The Lasting Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms Commentary
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The Lasting Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms

In the summer of 1983, ethnic violence swept the island nation of Sri Lanka. Known as Black July, the outbreak of communal violence between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority communities left thousands dead and hundreds missing. Four decades later, the legacy of the violence lives on, searing Sri Lanka‘s social and political landscape. JURIST contributor Dr. Thamil Ananthavinyayan, lately of the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Cente, has gathered a group of scholars from his home country of Sri Lanka to reflect on the lasting impact of Black July.

This is the first in a collection of essays that aims to reflect upon an important part of Tamil history on the island of Sri Lanka. Our aim to pause, halt, and force a reflection upon one of the defining moments of the island’s history. Black July was not an event, it was not a riot and it was not the outburst of some drunk Sinhala youngsters. It was the beginning of an orchestra of violence. It exposed to the world the chauvinist and fascist hate of the Sinhala mobs against the Tamil population. Back then Tamils did not have the means of social media and blogs. We do have now to show the world the long lasting consequences of ethnic hatred and post-colonial violence,

Speaking in plain numbers, Black July began in Colombo, the nation’s capital, on the evening of the 24th of July 1983, and quickly expanded to other regions. Tamils were assaulted, torched, pillaged, and murdered during a seven-day period by primarily Sinhalese mobs. Thousands of Tamils were slain in the Black July pogrom. Some 5.000 stores and over 8,000 homes were damaged. The riots are said to have cost the economy $300 million USD.

My name is Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan. My father, Vannai Ananthan, was a Tamil freedom hero and resistance fighter of unusual equation who spent seven years of his short life in the infamous state prison Welikade. Fortunately for him, my mother and myself, he was released from jail before Black July. This high-security prison saw the deaths of 53 -Tamil- inmates during Black July. No one has been found guilty of any offences connected to these incidents. I felt this need, due to my personal history, to host this series.

The series opens with Arunava Banerjee and Shounak Banerjee Chowdhury eye-opening introduction to the legacies of British colonial rule, which laid the foundations of ethnic hegemony on the island. This contribution will be followed by a very thoughtful and powerful lyrical and intersectional piece  by J.K.J.P Perera, and W.S.G. Wickramathilake, as it sheds light upon the views of the Sinhala people upon Black July. Following this, comes Nirogini Vichvaneadhdhiran, who powerfully explains the impact of Black July on the livelihood of Tamil women on the island penetrating the contemporary space (to be published August 17). Finally, this Symposium concludes with reverberating thoughts of the one and only Professor M. Sornarajah: he espouses in his own unique manner how Black July has underscored the call for the right to self-determination of the Tamils (coming August 18).

All in all, this symposium is “home-rooting” the Tamil agony and visions for the future, it juxtaposes the usual, flashy, hegemonic and meaningless human rights advocacy of Tamil diaspora organisations. This Symposiums wants to indigenise; it wants to seek reflection from the bottom; it wants to contrast the Western human rights advocacy.

I conclude with one stanza of the Wolfe Tones, an Irish rebel music band. They took their name from the Irish rebel and patriot Theobald Wolfe Tone, one of the leaders of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. They sang with reference to the island of Ireland:

“I wander her hills and her valleys

And still through my sorrows I see

A land that has never known freedom

And only her rivers run free.”

The Tamils are not strangers to their own home. They are not invaders. They are not interlopers. They are the hopes of their own destiny. The Black July didn’t mark the beginning of a war or resistance. It marked the beginning of another vision for self-affirmation and determination – and that very determination runs free beyond the imaginations of time.


Dr. Thamil Ananthavinyayan is a legal scholar, most recently affiliated with the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Cente.

Suggested citation: Thamil Ananthavinyayan, The Lasting Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 14, 2023,

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