Confronting Ethnic Violence and Its Roots in Vengeance

Michael Roberts

In presenting Basil Fernando’s book to the public, I have been led back in time to critical data he presented to me in the early 1990s re the “riots of July 1983.” As an act of condemnation THEN, my essay on those events depicted the MOMENT as a “pogrom.”[1] This label was guided by my awareness that in Russian usage this label meant “destruction” and thus went beyond the English dictionary translations of that word. Though I have been rapped on the knuckles by Kingsley M. de Silva for this nomenclature,[2] I remain adamant. What occurred in late July 1983 was a horrific set of events that cannot be buried inside that relatively mundane label “riots.”


Jubilant {Sinhala) rioters celebrate their mayhem at Borella Junction in Colombo on the 24/25th July night 1983

An assailant about to deliver a kick …before the Tamil vivtim was killed


The evidence supplied by Basil Fernando and the photographs snapped at Borella Junction on the fatal night of 24th/25th July 1983 by a brave and innovative cameraman,[3] Chandragupta Amarasinghe, were central elements in my essay on the pogrom.[4] I commence, here, with a repetition of the ethnographic data gathered by Basil Fernando taking a central place in my protest essay “Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom”– presented here in coloured font to ensure its distinctiveness.

Prose fails, often, at such moments. And where prose falters, poetry recovers the moment. A Sinhala lawyer, Christian by background. Basil Fernando has attempted to capture facets of the July pogrom in poetry. His “Just Society” is a stinging indictment of the burners and killers, and of Sri Lankan society, his society, my society. It has its sequel in another poem, another indictment, which he called “Yet Another Incident in July 1983.”

The irony in the phrase “yet another” is powerful in its effect and is surely intended. But one could think of another title: “Defiance within the Agony.” For within Basil Fernando’s poetic account of a happening that week is an evocation of ….. the pain and agony of all the Tamils killed that week. And yet more: within Basil Fernando’s indictment in free verse lies the indelible defiance expressed by a resolute Tamil person about to suffer a horrible fate. To verse, to verse …. His Verse:

Burying the dead

being an art well developed in our times

(our psycho-analysts have helped us much

to keep balanced minds-whatever

that may mean-) there is no reason really

for this matter to remain so vivid

as if some rare occurrence. I assure you

 I am not sentimental, never having

had a ‘break down’ as they say.

I am as shy of my emotions

as you are. And I attend to my daily

tasks in a very matter of fact way.


Being prudent too, when a government says “Forget”

I act accordingly. My ability to forget

has never been doubted, never

having had any adverse comments.


On that score either. Yet I remember the way they stopped that   car,

the mob. There were four   in that car, a girl, a boy

(between four and five it seemed) and their Parents –

I guessed – the man and the woman.

It was in the same way they stopped other cars.

 I did not notice any marked

Difference, A few questions

in gay mood, not to make a mistake

I suppose, then they proceeded then

to action, by then routine. Pouring

petrol and all that stuff.

Then someone noticed something odd

 as it were, opened the two left side

 doors, took away the two children, crying and

resisting as they were moved away from their parents.


Children’s emotions have sometimes

to be ignored for their own good, the guy must have thought.

Someone practical

was quick, lighting a match 

efficiently. An instant

fire followed, adding one more

to many around. Around

the fire they chattered

of some new adventure. A few

 scattered, What the two inside

felt or thought was no matter

Peace loving people were hurrying

towards homes as in a procession ….

Then suddenly the man inside  

 breaking open the door, was out, his shirt already on

fire and hair too. Then bending,

took his two children. Not even

looking around as if executing a calculated 

decision, he resolutely

re-entered the car.

Once inside, he closed the door

 himself. I heard the noise



Still the ruined car

is there, by the road-side

with other such things.  Maybe

the Municipality will remove it

one of these days to the Capital’s

garbage pits. The cleanliness of the Capital

receives Authority’s top priority.


In “Agony and Ecstasy,” this poem in free verse was (is) supplemented by an interpretive commentary in denunciation of the perpetrators – all those who incited, all those who carried out the killings, burnings, destructions and looting, and all those guardians of the peace who looked the other way during those fateful days in July 1983.

“No one was surprised by the story,” says Fernando. In his circle of friends there was an “angry and sad mood” about the happenings of the pogrom and Fernando’s poems are explicitly intended as “a critique of the middle-class” as well as being an attempt to grapple with his internal turmoil at having outwardly accepted the course of events.

My interest, here, on the other hand, is in the lucid  indictment expressed by that unknown Tamil father. To me, at first reading, then, now, ever more, always, the action pressed so resolutely by that unknown Tamil man, a Tamil father, spoke more eloquently than words. His was the most profound of statements. It was an act of rebellion. It was an act of condemnation. A double gesture, an indictment of humanity in general and the Sinhalese in particular. Its courage, its resolute incisive clarity of comment has etched its imprint on my soul.

Others may draw different meanings. Or like ones. Every tale is amenable to several meanings, and thus to several audiences.  I could translate what I think that unknown Tamil victim was saying into earthy Australian slang. But such words would offend, not only because of their earthiness, but because everyday slang, being so common (in both its senses), would traduce the profundity of that Tamilian’s ‘words’.

Moving Beyond to Pictorial Presentations of Human Beastliness 

In my initial presentation of Basil Fernando’s act of witness, it was complemented by other ethnographic instances as well as Chandragupta Amarasinghe’s photographs.[5] At that point these telling snaps were derived second hand from the Tamil Times (of November 1983) and I was not aware of the hand behind the snaps. In 1995, however, Victor Ivan put me in touch with Chandragupta and he visited me at my sister’s place in Wellawatte. This meant better copies of the incidents and details about the manner in which Chandragupta protected himself in the heat of action by having an aide with an open carry-bag alongside so that he could drop his flash camera into it after a quick snap. Clever and innovative that.

A burnt-out Tamil shop

These photographs can be supplemented by other pictures of the destruction and violence wrought by the numerous assailants who engaged in attacks on Tamil shops and houses and those who used the opportunity to loot. These photographic records of violence are vital. Pictures can be imprinted in one’s mind – searing imprints, profound in meaning, potential inspirations towards the reparation and rehabilitation of society. So, I proceed here to provide other pictorial tales – a haphazard sample of photographs from the destruction wrought in one site, the city of Colombo.

 Tilly’s Hotel at Mount Lavinia was burnt out in July 1983 and remains today as a stark reminder of that event

Kapferer’s depiction of President Jayawardene

Needless to say, any such survey should absorb other accounts of the horrible events in July 1983 from eyewitnesses and/or scholars. Even the novel entitled July by Karen Roberts can aid our review because this Burgher-Navandanna lady was working in Kollupitiya on Monday the 25th when her Tamil boss closed shop in haste, and she then walked back along Galle Road (usually on the middle of the road) to her home in Dehiwela. She, therefore, witnessed the breaking and entering and looting of shops and a range of violent acts.[6] The problem here is to separate facts from her novelistic embellishments via fiction.

There are, I presume, a whole stack of other accounts which historians should delve into so as to record the ‘truth’ of that awesome week.[7]

Such accounting, perforce, must also lay stress on the many, many acts of bravery and kindness from Sinhalese, Muslim, Malay, Burgher personnel who provided havens for their threatened Tamil neighbours, friends or workers; and to those who drove Tamil colleagues or friends to safe spots through threatening crowds.[8] Most Sri Lankans with relatives or friends in the principal towns where assaults occurred would have a stock of such ethnographic tales of comradeship and bravery in threatening circumstances. Such stories are an essential dimension of the events in that fateful, awful set of episodes.

All these tales supplement the photographs in marking the scale of the ethnic violence in late July 1983. So, “July 1983” was not simply an instance of “riots.” It was a pogrom.

Hence the flight of numerous Tamils from Sri Lanka to havens abroad – however chilly the climate and difficult the economic challenges. Hence, too, the deepening of resolve among Tamil personnel committed to fight for an independent state.[9]

Indian Comparisons

My initial declamatory essay[10] on the 1983 pogrom in the year 1994 was also informed by attendance at a conference on ethnic violence in South Asia held in Kathmandu in February 1987. This gathering was promoted by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies in Colombo under the leadership of Neelan Tiruchelvam and Radhika Coomaraswamy. It led to a book entitled Mirrors of Violence, edited by Veena Das in 1990. My presentation in that conference and within the book was based on my historical work on the anti-Muslim riots of 1915 and not on the events of 1983. However, that conference did inform my thinking when a Fellowship at the University of Virginia provided me with the time and the inspiration to fashion “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom.”

As I conceived it, then, the essay was “a literary piece” more than an analysis cast in the social science mould.[11] It remains so in my perception.

As an essay with a literary cast, it can embody pictorial illustrations and comparative journeys in its message of consciousness-raising. As it happens, this line of inquiry and my desire to widen my knowledge of ethnic confrontations was boosted in early 1995 when I secured a Fellowship for four months or so in Delhi in association with Professor Ravinder Kumar[12] in order to study “communal violence”’ in India. Apart from inspiring exchanges with Indian scholars such as Deepak Mehta, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Ashis Nandy and Veena Das, this sojourn involved considerable interaction with Indian journalists and explorations in the editorial offices of leading newspapers and pictorial magazines of the India Today kind.

Pictures of violent ethnic clashes were one of my major lines of ethnographic enquiry. These, of course, meant studies of attacks on Muslims by Hindus at various moments in Indian history – incidents dating from the late 19th century. Some such moments were recent: for instance, those relating around the incidents leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid Mosque on 6th December 1992 that was sponsored by the Vishvas Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu extremist organisations and the Hindu-Muslim clashes in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993 during the immediate weeks following this incident.

However, the material also included the attacks on Sikhs in Delhi and other localities after the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984. As it happened, the dying Mrs Gandhi had been rushed to Teen Murti Hospital. This hospital was next door to the Teen Murti Library where I pursued most of my research. One of my reporter informants later informed me that the attacks on (innocent) Sikhs commenced opposite the hospital immediate after Mrs Gandhi’s death was made known.

Indians in extreme mental anguish outside the gates of Teen Murti Hospital awaiting news of Indir Gandhi’s fate

a burning body of a Sikh on the roadside …. and

another (presumably Muslim) outside a shop at Varanasi, 23 December 1990

A crowd of Hindu men and boys on the hunt for Muslims in Bhagalpur, 28 October 1990


Here, then, we witness an instance when heightened grief generated heightened vengeance. The attacks on Tamils in July 1983 were also motivated by vengeance. The spark was a successful LTTE ambush in the Jaffna Peninsula which saw the killing of an SL Army patrol of 13 soldiers. There were immediate reprisals by army personnel in the Peninsula, while I gather that Navy personnel embarked on some killings in the Trincomalee area.[13]

That is, reprisals had already commenced in outlying arenas, before the burial of the thirteen soldiers at Kanatte in Colombo became the spark instigating attacks on innocent Tamils in Colombo and other areas in the south and central parts of the island — with some of the instigations and participants being acts of politicians and trade-unionists in the governing UNP regime if a wide range of ‘gossip’ can be relied on.

Reprisals!! …… The July 1983 pogrom was a giant act of reprisal.

Studying Vengeance in Sri Lanka

It follows that the scholars of ethnic conflict in Asia should also attend to the ‘play’ of jealousy and revenge in everyday life. We move, then, into a whole new ball game because we must necessarily attend to the many practices and institutions that cater to these widespread motivations. … and thereby encourage and nurture such acts. Among these institutions are gods and goddesses …. and the religiosi who service and mediate the divine and secular dimensions of life in Asia, namely the kattadiyās, kapurālas and other such mediators and spin-merchants. For this reason, Gananath Obeyesekere’s early essay on “Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and the Canalization of Aggression in Sri Lanka,” (presented in 1975) is mandatory reading for investigators/writers in this field.

Note, here, that women are among the clients approaching the deities to wreck murder and havoc on those who are believed to have harmed them. That is, they are among those seeking vengeance and sponsoring vengeance. This is also their role in ethnic riots and pogroms, though the killings and the burnings and the smashing up of property in Asia has usually been the handiwork of males. Some women may participate in the looting, but their prime input has been in retailing stories about the violence of the Other and in spreading rumours. … that is, in instigating vengeance.

Note, moreover, that wherever divine agents can be persuaded to intervene in one’s cause or be approached to remedy an act of retribution for some “Wrong” suffered, THERE, women are among the clients seeking punishment/vengeance on an OFFENSIVE OTHER. As illustration let me present a ’simple’ instance recorded in Kapferer’s Legends of People, Myths of State: where a working-class lady seeks retribution on an errant husband who has deserted her and left her destitute. The critical ‘evidence’ in this photograph is the distraught lady’s mother: if looks could wither a person, her intensity of focused vengeance would have dismembered the errant son-in-law. 

Photo and caption in Bruce Kapferer, Legends of People, Myths of  State, Washington, 1988

It is on this ground that studies of ethnic confrontation must be grounded within interpersonal violence rooted in RETRIBUTION at the wider societal level. In this work Obeyesekere’s study of the clients visiting four sorcery shrines in Sri Lanka’s south-western quarter becomes an essential tool – albeit one that should be supplemented by the books presented by such personnel as Tanaka, Stirrat, Spencer, Pfaffenberger and Bastin.

In brief, we are led to a veritable industry of religiosi in Sri Lanka who cater to misfortune and grief in pathways that encourage RETRIBUTION. In this manner we enter the domain of activities seeking to protect the self and/or further one’s lifeways with the aid of powerful supernatural agents.

Thus nourished, the motive and motif of VENGEANCE secures vindication …and flourishes. One consequence is the DEATH of those deemed to be wrongdoers. For the assailants and killers in July 1983 and for those urging them to action, all Tamils, any Tamils, were culpable dangers in their universe. Punishment was an imperative. The voices urging or stimulating vengeance must also bear the burden of guilt with the assailants and murderers.


Bastian, Sunil 1990 “Political Economy of Ethnic Violence in Sri Lanka: the July 1983 Riots,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of Violence; Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi, OUP, pp. 286-304.

Bastin, Rohan 2002a The Domain of Constant Excess. Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka. New York: Berghahn Books.

Bastin, Rohan 2002b “Sorcerous Technologies and Religious Innovation in Sri Lanka.” Social Analysis 46: 154-74.

Brow, James 1996 Demons and Development, Tucson, University of Arizona Press.

Chakravarti, Uma & Nandita Haksar 1987 The Delhi Riots, Delhi: Lancer International.

Das, Veena (ed.) 1990 Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi Oxford University Press.

Das, Veena 1990 “Our work to cry: your work to listen,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of Violence; Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi, OUP, pp. 345-98.

Das, Veena 1994 “Privileging the Local: The 1984 Riots,” Seminar, January 1995, 425: 97-103.

De Silva, K. M.  “A Diehard Empiricist responds,” 3 June 2021,  … a reprint from Daily News, 1991…………..

De Silva, K. M. 2021 “Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to Michael Roberts.” 22 May 2021, Orig. pubn in, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 6/1, January 1988

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1978 “The Fire-Walkers of Kataragama: The Rise of Bhakti Religiosity in Buddhist Sri Lanka.” Journal of Asian Studies 37, no. 3: 457–476.

Gombrich, R. and G. Obeyesekere 1988 Buddhism Transformed. Priceton: Princeton University Press.

De Silva, Premakumara 2000 Globalization and the Transformation of Planetary Rituals in Southern Sri Lanka; Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

Kanapathipillai, Valli 1990 “July 1983: The Survivor’s Experience,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of Violence; Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi, OUP, pp. 321-344.

Kamalakaran, Ajay 2021 “Tilly’s Beach Hotel at Mount: Burnt-out in July 1983,”  25 February 2016, reproduced in

Kapferer, Bruce 1983 A Celebration of Demons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kapferer, Bruce 1988 Legends of People, Myths of State. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Maloney, Clarence (ed.). 1976. The Evil Eye. New York: Columbiaia University Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1975 “Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and the Canalization of Aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology, 1975, vol.14: 1-25.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1978 “The Fire-Walkers of Kataragama: The Rise of Bhakti Religiosity in Buddhist Sri Lanka.” Journal of Asian Studies 37, no. 3: 457–476.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1987 The Cult of the Goddess Pattini. Delhi: Motilall Banarsidas.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan 1979 “The Kataragama Pilgrimage: Hindu-Buddhist Interaction and Its Significance inSri Lanka’s Polyethnic Social System.” Journal of Asian Studies 38: 253-80.

Roberts, Karen 2001 July, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Roberts, Michael 2005 “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2005 “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites.” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Schalk, Peter 1997c.“The Revival of Martyr Cults among Ilavar.” Temenos: Studies in Comparative Religion, 33: 151-190.  Available at

Siemon-Netto, Uwe 2002 “A Goddess and Lucky Numbers Are Allies in Sri Lanka War. The Tamil Tigers’ Elusive Leader is a Devotee of the Hindu Goddess Kali, but not the Figure 8.” United Press Reports. 12 August 2002.

Tambiah, Stanley. J. 1990 Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tambiah, Stanley (1986) Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. The University of Chicago Press.

Tanaka, Masakazu 1991 Patrons, Devotees and Goddesses. Ritual and Power among the Tamil Fishermen of Sri Lanka. Kyoto: Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University.

Weber, Max 1978 “The Soteriology of the Underprivileged,” pp. 174-191. Max Weber. Selections in Translation. ed. W. G. Runciman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1] My article “Agony and Ecstasy” first appeared in print as Chapter 13 in a collection of my essays entitled Exploring Confrontation (Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994), pp. 317-25.

[2] KM de Silva, 2021 repeat from 1990.

[3] I first spotted these striking photographs in the Tamil Times and misread the photo of a naked Tamil man cowering before a thug. I referred to the action as “Dancing the Killing.” When Amarasinghe the cameraman met me down the years, he indicated that the thug was pivoting to deliver a karate kick. However, I was correct in my main assumption in the initial interpretation: the Tamil was killed.

[4] I am indebted to Victor Ivan for introducing Amarasinghe to me (circa 1995). Amarasinghe had been attached to the Communist Party at that stage (1983) and the Party HQ was down Cotta Road. Amarasinghe had a colleague with him carrying a holdall which was kept open when Amarasinghe took a shot – so that he could drop the flash camera into the bag immediately.

[5] When Chandragupta met me, I was able to secure better quality photographic reproductions than those in the Tamil Times of 1984. These were deployed in the Nethra version of “Agony and Ecstasy” in 2003.

[6] It so happens that I attended the dinner at Dr Noordeen’s house in the Fort of Galle where Karen Roberts was introduced to a few personnel who had paid for the honour – as an aspect of the Galle Literary Festival in 2008. In a private chat with her at some stage of this event, she recounted her experiences to me.

[7] For instance, see Kanapathypillai 1990 and Bastian 1990.

[8] These dimensions of the July 1983 events have NOT received adequate focus. I know that my nephew Guy Sirimanne ferried Tamil personnel to their homes from the Ceylon Trading Company where he worked and have heard other such tales, but do not have a record of these important ethnographic events.

[9] When I asked my old Peradeniya Uni-friend Kasynathan (who was in Jaffna then) how the men who headed for the coast to get to India to join the fighting groups chose which outfit to align themselves with, he laconically indicated that it depended on which boat they could find a place in – so it was [in some instances] hit or miss whether they became LTTE, EROS, EPRLF or whatever.

[10] As the final article in a collection of my essays in Exploring Confrontation, Harwood Academic Publishers, Reading, 1994, pp. 317-27.

[11] If my memory is on solid ground, the lines of the essay were conceived in a pensive mood during the aeroplane flights from Sri Lanka (?) to Virginia via New York. It was not intended to be a comprehensive survey. The literary character struck one of the female postgrad participants when I delivered the “”essay” as a seminar paper at UWA in Perth at some point later and she buttonholed me to comment on this dimension approvingly.

[12] Note this recognition of Ravinder Kumar by Professor Romila Thapar et al when he passed away in 2001: Romila Thapar, Geeta Kapur and Kumkum Sangari, “Remembering Ravinder Kumar,” Social Scientist, 2001, vol 5/6, pp. 83-92.

[13] My fading memory marks these aspects. I have sent an email out today (26 June 2021) seeking references and aid on these aspects but have yet to receive answers.



Filed under accountability, art & allure bewitching, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, Buddhism, centre-periphery relations, chauvinism, communal relations, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, landscape wondrous, language policies, life stories, photography, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, religiosity, riots and pogroms, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, the imaginary and the real, trauma, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance, violence of language, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “Confronting Ethnic Violence and Its Roots in Vengeance

  1. Daya Wickramatunga

    History provides such useful information for us. Grief heightenening vengence is a dangerous tendency.
    The riots in Colombo in 1983, which seriously affected many Tamil homes, including my wife’s; causing several deaths, is a clear case of grief heightening vengence. JRJ, the President at the time, could not find a solution to the problems in the North. When 13 soldiers were killed by the LTTE, he brought the dead bodies of 5 soldiers to Colombo, knowing well that it would cause riots in Colombo. He was thinking that the Tamils in Colombo were helping the LTTE. This is well documented.
    Today we find the diaspora making every effort to attack the government of Sri Lanka. Once again a tendency for grief heightening vengence.
    The only solution would be for the government of Sri Lanka to provide equal rights and privileges to all communities in Sri Lanka, clearly written in the Consatitution, and followed to the letter.

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