last May Jayewardene had told The Hindu in a lengthy interview: ‘Supposing she (India) invades, our principles are not in any way tarnished by India’s invasion. Take Sri Lanka and rule it. (You) can’t rule 15 million people if they are opposed to it. If I am alive I will carry on the movement against that invasion.’
Telephonic Talks: The Government of India’s response to this phobia was measured, and yet firm. On July 31, Mrs Gandhi told Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, who led an all-party delegation to Delhi, that New Delhi viewed the Sri Lankan crisis as a national problem, and not as one confined to Tamil Nadu. On August 5, Mrs Gandhi spoke to Jayewardene on the telephone, the second time in 10 days, and said that India would not interfere in Sri Lanka’s affairs in any way.
‘At the same time,’ the prime minister later told the Lok Sabha, ‘I pointed out to the president that developments in Sri Lanka affect us also. Sri Lanka and India are the two countries which are directly concerned. Any extraneous intervention will complicate matters for both our countries.’
That was the basis of India’s strategic perspectives but it failed to take into account the traditional Sri Lanka insecurity with its northern neighbour which compels Colombo to bristle at times of such crisis. ‘From here,’ says a Colombo journalist, ‘our perception of India is obscured by her bulk. To our north-west looms Tamil Nadu, and to us the Tamils of India or of Sri Lanka are indistinguishable.’
Indeed, Sri Lanka Tamil politics have frequently spilled over into Tamil Nadu, and the Tigers, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELF) and the TULF all have offices in Madras. Mrs Gandhi is obviously reluctant to lose all support in Tamil Nadu, where Chief Minister Ramachandran has played an off-again on-again game with the Centre in his relations. ‘There are 55 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu.’ says a senior official in the Home Ministry, ‘and if they are agitated about Sri Lanka we cannot ignore their sentiments.’
The repercussions in India of the violence were not long in coming. The majority of the victims of violence were Indian Tamils, and at fortnight’s end only a third of the refugees, numbering roughly 30,000, had chosen to wait in line to go to Jaffna by ship, air or train. Substantial numbers of Indian Tamils were trying to flee to India. Said a Tamil businessman, who lost everything he owned: ‘No place is safe for us. The Indian Tamils feel they will be second-class citizens even in an Eelam ruled by the Jaffna Tamils. We will feel safe only in India.’
In Jaffna, the Tigers were reported to be planning large-scale reprisals against the security forces, only holding themselves in abeyance until all the refugees left the camps in the affected cities. The army had been confined to barracks in the north after it killed at least 100 Tamils in retaliation for the ambush. The Sri Lankan army has never seen action, and it totals only 14,000, with another 6,000 volunteers. Earlier this year 97 soldiers of the Raja Rata Rifles, a regiment created by Jayewardene, revolted in Jaffna and were sacked. Jayewardene himself has admitted that sections of the army are restive and rebellious.
New Course: On August 7, the day after Parliament passed the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing parties that advocated separatism, the 16-member TULF parliamentary group met in Vavuniya to decide future strategy. The TULF has been riven by internal strife in the recent past, with a vocal section demanding achievement of a Tamil Eelam by resort to arms. The TULF MPs decided not to take an oath forswearing separatism. The MPs will automatically lose their seats if they do not attent parliament for three months. On August 9 the TULF said that it would take to armed resistance to defend itself against a ‘savage form of state terrorism’. At fortnight’s end, the TULF issued an appeal to the United Nations to send a peace-keeping force into Sri Lanka.
‘The TULF was formed with non-violent objectives,’ said A. Amirthalingam, the party’s secretary and Leader of the Opposition in Parlament, ‘but the people in the north are very disturbed and can no longer live with the Sinhala people. As every refugee ship arrives in Jaffna, the tales of horror grow. India should insist that the Sri Lanka Government restores law and order.’
‘The TULF could also amend its objective to one of self-determination instead of separation,’ says another TULF MP, ‘or we can operate underground. The right of self-determination includes the right to secede, but also to freely determine our political status, which could be like Quebec’s in Canada. Our party cannot operate in the present form.’ ‘The latest round of violence,’ says TULF MP Neelan Tiruchelvam ‘has put the finishing touch to the eradication of the Tamils. This time the Tamil professional and entrepreneurial class has been destroyed.’
Changing Support: The Indian Tamils had voted overwhelmingly for Jayewardene in the 1977 elections, and the promises he held out had bought the Ceylon Workers Congress, led by S. Thondaman, the largest trade union of Indian Tamil plantation workers, into the Government. But today Thondaman and his two Tamil colleagues in the Cabinet are reported to be reconsidering their support if the Tamils continue to be subjected to a campaign of attrition.
The radicalization of the TULF, and the antagonisation of Jayewardene’s Tamil vote banks, are only some of the products of the latest violence. As more and more affected Tamils crowd into the north, there are indications that support for a protracted and armed struggle for separation will snowball, bringing the Tigers the kind of mass support they had so far been lacking. In a matter of days, the Sinhala-Tamil equation has changed permanently, and neither community now believes it can exist alongside the other.
The economic effects of the violence promise to be even worse. Already, Sri Lanka is reeling under an inflation rate of nearly 35 percent. This year’s budget deficit will amount to 23.4 billion Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 936 crore), and the country has been seeking increasing infusions of foreign aid. Other economic indicators are equally grim – a trade deficit of 21 billion rupees (Rs. 840 crore), unemployment currently at a record high of 5 lakh, and a rupee that has been devalued during the Jayewardene regime’s six years, from 7.89 rupees to the dollar in 1977 to 24.20 after the latest devaluation on July 4.
Unemployment: Last fortnight’s violence threw another estimated 50,000 people out of work, the majority of them Sinhala, and resulted in a loss of 3 billion Sri Lankan rupees (Rs. 120 crore). Worse, foreign investors will now be wary of stepping into so volatile a situation. Refugee rehabilitation and reconstruction of the destroyed houses and factories will swallow hugh chunks of money, and last fortnight Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel issued a desperate appeal to western nations for help.
The Tamils who have already feld Colombo, and those who will leave as soon as they can, will leave a yawning gap in key sectors of the bureaucracy and the trading communities of the cities. The Tamils dominated Sri Lanka’s telecommunication service, the railways and the postal administration, and these crucial services have already suffered grave setbacks because of staff losses.
Most seriously affected is Sri Lanka’s image in the international community. Overnight, it has changed from a well administered paradise into a grotesque parody of Third World capriciousness. Condemnation of the killings and arson has been uniform worldwide, but Jayewardene faces his toughest problem in relations with neighbouring India, where attitudes have hardened and lasting distrust sown. What Sri Lanka required most urgently last fortnight was conciliation and statesmanship, but Jayewardene seemed incapable of providing either. Due in no small measure to the vacillation of its leader, the island republic had stepped to the brink of the precipice.
Midway through the violence and terror, Sri Lanka Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed took off for Geneva to attend a world conference on racism. That irony symbolized a government that had lost touch with one-fifth of its population, a ruling class that had brutally and callously pushed a minority into a corner from where it could only fight back with every shred of anger and ferocity at its command. Above all, the Government’s indifference towards the long-term implications of the forces it had unleashed illustrated the cynical double standards that have taken firm root in Theravada Buddhism’s ‘last citadel’.
Tamil Nadu: Backlash [S.H. Venkatramani : India Today, Aug. 31, 1983, p. 18.]
Inevitably, the fall-out from the anti-Tamil carnage in Sri Lanka settled on Tamil Nadu where reactions ranged from the frenzied to the farcical. Life in the state was almost totally paralysed as a bewildering succession of strikes, road and ‘rail roko’ agitations, sporadic incidents of violence and a plethora of processions erupted in the wake of the Sri Lankan crisis.
The week-long agitation was capped last week by the resignations from the State Assembly of DMK President M. Karunanidhi and K. Anbazhagan, deputy leader of the DMK in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, in protest against the Centre’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the Tamil situation in Sri Lanka. Though in general the state-wide protests and burning of Jayewardene’s effigies were spontaneous actions, it was patently clear that the grief-stricken state’s political bosses were bent on milking the issue for political gain. Karunanidhi lost no time in demanding a half-day bandh the day after the Sri Lankan riots erupted and issued an appeal to the prime minister to ‘send troops to Sri Lanka to save the lives of Tamils.’
Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran avoided his usual dramatics and after a four-hour Cabinet meeting declared a week-long mourning period in the state and also issued a call for a state-wide bandh. Not only was the bandh supported by all the political parties but by the Centre as well, a clear corollary to the new-found romance between the Congress (I) and the AIADMK. All central offices and undertakings were shut down and train services to and from the state suspended for the day.
Horror Stories: The emotional and angry reactions were undoubtedly fuelled by the tales of horror related by Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils who fled the island state in the wake of the violence. M.L. Vasanthakumari, Carnatic musician who was in Colombo on a concert tour at the invitation of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), returned to Madras visibly shattered by the experience. ‘My escape from Colombo was providential,’ she said. ‘We were staying with an industrialist friend and on July 25, we received a call from the SLBC asking us to leave immediately. We had barely left the house when it was set on fire by a Sinhalese mob. After that we huddled terrified in a hotel room for four days before we were able to board a Madras flight. It was a horrible experience.’
A 28 year-old systems analyst, a Sri Lankan Tamil who wishes to remain unidentified, had an even ghastlier experience to relate: ‘That morning, we were having a meeting in the office when we heard the sounds of mob fury. We went out onto the balcony and what we witnessed was systematic looting and arson by a merciless mob. The leader had a voters’ list with him to identify Tamil houses. They would mark a Tamil house, forcibly enter, smash the furniture and window panes, drag the inmates out and kill them. Another passing mob would stop cars, extort patrol and set fire to what was left of the houses. I rushed home and told my parents we must leave. Hardly had I said that when we heard the next house being ransacked. We grabbed our passports and a change of clothes and rushed out. A Sinhalese swung at me with a spear. Luckily, a Sinhalese shopkeeper nearby stopped him by telling him we spoke Sinhalese and had done a lot of social work locally. It was like being born again when we got out of the country.’
Political Motives: All this has only spurred opposition political leaders to whip up popular communal and cultural frenzy. Kamaraj Congress President P. Nedumaran has already set off with a huge following on a padayatra from Madurai to Rameshwaram with the intention of crossing over to Talaimannar by country boats. The Dravida Kazhagam has announced a protest march against what it calls the Centre’s indifference to the Tamilian ordeals in Sri Lanka while the DMK has announced a programme to burn copies of the Sri Lanka bill banning political parties which advocate separatism.
The piece de resistance, however, is the resignation of the chief whip of the Government in the State Legislative Council, E.R. Janarthanam ‘to work for the cause of Tamils in Sri Lanka’. Janarthanam has been put in charge of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) office which opened in Madras last week. Political observers interpret these moves as an attempt by the Opposition to force MGR’s hands and pressurize him, on moral grounds, to resign from the chief ministership.
Close Relations: The Tamils in Tamil Nadu have a close affinity with their counterparts in Sri Lanka. Like the Gujaratis who went to East Africa and the Punjabis who went to Britain and Canada during the days of the British Empire, most of the Tamils in Sri Lanka have close relations in India. Tamil films, music, periodicals and Kanjeevaram saris keep the close relationship going between the Tamils living in two sovereign countries, separated by the narrow Palk Straits. Very often, marriages take place across the sea and a Sri Lanka Tamil always comes to Tamil Nadu for shopping whenever there is a wedding in the house.
In other words, it is as if members of the same family are living not far from each other, separated by the narrow strait. Which is why the Tamils in Tamil Nadu get enraged when their brethren are subjected to periodic repression in the island. This is also why racial violence in Sri Lanka becomes a major political issue in Tamil Nadu where the AIADMK and DMK vie with one another in resorting to populist gimmicks.
MGR will have to take a definite stand if the anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka erupts once again a prospect that is frighteningly real. As the wife of a national daily correspondent based in Colombo predicted grimly after she managed to escape to Madras with her two children, ‘The ghost of food riots are looming larger every day. The worst is yet to come.’
The Aftermath [Chahanya Kalbag : India Today, Sept. 15, 1983, pp. 66-76.]
Ganesha’s temple had never seen so many supplicants, all with unanswerable prayers. Colombo’s Tamils call it Pillaiyar Kovil, and its ornamented gateway on Galled Road in the Wellawatta area is flanked by carefully incinerated Tamil shops. Wellawatta was a genteel Tamil ghetto. Now the temple is a refugee camp, and cheek-by-jowl stand three others at Kathiresan Hall, Saraswathy Hall and Hindu College, all pockets of nameless despair, galleries of stricken faces. There is little talk, no laughter, here and there a paroxysm of spent grief.
Colombo’s refugee camps, which once housed 90,000, had dwindled in number last fortnight, and the 13,000 Tamils left behind had nowhere to go – descendants of estate workers brought over from India by the British, they had missed the repatriation bus, holding neither Indian nor Sri Lankan citizenship, were stateless and unwanted. Not for them the options available to the indigenous Jaffna Tamils, 40,000 of whom had fled north by ship, train or bus, or to the lucky ones who owned Indian passports and could expect refuge beyond the Palk Strait.
Pathetic Condition: G.M.K. Naidu came to the island in 1935 from South Africa. The export clerk’s 12-member family was attacked by a Sinhala mob at 1.30 am on July 25 in the Peliyagoda area. Naidu escaped in his shirt and sarong; his son-in-law’s van was burnt. ‘For two days we hid with a friendly Sinhala family,’ he says, ‘and then he was himself threatened. I applied for Indian citizenship in 1970. My son-in-law lost a gunny-bag factory in the 1981 violence. This time we have been wiped out. Where do we go?’
His mutilated hand covered with a piece of cloth to ward off the flies, S. Krishnasamy nervously touches his left ear, obscured by a sticky bandage. A waiter in Ambal Café on Armour Street, Krishnaswamy went to a nearby temple to worship on the Sunday the violence exploded. Waylaid by a mob, he was tossed into a burning shop and then dragged out by some Samaritan. His family in Kegalle has not been heard of.
‘Look at the food we get,’ says R.T. Sadanandan, a laboratory assistant in Colombo’s Medical Research Institute. ‘Undrinkable tea in the morning, watery milk and biscuits for the children, soggy rice and a weak curry at noon, a quarter-pound of bread and coconut sambol (chutney) at night. Some of us haven’t had a bath for two weeks. Where is the aid the Government is getting?’
Homeless Refugees: Just before dawn on August 22 the vessel Bharat Seema slipped out of Colombo’s harbour, on an 11-hour journey to Tuticorin. The ship carried 340 so-called India-Sri Lankan passport holders, people who had been fortunate to have beaten the October 31, 1981, deadline for obtaining Indian citizenship. There were 540 such refugees in the St Thomas Prep School camp next to the American Embassy on Galle Road. ‘Most of these refugees are estate workers who have managed to get here from places near Colombo,’ says Nirupama Rao, first secretary in the Indian High Commission, who is in charge of repatriation. The refugees who didn’t make the ship lacked travel documents, or family cards issued by the Sri Lanka Government. All the estate workers had fled to Colombo because their lines – quarters – had been burnt down on the estates.
One of those who failed to board the Bharat Seema is a frightened, dumpy man, grey stubble framing unkempt spectacles. Mahalingam Acharya, 64, came to Sri Lanka in 1948 from Madurai in Tamil Nadu. A goldsmith by training, his shop in Urugodawatte was burnt down by maddened Sinhala neighbours in 1958. Since then Acharya had been ekeing out an existence by reading horoscopes. He could not forsee his own fate. On July 25 his house was set upon by a howling gang of Sinhala youths and his wife was killed before his eyes. Acharya wanders around the St Thomas camp, waiting for his papers to be issued, wistfully watching the refugees who are preparing to leave for India, their passports being stamped by a harassed Sri Lankan immigration officer at a rickety school desk in the playground.
Each family leaving for India has been promised a compensation of 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 400). But that amount will be paid into an Indian bank at a later date. Manel Abeysekara, the bustling Foreign Office coordinator of the camp, claims that the food, supplied by the Ceylon Hotels Corporation, is not bad at all. ‘Nobody’s assessed the damage to these refugees’ property,’ she says, ‘and so we are not paying any compensation, except the 1,000 rupees.’
In every camp last fortnight the authorities were busy trying to get people to leave, either giving them dry rations of rice, flour and sugar and asking them to go home or to the friendly north, or cutting down on food rations in the hope that more would leave. Hundreds of refugees who trickled in late from around Colombo or from the estates around Nuwara Eliya and Hatton were turned away.
M.S. Croose, 29, is the eldest of four brothers and three sisters, and all of them have somehow got into the St Thomas camp for Indian passport holders, although they are stateless. ‘I have been trying since 1976 for an Indian passport,’ says Croose, who trained as an electrician, ‘but I wasn’t lucky. I couldn’t take a job in the Middle East because I was stateless.’ Croose’s uncle K. Suppiah is luckier. A fishmonger in the St. John’s market in Pettah, the overcrowded commercial area that was devastated by the Sinhalas in the July violence, Suppiah owns an Indian passport and can at least expect sanctuary in that, to him, strange country.
Colombo’s refugees were only the tip of the iceberg. Although government spokesman Douglas Liyanage cheerfully told newsmen every day that the refugees were all ‘going back’ to a normal life, he was being disingenuous. Thousands of Indian Tamil estate workers who had hidden for weeks in the island’s central highlands after their homes were destroyed were steadily fleeing by bus – and even on foot – to hastily set up refugee camps in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Jaffna in the north. The majority of these workers had been affected by earlier violence in 1977 and 1981 and had fled north then too, returning to the estates after the violence abated. Said M.E. Pius, the parish priest of Kilinochchi Roman Catholic church: ‘We have already set up five camps in our town since August 13 and housed more than a thousand refugees. This is only the beginning. In 1977 there were more than 10,000 of them.’ The refugees are living in tents in open spaces in the small Tamil town, and Father Pius says there has been absolutely no food aid from the Government – and even the maximum permissible food allowance per refugee per day is only Sri Lankan Rs. 7.
And so the tragedy unfolds. Every few years there is a venting of the Sinhala spleen, and a mass movement of terrorized Tamils to the north and east of the island, an unending cycle of pain and disillusionment. ‘This time we will not go back,’ says Santhanam, who worked up the courage to travel with 15 others by bus from Matale in the island’s centre on August 24. ‘They set fire to our houses in the night,’ sobs his wife Unnamulai, ‘and the owners of our tea and cocoa estate could not help us. We hid for two weeks in the jungle. We will never go back.’
President J.R. Jayewardene had promised in a speech at Delhi’s Non-Aligned Summit in February this year that Sri Lanka would eventually grant citizenship to the one million stateless Tamils. But the Government’s attitude last fortnight had visibly changed, and Commissioner General of Essential Services, Bradman Weerakoon announced that nearly two-thirds of the stateless Tamils wished to go to India. Increasingly, the Sri Lankans seemed anxious to rid themselves permanently of the stateless Tamils, and an editorial in the militant Sinhala daily Sun summed it up. Indian emissary G. Parthasarathi, who arrived in Colombo on August 25 in search of a ‘permanent solution’ to the Tamil problem, was obviously going to be faced with the tricky stateless question. ‘India, seemingly altruistic towards the ethnic crisis in Lanka,’ said the Sun, ‘cannot really overlook the natural desire of thousands of people of Indian origin.’
Parthasarathi’s mission, as he put it at Katunayake airport, was ‘delicate and difficult’, but nobody in the Sri Lankan Foreign Office believed that the low-key negotiator from India could achieve even a semblance of a settlement. A week before Parthasarathi’s arrival, President Jayewardene told a group of Indian correspondents that he envisaged ‘no role’ for India in settling the Tamil problem, although his government would welcome any emissary.
Tense Situation: Indeed, Parthasarathi’s visit came in the midst of a tense, crackling stalemate across the island. The Sri Lankans had not been amused by the extraordinarily warm reception accorded to Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Secretary General Appapillai Amirthalingam in Delhi barely a few days after Jayewardene’s special envoy, his brother Hector, had traveled to the Indian capital to brief Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Once again the mood in Colombo and across the Sinhala heartland turned against India as Parthasarathi’s visit drew closer. ‘The trouble,’ said a senior Foreign Ministry official, ‘is that the average Sinhala thinks India is populated by 700 million Tamils. He therefore does not view the Sri Lankan Tamils as a minority community. He is always afraid of being swamped.’
As rumours of a bomb attack on the densely crowded Esala Perahera festival in Kandy spread, the Government nightly put out stern warnings on radio and television against agents provocateurs. Jayewardene himself acquired two tough British bodyguards last fortnight from Assets Protection International, a London-based security firm headed by retired police commissioner Sir Robert Marks. They were hired after Air Lanka Chairman Rakitha Wickremanayake flew to London to negotiate with Marks.
Polite Refusal: India Today has learnt that Jayewardene’s request for contingency military aid from the United States and Britain was met with the message that Sri Lanka fell within India’s ‘sphere of influence’, and this message was driven home by US Ambassador John Reed, who returned unexpectedly from a six-month vacation on August 8 and met Jayewardene four times in a single day, advising him to turn to his neighbours for help. Jayewardene then spoke to Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq on the hotline to ask for help, but Zia stalled and later informed Mrs Gandhi about Sri Lanka’s extraordinary request. Hector Jayewardene was asked about it when Mrs Gandhi met him in Delhi, and the panic buttons in Colombo were again punched. Soon after returning to Colombo, Hector embarked on a lengthy tour of Southeast Asian capitals, again to ask friendly countries like Singapore and Malaysia for contingency military assistance.
In Delhi, Amirthalingam made it clear that his party would not participate in talks with Jayewardene if there were any pre-conditions. ‘Although we have accepted India’s good offices,’ he said, ‘we will certainly not go back on our separatist mandate.’ Significantly, Amirthalingam also said that the TULF would consider any ‘reasonable alternative’ short of separation, possibly a greatly enhanced autonomy for the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east in a federal structure.
On August 19 Amirthalingam flew to Madras, where he spent the following days waiting for the ferry service from Rameshwaram to Talaimannar to be resumed in order to return to Sri Lanka, and drumming up support for the concept of a Tamil Eelam (nation). But the Government of India made it clear that it did not wish to see Sri Lanka divided into Tamil and Sinhala enclaves, and in a speech broadcast on August 22, almost exactly a month after the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna triggered off mass ethnic violence, Jayewardene reiterated his inflexibility. ‘We have decided,’ he said, ‘that in future we will not have any talks with any party that wants to advocate the separation of Sri Lanka.’ The country’s Sixth Constitutional Amendment, passed early last month, had also effectively banned the TULF for its separatist platform.
Tricky Issue: It was evident, therefore, that there could be no immediate negotiations between the Sri Lankan Government and the TULF. ‘I see little possibility of a settlement unless Parthasarathi calls the tune,’ said TULF President M. Sivasithamparam in Jaffna. ‘We are prepared to consider a federal structure, but the security of the Tamils should be in our hands. If no talks are possible we are prepared to go underground – even to go abroad.’
As the fortnight progressed, the TULF found itself caught in a bind. By accepting India’s mediatory role, it could not now embarrass Mrs Gandhi by insisting on separation. India Today has learnt that both Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam have secretly met Velupillai Prabakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrillas, in Jaffna, to try to persuade him to accept a settlement short of separation. ‘There is nothing wrong with federalism,’ says Sivasithamparam. ‘It is not contradictory to compromise in a difficult situation. Even India demanded poorna swaraj in 1929, but accepted the Government of India Act in 1935’.
Even if the two sides were to talk, Jayewardene is certain to face resistance to any settlement from the hardliners within his government, who feel that the ruling United National Party (UNP) has already granted too many concessions to the Tamils. Matters have not been helped by the continuing refuge granted to fugitive Tamil guerrillas from the island’s north in Tamil Nadu. ‘Lieutenant’ Chelvanayagam, the guerrilla who led the ambush on the army convoy in Jaffna on July 23, was seriously wounded in the crossfire. Significantly, the injured Tiger was rushed by boat to Tamil Nadu, and died in a hospital in Vellore. Jayewardene himself pointedly advised Tamil Nadu not to give sanctuary to the guerrillas. ‘I do not give refuge to Punjabis asking for Khalistan,’ he said.
Sympathetic Approach: Indeed, as dozens of expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil leaders converged on New Delhi in mid-August, and Amirthalingam was joined in Madras by three other TULF MPs, India’s impartiality seemed questionable. Mrs Gandhi and External Affairs Minister Rao granted audiences to many Tamils, including M.K. Eelaventhan, secretary of the militant Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELF) which broke away from the TULF in 1981. Eelaventhan has been in India since February this year. ‘The prime minister seemed terribly sympathetic, and promised appropriate action,’ he said. ‘Our leadership has been our ruination. We have ceased to believe in parliamentary democracy. Sri Lanka has become a mobocracy. What we need now are freedom fighters, not debaters.’
Given the extreme sensitivity about India’s intentions in Sri Lanka, Mrs Gandhi is moving cautiously in what she has termed a matter that ‘equally concerns Sri Lanka and India’. Adroitly alternating pro-Tamil gestures with expressions of interest in Sri Lanka’s integrity, it is not conceivable that India will at this stage step in to carve up Sri Lanka.
‘We think Mrs Gandhi is trying to make political capital out of this situation,’ syas a Colombo journalist. ‘By playing the role she has, she will reinforce India’s Big Brother image in the region. At the sametime she will earn substantial support in Tamil Nadu by seeming to protect Tamil interests in Sri Lanka.’ If general elections are held next year, that strategy wold undoubtedly yield votes for the Congress (I) in Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, a separate Tamil territory in Sri Lanka would actually encourage political parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which gained popularity in Tamil Nadu after advocating secession in 1964, to lift the separatist banner again.
‘We hold no illusions about either Jayewardene or Mrs Gandhi,’ said Sivasithamparam. ‘The President is adept at setting up violence from one side, and then placating from the other side. If he told Mrs. Gandhi that his security forces could control the situation, why did they stand and watch and even participate in the violence? And we have no illusions about India’s military intervention to liberate Eelam, either.’
In Colombo, Rural Industrial Development Minister S. Thondaman and his aides were huddled in the office of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), discussing strategy. The Indian Tamils’ major political wing, the CWC, had joined Jayewardene’s UNP Government in 1977 after the Tamil estate workers were promised substantial benefits. However, promises like equal wages for men and women plantation workers, parity of plantation wages with other industries, and citizenship rights have all been forgotten by the Government. Apart from a wage increase of Sri Lankan rupees 55 in 1978, the workers have not benefited at all from Thondaman’s presence in the Cabinet, and suffered violence and displacement in ethnic riots in 1977, 1981 and this year.
‘Now it is a question of survival for the Indian Tamils,’ says Thondaman. ‘There is pressure on me to resign. Why should I? Today a statement from me as a minister carries more clout than from outside. When India signed repatriation agreements with Sri Lanka in 1964 and 1974, the Indian Tamils’ leaders were never consulted. India is also morally responsible for the safety and security of the Tamils. If this government cannot ensure our safety, we will ask the stateless Tamils to go back to India.’
Adds P. Devaraj, director of the Congress Labour Foundation: ‘We have to work within the existing political framework, unlike the Jaffna Tamils of the north. We thought that by participation we could fight extremist elements in the Government. But this time’s violence has wiped everything out.’
Grim Future: The future looked extremely grim for the Indian Tamils, and more than three weeks after the orgy of violence first ripped through the island, at least 32 estate workers were killed in fresh attacks by Sinhala mobs in Badulla in the southeastern highlands. But extreme Sinhala Buddhist sentiment was as intractable as ever, and the Venerable Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Nayaka Thero summed up the feelings of the clergy at the Bhikku Training Centre at Maharagama outside Colombo.
The chief priest of the Vajirarama Temple and one of the island’s most militant monks, Pannaseeha alleges that as many as 261 Buddhist shrines and monasteries in the island’s north and east have been destroyed by the Tamils. ‘The British gave all facilities of jobs and education to the Tamils and set people against each other,’ he points out. ‘This was the price we paid for allowing Tamil invaders from south India to stay back because of our hospitality. We allowed the Tamils to stay anywhere in the island, even to intermarry. In 1977 there were over one lakh Tamils in Colombo, but only a few thousand Sinhala soldiers in the north.’
Pannaseeha insists that Buddhism has made the Sinhala people extremely tolerant. ‘Ever since 1977 the Tamils have been scheming to divide the island. Jayewardene gave them many concessions in the 1978 Constitution. We have lost too much ground. There are 50 million Tamils in south India. Does the Indian Government accept Tamil for government work? Here you find Tamil even in postage stamps,’ he says emphatically.
Bhikku Ampitiye Sri Rahula, director of the training centres, is equally indignant. ‘We bore all this for six years,’ he says, ‘but it came to a boil. Doesn’t India have similar problems in Punjab, Assam and Kashmir? Doesn’t Britain have Northern Ireland? Buddhism teaches about action and reaction. We won’t even have standing space if the Tamils get their Eelam. Amirthalingam has even said that the Tamils should skin Sinhalas and make shoes for themselves.’
Ironic Contrast: Such blinding prejudice contrasts jarringly with the seated, serenely smiling statues of the Buddha that dot the island. The tragedy is illustrated by the story of Inspector T.I.B. Bastianpillai, a Tamil policeman who served his government loyally. In April 1978 Bastianpillai and two other Tamil policemen were killed in an ambush led by ‘Lieutenant’ Chelvanayagam which they tried to raid a Tiger training camp in the northern jungles.
Five years later the same guerrilla led an ambush that took 13 Sinhala soldiers’ lives in Jaffna, setting off the unprecedented chain reaction of ethnic violence that brought Sri Lanka to its knees last month. On July 29, Bastianpillai’s home in Colombo’s Dehiwela area was destroyed by a Sinhala mob that looted everything in sight. In the madness that gripped the island, destroying lives and property, Sinhala and Tamil could no longer be friends, only implacable enemies on either side of the ethnic line.
In the weeks to come, India will be faced with the ticklish problem of the stateless Indian Tamils, most of whom now no longer believe they can live on in Sri Lanka. Last week Indian High Commissioner S.J.S. Chhatwal’s residence in Colombo was besieged by destitute Indian Tamils who lacked Indian citizenship but wanted to flee to what they saw as their only haven, and Chhatwal was forced to ask for security forces to remove the demonstrators to a camp.
The TULF on its part appeared to be veering towards a negotiated federation of Tamil and Sinhala areas in the island, but the Tigers in the north were unwilling to accept any solution short of separation. If the TULF eventually signs an agreement with Jayewardene, it might be made the target for reprisals by the Tigers. Jayewardene himself may face a revolt from within his ranks if he is seen to be giving into Tamil demands. With India unwilling to step in to effect a Cyprus-like division of the island, the alternative would then be a protracted and brutal civil war, an eventuality that would forever wrench serendipity from the lexicon.
Jaffna: Tamil Sanctuary
The army checkpost at Madawachchiya 180 km from Jaffna marks the invisible border between Sinhala and Tamil territory, and the sloppily dressed soldiers nervously fingering their sten-gun triggers expect every traveler going North to prove that he is not a Tiger.
Jaffna looks like a little Tamil Nadu, and its diligent citizens have painted every Sinhala road-sign over with tar. The Grand Bazar is plastered with graffiti and posters extolling the valour of the Tamil boys killed by the ‘occupation army’ while fighting for their Eelam. The Tigers’ bush telegraph is impressive: on August 24, the entire town observed a hartal and sent up 31st-day prayers in memory of guerrilla leaders Thangadurai and Kuttimani, who were slaughtered by Sinhala prisoners inside Colombo’s Welikade prison on July 25.
Occasionally an army convoy, a few rickety armoured cars and an odd truck, roll out of the Palaly camp, and the soldiers amuse themselves by carrying long poles and knocking a few pedestrians or cyclists over.
Lying Low: ‘There are shortages all round,’ says Government Agent Devanesan Nesiah, ‘and we are rationing petrol, diesel, kerosene, food. All train services to the North were suspended after the boys burnt an entire train at Jaffna station on July 1, and supplies are not coming in fast enough.’ More than 40,000 Tamils displaced by the violence in the south have sunk without a trace into Jaffna’s warm embrace. ‘There has been a systematic attempt to terminate the Tamil presence in the south,’ says Nesiah.
The Tigers never reveal their names, but they are willing to talk. One of them, a swarthy, saturnine orator, sits in a dark bedroom in a sympathiser’s house. ‘No talks with Jayewardene can ever succeed,’ he says. ‘Sinhala chauvinism was so strong that they even challenged India’s might.’
The Tigers are confident that India will soon send in troops to help them liberate Eelam. But the Tigers are themselves divided. Velupillai Prabakaran leads the most powerful group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); Uma Maheswaran, recently released from prison in Madras, leads the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE); Kuttimani, who was killed in prison in July, led the Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA). Then there are lesser groups like the Marxist-Leninist Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) led by a mysterious young man called ‘Tall Sri’.
Violent Philosophy: Sometimes the Tigers kill each other, too. ‘Oberoi’ Devan (his real name is Kulasegaram Devasegaram) was a steward in the Lanka Oberoi in Colombo before he toop up arms. Devan took over leadership of the TELA after Kuttimani’s imprisonment, and was rapidly rising to prominence within the guerrillas’ scattered ranks. On August 14 Devan was killed by assassins from the LTTE. Devan’s parents, brother and three sisters quietly mourn his death in their home in Urumpirai village, just outside Jaffna. But the Eelam fire burns strongly; his sister Kulanayaki Ratnabalan, a lawyer in Colombo, says he was killed because of jealousy. ‘Devan’s tactics were different from Prabakaran’s,’ she says quietly. ‘He did not attack the army, he only wanted the Government to withdraw its repressive machinery from our territory. We feel no bitterness towards Prabakaran. He is also fighting for Eelam.’
Urumpirai is the cradle of Tigerhood. The guerrilla’s founder, Ponnudurai Sivakumar, hailed from this village. Captured in June 1974 soon after the movement began, Sivakumar killed himself by swallowing potassium cyanide. ‘That day,’ says an old man, ‘Jaffna saw a huge procession of boys. Each one of them drew blood from his thumb and smeared it on his forehead, vowing never to rest until Eelam was achieved.’
Growing Anger: Thangadurai was the only ideologically sound leader the guerrillas ever had. After his capture in 1981, the movement began to splinter, and Prabakaran’s Tigers are acknowledged to be the most reckless and blood-thirsty. Whatever mixed feelings Jaffnaites may have had about the slaying of 13 Sinhala soldiers on July 23, the army’s shooting spree in the town the following day wiped out all commiseration. Forty two people were killed in broad daylight by the frenzied soldiers, seven of them schoolboys returning from private tutorials.
Not far from Sivakumar’s statue, hanging upside-down from its pedestal after the army attacked it with iron rods, an impromptu crowd collects as M. Thurairatnam, a local trader, talks about his dreams. ‘If the Tigers hadn’t been around,’ he says, neck veins bulging, ‘we would have been annihilated long ago. Every last soul in Tamil territory is prepared to fight for Eelam. India should send in troops as soon as possible. How many Sinhalas speak Tamil? They are all savages, we can never live with them.’
The Roman Catholic church in Jaffna has been drawn into the battle for Eelam. Two priests, A. Singarayar and P. Sinnarasa, were arrested in November 1982 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and narrowly escaped being killed in the Welikade Prison mayhem last July. ‘Some other priests have been taken in for questioning,’ says Father Michael Samy, vicar-general of Jaffna. ‘It all depends on what these people call terrorists. If there are young people with problems we try to help and guide them. We don’t ask who they are.’
Divisions: The Catholic clergy in Sri Lanka has split down the middle, and Frank Marcus Fernando, Bishop of Chilaw in the south and president of the Episcopal Bishops’ Conference, recently issued a statement condemning the separatist movement in the north. ‘The Government has succeeded in dividing the Church,’ says Michael Samy.
The Tigers are meanwhile girding for a long and violent struggle with Colombo. ‘What future is in store for babies yet to be born?’ asks the commentator in a half-hour video film that shows the effects of last month’s violence in unflinching colour. ‘How many more need to be killed like dogs in the streets?’ And as an army convoy rumbles out of the Mathahal camp, all traffic draws to the roadside to let the soldiers pass, eyes averted. The only occasions on which Tamils and Sinhalas in Jaffna exchange looks is when their eyes are at the opposite ends of a gun barrel.