‘Black July’: Forgotten, forgettable?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Thirty-five years after the event, the nation is still going through the ‘ritual’ of remembering, if not observing the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. Rather, the Tamils ‘observe’ it and the rest of the nation is ‘observing’ what the Tamils are doing, or not doing, if only to make comparisons with the past, and draw pro-LTTE or ‘slow-LTTE’ parallels – and by default.

If the younger generation of non-Tamils do not even recall such a sad and sordid episode ever happened, they are not to blame. Even those that were witness to the end-game of ‘Eelam War IV’ and the attendant celebrations outside of the Tamil areas, at times outside Tamil homes in non-Tamil majority areas, including capital Colombo until the Government and the armed forces intervened, they do not know where it all began.

The LTTE was a terror outfit, which it was, and all Tamils are ‘suspects’, or that’s what they had grown up, learning. Less said about their connecting it all back to ‘Black July’, leave alone the seedling in the ‘Sinhala Only’ law of the mid-Fifties, the better.

It is not without reason. Those that were/are Tamil victims either talk politics nearer home, or are in faraway lands, perceived to be ‘political refugees’ but mostly ending up as ‘economic refugees’. That is as far as whoever had not perished in the decades of war, including militant/terrorist LTTE cadres and all those they too killed, from among fellow-Tamils, militants and others.

That is the irony of the present-day Tamil situation. Even the twice-a-year annual memorials for the Tamil victims of those events have become as ritualistic as it could become. Granting that ‘Black July’ occurred decades ago, the same cannot be said about what the Tamils mourned as the ‘Mullivaikkal massacre’, in May 2009.

If anything, there is a larger mass of records and evidence to the ‘Black July’ massacre. Yet, no action was initiated against the culprits, nor has there been any demand for the same, after a point. The Darussman Report and all Tamil-initiated probes notwithstanding, the actual number of lives lost at Mullivaikkal, and the number of non-combatants among them, is yet to be ascertained with a certain degree of accuracy, but there has been a hue and cry for ‘justice’ for the victims.

Hollowness of the demand

The irony of the Tamil situation – and the hollowness of the demand, if it has to be acknowledged to be what it was/is – was visible all through. Nowhere else was/is it evident from the Tamils not having any problem voting the war-time army chief and present-day Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka in the presidential poll that followed only months after the war’s end.

The Tamils were and still are opposed to the political leadership of war-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When they want ‘justice’ for the war’s victims, who then are they referring to? Is it the political leadership of the time or the administrative head of the Defence Ministry, in Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, or the men in uniform – or, all of them put together? Therein is the irony of the present-day Tamil situation, which makes their demand less genuine and even less palatable.

Illogical Tamil logic…

If they were/are serious about it, the Tamils should have put the Rajapaksas and the Fonsekas together, even if not in the reverse order. They should have demanded ‘justice’ against them all. If it was politics of the ‘anti-Sinhala’ majoritarian variety, they could and should be demanding ‘justice’ for the Tamil victims of ‘Black July’, when their present-day UNP friends were in power as a party, if not as individuals. Even now, it may not be too late.

The question then arises, why and how the ‘Sinhala perpetrators’ of the ‘anti-Tamil pogroms’ of 1983 and 2009 were/are to be delineated and blamed ‘exclusively’, now? The illogical ‘Tamil logic’ just does not gel. Looking back, they should be able to acknowledge that they were guided and led to their conclusions on ‘war-crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’, not by their conscience alone, but by their western backers, who had other agendas for and in Sri Lanka – or, so would it seem.

If the question was that they could not press their demand for ‘justice’ for ‘Black July’ victims owing to the prevailing political situation of the times and also the ‘Cold War’ era complexities in the international arena, they could still flag the issues even now. Some of the survivors may even be able to identify the on-ground perpetrators of such violence, who may have grown old but may still be walking the streets of Sri Lanka in flesh and blood, their heads held high, and at times, holding high offices.

The UNP was in power at the time, and unlike what some foreigners wanted to conclude, it was the UNP men, including incumbent Ministers like Cyril Mathew – and not the JVP — were at the helm of all that happened, and did not happen. By broad-basing their political demands as ‘more powers’ all the time, they have made it all amorphous. The new generation Tamils may not even know what ‘Sinhala Only’ was all about, if at all they know such a thing exists.

That way, the Tamils seem to have pushed former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), out of their vision, holding all the bows and arrows exclusively in the direction of Mahinda R. It is another matter that the Tamils (too) voted overwhelmingly in her maiden presidential outing.

Provoking the forces

That was also when the LTTE found out that they had been left out of finding a political solution to what was yet to be designated as ‘the national problem’. In the elections afterwards, they controlled whether or how the Tamils should vote – with the power of the gun, that is.

In between, you had the LTTE finding terrorist ways to provoke the armed forces, and hence the CBK leadership, to retaliate on the ground. Once it all began, the Tamils began hating CBK, too – only because the LTTE had to hate her and the LTTE asked or directed them to ‘hate her’.

Yet, today, the Tamils have no problem either with the UNP rulers, perpetrators and participants in ‘Black July’ massacre. In Elections-2010 and even more in Elections-2015, CBK became their political guide of sorts, if not master. In this background their singling out the Rajapaksas, leaving out the UNP, CBK and Fonseka, among others, sound hollow, to say the least – or, so it seems.

Political, politicised

If the Tamils are serious about ‘war-crimes probe’, maybe they should begin with proving the apolitical nature of their demand. It is not too late even now to do that. Then, they should be able to agree to a national probe, rather than an international affair, which seems studded with justification of every kind from every side – but not justice for their victims.

What the Tamils should then seek to ensure is to make such a probe as much independent and transparent as it can be under the circumstances. They may have missed out an opportunity to avoid blaming the nation’s judiciary, as used to be the wont on other occasions, when a fellow-Tamil in Justice K S Sripavan was the Chief Justice.

This is not to cast aspersions on the integrity of other Justices and Chief Justices, but only to point out that the Tamils may have had ‘their own Judge’ whose judgment of men and matter they could trust even more. The incumbent Government also seemed to have missed the argument and opportunity, when they were leading the international community and the TNA friends alike, along the garden path, at UNHRC and in the nation’s Parliament. They could have done whatever they intended doing (if serious and sincere) when Justice Sripavan was in office.

If today, the Sri Lankan State as an institution, notwithstanding who is in power or who is not, seems lacking in will and willingness to act on the Tamil demand for justice for their ‘war victims’, it owes mostly to the absence of ‘fairness’ in the demand, including transparency, sincerity and universal application of the demand. The Tamils seem wanting to target only the lower-rung officers and soldiers, who in fitness of things, were only ‘obeying the orders from the top’, even granting that the charges were/are prima facie true. This being the case, naturally, Sri Lankan State decisions, too, will be political and politicised.

There is also the accompanying Sri Lankan State suspicion that the Tamil polity in the nation has been taking orders from ‘outside’ the country – from nations that have their own vested interests. The latter is seen as using the TGTE kind of ‘enemies of Sri Lanka’ on the one hand. They are also seen as allowing the TGTE to use them, as well. The reference of course is to the TNA leadership and/or rebels, including Northern PC Chief Minister, Justice C V Wigneswaran.

Today, when the chips are down, the Tamil polity is seen as getting increasingly divided nearer home, and consolidated more and more than any time in the post-LTTE past, overseas, under the ‘separatist’ TGTE. Playing the same game in the reverse and independent of whoever is in power in Colombo, Establishment Sri Lanka would be tempted to wait out the Tamil polity until it collapses completely nearer home, and the TGTE kind of ‘pro-LTTE face’ alone stands out in the global crowd, for them to turn the tables, as was the case with the LTTE in the end.

The TGTE has marked ‘Black July’ observances this year with a TV news channel, accessible by all Sri Lankan Tamils across the world. If the Government feels nervous over the development, it is not without reason. After all, the LTTE was known as much for its propaganda success stories as for its military prowess and greater intelligence and street-smartness, the latter when it came to suicide-bombers of the kind employed in the assassinations of Premadasa, Kadirgamar and even more, Rajiv Gandhi. Minus the ‘military’ tactics and ‘terror attacks’, the TGTE, for instance,  has nothing to fear, and all the time to wait for its turn, this generation and the coming ones!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected]nsathiyamoorthy.com)


  1. This article is absolute rubbish and without knowing facts of Eelam Tamils’ struggle for independence from Sinhala Buddhist Apartheid occupation. It should be noted that South African ANC and Late Nelson Mandela were branded as terrorist and we all know what happened later.

    LTTE was armed and supported by former progressive Indian leaders and later corrupt and criminal minded Malayalee mafias and Indian Centre collaborated to the genocide against Tamils. Indian IPKF too committed war crimes against Tamils during their occupation. The writer has no clue about the strength of TGTE and it’s progress towards achieving Eelam and Tamils do not want failed India to meddle in their affairs. India while failing to have good governance and rule of law in their own land, how can these corrupt and inhuman minded people to help or resolve others’ issues?

    The writer has no sense that even India is a federation created by British Colonial rulers, not a country and become a failed nation and mess due to corrupt, power greedy, hated, chauvinistic policies and will have another struggle by each race for their independence in the future. At present, India has over 300 million untouchables, hundreds of millions of people with extreme poverty and illiteracy, the writer should look at Indian’s total mess than writing absolute nonsense on Eelam struggle without facts and figures.

    BJP Hindu / Hindi Fascist regime only help many races in India to start their independence struggle with the help of western nations and China as Indian federation is a menace to civilized society. The writer should know that Tamils will join hands and support Kashmiris, Sikhs and other struggle for independence globally!

  2. Under your new definition and interpretation, what is terrorism and brand LTTE as a terrorist outfit, then Subash Chandra Bose, Bagath Singh, Vallabhbhai Patel (Sardar Patel) all are terrorists.

    Are you practicing double standards policy?


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