By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham
Many articles appeared in the newspapers week to mark the 35th anniversary of the communal pogrom of July 1983 in Sri Lanka, commonly known as’ Black July’ riots. It was the illustrious editor and political analyst of international fame, the late Mervyn de Silva who coined the term ‘Black July’ in his now defunct magazine ‘Lanka Guardian’.
The anti -Tamil violence that spread all over the island three and a half decades ago was a watershed in the history of Sri Lankan politics, and in the relations between the Sinhalese, the majority community, and the largest minority community, the Tamils.
Nothing could ever again be the same. It was not merely the enormity of the violence that astonished everybody, but the fact that it had really happened.
The number of those who were killed in the violence that spread over more than a week was estimated to be in the region of 3,000, while there was no proper estimation of the damage to property.
Thousands of Tamils lost their houses and property. Most Tamils lost the hope that they could ever peacefully live among the Sinhalese as equals. Thousands upon thousands of Tamils left the shores of Sri Lanka as refugees. They fled to Western Europe, North America, Australia and India. While in the Western countries many lives as citizens in India more than a 100,000 still live as refugees.
As a result of this exodus, the Sri Lankan Tamils seem to have become like the Jews wandering all over the world eventually becoming one of the politically influential Diaspora communities in the world stage. It is not an exaggeration to call them as ‘modern Jews’.
The violence unleashed against the Tamil people by President J. R. Jayewardene-led United National Party (UNP) government had changed the trajectory of Sri Lankan politics. The guerrilla attack launched by Tamil Tigers in Jaffna on July 23 ,1983 night killed 13 army men of a military patrol. This incident served as a convenient ruse for the racist political forces with the government to set off the violence which was pre-planned with the overt help of the state machinery.
The government did not take immediate action to control the mob violence against innocent Tamil people. It took a week for President Jayewardene to appear on government television and make an appeal to stop the violence. He did not utter a word to console the Tamil people who were badly affected by the communal carnage and lost lives and property as never before. Instead he declared unabashedly that the violence was a natural reaction of the Sinhala people towards the demand for separation by the Tamil political leadership.
Apart from the loss of lives and destruction of property, the agony and mental trauma experienced by the Tamil people as a result of the pogrom was immeasurable and insurmountable. Although the loss of lives and property of the Tamil people during the civil war that lasted almost three decades was far greater than their sufferings in Black July, the latter has a unique negative symbolism in the history of the Tamil politics in this country as it propelled the Tamil militant armed struggle and plunged the country into a destructive ethnic war.
Not only the Jayewardene government but all other governments that came to power after Black July; while parroting statements about finding a political settlement to the ethnic concentrated mainly on pursuing a military solution. Every President since 1983 spoke about finding a political solution to the problem purely to hoodwink the international community.
Instead of helping to find a viable political solution to the long drawn and complex ethnic problem, India and the international community had, by their approach and actions, eventually ensured the intensification of the pursuit of a military solution. In the end, we saw that dramatic changes in the geopolitical arena tremendously enabling the government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to defeat the Tamil Tigers militarily in the Wanni and end the war in May 2009 without any regard for civilian casualties and sufferings.
Now, in the backdrop of the elapse of 35 years since Black July, and little more than nine years after the end of the war, it is disturbing and disheartening to note the bizarre situation in regard to finding a political solution to the national problem. With Sri Lankan politics going in a worrisome direction, it is very difficult to take an sympathetic view of the situation.
In the aftermath of Black July, our big neighbour India was compelled to interfere in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict and offer its services to mediate between the two warring factions. This was an important watershed in Indo-Sri Lankan relations and eventually paved the way for the signing of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in Colombo between the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene.
Immediately after the accord, in order to introduce the Provincial Councils, the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution was passed in Parliament amid rabid opposition from the Sinhala nationalist forces and the political opposition led by former Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike.
These developments were a catalyst for the second JVP uprising in the latter part of 1980s. This period saw eventful episodes in the recent history of Sri Lanka. The attempt on Rajiv Gandhi’s life by a naval rating during the guard of honour in front of President’s House on the day following the signing of the accord; the attempt to assassinate Jayewardene on August 18, 1987 during the meeting of the UNP Parliamentary group; and the large scale but senseless destruction of property in the South following the signing of the accord. These were testimonies to the deep feeling that had been stirred up among sections of the Sinhala people.
Many politicians on both sides of the ethnic divide who supported the accord were cold bloodedly assassinated by both the Tamil militants and the Southern militants.
But politically speaking, the accord had brought many desirable changes. President Jayewardene reversed on a number of issues on which he had held strong views. The man, who in 1944 in the second State Council, voted against S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s resolution calling for the replacement of English as the official language with both Sinhala and Tamil, instead demanded Sinhala only; organized the march to Kandy against the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact and helped to tear it up, now signed an agreement granting Tamil and English an equal place with Sinhala as official languages.
The man who swore that the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces could only take place over his dead body, now signed an agreement permitting the merger subject to a referendum in the East.
Former Tamil United Liberation Front Parliamentarian and renowned constitutional expert late Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam in a newspaper article almost a quarter century ago quoted the distinguished Indian diplomat and the first Special Envoy to handle the Sri Lankan ethnic issue Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy, as saying that it was with great difficulty that he convinced President Jayewardene, himself a constitutional expert, to accept devolution of power. This was pointed out editorially by a Colombo English daily this week.
Despite the fact that provincial councils have been in existence for three decades, our national problem has not come to an end. While the Tamil people and the main political parties that represent them have been saying that neither the 13th Amendment nor the provincial councils could be considered a durable solution to their problem, the Sinhala polity has been tolerating the provincial councils merely because they were established after an Indian intervention.
Before the northern Provincial Council elections in the North in 2013, there were attempts by some elements in the Rajapaksa regime to bring in constitutional amendments to remove police and land powers provided to the councils by the 13th Amendment. It was however averted due to the Indian government’s direct intervention at the instance of the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance.
Even during the present constitution making process, there have been no visible signs indicating any positive change in the long held stance of the main stakeholders of the Southern Sinhala polity regarding devolution of powers and the willingness to cooperate to find a political solution that would satisfy at least the minimum legitimate political aspirations and grievances of minority communities.
The main political forces are still debating very fundamentals issues as if the ethnic problem emerged only recently, even after the elapse of 35 years since Black July, and 9 years after the end of the war which severely affected all communities in the country.
The Tamils and the Indians have been unable to persuade or pressurize the Sri Lankan government to make improvements to the powers of the Provincial Councils or at least implement the 13th Amendment fully.
Following the tragic developments after the Peace Accord, India is no longer interested in the Sri Lankan problem. One cannot expect any change in the present attitude of India in the foreseeable future in the context of current geopolitics.
As such, our national problem is certainly going to fester without any political solution. Describing Black July as a national shame, a Colombo English daily posed a pertinent question in its editorial this week under the arresting title ‘Darkness of Black July: Nothing has changed after 35 years’. Isn’t the failure to change the attitude towards a political solution a bigger shame than Black July?