by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“There are circumstances in which silence is lying”. Miguel de Unamuno (quoted in Mourir à Madrid by Fredrick Rossif)
Riots are times of mob-rule. And in times of mob-rule, words of sanity and deeds of decency must occur in secret.
That the Black July could not be condemned publicly while the fires were raging and the mobs were in charge was comprehensible. The aftermath was quite another matter. Why did we, people and leaders of the Sinhala South, not react differently once the fires died out, the mobs went home and it was safe to speak out?
Why did we fail to see murder and mayhem for what they were?
Why did we fail to condemn murder and mayhem as they should have been?
Why did we hide behind euphemisms and seek refuge in denials?
Why did decent intelligent people tie themselves in interminable politico-moral knots, in vain attempts to justify the unjustifiable?
Surely it was possible to condemn the Four Four Bravo attack, the LTTE, Tamil separatism and the horror that was Black July?
Only a minority actively participated in the orgy of killing, burning and looting. But their vision of what Sri Lanka is and how it should be governed prevailed even after their action ended. So there was no condemnation of the riots, except by a few marginalised Sinhala groups. Instead of words of repentance and deeds of reconciliation aimed at healing the Sinhala-Tamil rift, government and society adopted an even harder line vis-à-vis the Tamils.
Each extreme measure, implemented by the government with the obvious backing of a Sinhala majority, reinforced the message of the rioters, marginalised moderate Tamils and strengthened the LTTE. It was not just Black July which turned a struggling insurgency into a full scale war and paved the way for the Tigers’ dominance; it was also its aftermath, an aftermath woefully lacking not only in political sense but also in common or garden decency.
The madness continued beyond Black July because the politico-psychological soil which enabled the horror was present long before the fires began and continued long after the fires ended.
Respectable, educated, decent, middleclass Sinhalese believed that Tamils were taking over the country, taking over the professions, taking over the universities; that the Tamil language was destroying the Sinhala language, Tamil movies undermining the Sinhala cinema and Tamil businesses ruining Sinhala businesses. Tamils were the favourite scapegoats; they were why the Sinhalese were poor, why good Sinhala boys and girls could not go to universities, find jobs or get ahead in their careers. Even rising inflation was blamed on Tamils, this time in their role as importers and wholesalers.
The racist tracts produced by UNP’s Cyril Maththew were avidly read, discussed and distributed not just by UNPers but also by committed anti-UNPers and people who had no interest in politics. Their toxic material were believed and digested by people who would never vote for the UNP or for Cyril Maththew (or looked down on him from caste-heights).
The ‘defence of last resort’ attitude to anti-minority riots, which regarded violence as an acceptable method of controlling ethno-religious minorities, was a key psychological enabler of Black July. That mindset was born long before 1983 or even 1956; it came into being almost with the birth of modern Ceylon.
Modern Ceylon’s first ethno-religious riot targeted not Tamils but Muslims. Ceylon was still very much a colony and the First World War was raging. The imperial masters reacted with furious speed to the sudden breakdown in law and order, perhaps fearing that the anti-Muslim riot was a prelude to some anti-colonial action. They need not have worried; after the defeat of 1948 Ceylon had remade herself as a model colony. Despite British jitters, the violence of 1915 was not a re-echo of the past; it was a harbinger of the future.
The British imposed Martial Law and arrested a substantial number of leading Sinhalese, guilty, semi-guilty and innocent alike. There were some summary executions. The excessive use of force by the British was outrageous; but the anti-Muslims riots which caused death and destruction on a far greater scale were even more execrable.
There should have been sane and balanced voices within the Sinhala community which condemned both the anti-Muslims riots and the British repression. But if such voices did exist, they had no place in the public sphere. Instead the dominant Sinhala voices ignored the initial outrage of the riots and focused on the consequent one of Martial Law.
It is important to remember that in this bloody drama there were no anti-colonialists. No one was clamouring for independence and freedom. Sinhalese and Muslims (and Tamils too) all fell over each other to assure the British government of their absolute loyalty to the Empire.
For instance, the memorandum outlining the Sinhala version of the riots/Martial Law was taken to London by EW Perera; in the accompanying letter addressed to the Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Perera wrote, “I am instructed to emphasise the intense loyalty of the Sinhalese to the British Crown, of which there has been recent evidence, including to the desire to raise a local contingent…” Mr. Silva called the memorandum ‘the appeal of the loyal Sinhalese of Ceylon” (quoted in Ceylon and Her People– NE Weerasooriya).
There was nothing anti-imperialist or anti-Colonial in the riots of 1915, nothing progressive, nothing laudatory; it was an ugly deed which should have been condemned by all decent Sinhalese, but wasn’t.
Why did the Sinhalese take up arms against Muslims instead of focusing their anger against the colonial ruler?
Why was 1915 a racial riot instead of an anti-colonial struggle?
Why attack the Muslims?
They were not asking for a separate state or making any political demands.
Why was there so little soul searching in the Sinhala community after the riots?
A debate which took place in the Legislative Council on the events of 1915 sheds a modicum of light on that dark chapter in our history. In that debate Ponnambalam Ramanathan (who was elected to the sole Educated Ceylonese seat defeating a Sinhala contender) passionately defended the ‘Sinhala nation’ and pleaded for the release of the arrested Sinhala leaders; he condemned the excesses of the Martial Law but did not criticise the riots.
An antipodal stand was taken by the First Low-Country Sinhala member of the Council, Sir Christoffel Obeyesekere. He condemned the riots unequivocally, saying that “I, as a Sinhalese, feel most keenly the insult that they have brought upon the whole nation”. He then went on to provide his own interpretation of what happened: “These disturbances would not have taken place had it not been….for the incitement of the ignorant villagers – poor Buddhist villagers, than whom I have never seen a better set of men – by half a dozen misguided designing villains, who have been trying to pose as leaders of the Buddhists.
Had it not been for this encouragement, these disturbances would never have occurred. I, therefore, feel most strongly that any of the proprietory peasant villagers – whom I regard as true Sinhalese gentlemen – should have been deluded into this trap for the personal aggrandisement of a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make some bodies of themselves by such disgraceful tactics” (ibid).
The condescending tone and the classist approach apart (which were common to leaders of all ethnicities and religions of that generation) the above analysis is of relevance in understanding not just the riots of 1915 but also subsequent outbreaks of majoritarian violence. Before the riots broke out, there had been a wave of anti-Muslim (and anti-Christian) propaganda by a new breed of political activists and leaders who called themselves Sinhala nationalists.
These ‘nationalists’ were not political anti-imperialists; if they opposed the British, they did so on religio-cultural grounds. The Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism they pioneered was anti-minority rather than anti-British, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist rather than anti-imperialist.
At the forefront of this new ‘ideas revolution’ were Anagarika Dharmapala, playwright John de Silva and novelist Piyadasa Sirisena. They were anti-Muslim, anti-Christian and anti-Tamil, rather than anti-British. For them, the religio-cultural influences of the Burghers and the economic activities of the Tamils and the Muslims were of far greater danger than British imperial rule.
They – especially Anagarika Dharmapala – introduced the Aryan myth into Lankan politics. The Sinhala race was defined as Aryan and Aryans were defined as the only really noble people in the world; they claimed that Lanka belonged to Aryan Sinhalese and that all minorities were ‘false believers’ and racial inferiors. It was the sort of language Adolf Hitler would have approved.
Integrated within this racialist vision was a dangerous implication with far reaching consequences – that since Sri Lanka really belongs to Sinhala Buddhists and all minorities live here by our grace and as evidence of our grace, we have a right (and a duty) to chastise any minority when they step beyond ‘the line’. And in doing so, to use indiscriminate and deadly violence, ‘as a last resort’, ‘when our patience has run out’.
That was the soil which created 1915 – and 1983.
Black July can happen again, because many of us never knew it and most of us have managed to put it out of our minds or used euphemisms to hide its full horror. Black July can happen again because it has not been condemned unequivocally.
Black July can happen again because Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism which had been the bane of both Sri Lanka and Sinhala Buddhists is alive and well. It thrives, under Rajapaksa Rule, feeling vindicated by the victorious Eelam War.
Black July can happen again because we are creating a new enemy to take the place of the old, defeated one.
1983 – and 1915 – happened in a moral-intellectual vacuum, shaped by Sinhala supremacist propaganda and characterised by the absence of sanity and decency. They happened in an enabling environment created by the negative stereotyping and the scapegoating of this or that minority, the deliberate dissolution of individual identities in an overweening collective, the tendency to see everything through the prism of a ‘them or us’ do or die struggle.
Many Sinhalese were sickened by Black July and quite a few of them risked their lives to save Tamil lives. But their voices remained faint and unheard even after violence ended and ‘normalcy’ returned. Had their voices resounded post-July 1983, the subsequent history of Sri Lanka may have taken a less disastrous trajectory.
Had enough Sinhalese condemned the 1915 riots (together with the excesses of the Martial Law), Black July – and the long Eelam War – could have been avoided.
Have we learnt from our tragic history the necessary lessons to prevent its tediously-bloody repetition?