Evolution of the Tamil extremist movement, the years 1977-78 were of crucial importance. Shortly before the 1977 elections, two important elder politicians of Jaffna, namely S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the founder leader of the Federal Party, and GG Ponnambalam, founder of the Tamil Congress, had passed away. They had been a great integrative and moderating force among the Tamils.
In their absence the militant groups which were already in the field, and which had made their presence felt in the killing of SLFP mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiyappah, in 1974, were unleashed. Among these militant groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE vowed to achieve a separate state or Eelam through bloody and violent confrontation with the Sri Lankan state.
Its arrival on the centre-stage of Tamil politics was signalled by the murder of four policemen in Velvettithurai in April 1978. The incident triggered off a confrontation with the government that injected a new and most complex dimension to Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem and eventually plunged the country into a virtual civil war. The Jayewardene government, confusing the effect with the cause, resorted to military suppression of the guerrillas without undertaking corresponding measures to meet the challenge politically.
As a response to the Velvettithurai incident, the government first banned the LTTE and other similar groups in May 1978 and then imposed emergency in Jaffna in January 1979 that continued for an year. Even as the government dealt with the terrorist problem militarily, the National Assembly adopted the Anti-Terrorism Bill on July 19, 1979.
There was no opposition to the bill since the TULF members were on a boycott of the House at that time in protest against the administrative adjustment of the Vavuniya district. Although the SLFP attacked the bill on the floor none of its members actually voted against it.
The reason for the SLFP acquiescence may have been the call issued by the Minister of State for Information, Ananda Tissa de Alwis, to the SLFP to sink party differences when the entire Sinhalese majority was being attacked by the minority.
However, the bill did not curb terrorism. On the contrary, it radicalized the extremists and boosted their popularity among the Tamils. Besides the LTTE, there were five active Tamil guerrilla groups, namely, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Army (TELA), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS).
Their ideological differences and internal factionalism notwithstanding, these groups were averse to political bargaining and sought an armed solution to the Tamil problem. Their relative success visa-vis the TULF to draw the government’s wrath raised their popularity among the Tamils. The LTTE ridiculed the TULF as ‘Tamil United Lawyers Front’.
The 1983 Riots
Gradually, all efforts to resolve the ethnic conflict through constitutional and political means came to a grinding halt when the country was rocked by anti- Tamil riots in July 1983. Riots had taken place earlier also but the 1983 riots were unprecedented in the sense that in this case even the elite members of the Tamil community were targeted.
The Jayewardene government was under tremendous pressure from the Tamils of Sri Lanka behind who were the government of India and the fifty five million Tamils of Tamil Nadu. Jayewardene realised that time was running something must be done. Hereafter, India became an important variable in Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics.