1983: It haunts us still!

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Burnt out shops in Fort 1983 Black July


by Rajan Philips

The historical memories of 1915, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 have far outlived their experiences and their victims. The year 1983, with its pre-meditated rehearsal in 1981, was different from its predecessors in many different ways. The extent of its horror was unprecedented and was only matched by the helplessness of its victims and the unhelpfulness of those who had the power and the responsibility not only to stop the catastrophe but also to protect the victims. The aftermaths of 1983 have been even worse and far more consequential.

The first to occur under a presidential government and in the wake of a referendum that fossilized an existing parliament, the 1983 violence spawned a civil war that lasted decades and the ending of which is still mired in controversy, with claims and counterclaims which are repeated not for resolution but for mutual aggravation. Far from war being the continuation of politics with gunfire, politics has become the continuation of war without gunfire.

Tragic1983 triggered if not a massive but a significant exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils who are now a far flung part of the universe of global diasporas that cannot let go of their love-hate connections with the old countries. In love with whatever they left behind, and hateful of whatever forced them to leave. It precipitated the second JVP insurrection in the south but with no synchronization with the war in the north.

The ultimate upshot was the involvement of India which included the Indian army, a bilateral agreement between India and Sri Lanka, and the unusually long and overly detailed 13th Amendment that has provided a permanent forum for endless debates and not a practical framework for easy implementation.

There has been no official recollection of the 40th anniversary of 1983 in Colombo. None was expected. Nor was there any reference to it in New Delhi during the state visit of President Wickremesinghe. Some found it surprising, if not transformative. In fact, there was no official mention of the 13th Amendment during the visit. The joint statement, entitled “Promoting Connectivity, Catalysing Prosperity: India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership Vision,” is a statement of vision for co-operation and investments in five areas: maritime, air, energy, trade and people-to-people initiatives.

The Hindu (July 25) editorial pointed out the conspicuous omission of any acknowledgement of “previous commitments by Sri Lanka on honouring the 13th Amendment for devolution of powers to the North and Eastern provinces, and for resolving the long-pending issues over arrest of Indian fishers.” The only reference to devolution and Provincial Council elections were in the speech of Prime Minister Modi. There was no mention of them, let alone a re-commitment, by President Wickremesinghe.

The lack of acknowledgment is seen by The Hindu as “the bigger message from the meeting: that despite Sri Lanka’s other dependencies on New Delhi, the Indian government is no longer welcome to bring its historical concerns over the Tamil issue into bilateral negotiations.” And it could also be seen as the “point of positive transformation in the relationship” between the two countries, that Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra had been announcing that the visit would accomplish.

All of this should be a transformative wake up call for Tamil political leaders whose political strategy has been to rely on the persistence of Modi and the goodwill of Wickremesinghe. They have no other leverage over decision making on substantive matters involving power devolution or provincial administration. If The Hindu editorial interpretation is correct, New Delhi now seems reconciled to avoiding any reference to devolution in bilateral transactions. That would make the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders even more helpless. But they have plenty of other means to cause perpetual annoyance to any government in Sri Lanka.

Genocide Annoyance

One source of annoyance to the Sri Lankan government is UNHRC in Geneva. The biggest source of annoyance, however, is Canada, home to the largest presence of Sri Lankan Tamils, and as direct an aftermath of 1983 as there can be. Prime Minister Trudeau may be the only government leader in the world to formally commemorate in his county the Black July tragedy of 1983 in Sri Lanka. This has become an annual occurrence in Canada, and is observed by both Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers. In his statement on 23 July, Mr. Trudeau again raised the spectre of genocide that would have raised more than a few hackles in Colombo. He spoke of the motion that the Parliament of Canada unanimously adopted last year to make May 18 Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day, which was observed for the first time this year.

The resolution by the Canadian parliament is a sequel to the legislation passed by the Ontario provincial legislature, in 2021, proclaiming a week in May (ending on May 18) to be observed each year as Tamil Genocide Education week. The constitutionality of the Ontario legislation, the Tamil Genocide Education Week Act (TGEWA) was challenged in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by two Sri Lankan-Canadian organizations and two individuals.

The appeal was dismissed by Justice JT Akbarali in a comprehensive ruling that addressed some larger questions raised against a short and simple piece of legislation. He made it clear that he was making “no findings about whether there was, or was not, a Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka,” but he was ruling only on the constitutionality of the law and the jurisdictional competence of the Ontario legislature to pass it.

Justice Akbarali also noted that while the Ontario legislation recognizes Tamil genocide, “it is not recognition for recognition’s sake” but for the purpose education in order to, among other things, “create the conditions for Tamil Ontarians to share their stories and begin to heal from the trauma and inter-generational trauma.” The notion of healing from trauma offers a sympathetic approach to dealing with the vexed question of genocide instead of a severely legalistic approach of proving or disproving genocide.

Genocide is a loaded term that can be loosely used or rejected, and people use it or reject it depending on their experiences and their perceptions, not to mention their political locations. People will use it inasmuch as there is a cathartic dimension to it. From that standpoint, trying to stop the use of the term through court challenges or diplomatic protests will prove to be futile.

Literary Turn

The sources and effects of trauma multiplied in Sri Lanka during the two decades of war following 1983. The responses to trauma are also manifesting in multiple ways, and creative writing is now one of the more positive avenues of response to trauma. Fictional writing and performing arts have become infectious and have elicited talented contributors from among the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims regardless of whether they are located in the diaspora or living in the old country.

Literature arising from the ashes of political violence can be more than therapeutic. Parul Sehgal writing in the New Yorker (January 2023) to mark the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India, alludes to the consensus among writers and scholars that “the fullest account of 1947 could be found not in facts and figures – not in non-fiction at all – but in in texts like ‘Tamas,’ in literature.” She cites Ayesha Jalal, the Pakistani-American Historian, and in whose view, “creative writers have captured the human dimensions of Partition far more effectively than historians.”

In Abiding by Sri Lanka, Qadri Ismail advocated taking a ‘literary turn’ in politics, by reading fiction against the social sciences; by reading fiction to critique the ethos and practices of identity, nationalism and representative democracy; and for drawing on literary insights to imagine political possibilities.

We miss Qadri now to give us his inimitably critical take on the literary outputs on Sri Lanka that are emerging from Australia to America, to tell us the human dimensions captured by these writings which are missed in the claims and counterclaims about body counts, and to extract for us whatever insights there might be to compensate for the political drought that we are constrained to suffer under the weight of the economic mess that the war hero Gotabaya has left us with.

Turning to Politics

To return to politics, President Wickremesinghe has not lost the capacity to surprise even though he has been in politics for a boringly long time with boringly little to show for it. After being mum about devolution during his visit to New Delhi, the President convened an All Party Conference soon after his return to discuss the 13th Amendment and its implementation.

The reported purpose of the conference was to update the party leaders in parliament on the President’s National Reconciliation Program and the North-East Development plan. The reports did not indicate whether or not the President updated his parliamentary supplicants on his visit to India and the outcomes of his meetings with Prime Minister Modi.

Instead, the conference was another occasion for the President to lecture party leaders on the role of the parliament in implementing the proposals he would bring forward for the betterment of the country. Specific to Provincial Councils, the President repeated the old call for all-party support to devolve powers to Provincial Councils.

But how can the President call for and expect all-party support when he will not agree to anything that any or all of the political parties have been asking ever since he became caretaker President? The list is long, but it is enough to mention local government elections, provincial elections, as well as parliamentary elections.

The President is also reported to have presented a seemingly new proposal – for provincial councillors to double as parliamentarians, and for MPs to serve on provincial councils. Where is this coming from? Is this another clever-by-half move, to send MPs to provincial councils to restart them without elections? After the non-starter backdoor attempt to resurrect the dead local bodies without any new elections?

That is the current state of Sri Lankan politics – 40 years after 1983, 36 years to this day (29 July) after the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, and 14 years after the end of the war. And that is how 1983 is different from the episodes that came before it. After 1915, 1958, and even 1977, the state and the government were able to restore normalcy quite substantially in a relatively short order. That has not been the case after 1983, and there are no signs that anything will change any time soon.

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Disclaimer: 1983: It haunts us still! - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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