|The responsibility for July 1983 - July '83 debate: Why SL Gunasekara is Wrong|
|Thursday, 31 July 2008|
by: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
The many accounts of the events of July 1983 that have appeared in the media over the last two weeks have also drawn many rather indignant responses. The thrust of these seems to be that, since the LTTE has committed many worse atrocities since then, it is unnecessarily indulgent to reminisce in sorrow about July 1983.
Sadly, some of these responses almost suggest that what happened in 1983 was not so bad anyway and, in any case, the Tamils provoked it. This is absurd, and not even worthy of a reply, except simply to say that it was outrageous, and even if one assumes that revenge is an acceptable motive – a concept unheard of in any religion, and certainly abhorrent to Buddhism and Christianity, the religions of almost all those who perpetrated the atrocities of July 1983 – revenge on those not guilty of any wrong, simply by virtue of a collective condemnation, is quite beyond the pale.
Mr. S. L. Gunasekara
I will respond here then rather to the more civilized expressions of indignation over the different types of sorrow that have been expressed over the events of 25 years ago. The most interesting of these, because it is unequivocal in its condemnation of what happened, while also dealing with erudition about similar incidents in other countries, was the essay by S. L. Gunasekara, someone who has striven not to be anti anyone or anything else in his pro-Sinhala approach, and who had also suffered from chauvinism himself, in the attack on his Christianity that was thought to render him unfit to represent a Sinhala party in parliament. Indeed that factor may well have contributed, in addition to its unfortunate self-desturctive symbol, to the replacement of the Sihala Urumaya by the Jathika Hela Urumaya, and the entry into Parliament of a host of monks, following the initial example of this on the part of the LSSP.
Gunasekara makes two unusual points in his article, both of which need to be examined carefully. These are in addition to the more general one of the worse atrocities of the LTTE, leading him to ask why we do not also talk about Black June or any other period in which the LTTE behaved even more brutally than usual. Hearteningly, Gunasekara also noted particular incidents of brutality towards Tamils in describing LTTE violence.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
The answer to his question of course is that terrorists are terrorists, and there is no point in drawing attention to particular atrocities in the hope that they will be remembered with compunction – and the determination that they will not recur. Sadly, until the Tigers renounce terrorism and lay down arms, we have to be prepared for further atrocities. That should not be the case with a state, and it is for that reason that Black July needs to be remembered and regretted.
This leads on to the next point, which Gunasekara presents slightly unusually. He is categorical in his condemnation of the perpetrators of July 1983, but he does not look closely into their provenance or the reasons for their actions. Instead, he takes pains to free the then government of the charge of complicity in the attacks. The final impression left is that the attacks were due to a spontaneous outburst of feeling following the killing of 13 servicemen, and their funeral in Colombo.
This is not a logical approach. Indeed, Gunasekara’s own record of how the Sinhalese have refrained from further such action despite much worse provocation indicates how specious was this argument, advanced as it so insidiously was by President Jayewardene when he appeared on television on July 28th. Given that he came armed with the formal government response, which was to introduce the 6th amendment which in effect drove the TULF from Parliament (thus enhancing opportunities for terrorism), and that the text of that amendment was produced in double quick time, it is difficult not to acknowledge that this was an opportunity of which the government took advantage for its own nefarious agenda. Add to that the evidence of the official lists with which the rioters were equipped, the sanctions for the massacres at Welikada, the failure to give clear orders to the troops, the late declaration of curfew and the ease with which it was violated, and it is obvious that there was at least some government complicity.
Gunasekara is at pains, in citing the names of Ministers who would also have to be judged guilty if the government were found responsible as a whole, to argue that that cannot be credited. He may have a point, in that certainly what happened was not official government policy. But we know enough about the way governments work to realize that the complicity of some does not mean the guilt of the whole. It would certainly be wilful blindness not to acknowledge the involvement of Cyril Mathew and his supporters, the real question being whether this had support or indulgence from the top.
To me Jayewardene’s silence before the 28th, his appalling speech on the 28th, his symbiotic link with Mathew from the fifties on, all suggest that he was guilty, of culpable negligence at the very least. And it is precisely because of that that we need to be aware constantly of what happened, and to express our regrets. This was the leader of Sri Lanka, elected to that position, and he represented the state. It is at least as much for his complicity in what occurred as for those events themselves that Sri Lanka now must express regret.
And we should do it the more actively, in that that will make clear that the nation as a whole, the Sinhalese as a whole, were not responsible. Nor will it do to say that it was a few Sinhalese acting emotionally, because then that type of behaviour might recur, and we will not be able to guard against it institutionally. But if we accept that these actions were encouraged by the state, and if we make it crystal clear that it was the state that suffered as much by such actions as the victims, we might be in a better position to ensure that they will not recur.
In this respect, I would like to look at one of the other interesting arguments Gunasekara used in suggesting that we need not concentrate too much on what happened. He uses the case of General Dyer and the massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh, where he suggests the British behaved as though nothing much untoward had happened.
That is not strictly correct. While British policy in India exemplifies the brilliant cunning which enabled them to rule the world for so long, and create the impression, while profiting ruthlessly from it all, to pretend that they were being altruistic, the fact is the British play by certain rules. Dyer was in fact reprimanded, and the British made sure that no such incident occurred again, though of course it could be argued that they then set about the policies which ensured that the inhabitants of the sub-continent did these things to each other. Certainly, the propaganda machines went into full swing later and tried to present Dyer as a hard done by idealist, celebrated by his peers, rather as Sepala Ekanayake has been by some, but the point is that he was disciplined. And in any serious analysis of empire, notably in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, he is a byword for brutal insensitivity.
Interestingly, Scott makes a similar point to mine, which is that the Dyers of this world, like the LTTE, are beyond or beneath moral criticism. The real villains in India were the ostensibly decent administrators who, in the last resort, forgot their obligations to the Indians they were supposed to serve, and stood by their brutal colleagues.
Some commentators see the Dyer episode as the incident that energized the Indian Congress into realizing that nothing short of independence would be acceptable. Others however feel that it was not Dyer himself, but what in the end seemed the connivance of those who should have known better. For us, we have to make it clear that the Sri Lankan state knows better than the villains of 1983, and behaves better than the LTTE as well as those elements in government at the time that spawned such villainy and played so disastrously into the hands of the LTTE.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
Rajiva Wijesinha, Senior Professor of Languages at Sabaragamuwa University, is the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). He obtained his first degree in classics from University College, Oxford, and went on to do a doctorate in English at Corpus Christi College, where he held the E K Chambers Studentship. He is the author of several books including: Declining Sri Lanka: Terrorism and Ethnic Violence as the legacy of J R Jayewardene, 1906-1996, Cambridge University Press Delhi, July 2007.
(Courtesy : SCOPP )
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