5 March, 2024

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1983: It Haunts Us Still!

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The historical memories of 1915, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 have far outlived their experiences and their victims. 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, 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.

July 1983

1983 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 Thirteenth 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.  

July 1983

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. 

The crimes of July 1983 | pic by Chandraguptha Amarasingha

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 the 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 rather 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 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. The only parliamentary follow to Black July was the notorious Sixth Amendment. Forty years on, there are no signs that anything will change any time soon.   

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Latest comments

  • 11
    6

    It is proven once again that RW is a successful Sinhala politician in dividing the Tamil militants and Tamil Politicians. He divided ltte bribing Karuna during peace talks. Now he divided Tamil politicians using wigneswaran using another peace talk on 13 amendments

    • 6
      1

      Crafty, as it ever wishfully is.

  • 15
    2

    RW and his Sinhala Buddhist nation are not prepared to give a solution Tamils. It’s just not RW. Every other SB leader did it. They are simply don’t want to do it. The only solution in their mind is “The final solution”. Like Hitler did it to Jews, JRJ tried it first in 1983 then MR/GR succeeded up to a certain level in 2008/2009.
    SBs are not willing to give a solution, India doesn’t want to talk about devolution, International community is too busy in fighting for a place in the bed with SL, Tamil political leaders are busy with infighting. But, SBs are busy in land grabbing, Sinhalisation and occupation in ever shrinking Tamil homeland.
    Where do Tamils go now? Something got to give.

    • 8
      2

      Anton,
      Since 2009,Tamils of this island are very weak community politically, militarily, economically, and geographically. The west played double game helping one side of Sinhala Sri Lanka to defeat LTTE and put Sri Lanka on war crimes. Similarly used LTTE to strenghten Militarily to fight Sri Lanka and then helped Sri Lanka to defeat its control Sri Lanka. China used other side of Sinhala group to create fear against India and West. Finally Tamils and Sinhalese have lost Sri Lanka to the neighbours and West. However, there is no escape route to Sri Lanka from economic crisis. At this point, Sinhala politics will use all tactics to show that they are ready to give something to Tamils to attract Tamil investment. Ranil will use the divided Tamil politicians to bribe and it looks like now Wigneswaran has fallen into the trap and he started to blame TNA. This is enough for Ranil to show that Sinhalese are prepared to devolve power but Tamils are still wants a separate country even though TNA said they are not against to 13th amendment but that is not the solution for the problem. Tamil people in this island should now take a decision to send a message to Tamil politicians that we don’t need you unless you come together under one common goal.

      • 2
        11

        I read Ajijth’s comments above thrice but failed to figure out what he is saying. I have a problem with language that is muddled. I try to untangle statements that are inaccurate and misleading. But in this instance I fail. Would help if commentators sharpen their skills, especially in thinking, reasoning and writing. Also I recommend they stay away from substances that can muddle the brain when writing. Then you must end up writing nonsense.

    • 9
      0

      Anton, you are absolutely right. SB prefers starvation to sharing power. No SB politics/ politician / party / had any intentions whatsoever to share power. What started as planned ethnic cleansing was soon hijacked by family kleptocracy leading to bankruptcy after 75 years of InDependence. Initially they went after Tamils culminating in 83 pogrom, making Lanka a living hell for them. Tamil rebellion was an unexpected turn in their plan. After 30 years of civil war’ SB turned against Muslims regardless of their denial and enabling politics. Signs are next will be the Christians . . . .followed by . . . . . . . ?????? Tamils were simply naive for years and finally when they realized, it was their own “ego power struggle” , that let them down. Whereas Muslims, without any strategy, is now left at the mercy of others. None seem to have learned a thing other than continuing merrily with their past mistakes.

  • 4
    2

    1983: It Haunts Us Still

    All some are writing the books about Easter attacks and 1983 July Riots, where is intelligent and the country armed forces that should stop all theses riorts. Riots born out of political issues aren’t the same as those born out of personal greed .COP means Caretaker of People. Where is this.

  • 16
    2

    Our nation treats its citizens not as individuals, but as members of racial, ethnic or religious communities. Entitlement to privileges and benefits are accordingly assigned. Such primitive attitudes must change if we are to progress into the 21st century.

    • 5
      4

      Sarath
      Treatment as individuals does happen, like when the individual has power, money, popularity and influence.
      Even among a supposedly favoured group, the vast majority are not the beneficiaries.

      • 6
        1

        Hello Sarath, SJ,

        Lakshman Kadirgamar became very popular with the Sinhalese. But see what Mrs. Sarojini Kadirgamar, the wife of the elder brother of LK, told the iam.lk project about how she handled Black July 1983.

  • 15
    4

    As I have already stated many times Indians will never want any devolution for the island’s Tamils, as most of the Indian elite are very anti Tamil and they fear them. They cannot do much harm to the Tamil people in Tamil Nadu so are aiding and abetting the Sinhalese overtly and covertly to commit structural genocide on the island’s Tamils. They used the Sri Lankan Tamils and the horror and human rights abuses at the hands of the Sri Lankan state to interfere into the island’s affairs, not only create the LTTE but other groups as well so that they can control them, when they infight with each other. They did not calculate that the LTTE will decimate all other groups that were still loyal to India and doing their bidding, and ultimately Pirapkaran saw through India’s game and never trusted them, especially after what the IPKS arrived. He may have made many other mistakes and strategic mistakes, but he was right in this. Once they India and the Indians achieved what they wanted they dopped the Tamils and will soon drop sec 13A as long as they can control the entire island. It was they who were largely responsible for what happened in May 2009. Sonia and her acolytes wanted revenge on the LTTE and did not care what happened to Tamil civilians and the aftermath. Very short sighted and racist, after all they are Tamils. They are still shielding the racist Sinhalese Buddhist state and giving lots of support economically politically, logistically and not asking any questions.

    • 11
      4

      Modi and the BJP cry and make a hue and cry about small minor newly built Hindu temples destroyed and vandalized in various parts of the west, but have they raised any concern about the deliberate destruction and vandalization of many ancient Saivite temples in the north and east by the Sri Lankan state and Buddhist fundamentalists and the armed forces and their forcible conversion to Buddhist sites, using fake history. The answer is no, not only India but many other western nations too. They are all well aware of what is happening and for their own selfish short sighted strategic reason are deliberately downplaying and denying what is happening to the island’s Tamils and do not want to call it a genocide. It is because of this silence and silent support given to the Sinhalese Sri Lankan state by many nations and even the UN not questioning its war crimes other than shedding some crocodile tears annually at the UN, that many other nations have become emboldened and think now they also can get away with war crimes, large scale human rights abuses and genocide. If Sri Lanka can get away with this and still continue to do without any repercussions, why not them. So get Myanmar and the Rohingya crises the Russian invasion.

      • 12
        3

        If India really wants it can force the Sri Lankan to implement sec 13A with land and police rights for the merged northern and eastern Tamil province and provide a long-lasting federal solution, but it will never. Or a solution to the fishermen of southern Tamil Nadu who were heavily hit when Indira Gandhi decided to gift Kathachteevu to the Sri Lankan state, without consulting the Indian parliament, the people and state of Tamil Nadu, as if it was her own personal dowry property to gift it. However, India never will as it is most probably very happy and content over what is happening to the island’s Tamils, something they cannot and will never dare to their own Tamils, however much they wish to. Also, the just rights of the island’s Tamils will always take a back seat when it is in competition with the business, economic and wealth of many north and other Indian entrepreneurs and businessmen, especially of BJP supporting fellow Gujaratis. This my view and opinion and not anyone else’s.

        • 4
          8

          “If India really wants it can force the Sri Lankan to implement sec 13A with land and police rights”
          There is a big IF in bold capitals and very large font.
          Why should it? It still has the people here who could be taken for a ride before and after they are let down.
          Even if it wants to, it may not be able to, if it resorts certain aggressive methods. Its later day partners themselves will undermine it.

    • 7
      10

      “…most of the Indian elite are very anti Tamil and they fear them”
      That they hate, I will accept. That they fear, we are kidding ourselves.
      *
      We should ask ourselves why we are hated and why we imagine that we are feared.
      Kindly do not say because we are oldest, purest, greatest etc. etc.

      • 10
        6

        With Self-hating Thamizh like you, who constantly comes here to undermine, nitpick and poke fun of most Thamizh people’s comments here, always constantly fawning to Chingkalla peoples and fake Arab South Indian Thamizh origin immigrant Sri Lankan Moors or Muslims, why do we need India or others to complete the job. Yes, you are correct. So pathetic. Constantly trolling here to find fault with most Thamizh here so you can find favour with the Chingkallams and Thullukans

        • 2
          8

          So the truth hurts the baby pig badly once more!

      • 11
        2

        Why don’t you ask them why instead of me? Most probably feeling of insecurity, inferiority or just hatred and revenge that Tamil Nadu rejected Hindi and still thrived. Whereas the Hindi belt in India is the poorest and least developed. Or may be for other reasons or a mixture of all these but it is there and we can see the result. You coming here and making snide comments is not going to change this. Yes, the fear is not physical but has of what will happen if a separate federal Tamil state in Sri Lanka becomes a reality and if this unit thrives economically and politically, its implications to India via Tamil Nadu.

        • 8
          3

          An unfounded fear brought on by hatred and insecurity thinking that is Tamils thrive, especially in Sri Lanka it is a danger to India and Indian unity, so they must be destroyed. Bull shit. The creation of Bangladesh did not create any separatist tendencies in west Bengal and similarly the creation of Eelam or a federal Tamil unit within the island is not going to create any waves in Tamil Nadu, as the population of Tamil Nadu are very happy to be part of the Indian union and the Sri Lankan or Eelam Tamils and Indian Tamils have long become two separate identities and people, despite sharing a common language culture and religion. This has been for over a thousand years. The Nazis hated and feared the Jews, the fear was not physical but for political and economic reasons, so did the Jews deserve what happened to them or that fear was justified or the Jewish people had to justify this hatred and bigotry that brought on this fear? Please do not ask stupid questions. Where have I ever stated that we are the oldest, purest of greatest? Trying to be nasty and make suggestions?

        • 2
          7

          Why should I ask you?
          I asked for a truthful answer.

          • 5
            0

            You do not search for truth or truthful answers but looking for mischief and answers that create chaos on which you can thrive

  • 6
    9

    “The historical memories of 1915, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 have far outlived their experiences and their victims.”
    Memory of any experience will outlive the experience unless people forget the event even before it happens. Outliving the victims is of course valid and important.
    Rajan, you are usually careful about your wording.

  • 1
    13

    So called Tamils are still milking the “83 Black July cash cow”.
    /
    Several 100 thousand Tamils have migrated to RICH countries as bogus refugees, cheated welfare systems, produced several dollar multi millionaires and billionaires, all thanks to Tamils started black July.
    /
    13 amendment is illegal. It has violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
    /
    If India is genuinely concerned about Tamils in SriLanka, then they must cede Tamil Nadu to Tamils. Sri Lanka must not be a dump yard for India’s unwanted Tamils.

  • 7
    1

    1983 was not a genocide, it was State Terrorism. The Government of the day organized thugs with voters list to attack Tamil homes. In this government, a key member was Ranil Wickremasinghe. Even today Ranil is following the same tactics against those who are protesting peacefully. Once the thug is always a thug.

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