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A case study of mob frenzy and state terror as told by B. A. Ajantha...
Badulla was a fortress of Sinhala chauvinism from the fifties. It was a stronghold of the old Sinhala Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna headed by one of the pioneers in Sinhala racist politics - Mr. K.M.P. Rajaratne. Badulla was one of the main targets of anti-Tamil violence in the riots of 1958. In 1983, the Sinhala Buddha Peramuna under the leadership of a senior Cabinet Minister, Mr. Cyril Mathew, enjoyed considerable support there.
But although anti-Tamil violence beginning with the riots of 1977 had become a continuous feature elsewhere in the country, Badulla was spared the horrors until July 1983. The secret was police vigilance in 1977 and thereafter. Although the police in Badulla at that time had earned a notoriety for accepting bribes from Tamil businessmen, this had led to a widespread sense of apathy and security among Tamils, born out of the confidence they had in police vigilance.
The names of two police officers (both Sinhalese) are remembered with gratitude - Headquarters Inspector de Silva who served in Badulla during the island-wide riots of 1977 and HQI Dharmapala who protected the town in 1981. Inspector Dharmapala is a grandson of Anagarika Dharmapala, well-known for his role in the Buddhist renaissance. So that, when the July conflagration began in Colombo on the night of the 24th and exploded into widespread violence on the 25th, Badulla received the news with equanimity.
Badulla was in fact in a festive mood on the night of the 24th, because Hindus and Buddhists were taking out two religious processions in the town, an annual event that had helped to build a bridge of cultural camaraderie between the two communities. It had been the precedent that the Buddhist Perahera ends by midnight and the Hindu Vel Festival continues till around 2 o'clock in the early hours. This year, the police ordered the Vel Festival to be closed at the same time as the Perahera at 12 midnight.
The police had a suspicion that Buddhist thugs will attack the Tamils after the Perahera crowd returned home that night. (I have no doubt that Sinhala thugs had a plan for a vicious attack on the Tamils. If this plot had not been foiled by police that night, thousands of Tamil devotees might have lost their lives).
This sequence of events indicates that the police were aware of a plot to attack the Tamils. If the government had taken sufficient precautions a holocaust will not have happened in Badulla. In any case the Tamils lived in hope that the police were on their side.
July 25: 9.05 p.m.: There is no curfew in force. A crowd pours petrol and sets fire to a Tamil shop called "Sri Lanka Stores" in South Lane. The inmates of the shop and neighbours act quickly and put out the fire. There is no damage. Immediately Lamlat Perera, Head Quarters Inspector arrives on the scene with a police party. No arrests are made.
July 26: The town is alive with rumours that Tamils were getting massacred elsewhere in the country. The Sinhala thugs consider: "What is our contribution?". Passions are inflamed and fear grips the Tamil community. There is panic all over. Government announces all-island curfew from 6 p.m. In Badulla police start enforcing curfew from 4.30 p.m. There were no incidents in Badulla Town on this day. A solitary instance of arson was reported outside the town, when a house owned by the Tamil proprietor of "Ambika Stores" was set on fire. On the other hand Sinhalese thugs were making preparations and on the other, police were showing signs of being on the alert. The Badulla Tamils were depending wholly on the police and taking no protective measures themselves.
The attack did not start at one end and proceed to the other end. It was scattered. Each area was allotted to a group of thugs. Each group was given a separate list. They were functioning according to a well prepared plan based on data collected earlier. The thugs disperse in groups and start the attack at the centre and at nooks and corners.
All shops and houses belonging to Tamils are set on fire. In Tamil shops where the premises were Sinhala-owned, goods are taken out, heaped on the road and set on fire and the buildings saved from destruction.
The frenzy which commenced at 11.30 a.m. comes to an end at 2.30 p.m. In these three hours all Tamil shops and houses were attacked except a few houses in Gregory's Road and those within the Baullapitiya housing colony. At Gregory's Road, Tamil houses about ten in number, escaped the mob fury when influential Muslims in the area managed to stave off the attackers. As for the Badullapitiya colony it was a housing scheme where a mixed-up communal life had evolved without distinctions of race or creed. Popularly nicknamed 'Korea' the colony had its own "tough characters" with their own sense of solidarity, where even the Tamils will take to violence at the drop of a hat, or take advantage of a riot situation.
With these two exceptions, no Tamil house or shop in Badulla, even those in nooks and corners, not normally identifiable, was spared. This only proved that the 3-hour attack had been done to a methodically pre-determined plan. During the three hour long operation of the thugs no looting or robbery took place. Anyone attempting robbery was warned by thugs. All food, drinks, implements and petrol for thugs was provided by the Chief Incumbent of Muthiangana Buddhist Vihare.
Looting commences after 3 p.m. All people irrespective of age occupation or status took part in the robbery. There were jailors, policemen, teachers, students, public servants. In Pattapundura the robbery was carried out by jailors. Eighty per cent of the participants in the looting were between the ages of 10 and 25. Many of these were students. In the vast multitude of humanity that engaged in this pitiless act there was not one with grey hair.
The army was called in "for show", after all was quiet. The holocaust could have been stopped, if the police stationed at strategic points in the town had taken stern action. The situation could have been handled by 25 policemen. In fact the police top brass did act with determination, but the interference of politicians frustrated their efforts.
There was curfew all over the island. There was no movement of people on the road. The rank and file of the Badulla police in collusion with thugs were emptying Tamil jewellery shops. Smoke was still coming out of shops. Policemen themselves, were breaking open safes and collecting jewellery in bags. The booty was divided among all policemen Lekum Arachie, Sergeant Buddha Dasa, Sergeant Madawala and Constable Bandara were leading the looters.
Just one single jewellery shop in all Badulla town was saved. This was S. Pachiayapillai Jewellery Palace. Army Commander Jayaratne arrived on the scene as the safe in this shop was being broken. Unable to tackle the police who were the culprits, he informs the Government Agent, and the Government Agent takes over the jewellery into his custody.
But Dharma and law now lay prostrate before political brigandage. Unbridled thuggery reigned supreme. The cry of pain of the Tamils echoed everywhere. It is hard to put in words the painful experiences and sense of tragedy that gripped them during those three hours.
Everyone in Badulla knows the proprietor of Yogam Stores, a trader in camphor goods. His name is M. Ramanathan, a man of courage and forethought. He had taken many precautions to protect himself. The back of his beautiful home was protected by a high wall. In front, his vehicles in a row were kept safe behind protective walls.
As the town of Badulla was in flames nearly two hundred thugs armed with guns, petrol bombs and dangerous weapons gather in front of his house shouting 'Kill the Tamils', 'Hunt the Tigers'. Many of them are employees of the Ceylon Transport Board. They appear either drunk or drugged and bereft of human feelings. Three brothers of the U.N.P. Member of Parliament lead the group.
Ramanathan a licensed gun in hand was preventing the thugs entering his house. As the thugs enter the gate he fires a shot into the air. The thugs retreat in fear. The leaders shout at the thugs: 'Is there no Sinhalese blood in your veins?', and urge them to action. The thugs surge ahead with hesitation. Again shots ring from Ramanathan's gun. The thugs go back. The brothers of the M.P. were determined to take revenge on Ramanathan. They keep goading the thugs.
Piyasena, a bus conductor could contain his anger no longer. He goes forward recklessly and calls: 'Cowards follow me'. A shot from Ramanathan hits him. Piyasena falls to the ground. He is removed in a hurry to a dispensary. There is no doctor who can take the pellets from his body. The only man proficient in this field is Dr. Maruthappu, a Tamil, who was by that time a refugee in the camp. There was none to save Piyasena the thug. He dies at the dispensary.
News of this incident incite the Sinhala thugs. Tigers are hiding in Ramanathan's house. They are armed with modern automatic weapons, these are the rumours spread around the town.
On the orders of the brothers of the MP, police hurry to the scene. They crouch in front of Ramanathan's house and fire into the house. Within a short time two jeeps full of army men are also called to Ramanathan's house. The thug attack on Ramanathan is now reinforced with police and army action.
The neighbours, all Tamils, seek refuge in a sugarcane plantation nearby. The thugs set fire to the sugarcane plantation to prevent their escape. The sugarcane plantation is aflame. In front, army men and policemen keep firing. But for the horrible fact that it was actually happening, it looked like a scene reminiscent of some war film.
There is no escape. Ramanathan thinks the thugs will not harm him if he surrenders to the police. Fearful yet resourcefully he takes a 2½ years old girl in hand expecting the crowd will not attack a small girl and walks out unarmed with his hands raised in surrender.
The 2½ year old Viji who had been clutching him tight cries out 'Aiyo...' That's all. The thugs drag Ramanathan and attack him with iron rods and wooden clubs like a mad dog and torture him to death. They burn his face with lighted torches.
They drag the 2½ year old Viji holding on to Ramanathan's hand and dash her to death on a tree. This devilish deed was executed by Nimal, a man from Devundara. He has worked as a peon in the People's Bank there and been dismissed for robbery. He is a local leader in Minister Cyril Mathew's Sinhala racist organisation.
"Surrender, or we will set you on fire", shouted the police and the thugs to the rest of the occupants of Ramanathan's house. With no means of escape, they trickled out and meekly surrendered. The sons of Ramanathan - Yoganathan, Vimalanathan, Sathianathan all met the same fate as their father. All of them were beaten brutally to death. Even norms of warfare declare that those who surrender should be spared. But there was no room here for any kind of "Dharma", war or peace.
Another son of Ramanathan, Packianathan, surrendered embracing his three-year old daughter, Kausik. The terrified child spread her arms on her father's shoulders and hid her face on his chest. A bullet pierced her arm and entered her father's chest. He died on the spot, but little Kausik survived with her injury. One soldier in the crowd of army men who could not bear to see the blood on the tender hand of the child, had the humaneness at the moment to shout: 'Enough, stop, stop...'
In the moment of the temporary slackening of tensions, Mrs Ramanathan, her 15-year old daughter and Kausik escaped death. Stricken with terror, Mrs Ramanathan had hidden inside the bathroom. Later, left with no alternative, she had come out and surrendered just after Packianathan had fallen to the bullet and Kausik lay injured. "Are there any more Tigers inside?", the mob demanded from her. Speechless and dazed, she was then handed a lighted torch with which she was asked to set fire to the vehicles belonging to Ramanathan parked in the premises.
That left five members of the Ramanathan family dead within fifteen minutes. The three who escaped were taken to the refugee camp. The police who thought that those who escaped may give evidence against them went round all refugee camps trying to locate them. The inmates of the refugee camp separated them and hid them. Subsequently, they were smuggled away to Batticaloa without the knowledge of the police.
Those who were trapped in the sugar cane garden and who had no option but to surrender met the same fate as others. Among those who were done to death were four members of a family - that of a local prominent journalist S. Ganeshan. His elderly father K. Sundaram, Ganeshan's brother S. Rajeswaran and a nephew were killed along with a Sinhala visitor to the house from Talawakelle.
The father, brothers and uncle of the little girl Viji who was dashed to a tree were also killed. So was Ramanathan's lorry cleaner.
A total of fifteen dead bodies now lay on Ramanathan's premises. Six of them were killed by gunshot and nine of them were tortured to death. All bodies were dragged and made into a heap in front of Ramanathan's house, rubber tyres were brought, petrol poured and a mass cremation was done.
The Ramanathan house itself was not touched until then, and until even later in the afternoon of the 27th. A systematic looting was done, and thereafter the house itself was burnt down.
When I visited the spot I saw the charred human bones. Two lorries - 26 Sri 6750 and 24 Sri 2468, one car, 8 Sri 132, two vans, 34 Sri 121 and D.D. 14/2, two motor cycles, one a Susuki and the other unidentifiable except the number - 85 Sri 6422, two bicycles, one Chopper, all belonging to the Ramanathan family, were in a burnt state.
Why so much hatred against Ramanathan, the Yogams mudalali? It has been mentioned already how Badulla escaped the anti-Tamil rioting in 1977 and in 1981. The Police did a good job on both occasions (which really meant that one effective officer, imbued with impartiality and determination can make a big difference to police attitudes) and the suppressed racism was simmering below the surface.
The planned attacks of Tamils of Indian origin in nearby areas in the Sabaragamuwa province in 1981 in which they were unable to participate, left the Badulla racists with a feeling of failure to rise to the occasion! It was a challenge to their self-respect. Ramanathan was a Tamil of Indian origin who had made good in life, prospered and wielded some influence with the police as well. Moreover, his house stood in splendid isolation, a good and worthwhile target.
Let us now do a quick flashback to 1981. Aware of the attacks on Tamils in Ratnapura, Kahawatte and estate areas, Ramanathan was on constant alert. It was around midnight one day, and he spotted a figure, carrying on what looked like a can of petrol, throwing the petrol on one of his lorries, and attempting to set it on fire. He ran and tried to catch him red-handed. The man took to his heels, leaving the petrol can. Ramanathan chased him with his gun, but on closing upon him made a startling discovery. The running figure was no less a person than the MP's brother, whom he knew very well indeed. He hesitated for a moment but kept the chase nevertheless. The house of the MP's father was close by and as the figure darted into the house, there was no mistaking the identity.
Ramanathan did not want to let the matter rest. He lodged a complaint with the police the very next morning. Headquarters Inspector Dharmapala, duty-conscious offer as he was, was in a quandary. At any rate, involving as it did, the brother of a governing party MP who was then participating in an event at the Buddhist vihare, it was decided that the MP should for his own sake hush the matter. He knew Ramanathan well. He apologised on his brother's behalf, undertook to see that there was no repetitions of such incidents and appealed to him to withdraw the complaint. Ramanathan relented. He could not afford to offend the MP in the face of a direct request like that. But this of course left the MP's brothers hardly in a happy frame of mind. He was determined to have his revenge some day. He kept circulating the rumour that Ramanathan and his sons were Tamil "Tigers", and like all deliberately circulated rumours, it gained credence among the gullible Sinhala population.
Came July 1983, came the country-wide tension and the golden opportunity that the MP's brother was waiting for. His wish came to be fulfilled beyond his wildest expectation!
Ramachandran is another well-known man in Badulla. He was rich too, which made him another suitable target for a blood-thirsty mob. Here again, one gun kept the mob at bay, but the police stepped in. A police gun left him injured and while he lay unconscious, the mob pounced on him and tortured him to death. A visitor at Ramachandran's house, an Indian national by the name of Nainar, was also murdered by the thugs. Ramachandran's son Vengadesan was meanwhile set upon by a mob near the railway station and he too was killed.
P. Ravindran was the son of the proprietor of Pushpa Hardware Stores. His father's household goods had miraculously escaped damage. Ravindran was lurking around waiting for a suitable opportunity when the mob was not around to rescue those things. But a policeman spotted him. The curfew was not in force at that time. The policeman stuck a rifle on his chest and demanded "what's your name?" Trembling, he replied "I am Ravi". "What Ravi?" demanded the policeman further (Ravi is a name common to the Sinhalese as well). When the reply came "Ravindran", a shot felled him. He fell face down and the policeman thinking he was dead, hurried away. But Ravindran managed to stagger back to the road and run. Thugs who noticed this, caught him, beat him up and while alive put him inside a car belonging to Alagasundaram parked near the Liberty cinema and set fire to the car.
Aravandipillai was a prominent trader in the town. His son got caught to thugs who attacked him with iron rods and wooden clubs. He ran bleeding into his Sinhalese friend's shop. His friend saved him and sent him in a lorry to the hospital. The lorry, for protection, was taking the road past the Buddhist temple. But opposite the temple, thugs stopped the lorry. They dragged the wounded man out, bundled him into a gunny bag, brought more sacks from a nearby shop, and set fire to him alive. They beat up another Tamil boy and dumped him into the same fire. This macabre incident took place beside the bell tower of the temple of the Buddha - the Buddha who preached Ahimsa to the world.
Another burning in the vicinity was that of Neelameham who was rushing to his home in a van. He was stopped, pulled out, beaten to death with a crowbar and other implements and burnt along with his van.
The tragic end of two little boys employed at a shop called Kandy Stores, one from Glen Alphin estate and the other from Third mile post, will rend anyone's heart. When the roof of their shop caught fire they ran out. A policeman took aim at them with a gun. Frightened, they rushed back into the shop again and jumped into the water tank. Unfortunately the tank exploded and nothing was seen of them later. Their bodies were discovered two weeks later after the parents had made a search for them. The bodies were found burnt and locked in an embracing position.
He was a small-time trader, occupying a small room in the town. Over the years, he had managed to set by some monies and saved up Rs 3,000. When the attack on the Tamils began, he thought it was unsafe to carry the money with him. So he took all that worldly wealth and hid it hurriedly under a heap of firewood. Having done that, he fled to the refugee camp. At the camp he kept on asking everyone whether his room was attacked. Most did not know, but some said his room was safe. That gave him hope. When the situation eased he rushed back to his room. Yes, the room was intact but having entered it, he stood thunder-struck. Not a stick of firewood was left. All was lost. He was at a loss where to begin, how to go on. There was no one to borrow from. All had been affected. He borrowed Rs.10 from a friend, bought a bottle of insecticide, and killed himself.
Dr. Sivagnanam had earned a name as a good doctor. There was no one in the locality who did not know him. In fact it could be said that the was no one in Badulla who had not taken treatment in his private dispensary during the 42 years he served there. He was married to a Sinhalese.
He had complete faith that whatever happened to others, that he will not be touched. There were other Tamils like him, doctors and others, who had lived long among the Sinhala people, had the same kind of faith not only during the July 1983 violence but also during earlier anti-Tamil riots, and who had met with disillusionment. Dr. Sivagnanam was no exception.
When at last it dawned on him that he was about to be attacked, he got into his car with his wife to seek refuge in a Sinhala friend's house. On the way the car stalled. A second group of thugs nearly caught him. Abandoning the car, he ran with his wife to another Sinhala friend's house in the vicinity. The thugs surrounded the house, but his friend had the courage and presence of mind to smuggle them into a neighbour's over a back wall, before opening the door to the goondas. Interestingly, the man who saved this Tamil doctor was closely associated with the JVP one of the two organisations that the government chose to blame for the violence! It was told to me later that Dr Sivagnanam and wife left the country to live with their son in the U.S.
Everyone in Badulla knew that some of the bigwigs from the governing UNP party were behind the violence and killings. The key role performed by the MP, D Vincent Dias' own brother has already been noted. Let us now examine the contributions of others.
This researcher tried hard to trace some member or active supporter of some party other than the UNP who might have had some hand in the spread of violence in Badulla, but failed. All those on whom accusing fingers were pointed turned out to be UNP supporters, without exception.
The 3-hour violence was so organised and so thorough that it left not a single Tamil-owned shop intact, in a town that had a very visible Tamil presence. It also left four Hindu temples looted and burnt and three Tamil schools destroyed. While the refugees in the refugee camps totalled 6,952 according to official figures, it is believed that almost double that number had found shelter in private homes, until they were evacuated to Batticaloa.