Another July Passing By

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

“Shops, Banks, Offices and Restaurants in the Capital’s crowded City Centre and Main Streets being burnt while the Police look on. Thousands of houses ransacked and burnt, sometimes with women and children inside. Goon squads battering passengers to death in trains and on station platforms and, without hindrance, publicly burning men and women to death on the streets! Remand prisoners and political detainees in the country’s top prison being massacred. The armed forces joining in and sometimes organizing this pogrom against members of Sri Lanka’s two Sri Lankan minority communities. The nation’s President and top ranking cabinet members publicly justifying the pogrom!”

- “Sri Lanka: The Holocaust And After”
by L. Piyadasa.
(Introductory paragraph)

Seventeen years ago on the night of 23rd of July, members of the Liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam ambushed an army patrol at the Post Box junction area in Thirunelvely and killed 13 soldiers. Troops went bersek in Jaffna in the hours that followed and shot dead 51 innocent civilians in the Jaffna Peninsula including 7 passengers in a minivan at Manipay. Some hours later on the Sunday that followed members of the Sri Lankan Navy ran riot in Trincomalee burning down Tamil houses and also forcibly relocating Tamil refugees. In Colombo the powers that be decided to publish, broadcast and televise the news about 13 soldiers being killed by the Tigers while blacking out reprisals by the armed forces. In an even more inflammatory move it was decided to stage a mass funeral for the dead soldiers at Kanatte. The situation took a violent turn and as the Esala full moon shone brightly from a not so cloudy sky, clouds of smoke from burning Tamil establishments spiralled upwards. The following Monday 25th saw anti-Tamil violence spreading like wildfire. The plantation Tamil Patriarch Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman known for his pithy comments later described the violence that followed Poya as - “Sunday Sil, Monday Kill”.

The violence went on for three days peaking on Wednesday 27th and ebbing on Thursday 28th the day that Indian Prime Minister sent then Foreign minister P. Narasimmha Rao as her special emissary to Colombo. Friday 29th, saw Colombo and suburbs being terrified by the rumour that the Tigers had come to town. The afternoon of that fateful “Koti Dawasa” saw the goon squads massacring Tamils again after being “sure” that no tigers were in town. 30th and 31st July saw the violence diminish gradually. By August the violence had ceased as International opinion and pressure compelled the J.R. Jayawardene regime to “normalise” the situation.

In spite of the attempts to rationalise the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence as a “Sinhala backlash to 13 Soldiers being killed by Tamil Tigers” evidence uncovered during the past years have proved conclusively that “Black July” 1983 was a definite Pogrom and not a spontaneous reaction of the Tamils. Notwithstanding the efforts of then President Jayawardene to tarnish the Sinhala people as being collectively responsible for this carnage, respected observers such as Paul Sieghart of the International Commission of Jurists exposed the real state of affairs.

As Sieghart himself points out in his report (Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors) “Clearly this (July 1983 attack) was no spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people - nor was it as has been suggested in some quarters, a popular response to the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush the previous day by Tamil Tigers, which was not even reported in the newspapers until the riots began. It was a serious of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organized well in advance”.

The mass scale deaths, destruction, displacement, deprivation and despair suffered by the Tamils both Sri Lankan and Indian made them characterise those days in July as a dark period in their life. The extent to which the Tamils were diminished in that month made them call it “Black July”. The Tamil people were at a nadir of despondency. Yet, “Black July” also denoted a decisive shift in the politics of the Island. The bulk of the people affected in the violence were Tamils living outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. With their hopes of living peacefully amidst the Sinhala people being blasted their future seemed bleak. Two trends started. One group of Tamils started relocating to the North and East. Another group migrated mainly as refugees. As the War escalated, expanded and enveloped the North and East Tamil People started moving out of the Island in even greater numbers.

When writing about “Black July” one is conscious of the negative connotations in using the colour “black” to describe something bad and evil and the colour white for pure and good. In this age of “political Correctness” these usages have been challenged and debunked as insidious vestiges of racism. Wittingly and unwittingly these usages keep promoting racist stereotypes of colour. Nevertheless it is difficult to adopt such a politically correct stance in the Sri Lankan context as the description “Black July” has pervaded national consciousness. Avoiding such reference would be particularly impossible in writing about the developments of July 1983.

The July 1983 pogrom saw more than a hundred thousand people fleeing to India as refugees thereby providing that Country with the necessary locus standi to intervene politically. India also encouraged the training and arming of Tamil youths. Thousands of youngsters flocked to the different militant movements. Thanks to the 6th amendment the Tamil Parliamentarians of the Tamil United Liberation Front also kept away thereby losing their seats.

The political leadership began passing slowly and surely into the militant youth hands. The economy of Sri Lankan was affected badly. The good name of the country was sullied irreparably. One of the lamentable features of that Pogrom was the abominable response of JRJ and senior ministers on Television. Not even one word was uttered in sympathy for the victims of the violence.

Black July 83 was a watershed in the contemporary history of the Island. Black July 83 aroused the conscience of many Sinhala people. Indeed it cannot be forgotten that a great deal of Tamils escaped danger to life, limb and property only because of the courageous protection extended by their Sinhala friends. There were well meaning efforts by several persons notable among which was the initiative taken by the Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala. Rt. Rev. Lakshman Wickremasinghe.

But as time progressed the riling elite was able to prosecute the war against the Tamils further. Anti-Tamil violence became legitimized and institutionalised as a military effort. The brutalisation of the war as well as some of the reprehensibly inhuman acts by the Tamil militant groups helped reduce the moral superiority of the Tamil cause and predicament. Gradually the pangs of remorse and guilt felt by Sinhala public opinion became lesser and lesser. This process has now subtly transformed that humane mindset into a negligible quantity.

Furthermore an insidious campaign has resulted in altering and undermining the significance of Black July 83 this campaign is two fold. Firstly the scope as well as the original implication of Black July has been altered. The past years have seen July being depicted as “Black” not for the 1983 anti Tamil Pogrom but for all the “bad” things that happened in July. The list is endless ranging from the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord to the latest act of violence in July. Thus July is now “black” because of the large number of violent incidents that occurred in that month. The original significance of it being called “Black July” to mark the horrible pogrom against the Tamils is systematically diluted. Historical revisionists may even obliterate this “original sin” and substitute some other event as being the cause for July becoming Black. Thereby the long term “guilt” effect of the anti Tamil holocaust of 1983 July on the Sinhala psyche will be alleviated perhaps eradicated in time to come.

The second aspect of this campaign is the demonising of an LTTE threat. The July 1983 violence as well as the phenomenon of Captain Miller, the first Black Tiger, embracing death on July 5th 1987 are used in a cunning roundabout way. The line trotted out is that the LTTE considers July as “Black” enough to warrant the perpetration of some terrible act of violence as symbolic defiance. So we see the media inundated with stories of how the security forces are geared up to face threats to the nation because the Tigers want to take revenge for Black July. The whole security apparatus is placed on a red alert it is said. Any relatively minor incident of violence by the LTTE is attributed to the Black July syndrome. After July passes a collective sigh of relief is released. With the spectre of Black July behind it the nation strides boldly and confidently forward until of course the next evil “black July”. Each year sees this comical ritual being enacted faithfully.

This annual “black July” scare helps annually to deflect focus away from the remembering of the Black July 1983 pogrom against Tamils. Instead of letting the Nation recall this terrible act with remorse the spotlight on an imaginary threat from the LTTE helps reverse roles. The nation at large is perceived as the “victims” because they are considered vulnerable to a diabolical LTTE threat because of “black July”. The significance of Black July is distorted. Instead of being portrayed as the month denoting the pogrom against the Tamils “Black July” is now the month where the nation particularly the Sinhala majority is rendered cruelly vulnerable to LTTE violence.

One cannot deny that several acts of violence are committed by the LTTE every year. This is true of the armed forces too. In a war situation acts of violence are inevitable. But the hoax perpetrated upon the gullible masses is the fiction that the LTTE singles out the month of July deliberately to commit great atrocities to wreak vengeance for Black July. The track record of the LTTE does not bear this out.

The Tigers plan and execute their operations on the basis of politico- military necessity and not on the basis of melodramatic sentiment. If and when they conduct major operations during July as in 1993 in Weli Oya or 1996 in Mullaitheevu those were done on the basis of militaristic calculations. It was only a coincidence that these were done in July. Of course when such developments occur the LTTE news releases refer to the regular Preparations by the Security establishment as a reaction of July 83. By doing so the Tigers draw amused attention to the antics of the authorities while making Tamils remember. Black July strikes a responsive chord in many a Tamil heart as a very large number of Tamils have suffered directly or indirectly in that month.

Several media organisations trot out a list of all the happenings in July over the years to justify the paranoia of an LTTE attack during Black July. There is no denying that the July list is impressive indeed. But if all the incidents that have occurred since 1983 are classified according to month one would find that each and every month possesses a large volume. If that is the criteria for calling July “Black” then all the months in the calendar have to be described as “Black”. Another point is that if the security forces are really on full alert during “Black” July then the chances of the LTTE embarking upon a major operation become quite slim. So there is every possibility that the scale of LTTE operations during July may decrease over the years. This does not mean that the LTTE will not undertake any operation during July. They may even launch one in this last week of July if necessary. The point however is that it would not be to drive home the Black July notion but more on the basis of military calculations. If that happens LTTE propagandists may very well add a “Black July” spin to it. After all it must be quite amusing for the Tigers to witness this annual fetish for Black July.

The negative result of this campaign is the undermining and distortion of the significance of July 1983. Signs of blaming the victim syndrome are also visible. The inherent danger in the pogrom of July 1983 being forgotten is that it may very well happen again. As the truism goes “those who do not remember the lessons of history are condemned to relive it again”. A major demographic change of vast political significance is the phenomenon of about 500,000 Tamil relocating to the areas outside the North and East in recent times. Politically this is a major obstacle to the Tamil separatist cause. Here are people electing to live in “enemy” areas even as a bitter armed struggle is being launched in the North and East on the rationale that coexistence is not possible.

But this point is lost on the new spectre that is emerging in the South. The ugly head of neo fascism masquerading as patriotism is being raised. The Tamil people in particular and the minorities in general are being pilloried as “aliens”. The purveyors of racial hatred are spreading their evil gospel and irresponsible sections of the media are peddling it regularly. Communalism propaganda in the garb of pseudo nationalism is gaining ground. There are many references to the “tolerance and greatness of the Sinhala people in not enacting another July 1983” in this hate discourse. The “norm” is being distorted as the “exception”. These are not sign that augur well for the future. The minorities are feeling increasingly insecure.

After the Holocaust of the Hitlerian era and its impact on the European Collective psyche few would have expected fascism or neo Nazism to resurface. Yet many European Nations including Germany are experiencing it now. All people of this land striving for a decent and humane future would hope that the July 1983 pogrom was only an aberration. But as in the case of eternal vigilance being a prerequisite for maintaining perennial liberty, constant rekindling of the tragic memories of “Black July 1983” is very necessary to prevent repetition.

Courtesy - The Sunday Leader - 23 July 2000