Tarzie Vittachi’s “Emergency ’58” Re-Visited
Having first read Tarzie Vittachi’s seminal description of the anti-Tamil riots shortly after it was published and smuggled into what was then Ceylon, I was curious to see whether my original impressions of that book would hold true a half-century later and whether there were any lessons for 21st Century Sri Lanka in that slim volume.
I spent most of the most violent of those days in Colombo as a student, just leaving his teens, at Aquinas University College which I thought, at the time to be the most arch-conservative of post-secondary institutions because of (and not despite) the likes of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya who was one of my teachers and who appears to have gone through a significant metamorphosis (for the better!) in the intervening years.
My political leanings were towards the Trotskyist left which then (and for decades after) contained my two older siblings in the various configurations of the “British Section of the Fourth International.”
People of my political inclinations saw the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP’s) chauvinist horde and their leftist “Sinhala only” allies of Philip Gunewardene’s Viplavikari Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) as the generators of that mini-Holocaust, ably assisted by communalist Tamil political elements from the other side of the great divide that was developing. I did then, as it seems the vast majority of non-Tamil Ceylonese still do, equate Federalism with separatism. This misconception I carried for many years until a long sojourn in Canada in which country, despite very strong separatist tendencies — that occasionally wane — in the province of Quebec, I realised by ground-level observation and active involvement in the political processes of that country that a Federal state of some kind can come closest to being the ideal arrangement for two solitudes to live in tolerance and understanding if not absolute peace and harmony.
The foregoing should provide the reader with an adequate idea of where I am coming from with regard to the subject.
When the book was hot off the presses it didn’t seem to capture the violence and excitement of that time and, therefore, left something to be desired. Today, however, with the benefit of sober hindsight and reflection it does seem to do justice to the events of that troubled time in a historically accurate and objective manner.
What is particularly eerie and troubling about the narrative is that one is left with the distinct impression that 1958 has already repeated itself once and promises to do so again thanks to this country’s politicians who, while screaming their loyalty to the nation, proceed to act in a manner that is sending Sri Lanka down the road of destruction and despair again. All in the cause of self-aggrandisement and short-term political gain.
For the last year, we have had a situation where the armed forces of this country, having doused a conflagration of significant proportions, the government of the day was afforded the opportunity to do those things that could have ensured that there would be no recurrence of that horror at a later time. But, it seems that the politicians of this land didn’t learn anything then and aren’t giving any signs of doing so now
After 1958, politicians of every stripe proceeded to re-ignite the fires of racism despite their experience of the terrible destruction that would ensue. They are doing that again, seeking to provide “respectability” to that effort by talking about a homogenised society where the obvious language, religious and other specificities that are the historical reality of this country are to be ignored.
That suggests that Sinhala Buddhist society is indivisible from the Sri Lankan nation and all other ethnicities, belief systems and cultures are marginalised to the extent that they cease, for all practical purposes, to exist. I find this just as stupid, ignorant and nasty as the comments that Vittachi quotes out of Hansard in the post-Emergency ’58 debate when, among other racist comments, one MP’s solution to the problem was “Destroy them!” (the Tamils). As a hint, this MP came from the deep south and his last name is only too familiar as far as absolute power in this country is concerned right at the moment.
I am no Cassandra but it is very obvious to anyone with even half a brain that the road that is being cleared is one that will lead to a situation where, even if there isn’t any LTTE-type uprising there will be continuing grief and the attendant malaise among a significant proportion of Sri Lanka’s population who have already been disenfranchised, in practical terms, and know it only too well. This is certainly not a recipe for engendering the kind of vibrant development, with or without high growth rates, that can and must make Sri Lanka a land of peace and tranquillity where all of its communities can lead decent lives. I am not talking here of a Mercedes in every garage but rather a chicken in every pot a few times a year. I am talking about a life of dignity and decency for all of its citizens, not just Lamborghinis for a chosen few.
But no, just as we had the outbursts of racist rhetoric after the cataclysmic events of 1958, we are seeing a repeat of that performance by the descendants of those merchants of malice and hoarders of hatred. The additional legions now at their command are those with the sophistication to make that exercise a covert rather than an overt one. I have described and named them often enough that I think a repeat would be redundant.
There are a few voices of sanity, compassion and intelligence which one hopes are being heard over the noise issuing from our Sri Lankan Tower of Babel. Chief among these is that of the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, the Right Reverend Duleep de Chickera. The responses to his periodic statements has not been as abusive and raucous as those directed at many other people who have had the temerity to voice a sentiment that might not be in sync with that of those spouting the current orthodoxies. However, it seems that, increasingly, his is very much a voice in the wilderness.
The others are the “peaceniks” as described by the hallelujah chorus of the Rajapaksa Sycophancy led by such as Malinda Seneviratne who don’t miss an opportunity to revile them, knowing very well that the level of abuse and insult they level at these individuals will only serve to elevate them further in the eyes of those they serve so well. Fortunately, their target group is expanding and that should make it a tad more difficult to direct white vans in their direction, if nothing else!
The alienation of the Tamils from 1956 onwards was accelerated by policies such as “quotas” being imposed to curtail their entry into the upper echelons of formal education and employment. Now the exclusion is de facto and not de jure and therefore that much more difficult to combat through exposure in the few forums still available to the dissenting voice.
The prime example of the continuing discrimination with enormous practical implications is the fact that, despite the law of the land requiring it, government services are not available in their mother tongue to Tamil citizens of this country, even when they live in areas where there is a preponderance of Tamil-speakers. Whenever this anomaly is pointed out, the government’s apologists are only too ready to deny that there is anything resembling discrimination in the matter, pointing out that the law provides for the provision of services in Tamil to those requiring it and, therefore, everything is tickety-boo! This epitomises what is happening in this country in the matter of the application of the most absurd semantics and which needs to stop if we are not going to be at the bottom of the Asian civilizational barrel which, goodness knows, already has a scummy enough population.
The alternative to the sea change that is required is not going to be an armed uprising such as that which the Tigers conducted so successfully for so many years and, before them, the JVP in 1971 and the late ’80s. It is going to be a descent into the kind of oligarchical hell that has distinguished the histories of places such as Haiti and the Congo. Significantly enough, in both those instances the good old Excited States of Amnesia tut-tutted around the injustice and brutality that occurred (and continues to occur) while making noises about “engaging the ruling regime in dialogue” etc. etc. Sound familiar?
We might still have the time and opportunity to change course but I doubt that, as long as we have a regime bent on imposing mediaeval governance on this country, that the required change will be affected. More important yet, as long as we have a rural population only too ready to accept that mediaeval governance and a middle class urban elite believing that they are not ever going to be the victims of the injustice and violence that comes with such an arrangement, the forces of despotism will not only survive but thrive.
Apropos of that reality let me close by quoting something I haven’t seen in print recently:
In Germany they first came for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist
Then they came for the Catholics
And I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
And then they came for me –
And by that time no one was left to speak up.
— Pastor Henry Niemoller