The Lasting Colonial Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms Commentary
British National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons
The Lasting Colonial Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms
Edited by: JURIST Staff

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. This is part two of a five-part series compiled by JURIST contributor Dr. Thamil Ananthavinyayan, lately of the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Centre, who has gathered a group of scholars from his home country of Sri Lanka to reflect on the lasting impact of Black July. 

This summer marked the 40th year since the sordid events of Black July ushered a dark new chapter into Sri Lanka’s history. To understand the true nature of this violence, it is necessary to go back in history, delve into the colonial past and understand how the ethno-racial differences perpetuated by the British ultimately contributed to the tragic events of Black July.

Long before the arrival of the European colonialists, the island of Sri Lanka was already a melting pot of various cultures. Sri Lanka remains part of sacred geography for millions of Hindus as the Kingdom of Ravana, while Buddhism also spread across the Island due to the evangelical efforts of Mahinda, the son of the legendary Indian Emperor Ashoka. Thus, influences from mainland India always had a deep effect on the Island. There were several invasions from the mainland, starting with the legendary Prince Vijaya, an exiled prince from Bengal, himself having arrived on the island on the day Gautama Buddha passed away. Since the dynasties ruled over the island, both Sinhala and Tamil, the pre-colonial past of the nation was often used in a way in contemporary times to be a hindrance to national unity and influence in furthering the ethnic divide.

The colonial domination of Sri Lanka started with the Portuguese and the Dutch. The Portuguese, true to their zeal for spreading the message of Christianity, led to widespread discontent in the lowlands, leading to multiple revolts and eventual expulsion. The Dutch who were invited by the Sri Lankans to oppose the Iberians soon replaced them. Under Dutch rule, there was a significant shift in the religious landscape of Ceylon. The Dutch were primarily Protestant and sought to propagate their faith among the local population. They discouraged Catholicism, which had been prevalent during the Portuguese era, and imposed restrictions on the practice of Catholicism and the Catholic Church. Apart from that, there was a notable trend of Sri Lankan nobility, from both Sinhala and Tamil backgrounds, nominally adopting Christianity and outwardly conforming to its adherence.

As the Dutch were eventually replaced by the British, the British rulers recognized the ethnic diversity of Sri Lanka and capitalized on its internal divisions to strengthen their rule. The division between Aryan and Dravidian, long accepted by scholars globally to be of linguistic nature only, started gaining racial connotations. These racialist notions divided the two biggest ethnicities of Sri Lanka into opposing camps, the Dravidian Tamils and the Aryan Sinhalese. Despite the shared culture of both ethnicities, unscientific racial ideology crept into the political discourse of Sri Lanka. Renowned Sri Lankan historian R.A.L.H Gunawardana has presented a thought-provoking perspective on the evolution of Sinhala consciousness during the colonial era. Gunawardana highlights the impact of racialist linguistic theories that emerged from Europe, shaping the perception of the Sinhalese identity. Specifically, he explores how scholars in 19th-century Sri Lanka, drawing upon the ideas of Max Muller, integrated a racial dimension into Sinhalese society. As early as the 1850s, we see the precursors of Sinhala chauvinism with James De Alwis holding Sinhala to be the national language of Sri Lanka and Buddhism its national religion.

These theories were picked up by the early leaders of the Sinhalese Nationalist movement, especially Anagarika Dharmapala who stressed the affinity between an Aryan Sinhalese Buddhist people and an Aryan language. The similarities of what was happening in Sri Lanka with the Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists and in India with the Hindu Nationalist and Hindu revivalists were unmistakable where the adoption of the Aryan identity was gaining ground as well. In contrast, Tamil identity too was undergoing a cultural revival since the work of Robert Caldwell became popular. Arumuga Navalar, called Tamil the language of Saivism, “to be held as sacred as a mother”.

This divide was vigorously deepened by the colonial authorities. As the modern language studies were initiated in Sri Lanka in the 1920s, Sinhalese was given primacy in linguistic studies, with the Colonial Secretary of Sri Lanka, Cecil Clementi going to the extent of saying that Sinhalese language must occupy the first place, both from the point of view of society as well as Government. The insistence of the British to govern the Island through the use of English only, a language alien to all Sri Lankans, opened up channels of patronage and benefits for the natives who did speak it. From the early 19th century, many English schools had been opened in Northern Sri Lanka by American missionaries who were denied access because of the War of 1812. Batticotta Seminary was the centre of this mission and was chosen because of its proximity to South India. These efforts resulted in a significant advantage for the Tamils in getting these highly desirable jobs. However, the colonial authority did not favour the Tamils because of this. So much so that minority representation which was guaranteed in India because of communal electorates, was effectively demolished by the 1931 Donoughmore Reforms ushering in Sinhalese majoritarian rule. Despite several attempts by Tamil politicians to secure political representation for all minorities during the run-up to independence until 1956, no doable solution was found. The divide eventually deepened and turn Sri Lanka into what we know it as today. Yet the legacy of colonial divide and rule in Sri Lanka continues to haunt the nation, reminding us of the lasting scars inflicted by ethnic and religious divisions.

Arunava Banerjee is a recent law graduate of Amity University in Kolkata and Shounak Banerjee Chowdhury is a law student at Amity. This is part two of a five-part series on Black July.

Suggested citation: Arunava Banerjee and Shounak Banerjee Chowdhury, The Lasting Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 15, 2023,

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