Forgetting Black July

Photo courtesy BBC

I was born ten years after Black July. I am a Singhalese. A week or so ago, as the thirty-year anniversary approached, for curiosity’s sake, I did a small experiment. I asked some of my peers a question: “What do you know about Black July?” Of twenty-two Sinhalese, eighteen did not know what it was. I asked eight Tamil friends, all of whom knew, and had family experiences to share. Here are a few of those responses.

[For those readers who may not be able to listen to the clips: The accounts of those who remember consist of the received memories of the sufferings of two Tamil families, and the reflections of two non-Tamil youth. Forgetting happens in many stages. One response references the violence but is unsure of the event, while another mixes it up with the JVP insurrection. A few say that they do not know of Black July at all.]

All this forced me to reflect on my own background.

I had known very little about Black July till, in my late teens, I read Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. I was horrified by both what I learnt, and my own ignorance of these events. Of course, our history books do not cover it as they conveniently end at 1948. However, it had not really been spoken of at home either. In contrast, I had heard many a gruesome tale from the times of  ‘JVP troubles’ of 1971 and 1987. (It is worth noting that quite a few of the Sinhalese respondents believed that 1983 was also a JVP insurrection.) My family was neither involved in nor was closely affected by either of these two events. Yet we remembered one and not the other. Of course the argument can be made that the JVP insurrections were more widespread, or that 1987-89 was closer to my time than 1983. However, I believe that this disparity is due to a matter of ethnicity.

Those that look to the future of our country, call for progress, speak of moving on, and above all emphasise a Sri Lankan identity. ‘We are all Sri Lankan’. Though this is absolutely true, this does not make us all the same. One of the key divisions that exist is along ethnic lines. We cannot let ourselves believe that any Sri Lankan yet living has ever really escaped the paradigm of ethnicity. Depending on the communities we grow up in, the languages we speak, the religions we practice and the festivals we celebrate, our notions of identity become intrinsically linked to ethnicity. A key aspect of this is what I shall call our communal histories. These are the oral narratives, the tales of our origins, our family histories, the memories that are passed down, the jokes that are cracked, and of course our present experiences. This all comes to form what we remember and forget, concerning our lives and the life of our community.

There are many histories of the island. But given the moment at hand let us look at Tamil and Sinhala narratives of history. The Sinhala kings from the Anuradhapura to the Kotte period, and the Tamil kings of the Jaffna Kingdom, play their part in these separate histories. But these diverging narratives are not merely derived from the distant past, but depend more on the recent and present experiences that actively shape communal histories. And acts of violence cause deep divisions in these histories. Due to the events of Black July, where the violence was deeply embedded in ethnic identities and ideologies, radically different communal narratives emerged. The experiences of that fateful period were decided principally by one’s ethnicity. And so Tamil narratives of the period naturally differ widely from those of the Singhalese. Through thirty years of war, ethnic conflict, racially charged rhetoric and widespread militarisation, one can only assume that the divide between these groups of narratives has only widened. How can we deny that the experiences of living in Sri Lanka, over the last fifty years, have been decidedly different for Tamils and Sinhalese?

These communal narratives are among key foundations of our notions of ‘Sinhala-ness’ and ‘Tamil-ness’. They influence the way we view our communities place on this island: as the sole owners of a home, as equal partners, complete outsiders, or whatever else it may be. We can only transcend narrow communal interests to forge a Sri Lankan identity, by understanding the narratives of other communities. A crucial aspect of this is that, it is only through confronting the alternate narratives can each community fully reflect on itself.

Black July taught me several things. One, that ethnic cleansing does not exist only in the strong-room of history, in distant Germany, or the Punjab.  Two, that even after thirty years the wounds of 1983 remain tender. Hence, hoping that the lacerations left behind by a thirty-year will fast slip into history, so that we can move on, is a pretty delusion.  And also, that I am Singhalese. I speak the language, I am set in its cultures, and I grew up enmeshed in its rhetoric. From my experience, for those who speak from podiums and sermonise from chairs, being Sinhalese, involves being the ‘oldest’ and largest ethnic group on the island, of it having warded off the foreign ‘other,’ and possessing particular traits such as resilience, courage etc. However, when I read personal narratives of the Tamils who lived through Black July, I saw the other side of ‘Sinhala-ness.’ How it can easily unleash horrendous violence. Though the heroism of those Singhalese who defended their Tamil comrades does shine through, I cannot ignore the fact that this violence sprung from Singhalese notions of identity and entitlement. If I accept the acts of Sinhalese heroism, then I must also accept the acts of Sinhalese violence. After thirty-years of war, I believe that, along with courage, hospitality and kindness, a propensity for violence towards the ‘other,’ lies at the heart of ‘Sinhala-ness.’ If ‘never again’ is to be anything more than a futile dream, I must accept it. If not the spectre of hate could all too easily slip in to our homes and hearts. And given the recent rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments lead by the likes of the BBS, that spectre is still very much amongst us.

None of us can just shed our ethnic identities and don a Sri Lankan identity. The decades of violence created chasms that divide our communal narratives. Understanding the narrative of the other is the key to reconciliation, in that it is both an exercise in empathy and repentance, but also in that it is the narratives of the ‘other,’ which show us the faults within our own narratives and ideologies.

July of 1983 is as important a day for a Singhalese as it is for a Tamil.  The events of that year, and how deal with it, can teach us far more about ourselves than any victory parade or origins myth. If ‘never again’ is to be anything more than fleeting hopes, we must all remember, think and see our reflections in the carnivorous smoke that blotted the Sri Lankan sky, that fateful July in 1983.