Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 24 July 2016





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Government Gazette

What is a ‘pogrom’?

The older generation Sri Lankans may have been struck by the coincidence of last week’s minor clash between Sinhala and Tamil students in Jaffna University on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the ‘Black July’ ethnic riots in 1983. The 1983 ‘riots’ were actually less of a violent clash between Tamils and Sinhalese citizens and more of a ‘pogrom’ by Sinhalese against Tamils. But the fact that the pogrom was provoked by a military incident in which 13 army troopers died in an ambush by Tamil separatist insurgents just days before, indicates the larger context of the on-going inter-ethnic conflict.

The word ‘pogrom’ is a Russian word used to describe constant attacks on the Jewish minority in Russia over centuries since the late medieval period. Indeed, in those same centuries, similar pogroms occurred against the Jews throughout Europe. Hundreds of thousands of minority Jews were killed in these attacks by civilian mobs in these countries often with the tacit or even overt support by government forces.

Whatever the apologists may say, the July 1983 violence was remarkably similar in characteristics: with the attackers being mainly the majority Sinhala community and the victims being those of the Tamil minority. Indeed, 1983 was only the worst – by far – of a succession of similar anti-Tamil pogroms beginning with the first in 1958 and others occurring in 1977 and 1979 with similar minor outbreaks in-between.

To the credit of Sri Lankan civilisation overall, within a decade of the July ’83 mass tragedy, national leaders, including many Sinhala intellectuals, had begun to reflect on and confess culpability for this brutish behaviour. Books have been written and films produced that have self-critically discussed that episode of social violence as well as the larger ethnic conflict and, the role the majority Sinhalese must play to lead the whole society away from ethnic oppression and towards a civilised, inclusive, society.

But if the Tamil insurgent ambush provoked the pogrom of July ’83, many decades and a whole, disastrous, internal war later, the attack by Tamil students on their Sinhala colleagues in Jaffna University last week did not. Despite the efforts by a few, now marginalised, ethnic ultra-nationalist groups, the bulk of national society, remained calm and the general response was one that looked beyond the incident itself and at the social and institutional needs that have to be addressed to prevent future such incidents.

Certainly, the University Grants Commission and the Higher Education Ministry needs to be more engaged in facilitatory measures when sending students to a region which was the worst affected by the thirty-year war. The social needs of Sinhala students must be anticipated when they enter what was a devastated war zone with much of the past tragedy still felt by the surviving younger generation of the local population.

That the government sent a capable ministerial team to Jaffna University within days of the clash and that the University’s own faculty leadership reciprocated with conciliatory statements and measures are both indicators of the enlightened approach to inter-ethnic issues these days. The Governor of the Northern Province himself was up-front in responding rapidly to the campus tensions, especially his public statements that did much to reassure the public in the south and the world at large.

The internet media, however, true to its nature, provided a platform for racist speculation on both sides of the ethno-ideological divide. But real human experience seems to have greatly tempered the Sri Lankan psyche to a degree that irresponsible actions no longer automatically flow from irresponsible propaganda or rumour-mongering.

In this, Sri Lankan society may seem to have matured in a way that, perhaps European and American society has not – judging by the way popular behaviour seems to be building up against ethnic minorities in those regions. Even if the Jews are no longer targets in the West, new minorities seem to be feeling the heat as new global tensions spill over.

Sri Lankans, today, must make the effort to look ‘beyond’ the memories – as one government minister has said when asked to reflect on the July anniversary. What has happened certainly cannot and will not be forgotten. Rather, while keeping these memories, we need to move on towards resolution and closure.

For this to happen, there must be a transcendence of ethno-politics both in terms of social and cultural behaviour among the people as well as in terms of the actions of political leadership who have, to date, been happy to manipulate religio-ethnic perceptions and misperceptions for their political power interests.

Social reality does compel us to recognise and acknowledge that there other dynamics in society such as socio-economic class differentiation, gender group interests, and caste, among others. These dynamics, too, challenge us to engage with each other as citizens and social groups interacting in a multiplicity of ways so that social and governmental activity creatively responds equally to all these dynamics. This, after all, is the complexity that is human civilisation, which, on this island, is second to none.


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