Colombo Telegraph

The Tamils & Official History

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Antecedents Of July 1983 & The Foundations Of Impunity – Part IV

In the preceding section we found it necessary to place clearly some of the basic facts concerning the final day of the IATR (International Association for Tamil Research) conference in Jaffna. This is because among Tamils their partial knowledge of events has over time become overlaid by biases and wrong information derived from others. The question whether Janarthanan was in Jaffna legally or illegally would elicit several contradictory answers. Writing about the incident by talking to contemporary witnesses soon becomes a nightmare. In contrast, there are the police records and magistrate’s inquest records, which were largely influenced by police versions, as will be seen below. Too often, these tend to become authentic history. The State that is anti-Tamil in its ideology and articulation continually uses its apparatus to record a history in service of its ideology.

Then there is also the Tamil nationalist version of history that is also very powerful in a destructive way, although the academic historian will readily have problems with its authenticity. The LTTE bears ample testimony to this power. To the Tamil nationalists, the police action at the IATR conference which resulted in 7 deaths became the ultimate expression of the malignancy of the State which led to the adoption in May 1976 of the goal of separation as the only viable option for the Tamil speaking People. It resulted in Sansoni writing the official history of the incident.

Fortunately, however, upon the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike rejecting the request for a commission of inquiry, some in Jaffna had the presence of mind to appoint an unofficial citizens’ commission comprising retired supreme court judges O.L. de Kretzer and V. Manickavasagar, along with Bishop Kulandran. Several copies of the report were printed and circulated, but are indeed rare documents today. Many valuable historical materials pertaining to the Tamils were destroyed with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by the Police in 1981, the communal violence of July 1983, the civil war and during the forced exodus from Valikamam in 1995.

We were fortunate to receive a copy of the de Kretzer Commission Report from Mr. George Gnanamuttu, a former deputy commissioner of labour, who is now aged 90. Comparing its findings with Sansoni’s throws some light on judicial mores in Sri Lanka and how political power influences even sound persons, when it comes to making official history.

Mr. O.L. de Kretzer, a member of the Burgher community, was a notably independent judge. Mr. M. C. Sansoni, also a Burgher, rose to the highest judicial position of chief justice. Following the communal violence of August/ September 1977, Jayewardene (then prime minister) appointed Sansoni to a one-man commission of inquiry on 9th November 1977 to go into the violence.

The Commission commenced sittings on 8 Feb.1978 and wound up on 10 Dec.1979, having heard witnesses in Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Colombo, Kandy and Trincomalee. The evidence on record is quite exhaustive. The final report was submitted to President Jayewardene on 22 July1980 and published as a sessional paper on 4 Nov.1980.

For a report on the wide-ranging and traumatic communal violence in which Tamils, particularly Hill Country or Plantation Tamils, were the main victims, its reception was curious. The following extract from a letter by “Observer” in The Sunday Observer of 8 May1994 is typical of the welcome it received from the Sinhalese intelligentsia:

“ The one man Commission Report headed by Mr. M.C. Sansoni [sic], a former Chief Justice and member of the Burther community, highlighted the advocacy by the late Mr. A.
Amirthalingam and the TULF, of armed violence as the means of to achieve the goal of Eelam, as the principal cause for the outbreak of ethnic rioting and civil disorder.

“The investigation and analysis of each incident of communal violence contained in the Report provide[s] a good insight into the manner in which communal tensions were deliberately raised by Tamil politicians hell bent on directing the embittered and disgruntled Tamil youth into committing planned violence against the State and the Sinhalese people ….

“The Sansoni Commission Report makes valuable reading for anyone interested in understanding the catalytic factors which led to ethnic unrest in the late seventies and the early eighties.

“Yet, inspite of its indisputable value as an important and impartial document tracing the contributory role of Tamil politicians in unleashing ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, the Report remains virtually inaccessible except to a few…

“The interpretation of events in contemporary Sri Lankan history especially on the incidents leading to the riots in July 1983, could be more effectively discharged if one were to have access to the objectively written Sansoni Commission Report…..”

Note the reference to the Report as a historical record. This assessment is an irony when one looks into the terms of reference, which may be summarised as:

(1) To ascertain the circumstances and causes that led to, and particulars of, the incidents which took place in the island between the 13th day of August 1977 and the 15th day September 1977;

(2) whether any person or body of persons or organisation etc. were in any way the cause of the violence; and

(3) to recommend such measures as may be necessary for rehabilitation, public safety and prevention of a recurrence.

In the assessment of “Observer” above, the Sansoni Report explains not only the communal violence of 1977, but also that of July 1983. The main reason for the 1977 violence, it appears, was the provocation of the Tamil leaders wanting a separate state, and accordingly the same held good for the violence of July 1983. The reason for the second outbreak in 1983 is evidently that the first measure for prevention advocated in the Report – the revoking of the demand for separation – was not heeded!

Thus among that broad segment of the Sinhalese elite who did not want to take any responsibility for the communal violence, the Sansoni Report became a classic. Sections of it kept appearing in the Press and other writings with enthusiastic commendations as proof of Tamil villainy. But that was also to concede enormous powers to an unarmed political party – the TULF – and to admit that the huge state security apparatus was helpless against a few lawyers in politics.

A more open-minded reader would feel uncomfortable from the very first page of the report. It was the state security apparatus that was on trial for its ineffectiveness before and during the communal violence, and there were reasonable grounds for charges of culpability against sections of this apparatus. The first witness cited is Mr. W.T. Jayasinghe, former secretary for defence and foreign affairs from July 1972 to July 1977. One is then treated, despite the terms of reference, to a series of police reports and testimony from police witnesses concerning the incipient Tamil militant movement, and its connections (mostly indirect) with the TULF leadership.

The TULF’s role in history needs no deep analysis. As Tamils we could get angry about the TULF’s dangerous politics of high rhetoric without building any structures where the people could participate and determine their future. It led to tragedy for which the Southeren polity was primarily responsible.

On the other hand the TULF’s politics should come as no surprise in a parliamentary party of mostly career lawyers representing a minority denied any real power over its destiny, and experiencing repeated humiliation. In the game of vote catching, rhetoric became a substitute for their inability to offer any real relief, and the party became tangled up in its effects. Their inability to launch a non-violent struggle to which they were publicly committed, found them trying to ride the incipient militant movement in order to retain their influence. Taken in isolation it is easily explained and is in some ways trivial. It is more relevant, when it is raised by those who want to question the politics of their own community.

The more interesting story, from the point of the whole country, and the needs of national reconciliation and prevention of communal violence, is not to view Tamil politics in isolation, but rather how it developed in an engagement with the obduracy and purblindness of the Southern polity. Producing reams of evidence to show, as Sansoni has done to the general applause, that the TULF leaders are not genuine Gandhians, adds nothing to the story.

By contrast, those who have real power do not need rhetoric. They can just do things, how- ever harmful to another community. Their means could moreover have the appearance of being administratively and legally correct. When they use rhetoric, it is a sign of weakness – as with the Jayewardene government during the run-up to the July 1983 violence and after.

After looking into police records of what was going on in the North, Sansoni reaches a strong conclusion at the end of Chapter 1 (p. 54), even before looking at the violence of August 1977 that was central to his mandate:

“So far as the population of the whole island is concerned, the claim of a separate state is unpopular and will be resisted by the majority community… It must be remembered that violence or the advocacy of it begets violence, and it is one lesson which the disturbances of August and September 1977 should have taught us all”.

This covers the main message of the Report, which is also reflected in Chapter VI in his first recommendation: – viz. the communal violence was retaliation for a section of the Tamil leader- ship asking for a separate state and fostering a militant movement. It has two elementary flaws. First, although the bulk of the victims were Hill- country Tamils, their leadership under Mr. S. Thondaman had rejected separatism. Second, the communal violence in 1958 took place de- spite the fact that there was hardly a hint of vio- lence on the part of the Tamils or their leader- ship. In examining events, Sansoni was careful, even where the facts demanded it, to avoid any implication that would point to serious culpa- bility on the part of the State, so as to invalidate the conclusion quoted above.

*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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