The 1983 anti Tamil riots


Several of your readers have expressed their views on this sad event which remains as a permanent big black cultural blot on the Lion race. But questions arise about provocations and proportionalities centering round the immediate pre 1983 period.

Not a single writer to The Island’s columns has mentioned the incisive and spirited speech of Prime Minister JR Jayewardene delivered in Parliament sometime in late 1977 or early 1978 calling upon the leaders of the Tamil political parties to desist from provoking the otherwise peaceful Tamil citizens. For all his Machiavellian ways JRJ made a soulful appeal to the Tamil political leaders to talk peace without taking up arms against the state. Perhaps those who have read the Sansoni Report may be able to say more on the subject of provocation of the rag tag Tamil armed groups indulged in by the Tamil political leaders.

By the time of 1983 the casus belli (reasons for war) had been eliminated with the revocation of the Standardization rule, the main bête noir, and the accommodation given to the use of the Tamil language in official correspondence. It must be admitted that the right to use the Tamil language generally remained on paper only in the Sinhala speaking areas. Finding translators suddenly would have been a major difficulty.

The proportionality theorem comes in considering the fact that the two big hurdles that led to the strife had been cleared by 1983 and Tamil citizens were peacefully coexisting in Sinhala speaking areas along with other Tamil speaking citizens of the country, the Muslims, really Moors, Indian Tamils and Colombo Chetties. Inflammatory provocation of youth by Tamil political leaders to take up arms against the state was responsible for the sedition marked by terror and brutality by Tamil youth visited on their Mayor, a Police Inspector by the name of Bastiampillai and many such unfortunate events in the immediate pre 1983 time. It seems to me that though the average Tamil persona I know is an extremely nice and meek person he could sometimes fall into an emotional trap as a community when provoked by the politicians. Even Leonard Woolf was faulted by a set of Tamil lawyers in the first decade of the last century who accused him of using the whip on them while riding on horseback. He had denied the charge in his autobiography. The anti shri campaign in the late 1950s was another foolish attempt at revolt. Reading the memoirs of Mr. Neville Jayaweera , then Government Agent of Jaffna, published a few years ago in the Sunday Island I couldn’t help feeling that the English educated high caste Tamils were in the habit of over reacting and discriminating against their own low caste people. How else can one explain the case of the Tamil Senator carrying a paper weight at a meeting presided by the GA?

I understand that some high caste Tamils had wanted the benches sat on and befouled by low caste Tamils washed and cleaned in the rehabilitation camps in the May June July 2009 period. The letters from Mr. Sebastian Rasalingam from Canada published in your daily confirm the culture of discrimination practiced among Tamil groups who ironically cry genocide without any provocation to the outside world.

The tragedy of looting, blood shed and murder were definitely the work of the goons in 1983 as in 1958. But the lists carried by some Sinhala groups were of those families to be dispossessed and not of those to be destroyed. Who will believe that Mr.Cyril Mathew, a minister then, took steps to protect his Advisor, a retired senior Tamil official from the rabid mob? Mob rule by the goons took over after the departure of the political minded list holders from the scene. About this time I became aware of some instances of Tamil colleagues of mine who suffered at the hands of goons. One of them was the Deputy Head of Pensions, a very cheerful, friendly person who was threatened by a member of the minor staff. He did not fortunately suffer any harm. Till he evacuated to Jaffna by ship he and his family were well looked after by the head of the Department and his neighbour living in the Summit Flats, a busy Cardiologist. A colleague of mine in the Administrative Service and his wife living in Kalubowila were threatened by goons. They left their rented house in time but the wife’s jewellery she was wearing was plucked out from her body by a goon and she suffered an injury. The goons set fire to the house which actually belonged to a Sinhala land owner. The couple stayed with the family of a colleague and claimed compensation for their losses but the trauma they suffered remained even after they migrated to Canada. While walking one morning from the Summit Flats to my place of work at Longden Place I took the short cut through the Department of Irrigation. I found that there had been some trouble there and my enquiries revealed that a Tamil Engineer had been done to death by a minor employee who was, it seemed, paying off old scores. All these acts of terror were perpetrated by the goons. I dare to think they were motivated by a multiplicity of factors namely, revenge for the death of the 13 soldiers, a sort of morbid thrill acting as comrades in arms under mob rule, looting and paying off old scores on their strict disciplinarian type of Tamil bosses. They were aware that they were immune from punishment by the government of the day. The minor employee- goons in the public service were those recruited on the "chit system" introduced by the late Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike and JR’s Job Bank when political affiliations were the primary criteria for recruitment.

Dr Leo Fernando


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