Pricking the Conscience on Reminiscences of Black July

Editor’s Note: This article was published three years ago in a Colombo-based midweek newspaper. We found it interesting after the author, Austin Fernando, who is former Secretary of Defence, Sri Lanka, contacted the Sri Lanka Guardian about some issues recently raised by our regular contributors, Peal and Shenali. We believed that there is a very real need for a genuine review on Sri Lanka's history and her mistakes in order to find real peace. This account on the Black July of 1983 is one such reflection on our painful history.

by Austin Fernando

Vallipuram and the thug

(July 28, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) In July 1983, my Accountant Mr. Vallipuram at the Cooperative Department lived off Castle Street where his neighbor was a notorious Sinhalese thug. After Black July Vallipuram once told me that, that thug was the “assailant select” in his mind, whenever he feared of a racial riot.

When violent crowds “visited” him early morning on the Day of Black July around 3.30 a.m. he, his wife and son escaped through the back door in to the premises of the thug, as it was the safest. They hid behind some banana trees until the “Sinhalese nationalist friends” disappeared.

Suddenly who appeared in front of them? It was the nasty thug, the intended killer. They thought that that was the last of their breaths.

Sri Lankan school girls wave a Sri Lankan flags and applaud at the end of a charity walk that ended at Sri Lanka's northern most tip of Point Pedro on July 27, 2011. The 27-day walk was organised by local charity, the Colours of Trust, to raise USD2 million to build a cancer unit in the former northern war-hit Jaffna hospital.- Getty Images
To their utter surprise the thug invited Vallipuram and family in to his smoky slum for a plain tea, shelter and security. Vallipuram thought that the instantaneous death was postponed. Yes, they were in the slum for about two hours until a Police Jeep from Borella picked them. Vallipuram learnt that the message to the Police has gone from the thug, the “killer select!” He was the savior and not the killer.

Ms. Ponnathurai of Wellawatta

I too had a similar experience on this ‘day of the great divide’ when I had to save the life of one Ms. Ponnathurai who was brought to my house at Pamankada by two Sinhalese gentlemen who were employees of either Richard Pieris or Browns. Ms. Ponnathurai was a co-worker with them and could not reach her house in Wellawatta because it was burning. When she was inside my house hidden in fear of death the ’nationalists’ visited us demanding to know whether we were aware of any Tamils hidden anywhere. If we were found we would have taken our last breaths that day!

Looking Back at Black July

I narrate these incidents to show that there is unexpected humanity and reflection of justice, even in an underworld thug, whom one expects to be one’s worst enemy at a vulnerable moment and expected humanitarianism and reflected justice in civilians like me and those two Sinhalese gentlemen.

Today I reminisce 25 years through this gloomy darkened tunnel of time and reminding the harrowing episodes faced by Vallipuram and Ms. Ponnathurai. I do not think Vallipuram ever met the thug after he left Colombo. I have not met Ms. Ponnathurai even once.

However, are we in the same frame of mind 25 years after to help others, if the same incident happens today? Will we be spared if we react in the same manner? Will not I be called a terrorist sympathizer if I do so today?

Twenty five years later, with the world open to us with the tap of a computer key or pressing a button on a remote control- while calling ourselves the members of a global village / family, whom have we become?

Today we are a society who practices hatred like a fundamentalist religion. We no longer are horrified when Tamil civilians are killed, abducted or disappeared. In fact, some of our extremists may be thinking that it’s worthwhile to kill them young as ‘they will grow up to be Tigers’.

The sentiments of most LTTEers and even some extremist Tamil civilians cannot be different towards the Sinhalese, when innocent men, women, children are blown to pieces by suicide bombers in the South. Those blown up children may be the future Army soldiers according to them!

Concurrently, will Vallipuram today reciprocate that thug similarly in Kilinochchi, if the latter is faced with threat on life by ethnically motivated Tamil nationalists? If he or Ms. Ponnathurai does so, will not they be called ‘anti-Tamil stooges of the southern Sinhalese chauvinistic Government”?

Is there any Solution against Polarization?

All these threats will polarize us more. How long are we prepared to polarize like this? Has not Satan taken over our humanity?

Leave aside our brother or sister of a different community; we are unfazed even when one of our own communities dies in a bomb blast. Today a LTTE blast is not fabulous enough, or news worthy unless at least 10-15 innocents have died. By being numb to our brother’s pain, we have practiced to be numb to our own pain

For two decades plus in numerous occasions, countless people of different walks of lives have remembered Black July at different levels of sadness, anger, loss and hopelessness. Very rightly the politicians who allegedly engineered these atrocities, the thugs, the underworld, the Police have been blamed. Is blaming enough?

Twenty five years after Black July we are more venomous, more polarized, and it’s a part of life to sometimes silently (or at worse times openly) celebrate the deaths of our brothers. For this, no politician can be singularly blamed, no government can be totally held responsible. It is we who elected them and we should share the major portion of the blame in that event.

Today marks one generation that bypassed Black July. Anyway, are we going to carry on this blaming to another generation? As much as senior politicians and Generals say that they do not want to carry on this war to their successors or next generation, cannot we unitedly reverberate with one orchestration that we will not permit peacemaking and breaking the shackles of polarization to the next generation or our successors?.

This could happen the day we conceive that as much as conflict or war is of national interest, peace too is of national interest. This message will never go down the throats of the people unless the politicians of all colors, public service, judiciary, and media and in the Sri Lankan case the LTTE swear on this dire need. Is it my dream?

Blame, Blame and Blame!

Are politicians the only responsible for this erosion of our soul? Or is it the failing system? Are we a nation who has lost touch with our own conscience? I think each of us individually is to be blamed. We have become a nation who has failed to first understand the human realities in its totality. We have become a nation of men and women unable to have a decent relationship with this world of panoramic political and ethnic realities. In a sea of knowledge on co existence and moving forward, we have become stubborn men and women who refuse to let go of hatred.

Learn from Emperor Dharamashoka

Emperor Asoka killed ninety nine of his brothers and their male offspring to sit on the throne to be Chandasoka – the violent Asoka. But it was that one escaped nephew of his – Nigrodha Thero who preached him a higher truth and made him Dharmasoka. Centuries later in our heart we are still ‘chanda’- violent. When will we stop killing our brother, with our thoughts, our actions, our words and sit on a higher throne as a nation? Do we just blame politicians- or do we take emotional and moral responsibility for this sinful behavior?

If we swear for this Buddhist ideology then it would have been worthy of reminiscing the dastardly events of 23rd July 1983. Otherwise, reminiscing would be reminding sins silently!

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