Reflections: My Engagement with the Pogrom of July 1983 in Sri Lanka

Michael Roberts

The attacks on Tamils living and/or working in the southern and central parts of island Sri Lanka by elements of the Sinhala population were indefensible, horrible and disastrous for the country.  It is not adequate to depict them as “riots.” They constituted a “pogrom” – with all the pejorative colourings attached to that concept.[1]

I was not in Sri Lanka then; and, indeed, it was not till several years had passed that I visited the land, my homeland, on research work. However, I was reading the news in Sri Lanka and receiving information from friends in the weeks that followed the events of late July 1983.  The anger from anguish was mentally violent. On one occasion, when I was on a bushwalk in the Flinders Ranges with a coterie of friends, I awoke early in the morning in my sleeping bag when it was still dark. My thoughts went back to Sri Lanka and its political turmoils. In my fury I took a sten-gun and killed some of the leading UNP politicians ….  beginning with Cyril Matthew…. So, it was all fire-and-brimstone in my retributive imagination.

That mental act of revenge, fortunately, went into cold storage. It has been in deep storage since then. When I spent many months in the island on specific research work in the late 1980s, those tasks took precedence (though, invariably, I picked up plenty of second-hand data on the events of July-August 1983).[2]

It was a little later, in 1991, that my mind returned to the topic of the racial violence unleashed in July 1983. The reflections received fresh inspirations during a flight from Australia to USA via England in mid-1991 to take up research opportunities at the Center for Literary and Cultural Change at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It was within the lively intellectual environment in this cross-disciplinary centre at Charlottesville that these specific ideas-in-airplane-thought-on-the-pogrom-of-July-1983 took more precise shape.  I also presented these ideas at the University of Adelaide and then at the University of Western Australia when I returned to my working base. Only one moment in these ‘encounters’ remains in my memory bank: after the seminar in Perth a female postgrad buttonholed me and in reflective and approving tone suggested that my presentation was a “literary work.”

That is the ‘broad’ background.

The NOTE that follows is part of the long footnote introducing the first print version of the essay within a collection of my articles in Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History published in 1994 by Harwood Academic Publishers located in UK. The article has this segment within its first footnote:

“With the exception arising from correspondence with Basil Fernando, this chapter was written in October 1991 …. I thank Kathleen McGrory, Rick Livingstone, John Blair, Richard Handler and Chuck Vandersee for their detailed comments on this and related pieces. Reluctant to tinker with an essay already written and attached to my “Ceylonese English,” I have not followed much of this advice. Perhaps the spirit in which I was moving at that time is embodied in a comment which I found most uplifting; namely,” I found your project both urgent and compelling in ways that I had not understood before” (Rick Livingstone’s written response, 17 November 1991). I am also grateful to the following for their suggestions and appreciative comments both unsolicited and otherwise: Toril Moi, Libby Cohen, Ian John, Kageaki Kajiwara, Deborah Pellow, Nur Yalman, Andrew Lattas, Jeremy Beckett, Diane Austin-Broos, Neil Maclean, David Scott, Tom Ernst, Basil Sansom, and Chris Eipper.”

Thus, the article had a prolonged period of gestation …. with some of its crucial and final touches being served by information which placed me in touch with the intrepid cameraman, Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who took some snaps of the startling and violent scenes around Borella Junction on the night of the 23rd July — with the sparking moment being the funeral at Kanatte of thirteen SL Army soldiers who had been killed at an ambush by the LTTE on the Kopay-Urumpurai Road in the Jaffna Peninsula on the 23rd July 1983.

After the essay appeared in print in 1994, I had the good fortune to receive a short-term fellowship in New Delhi in 1995(?) and was able to tap Indian scholars and journalists about communal violence in India (including the attacks on Sikhs in 1984 after the killing of Indira Gandhi).[3] These sources and experiences have been an important dimension of my learning curve.

This essay has since been presented in seminars in Sri Lanka and been reprinted in Nethra as well as other outlets (see below).


Roberts: “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” in Japanese in The Shinso, Jan. 1993 ….. Special edition on Nationalism Today ed. by T. Aoki), pp. 127-50.

Roberts: “Teaching Lessons and Removing Evil: Strands of Moral Puritanism in Sinhala Nationalist Practice,” Felicitation Volume for Professor S. Arasaratnam, edited by Michael Pearson, as South Asia, sp. issue, Sept. 1996, pp. 205-20.

Roberts: “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 1996, vol. 30: 245-72.

Roberts: “Beyond Anderson: Reconstructing and Deconstructing Sinhala Nationalist Discourse,” Modern Asian Studies, 1996, vol. 30: 690-98.

Roberts: “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, 1998-99, vol. XXIV & XXV, pp. 65-

Roberts: “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [Wicked-cum-vile Tigers to the south and the turbulent sea to the north], Pravāda, 2001, vol 6, no. 11, pp. 17-18.

Roberts: “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I,” Lines May-August 2006, vol.5, 1 & 2, in

Roberts: “Self-Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010 pp. 161-201.

Roberts: “Murali is not a Tamil,” says a Tamil doctor during a World Cup encounter,” 22 April 2011

Roberts: “Kill Any Sikh: The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1981 in Delhi in Bilawan Singh’s Images,” 26 March 2017,

Roberts: “Anguish as Empowerment …and A Path to Retribution,” 22 March 2017, 2017

Roberts: “Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities and Issues,” 19 July 2017


IF one writes down “Riots of July 1983+ Photographs” in the Search Bar, the web page will display a host of pictures — each leading to a web article on the “Riots of July 1983.” Let me indicate a small tithe of the sources garnered by this route.  ……….. Anti-Tamil Pogrom of July 83: Root Causes Unaddressed Even After 40 Years .…. Lionel Bopage ….. ……………. Ana Pararajsingham  ….. Lionel Bopage


[1] At one point, I think it was in his review of the book People Inbetween or in response to my work on the 1983 contretemps, Professor De Silva explicitly challenged my deployment of the term “pogrom” for whät he termed “riots.” He referred to the usage of the term in Europe and its focus on the Jews (I am still in search of his reference and my questioning of his rigid position then).

[2] In the late 1980s I was concentrating on the production of the text and illustrations that went into the collaborative work with Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thome that eventually appeared as People Inbetween (1989). However during my prolonged stay in Colombo I also met University colleagues and such personnel as Charles Abeysekera and Newton Gunasinghe of the Social Science Association. They served up plenty of information that indicated how right-wing politicians had stoked and incited the attacks on Tamils. So did quite few Tamil friends who resided in Colombo recount their experiences and their wider reasonings re the sponsors behind the violent attacks and the looting..

[3] See my “Kill Any Sikh” article (ref. below) and some of the photographs deployed in my communal violence essays.

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