Remembering India’s crimes against Tamils:
The Valvettithurai Massacre
The information on this page was largely compiled from information put together by Nadarajah Anantharajah, the then-secretary of the Citizen Committee Valvettithurai and a survivor of the IPKF massacre. He was detained for two days and severely beaten by the IPKF. His meticulous documentation, including written affidavits by witnesses, provide details often missing from the public record on massacres of Tamils. The republication of his 1989 booklet on the 30th anniversary of the massacre, allows us to examine the atrocity.
The Indian army’s operations in Sri Lanka’s North-East between 1987 and 1990 were both a military nightmare and political disaster for India, turning an initially sympathetic Tamil population against the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF), due to heavy-handed tactics against civilians during its failed attempt to demobilize the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The IPKF , numbering 80,000 at its peak, became infamous amongst the Tamil population – as its atrocities escalated, it earned the moniker “Indian People Killing Force.”
Thirty years ago, 64 Tamil civilians were killed by Indian forces in Valvettithurai, a town on the northern coast of the Jaffna peninsula famed for being the birthplace of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The massacre was termed “India’s My Lai” by The Sunday Telegraph.
“At the junction there were hundreds of IPKF soldiers. I saw there many cars smashed up. Most of the shops at the junction had been burnt down. I saw many dead bodies in front of the shops.”
Affidavit, Nadarajah Anantharaj, 41 yrs, August 1989.
In the months that led to the massacre, violence between IPKF troops and Tamils escalated. The IPKF’s arbitrary ransacking of homes and shops — and its assault of civilians after rounding them up — increased Tamils’ hostility. Several civilians had already lost their lives, both at the hands of the IPKF and of their Tamil militant partners. LTTE attacks and ambushes on the IPKF and Tamils aligned to other militant groups increased. On August 2, 1989, at around 11:15 am, the LTTE and the IPKF fought a pitched battle at the market square in the center of Valvettithurai, in which six IPKF soldiers were killed. In response, the IPKF went on a systematic killing spree.
Following the violence, detailed below, the IPKF imposed a curfew for two days, preventing medical personnel and other assistance from reaching Valvettithurai until August 4. Some of the injured had to wait two days for treatment.
The Indian government only said that civilians were killed in “cross-fire,” never acknowledging any of the atrocities its forces committed during the IPKF intervention. Although Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, three months later, praised the IPKF for its “outstanding discipline,” pressure grew for him to withdraw the IPKF from Sri Lanka — both from within India and from Sri Lanka.
“The IPKF were given strict instructions not to use tactics or weapons that could cause major casualties among the civilian population of Jaffna, who were hostages to the LTTE. The Indian Army have carried out these instructions with outstanding discipline and courage, accepting, in the process a high level of sacrifices for protecting the Tamil civilians.”
-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Lok Sabha, 9 November 1987
“Now in Valvettithurai, the Indian army has enacted its My Lai,”
-George Fernandez, former Indian defence secretary, 1989.
The IPKF soldiers were burning homes as they were moving through the streets. The residents of Sivapura Road fled their homes and sought refuge on Theeruvil Road, including at the house of S. Sivaganeshan. At about 15:30, the soldiers entered his house and fired shots, causing the civilians to flee to the back of the house. The soldiers separated the eight men present from the women, elderly, and children and sat them on under a cow shed. They opened fire on the men, killing four and seriously injuring the remainder.
After the fighting stopped at the Valvettithurai marketplace, the IPKF soldiers set fire to shops and houses. Five civilians were shot and killed at random.
Other locations of killings and assault:
In almost all other instances of killings, the victims were dragged out by the IPKF and shot dead. The soldiers also raped some girls and women.
At least 123 houses were burned down by the IPKF, often after the soldiers had emptied them of valuables. Another 45 shops and businesses were also destroyed. 176 fishing boats, boat motors and fishing nets were burned between August 2 and 4.
The Valvettithurai Massacre is only one of countless atrocities committed against the Tamil people. While the vast majority were perpetrated by Sri Lankan security forces, it is important to remember the atrocities committed by others, including the Indian Peacekeeping Forces. The IPKF occupation and India’s political manoeuvring fundamentally changed the relationship between India and the Tamil people on the island. India went from being seen as the saviour to being the enemy. The resistance to the IPKF presence escalated dramatically after the Valvettithurai Massacre. In 1990 the Indian army left the island, not having achieved any of their objectives and leaving vast areas of the Tamil homeland to the LTTE. A year later, the LTTE assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, cementing the gulf between Tamils and India.
To this day, many Tamils who lived through the Indian occupation remain traumatised by their experiences, particularly the arbitrary detentions and torture. No official inquiries into the Valvettithurai Massacre, or other incidents, have been conducted. No one has been held accountable for the crimes committed. The inhabitants of Valvettithurai continue to demand acknowledgment and justice for the massacre. India must lead by example and provide the answers demanded by the victims and survivors.
People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) is 501(c)3 non-profit organization advocating for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people in the North-East of Sri Lanka.
People for Equality and Relief in Lanka
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