25 May, 2024


Crime And Atonement

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Dr. Charles Sarvan

I was sent an article titled ‘The Ratline’ on the escape route (mostly to South America) senior Nazis had set up to evade justice. The actions of the Nazis constitute one of the most appalling chapters in human history. We shake our heads in horror at it, and struggle to understand how and why it came about. However, as the following personal incident, taken from my Bits & Pieces shows, people can be formed; can be ‘deformed’ and then formed again. I titled the vignette ‘Political culture; social climate’:

“Driving higher up in the mountains on the afternoon of the 13th March 2015, the car got stuck in the snow. It was a deserted place at the start of woods but we found a man who willingly went away and came back a while later with shovel and wooden planks to help out, but to no avail. Then a couple turned up; later, a woman walking her dog. The snow cleared by the shovels as much as we could; planks in place, I started the car while the others pushed but it was stuck too deep. (An old man with a heart condition, I felt bad watching them trying to sort out my problem while what I could contribute was minimal.) Fortunately, yet another man turned up: someone in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, with the necessary equipment – and with the knowledge of how to deal with such a situation. Within minutes the car was freed. The whole incident took something close to two hours, and help was given as a matter-of-course, natural, almost to be taken for granted.

But by chance, in the morning I had read an incident in a Holocaust-survival memoir, Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. (‘Untergetaucht: Eine junge Frau überlebt in Berlin 1940-1945’.) One day, eighteen-year old Marie stood despairing on a bridge looking down at the water. A woman approached her, but then saw the yellow ‘Star of David’ which Jews were then forced to wear, and said contemptuously: “Well, go on, do it.” That woman was a German; yet, years later, there was I, a black man, helped by Germans as if I were German myself. (Sri Lankan Jesuit priest, Paul Caspersz, observes that the Sinhalese are by nature one of the friendliest people in the world but they can be easily whipped up into hatred: See, Sarvan, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, chapter titled ‘Paul Caspersz: Jesuit socialist’.)

Some realizations, even if banal, renew themselves. Germany or Sri Lanka, the little misadventure showed me yet again how malleable individual and group human-nature is; how circumstances can turn us to remarkable kindness or drive us to gross cruelty. It’s all a matter of a certain historical time; of a particular political culture, and a specific social climate. The German example shows that positive change is realizable.”

As Neil MacGregor writes (A History of the World in 100 Objects, Penguin Books, page 172) rulers can change the way a people think and feel. Though a digression, Sri Lankan readers will be interested in this comment of his (pages 225-226): “The religions that survive today are the ones that were spread and sustained by trade and power. It’s profoundly paradoxical: Buddhism, the religion founded by an ascetic who spurned all comfort and riches, flourished thanks to the international trade in luxury goods. With those valuable commodities, like silk, went the monks and missionaries”.  (If I may be permitted a digression within a digression, one sometimes sees in the windows of obscenely expensive shops representations of the Buddha or of Che Guevara. O tempora O mores indeed.) Somewhat similarly, Christianity spread because a Roman emperor became a convert. Centuries later, the English language became the world’s lingua franca because of the British Empire, the most extensive the world has ever seen.

Neil MacGregor in his Germany: Memories of a Nation observes that in the centre of Berlin one keeps coming across monuments to national shame. “I think that is unique in the world.”  Indeed, close to the world-famous Brandenburg Gate there’s an extensive Holocaust memorial. It’s on ‘prime property’ gifted by the state. Germany has paid billions in compensation and, wherever possible, has restored looted property.  Then there’s the well-known Warschauer Kniefall when Willy Brandt as Chancellor of Germany went down on both knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial (7 December 1970) in a confession of collective guilt and as a gesture of penitence. Brandt hadn’t been a Nazi.  On the contrary, born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm, he was a left-wing journalist who fled to Norway and then Sweden, adopting the name Brandt to avoid detection and capture by the Nazis. While Britain ignores the exploitation and cruelty of its imperial past, Germany confronts it regrets MacGregor who adds that Japan too has failed to search its collective conscience. One may add that the world, unlike with Germany’s past, largely ignores Japan’s atrocities because they were perpetrated mostly against Asian folk.

T S Eliot writes in one his poems, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” We view the distant in order to better understand the near; we study the foreign in order to better know the native. “Blessed” Sri Lanka has not apologised for the succession of anti-Tamil riots, culminating in the horrific pogrom of July 1983. There are many incidents known and related but it’s best to turn to foreigners, for example, to Shiva Naipaul, the brother of V S Naipaul and his posthumous An Unfinished Journey. I quote from page 113: Of two Tamil sisters, aged about eleven and eighteen, the younger one had her head chopped off, the elder one is stripped naked, and when “there were no more volunteers, when there was nothing worth the violating, petrol was poured over the two bodies”, and they were set alight. There has been no inquiry; no expression of regret, far less compensation and restitution. Then there are the last days of the war when thousands and thousands of trapped children, women and men, the old and the handicapped, pitifully crazed with terror were pitilessly slaughtered, some having first been humiliated and worse, all crying out futilely to God or the gods. “Their moans / The valleys redoubled to the hills, and they / To Heaven“: Milton, ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont‘. (“Late” is in its earlier meaning of “Recent”). Posthumous restitution is an impossibility because the dead are dead but an apology will make less sore the souls of the grieving living.

An apology is an expression of regret. It follows that where there’s no regret, there’s no apology. In Sri Lanka, the vast majority do not regret the actions carried out in the name of their race and religion. What holds sway is vicious and virulent ethnoreligious nationalism. The majority cannot hide behind the proverbial fig-leaf of a minority. “It’s a few who are barbarous, cruel and sadistic. We, the majority, are decent; true Buddhists who try not to trample on an ant”. But this fondly invoked minority cannot enjoy the impunity and immunity it does unless the majority were, at best, indifferent; at worst, supported and connived at the doings of their minority. Under the electoral system, the majority cannot exculpate itself. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, if in a situation of oppression you remain silent, then you have in effect taken the side of the oppressors.

Yet another ploy is to point to the atrocities committed by the Tigers. (Among their victims were fellow Tamils but these are omitted in the reckoning: they don’t count.) The argument is that the actions of “the people’s armed forces” are but retaliatory: deserved and salutary; exemplary and above all, cautionary. But as I have written elsewhere, one cruelty does not cancel out another cruelty. No, the world is left with two atrocities – and all the more a sadder place for it. 

The word ‘commensurate’ is defined as ‘corresponding in size or degree; in proportion’. Jesus in the New Testament rejects the proportionality of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” but Israeli actions against the Palestinians go back to the Old Testament -and worse. It’s not an eye for an eye but an eye for a tooth! So it seems to be in ‘the Paradise Isle’, and the appalling lack of commensuration. But as a popular phrase has it, La esperanza muere la última (Hope dies last), and one returns to the first paragraphs above. But one must not merely hope for but work towards positive change, and the bringing about of a decent and humane, fair and just society.

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  • 5

    Sarvan’s standpoint is one with which we do not necessarily agree: “We view the distant in order to better understand the near; we study the foreign in order to better know the native.” From here he moves on to Shiva Naipaul whom he had met (http://www.confluence.mobi/2016/08/recollecting-shiva-naipaul-in-africa-and-sri-lanka/) and to his impressions of our July 1983 and the incident of the two sisters. Naipaul says of the indignation he felt: “Their blood-lust was, in effect, regulated by the bureaucratic endeavours of the Civil Service. Before the axes could be wielded, before the petrol bombs could be thrown, before the pillaging could begin, a little paperwork was necessary.” As people living here we tend to rely on our own judgments and what is written by outsiders does not often meet our needs.
    I agree that what holds sway is ‘vicious and virulent ethno-religious nationalism.’ Not only among Sinhalese, but also among Tamils, to our great ruin and despair. It is not all dark and hopeless among the Sinhalese. In writing my Arrogance of Power, I discussed July 1983 with several officers of the security forces, whom I felt were quite decent and humane. As for the civil service I spoke to Bradman Weerakoon, who by far was not a killer.
    But as writers who are not foreign, we also lived through another reality. People were kidnapped in the night, taken, tortured and killed by their liberators, the despair of parents and their children conscripted for a war they did not want to be part of. Worst of all our community leaders are trapped into a game of glorifying these criminals and the LTTE as having fought for us until their last breath. The glory of the Tamil elite is the glory of vicarious suicide.

    • 6

      “People were kidnapped in the night, taken, tortured and killed by their liberators…”
      I suppose that would include the IPKF.
      Even the SLAF claimed to liberate the Tamils during the “War for Peace” and “Humanitarian Operation”.
      It is not individual decency that matters in mass crimes. Being decent and wanting to save one’s job can lead to worse results than from being plain brutal.
      Neither JRJ nor CBK nor Mahinda R was any more a killer than Bradman W.

  • 3

    Part 1

    Let me deal with some of your off the cuff remarks.
    1) I agree that what holds sway is ‘vicious and virulent ethno-religious nationalism.’ Not only among Sinhalese,
    *** Frankly I dont think you understand the meaning of Nationalism which is
    identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.
    Sinhalese have a Nation so they can exercise Nationalism.
    2) but also among Tamils, to our great ruin and despair.
    *** Can you tell me the name of our Nation which we hold sway
    3) It is not all dark and hopeless among the Sinhalese.
    *** It will soon be with the Economic Devastation and with Gotha having no Friends starvation is on the horizon.

  • 3

    Part 2

    4) People were kidnapped in the night, taken, tortured and killed by their liberators, the despair of parents and their children conscripted for a war they did not want to be part of.
    *** Are you telling me it is better to die in the hands of the Dreaded Enemy than die for a cause with at least light at the end of the tunnel
    5) Worst of all our community leaders are trapped into a game of glorifying these criminals and the LTTE as having fought for us until their last breath. The glory of the Tamil elite is the glory of vicarious suicide.
    *** I see you will rather be happy to let you sons and daughters be picked up in Gothas white vans never to be seen again. GLORY DAYS.

    • 6

      “a cause with at least light at the end of the tunnel”
      I fear that the light that many imagined went off long before people were plunged into absolute darkness in Mullivaikkaal.

      • 3


        Mullivaikaal has come back to haunt Sinkala Lanka. Let is look at the evidence.

        1) 6.6 Million born Racists voted Gotha in
        2) The World ignired him and humiliated him
        3) State Department declared him a Criminal and the Clifornian Judge allowed Ahimsas appeal and said he can be prosecuted after his as President ends. He is on DEATH ROW.
        4) He trie every which way to beg for money. First India gave him £400 million.
        5) USA gave him $1 million
        6) Japan promised a few hundred million and then pulled oit.
        7) China was prepaded to lenr £2000 Million but wanted large pats to be leeased out. India ordered Gotha to refuse it and cancelled his trip Beiging
        8) Finally IMF has said they will wait for the Election Results

        Gotha to win election promised to pay a few million families Rs 5000 for may costing Rs 23, 000 million but kitty is empty.

        Hunger awaits and you can eat Racism which in readly available

        • 2

          None of this concerns my two comments above.
          There are people around who like to believe everything that you seem to believe.
          Good luck.

          • 2


            None of this concerns my two comments above.

            This is Sri Lankas problem. You all are like ostrich. Head buried in the sand and not knowing what is around. For me Sri Lanka under Gotha and Bunch of Criminals should be grazed to the Ground and anything left ( if any ) rebuilt withou th Born Racists. Nothing else will do.

          • 3


            Mujibur – Maligawatte tragedy happened because of poverty
            By Arjuna Ranawana | Saturday May 23, 2020 20:00:07

            STAMPEDE DEATHS – Police Scene of Crime officers on Juma Masjid in Maligawatte in Colombo after three people died in a stampede where a businessman was distributing cash for Eid/Twitter
            ECONOMYNEXT – The deaths of three elderly women caused by a stampede during an aid distribution event on Thursday in Colombo central is a “tragedy that happened due to extreme poverty,” former Member of Parliament Mujibur Rahman said.

            *** You might not care but this is what Sri Lanka isfacing under your lover Gotha

  • 2

    An apology is an expression of regret. Moreover, it is an acceptance of guilt. The vast majority were indifferent. Even when they accept, they blame the minority among them . The majority deceives their conscience and moves on.

    Majority and minority in different context!

    Majority within minority. Both Sinhalese and Tamils equally play this game and come out as pious, decent, devote and harmless Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Muslims.

    Are atheists better?

    • 3

      There are several categories of atheists.
      There are the pure materialistic rationalists who reject all faiths.
      There are the Marxists.
      There are right wing atheists, and so on.
      One thing almost common to all is that they do not attack any community based on its faith.

  • 2

    Thanks, Professor Sarvan, for reminding us how short we fall of what we ought to be. I wonder if SJ is aware that Shiva Naipaul spent a day in Peradeniya in 1985. Qadri Ismail had met him in Colombo and brought him to the English Department, from whence Professor Haple had the inspired thought of taking him (I think that Naipaul’swife was also there), to the Botanical Gardens, and we sat on the ground and had a chat. Not more than twenty students, and I got singled out, somehow, as being the only fellow who was not from Colombo. That was pleasant, but later, in the evening Professor Halpe had found him a pain.
    Yes, Naipaul was obviously hunting for material. Not long after we knew of his death. It was his brother’s work that I studied in some depth.
    I read this three days ago, but didn’t dare comment, because as a Sinhalese I’m painfully conscious of how little we have done to bring about reconcilliation. It is good that we have been reminded of this.

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