Photo courtesy of The Morning
I was a PhD student in London when the carnage of July 1983 erupted and thank God for the bravery and foresight of my mother and sister, my family was saved from the electoral register and sword wielding drunken mob that descended on the only Tamil household in the immediate neighbourhood. Now, 37 years and a bloody war of almost three decades later, the question arises as to whether the goals and aspirations of the main protagonists in that atrocity have been fulfilled or abandoned or indeed metamorphosed into something more sensible, feasible and attainable.
The LTTE has been militarily defeated and despite the hopes and fears of some, does not seem likely to reappear unless of course the government in Colombo – helped in no small measure by elements in the diaspora – nurtures and expedites its return through callousness and abundance of extremism. Tamil nationalism was and is, in many senses, a reaction to the excesses of the majority community and its insistence of establishing pre-eminence over all others in word and deed. I do not believe that at any point in time there was a majority of the Tamil community in favour of secession. Federalism was the furthest they went and will go. As far as the LTTE was concerned, they were in effect treated as bodyguards, as long as such were needed against the Sri Lankan state, and not desired as rulers. Therefore at the end of a war in which old men inherited and in which young men died, the political settlement remains. It is as elusive as ever. Cyril Matthew of yore has been replaced by the Venerable Gnanasara and J.R. Jayewardene by Gothabaya. Neither of them believe, indeed give any credence to the idea of Sri Lanka built on the notion of Unity in Diversity, of a Sri Lanka that is and has always been multi ethnic and religious in character and that this is to be cherished and celebrated and our political architecture built upon it.
In this respect, 37 years after the savagery of July 1983 and the war, we are inching closer in deed towards the majoritarian and authoritarian polity and society that some of us always feared the majority/minority dichotomy would invariably spawn. At risk are the two constitutional amendments that are meant to facilitate ethnic harmony and peace; democratic government and governance.
In the calls for jettisoning the Thirteenth Amendment, there is no suggestion of its replacement by greater and more meaningful devolution. True, in the Thirteenth Amendment, even if implemented in full in respect of land and police powers, the balance of powers is heavily weighted in favour of the Centre. Moreover, the Northern Provincial Council, elected in 2013 has not left a good account of it in operation, having sent back to the Centre a substantial proportion of the funds it was allocated. Perhaps, since the repetitive chorus of all Sri Lankan governments, culminating in the Rajapaksa Thirteenth Amendment Plus promise of a political settlement, is to go much further, Tamil political representation has played the game of joining in the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment only to show that if implementable it is woefully inadequate. What is required here is not an amendment god fathered by an external power but the firm and solid conviction of those who have to operate it to make it durable, substantive and meaningful. Devolution stands and falls on the conviction, held within the Sri Lankan polity, of its virtue and necessity.
And this is where the Nineteenth Amendment is of particular importance as the amendment that operates as a check and balance on the exercise of executive power and authority. Devolution cannot work if there is an office of government that is so powerful that it can lay down the law to all others. It cannot operate with the overconcentration of power in any office. In this respect, although the Nineteenth Amendment came into being almost three decades after the Thirteenth, the idea upon which it is based creates the facilitating environment for the Thirteenth – the dispersal of power through the offices, institutions and processes of the constitution and the polity. This is precisely what is inimical to the current Rajapaksa regime, which thrives on the centralisation of power and an alternative network of Task Forces packed with the military mindset for control of government and governance.
And within this web of control and coercion, the promise of transitional justice that had its day for one brief shining moment in 2015/16 will be jettisoned or deliberately neglected. The walking out of the sponsorship of the resolution 30/1 in Geneva is one such example and the other more egregious in human terms is the pardon of Sunil Ratnayake for the Mirusuvil atrocity that, lest we forget, in true July 1983 style, involved the slitting of the throats of innocent children and ultimate presidential impunity, even if all the courts of the land including the Supreme Court thought otherwise. What is the legacy of the end of the war – the memory of the great humanitarian operation or the legacy of such gut wrenching impunity?
Looking back, July 1983 was the catalytic event in the contemporary era for the legal and political consolidation of the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony in our polity. Within the next two and a half decades the patriot/traitor divide is also consolidated in our political discourse and the presentation of the Sinhalese as a majority with a minority complex, besieged and on the defensive as the Western powers lined up to defeat and divide us, followed, nay, follows. Now, as the rest of the world has caught up with us and we with them, it is the Muslims who are the target. They will overpopulate to dominate and then turn us into an Islamic society, child brides and all. Let us not forget that it is only India and Sri Lanka that need to be converted in the otherwise crescent moon of states from Mecca to Jakarta. There will always be impediments and others to stand between the here and now and the great majoritarian revival.
A whole generation of our fellow citizens do not really know about July 1983; the anger, the pain, the bitterness and suffering it created. It will soon come to pass about the war and its end as well, not to mention the JVP insurgency of the late 1980s. Many forget; too few remember.
There is a general election campaign on amidst the pandemic. However, we will move out from under its thrall and face the tomorrows. Hopefully then, at least, there will be a critical mass or something approaching it amongst the polity that will realise that July 1983 was a backlash against the imperfectly realised but pivotally pertinent notion of a country based on the idea of Unity in Diversity that must not be extinguished. To do so would be turn ourselves into lemmings rather than leaders – a people tied down in the present by their perceptions of the past, their fear and loathing of the future.