Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

“The film has revealed a lot to me about people seated in power, people who are supposed to be above biases. These people are so frightened. I think one of the basest of all things is fear. Fear erodes the individual. Fear erodes the Nation, the spine of the Nation. People are frightened. The bureaucrat who’s frightened to take action – I can get angry with this kind of person for some days, but then I can also see there is some sort of shadow looming over his or her head that is preventing him or her from acting. I see dread in the eyes of people there in Delhi…

“But what tore me apart was not so much the violence in the street, but you know, ordinary, normal, sensitive people who for the first time revealed to me their naked faces. I saw glimpses up front here, in people I would have never even imagined and then I discovered where the power for that genocide came from. It came from the silent approval of the majority of the people.

“Hindus have for centuries put up with all kinds of diverse thoughts. This country has produced sages who have had deep introspection. But today’s version, Hindutva, is a gross violation. In Germany today, under law, it’s a crime to deny the existence of the holocaust. They’ve passed a law. And, here, you’re spending up to six years, saying that it never happened! Bombay December 1992-93 never happened? Such a denial is dangerous. It’s going to erupt in dangerous eruptions in so many ways…

“I saw a woman in burga, a baby in her arms, walking down the street carrying an Indian flag, a small paper flag as a kind of shield. It was so painful. I thought, why does a Muslim woman have to carry a flag to give evidence of being a nationalist? Why doesn’t a woman in sari or a bindi, why doesn’t she feel the need? Why does a burga clad woman need extra protection?

“I feel disgusted, I feel ashamed. For the first time people are openly talking about who is superior, a minority-less India. You know, youngsters, young Muslims clad in jeans, they have felt a sense of catharsis after seeing the film. Do you know what they have told me? ‘We enter a room and hear someone abusing a Muslim and pretend we have not heard it. That’s how alienated we feel… I am going to fight it out. Zakhm must reach the people. You know right out there where hatred is fermented. I want to reach it there. Zakhm is a cry for peace.”

– Mahesh Bhatt [Mahesh Bhatt is the director of the Hindi film Zakhm, an autobiographical tale featuring communal issues in India, a need for which he felt after the destruction by Hindu extremists of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya on 6th December 1992. This led to hysteria and countrywide violence against Muslims, which was particularly devastating in Bombay. The authorities were trying to obstruct the release of the film, which was timed for the 6th anniversary of the event. The extract is taken from an interview with Mahesh Bhatt in Communalism Combat, December 1998.]


From the time violence against Tamils had been unleashed on 24th July, it was as though the country’s grip on sanity had snapped. Things could never be the same again. The following recollection by ‘Prospero’ of Sarath Muttetuwegama arriving in Parliament on 5th August 1983 to make his lone dissent in the 6th Amendment debate appeared in the ‘Counterpoint’ of July 1993:

“There was little difference between Mr. Mathew and [the] MEP’s Dinesh Gunawardene. Therefore, in Parliament in the immediate aftermath of the incidents it was left to the CP’s courageous lone warrior, the late Sarath Muttetuwegama, to take on the Government single-handed. He had just been deprived of his Kalawana seat by the courts but had appealed and the brash competent authority Liyanage had announced that the MP would not be allowed to enter Parliament. This writer still remembers with tearful affection the sight of Sarath driving his battered little car alone on the deserted road to Parliament, with a mid-morning curfew on, to take part in that historic debate; the same car in which he crashed only two years after, depriving Sri Lanka of one of her most decent politicians.”

Mrs. Manouri Muttetuwegama recalls Dinesh Gunawardene telephoning her after the debate, with anxiety in his voice, to inquire if her husband returned home safe.

We have also encountered the Chief Magis- trate, Colombo, who after being told to conduct an inquest into the death of 35 detainees in Welikade prison stopped a visitor in a hurry to a cup of tea. He then ordered his servant to make sandwiches and began reflecting on drug abuse among youth. Underneath, the question trou- bling him was whether inquiry into even pre- meditated mass murder had been precluded by ER 15A.

During the month following the July vio- lence, JMO Colombo, Dr. M.S.L. Salgado re- ceived a telephone call from a very puzzled Minister of Health, Dr. Ranjith Attapattu, who was in Nuwara Eliya. The Minister said that President Jayewardene had wanted him sacked, but did not have a clue as to what it was all about. Salgado became alarmed. He thought it had to do with photographing the corpses of the prison victims. He immediately took a few of those shots, put them into different envelopes addressed to different persons, and within a few minutes had dropped them into a post box, giv- ing the recipients to understand that if anything happened to him, this was it.

Salgado later discovered that the cause of the alarm was most unusual. On a request from SSP Tyrell Gunatilleke he was visiting prison- ers from the Left with others taken into cus- tody allegedly over involvement in the July violence. Salgado had made a routine remark in the visiting doctor’s book about the mistreat- ment of one prisoner who was chained to a table and beaten. Instead of Gunatilleke, someone else had seen it and the report had gone up to the President who became alarmed. When san- ity dawned, the President made a joke of it, saying that Salgado had ordered brandy for a prisoner (which he is authorised to do) and the matter was forgotten.

Jayewardene was shaken by the events. What he had started, he was beginning to believe was an uprising of the Sinhalese people against him. Bradman Weerakoon told him some appalling sights that he had witnessed. Jayewardene sig- nalled him to stop. Weerakoon said that by then Jayewardene was very much aware that the world was seeing him as a murderer, and that upset him very much. Weerakoon recalls a simi- lar experience with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike dur- ing the 1958 violence when he told him about Tamils being tied to trees and burnt. He further told Jayewardene that if his forces could not stop this, he should consider getting foreign troops to restore order. Jayewardene replied that it would lead to other complications. Jayewardene was desperately looking for some rationalisation of his position. One day he told Weerakoon, “When there is a gale it carries away everything in its path. The bamboo bends to the gale, but does not break. When the gale is past, it stands erect.” Per- haps he did not want to know whose gale it was that was unloosed.


The main opposition party, the SLFP, ap- peared to be too devoid of both intelli- gence and convictions to grasp the gity of the perils facing the country. It was ready to ride every populist horse that came its way in a game of having the cake and eating it. In contributing to the 6th Amendment debate the SLFP’s Lakshman Jayakody wanted a further amendment charging anyone advocating sepa- ration with treason. The proposed civic disabili- ties, he said, were not sufficient and that stern action was the need of the day.

It took the SLFP until 12th August to meet and discuss the situation under the chairmanship of Mrs. Bandaranaike. Its General Secretary Ratnasiri Wickremanayake then issued a most wishy-washy statement. While avoiding men- tioning Tamils as the victims of the violence, it told ‘Tamil extremists’ what they should do:

“The [SLFP] Central Committee expressed deep concern over the deteriorating communal relations as well as the unprecedented damage caused to per- sons and property by which a large number suffered. While firmly upholding the unitary status and terri- torial integrity of Lanka, the Central Committee ex- pressed disappointment that the UNP government failed to take effective and timely action to prevent extensive damage… The Central Committee appreci-ates the offer of assistance by the Indian Prime Miniister, and stressed the need for Tamil extremists to abandon their provocative terrorist actions and de- mand for a separate state.”

The Government was effectively let off the hook. The SLFP did not seem to know what the UNP Government had been doing and appeared to advance the version that the Sinhalese people were provoked. After welcoming Indian media- tion, it was the SLFP that opposed the Indo- Lanka Accord of 1987 which was forced on by the events which flowed out of July 1983. It failed to understand that July 1983 had buried the uni- tary state. While the SLFP then, in 1988, tried to ride to power on the anti-Accord platform in alliance with the JVP, its leadership failed to realise until too late that the UNP Government was killing off SLFP supporters at the grass-roots in the name of fighting the JVP. That was the SLFP.

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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