By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“….anyone who dresses or speaks differently is not simply a different person, but a different animal from a different sty with whom there can be no accommodation, and who must be hated and hounded out”. – Victor Klemperer (The Language of the Third Reich)
The spirit of Black July is not dead. It is alive; triumphantly, confidently and self-righteously alive.
The politico-economic and socio-psychological premises which enabled the shameful carnage of Black July did not emerge from a vacuum, instantly. The actual killing and the pillaging may have been the work of a criminally-inclined minority; but these miscreants could not have indulged in their fanatical desires with such brutal and deadly abandon, without the consent of state-entities and the approbation of a societal-majority. Had the state made a serious attempt to impose order, had society not discarded basic humanity and ordinary decency, no minority, however fanatical, however intoxicated by hate, could have continued that orgy of Tamil-hunting, day after day, for almost two weeks.
Every society has extremist minorities. But sans an enabling environment, the havoc such minorities can wreak is strictly limited. The key is therefore the extent to which the state and the larger society are infected with the pestilence of hate.
The spirit of Black July consists of two main components. One is what I call the hosts and guests theory ofSri Lanka, the a-historical belief that Sinhala-Buddhists are the only true owners of the island and all ethnic/religious minorities are aliens, here on sufferance. And the concomitant belief that Sinhala-Buddhists have the right to keep the minorities in line, and the duty to punish them if they overstep the boundaries.
The second component is subtler and thus more lethal, potentially. It reinterprets anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and progressivism from a Sinhala-Buddhist perspective. According to this rendition, every minority (including Sinhala-Christians) is a wholly reactionary community, viscerally. They pose a threat not only to national security but also to ‘national culture’, ‘national values’, economic progress and developmental justice.
According to this majoritarian-narrative, the minorities were given preferential treatment by the colonialists; consequently they are pro-imperialist. They have become rich by exploiting the majority; consequently they are pro-capitalist. They uphold alien values; consequently they are immoral. Nation is degraded to race, anti-imperialism to xenophobia and anti-capitalism to National Socialism. Enlightenment teachings which could have staunched the march of retrogressive ideas become transformed into their antithesis, and used as enablers/justifiers of racism.
As ethno-religious differences become translated into political, economic, socio-cultural and moral wedges and gulfs, minorities are decried as not just a-national (videsheeya) but also pro-imperialist (adirajya-gathi) and bourgeois (daneshwara). National unity is consecrated as the unity of all Sinhala-Buddhists against these inimical alien forces and influences; and national liberation coterminous with liberating Sinhala-Buddhists from those colonial and international shackles which restrain them from consecrating Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist paradise. The legal and illegal, peaceful and violent efforts to disempower and dispossess the minorities are seen as nationalist/patriotic and anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist necessities.
And the idea of the ‘good riot’ is born.
The Good Riot
In a piece on generic fascism, Umberto Eco argues that “Ur Fascism grows up and seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or a prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against intruders…. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies…..by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak”[i].
That has been the perspective of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism (of both the right and the left wing variety), since beforeIndependence.
Ceylon’s very first anti-minority riot, in 1915, was informed and ignited by many of these beliefs. The Muslims were seen as ethno-religiously alien, politically privileged and economically rich, unlike the poor, right-less and defenceless Buddhists. In a letter to the Colonial rulers, from his refuge in India, Anagarika Dharmapala opined that the riots and their aftermath resulted from the absence of a Buddhist representative in the legislature, who could have fought for and defended Buddhist rights: “By custom, language and religion, the Buddhist community is isolated, and it is most necessary that a pure Buddhist Representative should be appointed to represent Buddhist interests in the Ceylon Legislature”[ii].
In the subsequent writing of history, the shameful and deadly deeds of 1915 were justified as a project to protect Buddhism and oppose colonialism/oppression, a right step in the direction of national (Sinhala-Buddhist) emancipation.
This atavistic notion of national emancipation was propagated not just by Anagarika Dharmapala but also by popular cultural figures such as John de Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena. They interpreted independence not only as freedom from colonial rule but also as emancipation from alien religio-cultural influences and economic oppression. In this version the enemies to be defeated were not just the British – or not predominantly British – but Tamils, Indian-Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Burghers and Christians. These alien minorities were depicted as far more dangerous to national (Sinhala-Buddhist) interests, because of their exploitative activities and corrupting influences.
After 1915 and before 1956, this concoction of ideas and beliefs were used against Indian Tamils and Burghers. The disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils and the Sirima-Shastri Pact which paved the way for their mass-repatriation were hailed as nationalist and even progressive measures[iii]. The Burghers, constantly decried as uniformly bad, decided to migrate, before they could be violently targeted as a community.
The Tamils thus became the main stumbling block to the dream of Sinhala-Buddhist liberation. Once the left succumbed to ‘Sinhala Only’, and Lankan socialism degenerated into National Socialism, there was nothing to counter the spread of the racist meme across the length and breadth of society. The left’s embracing of ‘Dadlige bade Masala wade’ (Masala wade inDudley’s tummy) variety of socialism fathered the deadlier brand of socialism propagated by the JVP, which was anti-upcountry Tamil in its first incarnation and anti-Tamil in its second.
This was the Zeitgeist which enabled the Black July – the perception of Tamils as not just separatist and a threat to national security, but also as inimical to developmental justice and social progress and a fifth column for regional and global imperialism. It was this contradictory and elastic concoction which enabled people of diverse political beliefs – and none – to approve the carnage of Black July. Many in the Sinhala South saw in the Black July not just an act of patriotic-vengeance, but also an act of socio-economic retribution, a revolt of the economically exploited against their evil (Tamil) exploiters.
Thirty years on, the spirit of Black July pervades the polity and society. The echoes of that abomination can be heard clearly in the anti-Muslim hysteria, the howling about ‘unethical conversions’ and the intemperate attacks on the TNA’s Chief Ministerial pick.
As economic problems worsen, the Rajapaksas will feel an ever greater need to scapegoat the minorities, to depict ‘rich and exploitative’ Tamils/Muslims/Christians as the real authors of Sinhala economic hardships, the true obstacles to the developmental Shangri La of the Southern-dreams. In this context the likes of BBS/Sinhala Ravaya will enjoy an increasing relevance and importance.
And the idea of a ‘good riot’ will be alive and well.
[i] Eternal Fascism:Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Black Shirt
[ii] Quoted inCeylon and Her People – NE Weerasooriya
[iii] The Sirima-Shastri Pact would be the envy of anti-immigrant reactionaries in theUS andEurope, if only they knew about it.