Black July 1983: the Charge is Genocide
A Tamil soliloquy -
The time by my watch is 2.13 in the morning. The date: 26th July
1983 – the day after the holocaust. The place: a little room in a Sinhala home
in a suburb of Colombo. Except for my wife’s fitful sobbing as she lies huddled
on a settee, only occasional army jeeps and the intermittent staccato of machine
guns in the distance disturb the silence of the night. I feel a deep and
unutterable peace come over me, such as religious leaders and mystics say is
vouchsafed only to those who are totally liberated from attachment to worldly
goods. Well, yesterday evening my Sinhala brethen liberated me from all my
A gang of Sinhala youth, roaming the streets during curfew hours under the very
noses of army patrols, put torch to all my worldly belongings. My house, which
has been in my family since 1900, all our furniture and clothes, all my wife’s
jewellery, our books, passports, bank statements, birth certificates –
everything except the clothes my wife and I are now wearing and the 26 rupees in
my pocket – all went up in flames. We have lost more than all our property. We
have lost our identity. Now I cannot even prove that my wife and I are Sri
My wife and I are Jaffna Tamils. We have been Christians for two generations. My
great-grandfather came down to Colombo from Jaffan in 1882, to work as a cashier
in a European bank. My father studies law and I took after him. My family has
been in Colombo for a hundred years. We have no property in Jaffna. So where so
we go from here?
I do not see how we can continue to live among Sinhala people. And there must be
at least 250,000 Tamils in our predicament throughout Sri Lanka. Overnight, a
whole layer of Sri Lanka’s society has been disowned by their own country. Do
the Sinhala people even dare to understand what they have done? Aren’t there
even tremours of conscious deep within their hearts?
I try to comprehend this holocaust with all the spiritual resources I can draw
on. But understanding evades me. My son advocates a separate Tamil state as the
solution to our problem. But I am not sure. It is true that Sinhalaese and
Tamils exist as separate kingdoms before the British brought them under one
administration. But I do not think it is practicable to roll back two centuries
of common history, ignoring al that has happened in the intervening years – the
motorways, the railroads, the telephone and telegraph links, the interdependent
commercial links and the shared struggles against colonialism – all of which
make separatism a juvenile fantasy.
The Sinhala and Tamil territories are no longer inhabited by
simple self-subsistent farming communities, separated by impenetrable forests.
We cannot undo two centuries of history overnight. Besides, where are the
half-million Tamils now living in Sinhala areas supposed to go if a separate
Tamil state is set up? It is easy to churn out facile slogans but I have yet to
see a viable political and economic programme for the Tamil state of Eelam.
On the other hand, how can we Tamils continue to live with and among the Sinhala
people? This is no longer a question of survival, of life itself.
I do not know the answers. But I do know that unless the Sinhala people and
their leaders can rise above the barbarity they have shown these past few days,
the Sinhala people themselves cannot long survive as a civilised community. This
can hardly be the and of peace-loving people who revere the Buddha.
While I don’t share my son’s solutions, I understand his frustration. He is in
the University, where he is already discriminated against and isolated. His
career prospects are marginal. And there are thousands of Tamil youth who share
his frustrations and incandescent anger.
What have my Sinhala friends to say to all this? And truly some are still my
friends, risking their own lives by sheltering me here. But their friendship
must count for more than that is they which to rescue us from perpetual fear.
As I look out of the window I see thin streaks of silver and red climb up the
eastern sky. Soon it will be day. I do not know what this new day will hold, not
even whether my wife and I will live through it. But we must not give in to
despair and self-pity. There must be people of goodwill and understanding on
both sides – masses of them. This is not the end of the road. I am reminded of
Germany and Japan after the war. Out of our ashes, we too must rise again.