Colombo Telegraph

Antecedents Of July 1983 & The Foundations Of Impunity

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” – W.B. Yeats, from the Second Coming

Humiliation and Rebellion

In the last chapter we referred to the authoritarian impulse of Southern leaders and the ruling class in general. The party in power could handle the Southern opposition by using agents or party toughs. But the North- East was not amenable to such methods of control. As Southern leaders proceeded to exacerbate the ethnic problem from 1956, they became more nervous about the North-East slipping out of their control. In these circumstances, there was a strong temptation to suspend the Law and send in the hoodlums, in the futile hope that it would work. Such methods have been used by nearly all governments against trade union action in the South. The Sinhalese working class could of course hope for redress from a future government it would help to elect. But with a minority which was beginning to feel that the whole system was against them, these methods set off a reaction that was in its turn totalitarian and intolerant.

Take the incident early in S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s government of 1956 where thugs of the ruling party set upon Tamil leaders protesting on Galle Face Green near the Parliament, assaulted them and subjected some of them to grievous humiliation. In the process the assailants stripped Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan, one of the three founding leaders of the Federal

Party, forcing him to run into Galle Face Hotel. The Police stayed away under instructions or were too demoralised to intervene. If this had been done to strikers or to the opposition in a rural Sinhalese area, the harm would have been minimal. But when done to the leaders of an electoral minority, it amounted to a collective insult. This in turn led to a closing of ranks among Tamil nationalists and, among the Tamils, violent sentiments and intolerance of dissent, with the ready evocation of the term ‘Traitor’. A potent element in the collective experience of Tamils is a deep sense of humiliation proceeding from the culture of the State. Those who have felt its cutting edge opine that it has played a greater role in the course of Tamil politics than the demand for rights.

Even a man of such mild temperament as the Federal Party leader, Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, was moved to say privately, “A handful of cow dung thrown on Bandaranaike’s back would do far more good than volumes of reasoned argument”. That was a good 20 years before Tamil militant violence came to be seen as a problem.

Tarzie Vittachi’s book Emergency ‘58 traces the violence of 1956 and ’58 to be the work of political gangs, often zealots charged by the rhetoric of the ruling party. In the Preface he refers to Gandhi:

“At the risk of losing the monumental support of the anti-Muslim Congress sympathizers, Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘ No cabinet worthy of being representative of a large mass of mankind can afford to take any step merely because it is likely to win the hasty applause of an unthinking public. In the midst of insanity, should not our best representatives retain sanity and bravely prevent a wreck of the ship of state under their care?’

“ Can anyone doubt that if this glorious principle of statesmanship had been applied to Ceylon, the blood bath of 1958, could have been avoided?”

The book contains at the end a verbatim record of a secret discussion held at the Police HQ in mid-June 1958, to do a post-mortem on the ineffectiveness of the Police during the violence, with the Army having to be called in almost everywhere to restore order. The discussion took place around a list of questions prepared by C.C. Dissanayaka, D.I.G. Range One. Among the key questions posed were whether the ineffectiveness resulted from wobbly leadership and whether the Police were splitting up into racial, religious or other groups?

It was pointed out that the Police had the same equipment as the Army and greater manpower, but it was the Army which was called out after the declaration of emergency, that proved effective.

With regard to political interference S.G. de Zoysa, D.I.G. Range Two, put in some brave words: “In regard to orders by the Prime Minister, he said that if they were in conflict with fundamental principles of the Police, the Service should stand together and resolutely oppose them, and there was nothing for the officers to fear. He agreed with the I.G. (S.W.O. de Silva) that officers should not attach too much importance to events such as the transfer of an officer, appointment of a Commission, etc.” As to who was behind the violence S.A. Dissanayaka, D.I.G., C.I.D., declined to give an opinion, thus indicating who the main culprits were.

A generation later, in 1983, the Police Force had by then far gone past the point of questioning itself about its failure to avert a major national catastrophe and then to restore order, in the event of one. The Police had by then become servants of politicians whose lack of restraint knew no bounds – a hint of which prospect is contained in the discussion quoted above. The Army too proved equally ineffective in the violence of July 1983.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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