Visual Evidence I: Vitality, Value and Pitfall – Borella Junction, 24/25 July 1983

Michael Roberts, 29 October 2011

Pic by Chandragupta Amarasinghe 

The anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 in the southern reaches of Sri Lanka stirred me to the bone: generating anger and depression in alternate moods as  I ruminated from a distance in  Australia in the mid-1980s. Much later, when on study leave in Lanka in 1991, I picked up testimonies and tales about specific incidents of killing and threat during those dark days in Colombo, including one relating to the killing of Arumanaiyagam, a former young colleague.

When I flew from Katunayake to Charlottesville inVirginia for the second stage of my leave on a semester fellowship, it was in a particular mood that I sat in the planes and reflected upon that horrible occasion. The relative isolation of my quarters in Charlottesville suited that mood. It was there that I penned “The agony and the ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983” – a literary essay rather than a social science document, one that amounted to a personal statement of protest and anguish.

This essay eventually appeared in an anthology of my essays, namely, “The agony and the ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka. Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994, pp. 317-27. An invaluable facet of this presentation was the inclusion of two photographs from the Tamil Times of November 1983 depicting mob scenes at Borella Junction on the night of 24/25th July 1983. Extracted from the poor reproductions in the Tamil Times, these photographs would have made a fastidious cameraperson squirm because they lacked sharp definition. But the definition was good enough to reveal striking content – content of the sort that would make viewers squirm because of the inhumanity of man-upon-man they revealed to all and sundry. Better versions of these pictures that are now reproduced within this post would already have bought this point home to readers.Thus, the two photographs provide a glimpse of the horrors to which Tamils in the southern reaches were subject: terrible, terrible horrors, indescribable pain and torment in the form of assault on their bodies and properties during that fateful week in late July. They serve as testimony in a graphic manner – incomplete testimony of course, but powerful displays that could embellish stories related by victims and observers about the mayhem that went on.

Their shock-value, in my view, then at that time, complemented my ‘open letter of protest’ to the Sinhala people embodied in “Agony.” In reproducing them however I had no descriptive detail of a specific kind to fill out the events displayed. So the principal image was introduced with the caption “Dancing the killing.” As a person with local cultural knowledge I was convinced, albeit in speculation, that the naked man was a Tamil (or deemed Tamil) and that he was eventually killed

One inflection read out of that picture was an error. I discovered the mistake when I met the cameraman Chandragupta Amarasinghe after Charlie Abeysekera revealed his name. Amarasinghe was a photographer for the Communist Party newspaper and had been at the CCP headquarters at Cotta Roadthat evening and night. Quite courageously he had utilised flash photographs for his image-making, with a sidekick alongside holding  a carry-all into which he dropped the camera after each shot.

Amarasinghe informed me that the grinning man to the right of the picture was not dancing, but swivelling as he proceeded to deliver a karate kick. That was my error. But I was right in my essentials. The kicker and other aides were enjoying their work and the poor Tamil man had been killed.

So my initial reading of the “testimony” provided by the image was partly wrong, but mostly correct. It was on the mark in its essentials – for which I remain grateful. When the ICES under Pradeep Jeganathan’s guidance commemorated July 1983 in 2003 and my article was reproduced again with accompanying photographs, I was able to credit Amarasinghe, commend him for his bravery and, at the same time, correct my caption.

I described the picture as “Gleeful kick before the killing” on the basis of the details provided by Amarasinghe, including the fact that the man’s life had, indeed, been cruelly terminated (see July ’83 and After, Nethra Special Issue, April-Sept. 2003, p. 209).

As a footnote let me add that the second of Amarasinghe’s photographs has recently been included in the cluster of images assembled by Gordon Weiss in the middle of his book The Cage (Picador, 2011). In the credits segment of his book Weiss, quite appropriately, acknowledges that it is Amarasinghe’s work . However he has the following description attached to the picture: “a crowd prepares to set upon a Tamil man in the streets of Colombo during ‘Black July’ 1983. Helen Manuelpillai’s father and brother, along with an estimated 3000 other Tamils, were murdered in similar circumstances during the riots.”

The last sentence relates to testimony provided by a Tamil lady (nom de plume) who was 17 at the time of the pogrom and whose testimony is paraphrased on pages 52-54 of The Cage. That is fair enough and the statistical detail is pertinent information for readers. However, I doubt if that particular scene was directly related to the killing scene in my “Gleeful kick before the kill.” I did not raise this issue with Amarasinghe because it did not strike me then. It also seems unlikely. It was a dangerous context in which Amarasinghe was operating and he would not have been able to walk around snap-snapping away. Besides, this photograph indicates — to me anyway — that this particular mob had been burning and destroying shops belonging to Tamils in the junction area; and were quite thrilled with their endeavours – as indeed, one bloke seen in triumphant manner with raised arms indicates so forcefully. That is valuable evidence, but linking the same lot of assailants to the killing scene is unwarranted without attestation from Amarasinghe.

Thus, we see in this instance the use of photographs as descriptive and significant data by two authors in ways that permitted errors to creep in: my mistake in the 1994 version I believe is of minor consequence and that by Weiss is not of enormous consequence. However, this remark is a warning sign not to take images at face value [the more so nowadays given the manipulations that can be done by masters of Photoshop].

Epilogue: Horror Photographs against Communal Violence: My interest in riot and pogrom developed from the considerable researches I had undertaken on the pogrom directed against the Mohammedan Moors in the south-western quadrant of the island in mid-1915. I had written an early article on this topic in 1970 and then returned to it in the 1980s, partly inspired by the events of 1983. I intended producing a detailed study in a book on the topic. In the event this intention was turned into two articles that appeared in Exploring Confrontation: namely, “The imperialism fo silence under the British raj: arresting the drum,” (pp. 149-82) and “Mentalities: ideologues, assailants historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915” (pp. 183-212).

This interest led me to seek comparative data on “communal violence” in Asia so that my perspectives could receive some broadening. With the aid of a fellowship at Teen Murthi in Delhi I used my next sabbatical in 1995  to collect comparative data on “communal violence” and to interact with Indian scholars. Because of the value I attached to the two images snapped by Amarasinghe my research sojourn in Delhi in the first half of 1995 included considerable effort in meeting cameramen and newspaper editors with an eye towards locating comparable images of communal assaults and confrontations in India.

I did not find quite such graphic images as those provided by Amarasinghe, but there were plenty of “useful” pictures I collected fromIndiatoday as well as assorted newspapers and camerapersons. “Useful” in what way you will ask? The short answer is to say that (A) they provide material evidence of Party Smith committing violence against Party Jones, or both parties to a conflict attacking each other; and (B) they reveal man’s inhumanity to man.

Point B leads to my long answer. Such images can shock people. On this ground I reasoned, then in 1994/95, that visual images could be utilised to reveal to Asians the horrors of ethnic violence. I reasoned to myself that awful scenes could not be buried as easily in the recesses of the mind as prose descriptions of horrid acts. So, one of my projects was to deploy these horror pictures in order to raise consciousness in the direction of hostility to such forms of violence.[i]

I extended my survey in fragmentary manner to other fields of racial riot, pogrom and killing – against Blacks inUSA, Jews in Eastern Europe for instance. But the main interest was in the riot and pogrom scene inSouth Asia. However, this goal of “Horror Photographs against Communal Violence” did not crystallise. I could not interest any foundation or NGO in the idea.

It was a goal that was an adjunct to my main interest then. This interest was embodied in an article I wrote then for the IIAS Newsletter in Leiden, an essay entitled “Understanding Zealotry.” This short article also displayed an image of a mob of Hindus with staves staring at ‘us,’ that is, the cameraperson who took the snap at night. This was a scene at Bhagalpur in India where the Muslim minority was the victim of a pogrom in October 1990.

The original article on zealotry has since been expanded and worked into two related essays with the same title that have been inserted in this web site. In an unplanned manner This interest has fed into my studies of the dedicated commitment to cause displayed by the mujahid in the path of jihad, the kamikaze and the Tamil Tigers. This form of dedication I have called “sacrificial devotion.”

From the 1960s in Sri Lanka I had been interested in the currents of thought that stimulated nationalism. The study of ethnicity and ethnic violence fell within this ambit. So the link between my investigation of communalist extremism that spawned “riots” (as pogroms were rather erroneously depicted in the Asian legal lexicon) and the extreme expressions of nationalism, and thence to those few enterprises where dedication to cause led to the gift of one’s life for one’s cause, was as natural as strong.  Thus, my move was an obvious one. Some products from my

I extended my survey in fragmentary manner to other fields of racial riot, pogrom and killing – against Blacks in USA, Jews in  Eastern Europe for instance. But the main interest was in the riot and pogrom scene in  South Asia. This goal of “Horror Photographs against Communal Violence” did not crystallise. I could not interest any foundation or NGO in the idea.

It was a goal that was an adjunct to my main interest then. This interest was embodied in an article I wrote then for the IIAS Newsletter inLeiden, an essay entitled “Understanding Zealotry.” This short article also displayed an image of a mob of Hindus with staves staring at ‘us,’ that is, the camera-person who took the snap at night. This was a scene at Bhagalpur  in  India where the Muslim minority was the victim of a pogrom in October 1990.

The original article on zealotry has since been expanded and worked into two related essays with the same title that have been inserted in this web site. In an unplanned manner This interest has fed into my studies of the dedicated commitment to cause displayed by the mujahid in the path of jihad, the kamikaze and the Tamil Tigers. This form of dedication I have called “sacrificial devotion.”

From the 1960s in sri LankaI had been interested in the currents of thought that stimulated nationalism and the study of ethnicity and ethnic violence fell within this ambit. So the link between my investigation of communalist extremism that spawned “riots” (as pogroms were rather erroneously depicted in the Asian legal lexicon) and the extreme expressions of nationalism, and thence to those few enterprises where dedication to cause led to the gift of one’s life for one’s cause, was as natural as strong so my move was an obvious one. Some products from my investigations in this field can be found in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Piblications, 2010 and the symposium on “Noble Death” in Social Analysis, 2006. Better still, google my name with a plus sign and “Tamil Tigers” so that other journal articles come up.

When I secured some funds I was able to organise an international workshop at Adelaide University devoted to the topic of “Sacrificial Devotion: Tamil Tigers and Beyond.” Prompted and assisted by a young postgraduate, Daniel Nourry (who was researching medieval martyrdom in Europe),

this venture generated a web-site entitled Sacrificial Devotion, Virulent Politics (http:// sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/). The site is dormant but still alive. Readers who are interested should visit the side panel and click “photos” for a selection of “choice” images, that is, horrific scenes, including a lynching of a Black man in USA.

this field can be found in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Piblications, 2010 and the symposium on “Noble Death” in Social Analysis, 2006. Better still, google my name with a plus sign and “Tamil Tigers” so that other journal articles come up.

When I secured some funds I was able to organise an international workshop of sorts at Adelaide University devoted to the topic of “Sacrificial Devotion: Tamil Tigers and Beyond.” Prompted and assisted by a young postgraduate, Daniel Nourry (who was researching medieval martyrdom in Europe), this venture generated a web-site entitled Sacrificial Devotion, Virulent Politics (http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/). The site is dormant but still alive. Readers who are interested should visit the side panel and click “photos” for a selection of “choice” images, that is, horrific scenes, including a lynching of a Black man inUSA.

A fuller description of my biographical paths in covering these topis can be found in ““Encountering Extremism: Biographical Tracks and Twists,” which was posted in the site referred to above on the 6th March 2010 (http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/encountering_extremism/).

It is, again, a natural progression for me to shift attention to a recent phenomenon, now in the West andAustraliarather thanSouth Asia, namely the intellectual currents I conceptualize as “secular fundamentalism.”


[i] Today this method uses the more powerful medium of video and TV documentary, with U tube providing access to thousands of people who are familiar with computer usage. Channel Four utilised this technique to mount a campaign against the Sri Lankan government on alleged war crimes. Its “Killing Fields” has done this work effectively, but is seriously marred nevertheless by the inclusion of what seem to be fabrications (numerous fabrications) and by a form of “churnalism” that has only worked because of its blitzkrieg style and the emotional response of many observers who had limited familiarity with the context and are also not alive to the hidden pro-Tiger Tamil hands that have fed some of the material to Channel Four.

11 Comments

Filed under atrocities, communal relations, fundamentalism, gordon weiss, historical interpretation, liberation tigers of tamil eelam, life stories, martyrdom, racist thinking, religious nationalism, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, suicide bombing, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

11 responses to “Visual Evidence I: Vitality, Value and Pitfall – Borella Junction, 24/25 July 1983

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