On 22nd July 1983, thirteen soldiers were ambushed and killed in Thirunelveli, near Jaffna. In that part of northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers were staging a revolt of their Hindu minority from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Singhalese majority – an independence movement that was quickly devolving into terrorism. What happened after the ambush would poison the Sri Lankan politics for decades.
In Colombo, a mob of goondas (thugs) assembled at the soldiers’ funeral, and handed out paperwork containing electoral rolls and company registrations – which denoted which businesses and houses belonged to the Hindu Tamils. Soon, the city was ablaze in a pogrom, where Hindu businesses were burnt, and the Tamils being burnt alive in buses. A Kristallnacht, noted John Gimlette in his travelogue, “Elephant Complex”. In the photographs of those days, later to be remembered as Black July, Gimlette saw:
“How gleeful the goondas look as they lay out the Tamils. There’s the happiness of looting neighbors, and the ecstasy of fire. A naked man is battered to death, to the obvious contentment of the crowd. For how many centuries must you detest each other, for that? Then there is the burnt-out minibus. It’s said that the thugs jammed the doors before setting it on fire, and then watched as the passengers screamed themselves to death.”
Photographic record was sparse, but Gimlette no doubt saw the works of Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who was working for the Communist Party newspaper, Äththa, whose offices were close to the center to the pogrom at Borella. He was extremely careful, taking only nine photos that day. At times, he would expose only a single shot on a roll before removing the roll and storing it away for safekeeping to prevent the loss of footage. The government censorship meant he couldn’t publish the photos until July 1997, when Ravaya published them.
The most famous of his photos was that of a naked Tamil surrounded by a small group of laughing, even bored, slightly built youth, one of whom had his leg slightly up, ready to kick the naked man. The government dithered for days, holding emergency meetings even as all Tamil businesses in the Colombo Fort area, right outside their meeting room, burnt down. Shiva Naipaul recalled a young boy hacked to a limbless death, and a girl “so enthusiastically raped …. that in the end, there was nothing left to violate and no more volunteers”. Julius Jayewardene, the old man of Ceylon politics and the president, who lived in Borella, refused to send in the police or the army to intervene; when he finally went on television, there was no denunciation, but just bland words about, “a mass movement of the generality of the Singhalese people”.
Over 3,000 Tamils were killed in over 6 days (some put the figures as high as 10,000; the official government figure was 358). And uneasy coexistence had broken down: many Tamils emigrated and those who remained radicalized and joined the Tigers. Jayewardene expelled the Tamils from the parliament. With the Sri Lankan army’s blockade of Jaffna, there were food shortages. Across southern India, graffiti read Invade Lanka. Send Army Now. By 1987, Sri Lanka was well on course for a full-scale civil war which would last until 2009, and India embroiled in an ill-timed intervention.
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