An Act of Consciousness Raising: The Concept ‘Pogrom’ and its Extension to Sri Lanka

Michael Roberts

ONE: An Explanatory Note in 2019

My recent use of the term “pogrom” to mark the constellation of events in mid-1915 that were (are) commonly referred to as “riots”  has been challenged on Facebook by a Sinhalese ideologue named Amare Kodikara[1] (who has not taken the trouble to read the original articles in 1994 on which this usage was based).[2] I am therefore placing the relevant segment from the pertinent article in the web-domain once again as Segment Two in this article.

pluenderung der Judengass, c. 1614

child victims at Ekaterinoslav, 1905

In doing so, let me stress that this usage THEN was not only a challenge confronting prominent historians such as Professor Kingsley de Silva.[3] It was also – quite explicitly – a self-critique that questioned and discarded the taken-for-granted manner in which I had previously addressed the events under review as “riots.[4] As I indicated then, I was inspired by the constellation of assaults on Tamils residing in the southern and central areas of the island in July 1983 and the reading of this set of events as “a pogrom” by such scholars as Shelton Kodikara and Newton Gunasinghe.[5]

The Endnotes have been suitably re-worked in this presentation and I have added another segment which presents the dictionary definitions and the clarification of the term “pogrom” in Wikipedia. I was not a computer-buff in the 1990s and did not have access to Wikipedia; but I was fully alive to the series of pogroms in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Iasi pogrom in Romania in June 1941 and kristallnacht in Germany on 9/10th November 1938 – the last-named a “pogrom” within the broader corpus of events that make up the Holocaust.

TWO: Verbatim Extract from Article entitled “Mentalities, Ideologues, Assailants: Historians and the Pogroms against the Moors in 1915”

In the early days of the pogrom, one should note, there was something of a grande peur[6] fanned by rumour, with the marakkalayo (Moors, plural form) cast as the dangerous ogre threatening specific and/or generalised targets. The Buddhist Sinhalese who gathered together to defend themselves in this manner do not appear to have done so as Buddhists alone. They were also acting as Sinhalese. Thus, one of the stirrers who addressed the crowd in the small ‘town’ of Gampola on the evening of the 30th May dwelt on the need for unity among the Sinhalese (Sendanayake 1916). It was this body of people who attacked the Moor properties later on that night. Likewise, at a gathering of religious associations at Attanagalla on the 1st June, the assembly was told that “the Tambies are insulting our nationality and our religion.”[7] Thus, those Sinhalese who were moved to attack and pillage the Moors and their properties, whether Protestant (e.g. at Moratuwa), Catholic and Buddhist, were doing so as Sinhalese, while the Buddhists were doubly motivated.

This interpretive clarification must be supported by a conscious act which revises the standard label attached to these events: namely, the term “riots”. This term has long been part of the British legal lexicon and refers to sustained assaults on a segment of the population as well as minor affrays over a few hours involving a handful of people. Numerous scholars, including myself, have slavishly followed this crude terminology in describing events, such as those which occurred in 1915, 1958, 1977 and 1983, which demand a qualitative distinction—that is, a conceptual separation from minor clashes.

One must follow the lead taken by those writers4 who have described the events of July 1983 as a “pogrom” and apply this label to the clashes in 1915. The innovative use of this label to characterize the attacks on the Tamils in southern Sri Lanka in 1983 has been questioned by K. M. de Silva. His bible is the Oxford Dictionary, which defines pogrom as “an organised massacre, the annihilation of any body or class, especially of Jews; an organised persecution or extermination of an ethnic group, especially of Jews; and especially in Tsarist Russia” (quoted by de Silva). De Silva, therefore, sees the term as specific to Central and Eastern Europe and as involving “officially sanctioned and officially directed persecution or extermination of an ethnic group, a despised group confined to a . . . ghetto” (1988: 87).

The Oxford Dictionary (pre-1990s) was “compiled effectively from the 1880s to the 1920s” (O’Connor 1989: 53). De Silva seeks to freeze us in that period of time. He is blissfully unaware that the English word “pogrom” derives from old Russian: it is a word which simply meant “destruction.” Over time this meaning was lost and “the word came specifically to denote the destruction of Jewish life and property” (Kochan 1957: 12).

However, my usage of the term here is not informed by considerations of etymological primordiality. It is situated self-consciously in the 1990s, with all its retrospective advantages. It moves metaphorically beyond sterile etymological positions to extend the term to all contexts in which a dominant segment of a population systematically assails another segment in their midst,5 the systematicity being one of pattern and effect and not implying a planned conspiracy as a defining feature. Likewise, in this usage, the participation of state agents in such pogroms is not a definitional requirement, though they may well be involved in greater or lesser measure.

Thus defined, and standing in the 1990s, a pogrom is treated as something short of the genocidal programme instituted by the Nazis from 1938-45 and by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The Nazi programme is widely known among the Jews today as “the Shoah,” meaning “catastrophe” in Hebrew. It is seen as a qualitatively distinct phenomenon, something “beyond description.

The metaphorical use of the term “pogrom” to identify the so-called “riots” of 1915, therefore, is informed by the knowledge that it is a loaded epithet. Such an emphasis on my part is a mark of my own awakening, one induced by the events in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and a conference on ethnic violence in South Asia held at Kathmandu in early 1987 (see Das 1990). As such, it is a political act of consciousness-raising. Historians are as much in need of this nuance-in-perspective as their readers.

THREE: Some Clarifications within Information Web Sites

IIIa: pogrom = “an organized massacre of helpless people, specifically such a massacre of Jews” … from

IIIb: pogrom = 1882, from Yiddish pogrom, from Russian pogromu “devastation, destruction,” from po- “by, through, behind, after” (cognate with Latin post-; see post-) + gromu “thunder, roar,” from PIE imitative root *ghrem- (see grim)….. from

IIIc: Wikipedia on “Pogrom”

pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The Russian-language term originally entered the English language in order to describe 19th and 20th century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire (mostly within the Pale of Settlement). Similar attacks against Jews at other times and places also became retrospectively known as pogroms.  The word is now also sometimes used to describe publicly sanctioned purgative attacks against non-Jewish ethnic or religious groups. The characteristics of a pogrom vary widely, depending on the specific incidents, at times leading to, or culminating in massacres.

Significant pogroms in the Russian Empire included the Odessa pogromsWarsaw pogrom (1881)Kishinev pogrom (1903), Kiev Pogrom (1905), and Białystok pogrom (1906). After the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, several pogroms took place amid the power struggles in Eastern Europe, including the Lwów pogrom (1918) and Kiev Pogroms (1919).

The most significant pogrom in Nazi Germany was the Kristallnacht of 1938 in which 91 Jews were killed, a further 30,000 arrested and subsequently incarcerated in concentration camps,[10] 1,000 synagogues burned, and over 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed or damaged.[11][12] Notorious pogroms of World War II included the 1941 Farhud in Iraq, the July 1941 Iaşi pogrom in Romania – in which over 13,200 Jews were killed – as well as the Jedwabne pogrom in Poland. Post-World War II pogroms included the 1945 Tripoli pogrom, the 1946 Kielce pogrom and the 1947 Aleppo pogrom.

Romanians remove corpses of Jewish victims deported from Iași following pogrom

****  ****


Das, Veena (ed.) 1990 Mirrors of Violence. Communities, Riots, Survivors –The South Asian Experience, Delhi, Oxford University Press.

De Silva, K. M. 1988 “Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka:  A Rejoinder,” Ethnic Studies Report, vol. 6, pp. 68-74.

Dowbiggin, Herbert (IGP) 1918 Letter from the IGP to the Colonial Secretary, 1 June 1918.

Kochan, Lionel  1957 Pogrom 10 November 1938, London, Andre Deutsch.

O’Connor, Alan 1989 Raymond Williams. Writing, Culture and Politics, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Roberts, Michael 1981 “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese or Local Elite Chauvinists? Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots?” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, vol 4 pp. 83-126.

Roberts, Michael 1990 “Noise as cultural struggle: tom-tom beating, the British and communal disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s-1930s,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of violence, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 240-85.

Roberts, Michael 1994a Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “The imperialism of silence under the British raj: arresting the drum,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 1994c “Mentalities, ideologues, assailants, historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 1994d “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading:Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317-25. …. Reprinted in Nethra, 2003 vol. 6: 199-213.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” South Asia, Special Issue, XIX: 205-20.

Roberts, Michael 2009 Marakkala Kolahaalaya: Mentalities directing the pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, confrontations I Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, chap 5, pp113-53.

Sendanayake, J. Perera 1915 Evidence presented by J. Perera Sendanayake, Police Sergeant at Gampola), 22 June 1915, in DNA 65/242.


[1] Kodikara’s FB page indicates that he was at Royal College and was also at Law College.

[2] See “Imperialism of Silence,” and “Mentalities” in Exploring Confrontation, 1994. The Latter is reprinted in Confrontations (2009) with a different title.

[3] KM de Silva was one of my teachers and thereafter a colleague at the History Department, Peradeniya University. We argued in newsprint on this issue at one point. We have always maintained friendship and collaboration in academic explorations amidst such tussles.

[4] For instance, in my 1981 article “Hobgoblins.”

[5] My footnote in the 1994 article indicates that I was informed here by their newspaper articles in the 1980s (to which I have no access now). Both were residing in colombo in 1983 whereas I was in Adelaide.

[6] The Grande Peur, or period of panic and fear,” was a major event within the grander series of events known as the French Revolution in 1789. Visit these two sources: (1) and (2)

[7] Dowbiggin 1918.

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