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
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
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
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.