1977 anti-Tamil pogrom

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1977 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka
Location of Sri Lanka
LocationSri Lanka
DateAugust 12 to 20, 1977 (+05.30 GMT)
TargetPrimarily Sri Lankan Tamil and some Sinhalese civilians
Attack type
Decapitation, Burning, Stabbing, Shooting
WeaponsKnives, Sticks, Fire, Guns

The 1977 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka[1][2][3] followed the 1977 general elections in Sri Lanka where the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalistic Tamil United Liberation Front won a plurality of minority Sri Lankan Tamil votes in which it stood for secession. Around 300 Tamils were killed in the riots.[4]


After the independence and especially after the 'Sinhala only act" of 1956, Tamil parties were asking for more power for the North and east of Sri Lanka where Tamils are the majority. Some had gone further, asking for a federal system. There were many agreements (at least two) with the Prime ministers, but nothing implemented. Finally, the desperate Tamil leaders decided that there was no point in co-existence and only solution was a separate state. In 1974, all major Tamil parties representing Tamils in the North east came under one forum (named as Tamil United Liberation Frunt - TULF) and in 1976 they adopted a resolution at their party convention in Vaddukoddai, Jaffna calling for a separate state (Tamil Eelam).

The election of 1977 took place on July 21, 1977. The Tamil districts voted almost entirely for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF),[5] a political party in Sri Lanka to openly advocate separatism of the Tamil regions of the country.

For some years, there had been sporadic attacks on army and policemen in the Jaffna region, by militant Tamil youth groups which consisted a handful of members advocating separation through violent means. The new prime minister, Junius Richard Jayewardene, was convinced there was a link between the TULF and the militants, and wanted to suppress both.

Anti-Left pogrom[edit]

Prior to the 1977 elections, JR Jayawardene promised that he would give the Police a week's leave so that his supporters could attack members of opposing parties. After his victory, his Government launched unprecedented state violence against the opposition, targeting supporters of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, and the People's Democratic Party. In particular, some 9,000 families of supporters of LSSP leader NM Perera in Yatiyantota were driven from their homes, many of which were destroyed.

The ethnic pogrom[edit]

There were different beliefs on how the riots started. Some believe they started when there was a dispute that began when four policemen entered a carnival without tickets. Apparently the policemen were inebriated and proceeded to attack those who asked for tickets. The conflict escalated and the policemen were beaten up by the public and in retaliation the police opened fire.

Others have the view that the carnival incident was a pretext, inquiries revealing that it was conducted in an organized manner and was hence a pre-planned attack. The riot started on August 12, 1977, within less than a month of the new government taking office.

Walter Schwarz wrote in Tamils of Sri Lanka, Minority Rights Group Report 1983':[1]

...'The trouble (in 1977) began in Jaffna, capital of the Northern province, when Sinhala policemen, believed to have been loyal to the defeated Sri Lanka Freedom Party of Mrs. Bandaranike, acted provocatively by bursting into a Tamil carnival. In the violent altercation that followed the police opened fire and four people were killed. A wave of rioting followed, spreading quickly to the south. Among 1,500 people arrested were several well known Sinhalese extremists, accused of instigating violence against Tamils.

Edmund Samarakkody in Workers Vanguard (New York) reported':[2]

The outbreak in mid-August (1977) of the anti-Tamil pogrom (the third such outbreak in two decades) has brought out the reality that the Tamil minority problem in Sri Lanka has remained unresolved now for nearly half a century, leading to the emergence of a separatist movement among the Tamils. As on previous occasions, what took place recently was not Sinhalese – Tamil riots, but an anti-Tamil pogrom. Although Sinhalese were among the casualties, the large majority of those killed, maimed and seriously wounded are Tamils. The victims of the widespread looting are largely Tamils. And among those whose shops and houses were destroyed, the Tamils are the worst sufferers. Of the nearly 75,000 refugees, the very large majority were Tamils, including Indian Tamil plantation workers...

Government response[edit]

Questioned in Parliament by Amirthalingam, Prime Minister Jayewardene was defiant, blaming the riots on the TULF:

People become restive when they hear that a separate state is to be formed. Whatever it is, when statements of that type are made, the newspapers carry them throughout the island, and when you say that you are not violent, but that violence may be used in time to come, what do you think the other people in Sri Lanka will do? How will they react? If you want to fight, let there be a fight; if it is peace, let there be peace; that is what they will say. It is not what I am saying. The people of Sri Lanka say that.

Finally, on August 20, the government ordered curfews and deployed the military to quell the riots.


More than 75,000 plantation Tamils became victims of racial violence and were forced to relocate to parts of North and East Sri Lanka. The events during the pogrom radicalized Tamil youths, convincing many that the TULF's strategy of using legal and constitutional means to achieve independence would never work, and armed insurrection was the only way forward. The outbreak of the pogrom highlighted the TULF's inability to provide safety for the Tamils. It was only after the pogrom, the TELO and LTTE, the two major Tamil liberation groups began an active campaign for a separate Tamil Eelam. Uma Maheswaran, a TULF activist, joined the LTTE in 1977 and was made the organization's chairman by Velupillai Prabhakaran. Many such Tamil activists began to join various Tamil militant groups to fight for separate statehood.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "ORGANISED POGROM AGAINST TAMILS - 1977". TamilNation. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  2. ^ a b "Behind the Anti-Tamil Terror: The National Question in Sri Lanka". Workers Vanguard(NY). Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  3. ^ a b The Rajiv Gandhi Assassination. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications. 2004. p. 165. ISBN 978-81-909737-0-0.
  4. ^ Kearney, R.N. (1985). "Ethnic Conflict and the Tamil Separatist Movement in Sri Lanka". Asian Survey. 25 (9): 898–917. doi:10.1525/as.1985.25.9.01p0303g. JSTOR 2644418.
  5. ^ "General Election 1977" (PDF). Department of Elections, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 8 February 2017.[permanent dead link]


  • Chattopadhyaya, Haraprasad (1994). Ethnic Unrest in Modern Sri Lanka: An Account of Tamil-Sinhalese Race Relations. South Asia Books. ISBN 81-85880-52-2.
  • Seneratne, Jagath P. (1998). Political Violence in Sri Lanka, 1977-1990: Riots, Insurrections, Counter-Insurgencies, Foreign Intervention. VU University Press. ISBN 90-5383-524-5.