The Shameful Shadows of Macabre July '83
Culture of Silence: The Accomplice in Crime
Oswald B. Firth OMI
Director, Centre for Society and Religion
Editor Social Justice
"We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
|Even today, the indolent would bemoan the impetuosity and
credulousness of those who believe that constructive initiatives for peace can halt the
ongoing monstrous carnage that was born as a result of an apotheosis of political
thuggery. Indomitable skeptics find their views not too divergent from those of Cicero who
said "What other way is there to counter violence than the use of violence
itself" ("Quid enim est, quod contra vim sine vi fieri possit?"
Ep.ad familiares XII,3).
Political thuggery is indeed one form of violence that has become institutionalised to such an extent that it is considered a part of a routine menu that citizens have to endure. To this pathetic state of affairs the silence of the good people has undoubtedly made its contribution.
Political thuggery, in that fateful month of July 1983, had metamorphosed into a horrendous anti-Tamil pogrom. The dreadful scenario during that period of horror is besmeared with demented minds on the rampage unleashing terror on unarmed Tamil civilians who soon found their homes ransacked and ravaged and their lives reduced to the level of beasts being hunted for slaughter. Valli Kanapathipillai in the Mirror of Violence - Riots and Survivors in South Asia has graphically documented gruesome tales of those who survived this phenomenal epoch of relentless terror.
Not surprisingly then Tamil sentiments have been wounded. The stupefying incidents in this dark and shameful period of our nation's history have exacerbated the fears of the Tamils of being treated as citizens of a lower grade. The most compelling evidence in favour of these feelings is to be found in the nonchalant attitude and calculated distortions uttered by those who held the reins of power during that shameful period. It took the President of the day nearly forty-eight hours to clamp down a curfew in Colombo and its suburbs to curb the violence. This protracted reaction was a case of closing the stable door once the horse had bolted, and a cosmetic gesture and subtle subterfuge intended to evade the wrath of the civilised world. The covert intentions of the government, like the emperor's clothes, were soon revealed when the President appeared on State television saying: "The time has come to accede to the clamour and national respect of the Sinhalese people". The impression blurted out to the wide world was that the Sinhala people were justly vindicating themselves by intimidating and punishing the Tamils supported by the overwhelming largesse of the government.
Other State Ministers were drawn into this tide of appeasement. One of them lamented with ponderous histrionics over an unseemly sight, which either revealed his myopic chauvinistic slant towards the majority community, or his skewed political prejudices intended to win him Sinhala votes at the next election. Addressing the nation on State TV, he spoke of how his eyes had fallen on the sufferings of the Sinhala people who, as a result of the riots, were forced to queue up from the early hours of the morning to purchase a morsel of food to feed his hungry family.
The State Goes on Trial.
Undoubtedly, the law itself was rendered impotent while the forces of violence and subversion were allowed to operate with opprobrious indulgence. It seemed as if the guardians of the law, the intellectuals, the Church and religious leaders of other denominations were all acting in complicity with the predators. So frightfully demeaning was their silence.
The July 1983 onslaught has brought to light one important assumption, namely, that the State was prepared to countenance ruthless savagery against a defenceless section of citizens; that it was ready to connive and contrive with the forces of evil, on condition that such forces contributed to sustain its political ambitions, however unethical this may appear to be. But such connivance resulted in embarking on a killing spree of 53 Tamil prisoners and detainees under State protection. It also meant looking askance at looting, arson and the massacre of a segment of the population just because they were judged to be of a different race that could be disposed of at will. Whatever convincing arguments opponents to devolution may churn out against "a separate State", "a Tamil homeland", "territorial demarcation" etc, it must become evident to all and sundry that this country is never going to be the same again because of July 1983.
The Roots of Discontent.
One may justifiably be tempted to query what benefits we stand to gain by conjuring up the events of the past. The past, one may be inclined to say, is best left entombed in the inner sanctums of amnesia. The rationale for repeating, perhaps ad nauseam, incidents of the nations chequered past, is that what transpired in July 83 was not a mere watershed 'event', or 'an unguarded moment' in our otherwise super-civilised history. Even as erratic 'events' they were diabolic enough to arouse feelings of revulsion and call for a chorus of condemnations from any right thinking citizen. The fact, however, is that 'July 83' refuses to be shelved or relegated to the level of 'a most unfortunate' and abnormal 'event' that needs mentioning only in the appendix of the annals of Sri Lankan history, rather it jeers at the spirit of tolerance and non-violence, sublime legacies bequeathed to the people of this earthly paradise by her religious ancestors. This frightful episode must figure prominently in the history books of our children so that they may be prevented from following the proverbial crabs who could never walk a straight line, instructing their siblings to beat a straight track!
Where the Conscience Pricks Most
Perceived from this particular perspective, the killing of 13 soldiers by the LTTE, on 23rd July 1983, when the truck in which they were travelling hit a landmine on the Palaly Road in Thirunavely, is an incident that need not be seen as the cause of the outburst of well orchestrated violence that followed against innocent Tamil families, but as an occasion or a starting point to launch the mayhem. All that the government had to do was to throw open the lid of 'unconscious communalism' and the flood gates would fly open letting destruction gush forth taking with it whatever crossed its unfortunate path.
The government had good reason to unleash the beast of racist communalism that had taken on the character of 'Anti-Tamil-Sinhala-Buddhism' to divert the irrational frenzy of the people that kept mounting against the State. The tendentious issues that generated irate antipathy against the State, namely, widespread corruption at the top accompanied by impoverishment below; the failure of economic life in rural areas swelling the ranks of the discontented urban proletariat; frustration resulting from the violent break-up of the 1980 strike and the deprivation of the safety valve of general elections through an almost certainly rigged referendum, were cunningly converted into an emotional outburst against the Tamils as if these were the ominous cause of the calamities that had befallen the people. Thus was the ire of the Sinhala people directed against the Tamils in the black July of 1983. Once the crimes were committed, the Sinhala people - many, if not all - came to realise the indelible scars the events had left on their consciences which kept reminding them of the latent racial bias that had refused to disappear despite 50 long years of the country's independence. It was as if the stains of blood refused to wash away from the hands of a guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth!
Lessons to be Learnt for the Future.
After the baptism of fire, will that event of July '83 teach us never to indulge in such discriminations against a particular ethnic community in the future? This would only be possible if we would cleanse our 'collective unconscious' of the hidden rancour it harbours against those that have a democratic right to be different. Otherwise, as Santayana prognosticated 'Those who forget the past are compelled to re-live it' - and that too at what a price as has befallen all Sri Lankans today. For, they are compelled to undergo the excruciating ordeal for the sins of their erring forebears who had brought about the degeneration of our age-old values and the disintegration of our civil society, thanks to the brutalisation, criminalisation and finally the dehumanisation of those who constitute it.
The realisation of a more redeemable future, so that the coming generations would be spared the agonies of the present generation, pre-supposes the fulfillment of certain obligatory norms of collective behaviour. Such a corrective measure would be the only way to undo the immense damage of the unsavoury past. That certainly calls for a deep spiritual transformation in the form of a catharsis - a psychological cum emotional purgation of the dross of crass racism that has got encrusted into the collective psyche of the Sri Lankan nation. Because as the Buddha has so eloquently highlighted in the 'Dhammapada - 'Mano pubban gama dhamma' - that 'the mind is the forerunner of all thoughts', which is re-echoed in the credo of UNESCO that 'Since war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed'.
Let that be our guiding credo too, if we are to absolve ourselves of the 15-year old guilt of an unprecedented crime that was perpetrated on our hapless Tamil brothers and sisters. Such a stance would be in consonance with the cosmopolitan outlook (as opposed to narrow tribalism) of the emerging Global Village now at the threshold of the 21st century. That is the only way to usher in an era of peace and harmony, and with justice to all in our beleaguered country.
Courtesy: "Social Justice", the monthly journal published by the Centre for Society and Religion, Colombo