ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 33

A horror story dissected by a scholar

“Globalization, terror & the shaming of a nation: constructing local masculinities in a Sri Lankan village” by Jani de Silva (BA Hons. in Political Science, MSc. & Ph,D. in Anthropology).

Reviewed By Anne Abayasekara

This is not the type of book I would voluntarily have picked up to read, despite my addiction to today’s fictional thrillers. Not that Jani de Silva’s factual account of the horrendous happenings in Embilipitiya in late ’89 to early ’90, can in any sense be called a thriller. Based as it is on her Ph.D thesis, it is a scholar’s detached, unemotional recall of almost inexplicably brutal events that took place in a Sinhala village where soldiers of the Sri Lankan army abducted, over a period, 22 schoolboys whom they kept confined in army barracks and tortured and eventually killed all but 3 of them.

The media did give extensive coverage to this unbelievable story when it came out 4 years after the event and the perpetrators were at last brought to trial, but how many of us really gave that tragic happening our full attention?

This is why I am so thankful to Jani for having sent me a copy of her book. I was forced to read it and, in so doing, not only learned a great deal about the hidden motivations that might lie behind both the victims’ and the perpetrators’ actions which the average spectator would only see and label as `acts of terror’, I also discovered my own ignorance of much of Sinhala culture (especially in the rural context) and of the complex and subtle nuances that, in different situations, may govern human behaviour.

It’s not a simple matter of good guys and bad guys, as Jani’s scholarly anthropological study has shown me, and while my blood still runs cold when I think of it, I now know that there was far more to the whole sorry `spectacle’ than met the eye.

So, what have I as a non-scholar and ordinary reader, learnt from Jani’s analysis which is the fruit of one whole year spent in the village to which she gives the fictitious name of `Navagammane’, where the appalling events she describes took place? First, that one should never jump to conclusions. I knew of, and was repelled by the reign of terror imposed by the JVP on many parts of the island during the period under review and it is in that context of the “second Uprising of the JVP in July 1987” as Jani calls it, that the army excesses occurred. Which doesn’t in any way excuse what the soldiers did, but does make it slightly more understandable. The reader is reminded that, “next to under-graduates, senior high school students became the targets of the intensive political radicalization programmes of the JVP”. It was only natural that the teenage boys of Navagammane should have been influenced to a greater or lesser degree, as were schoolboys elsewhere and certainly most of those in the South.

The intervention of India in the ethnic conflict through the imposition by New Delhi of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord on our Government in July 1987, roused the JVP to violent action. When it came to crushing this uprising, the army made no distinction between youngsters who had only put up posters or scribbled graffiti on walls, and those who had actually taken up arms – all were eliminated without compunction, particularly after the JVP made the fatal error of threatening and in some cases carrying out that threat, to kill the families of members of the police and the armed services.

All this background and much more, is provided in the book, but to get back to the crucial events concerning the murdered schoolboys, Jani has unravelled the original incident from which everything else evolved. It was the acquisition by a local mudalali of a piece of land that was a part of the extensive grounds of the Navagammane Madya Maha Vidyalaya, to enable him to put up a petrol shed there – a manoeuvre made possible only with the support of Nanda Mathew, a member of the UNP cabinet.

Students, parents, teachers and villagers were all incensed by this act, but the mudalali blithely ignored the public outcry and went ahead with the construction of his petrol station and this in turn provoked the senior boys to start a protest campaign or ‘udhgoshanaya’ (one of several new words that have now enlarged my regrettably meagre Sinhala vocabulary).

The school principal who was thoroughly unnerved, hastily resigned and the vacancy was filled by Dayananda Galappati who is thought to have negotiated with Mr. Mathew for the post. Galappati emerges as a villain, in that he encouraged the presence of army personnel in the school and “named” those boys who, in his opinion, were the trouble-makers and leaders of the noisy and untiring protest campaign that went on and on. Between November 1989 and January 1990, 48 schoolboys between the ages of 15 and 19 were abducted and taken to an Army Camp nearby – the Sevana Camp, which in June 1989 became the HQ of the Sixth Artillery Regiment - and 22 of these boys were from the Navagammane Madya Maha Vidyalaya (NMMV).

Apart from what Principal Galappati considered the unruly behaviour of the boys who were protesting, he appeared to have convinced himself that these boys were being influenced by JVP activists and that they needed to be kept in check. Galappati frequently threatened, at PTA meetings, that he would get the Army to “shape” the boys, as their parents seemed unable to keep them in order.

So, when the Army did in fact kidnap the boys, one or two at a time and sometimes quite openly, the trusting parents who themselves did not, in their hearts, approve of their sons’ defiant conduct, truly believed the boys would be given a good thrashing and sent back. Most of the parents of the disappeared were people of standing in the community, several of them school principals themselves and all of them UNP supporters, so they did not dream that their children would be killed.

The end result seems all the more hair-raising when one reads that these same soldiers actually played cricket on the school playground with the boys they later destroyed.

The inaction of parents who were people of some consequence and who might well have made an effort to have their abducted sons set free, is a conundrum.

Even assuming that at first they were convinced that the Army had no deep animosity towards the boys and were only concerned with disciplining them and would send them home in due course, why didn’t they become more alarmed when the period of confinement continued and rumours of torture were afloat?

There was the case of a boy named Vinodh. Why in heaven’s name, the reader wonders, did his parents remain inactive for 33 days after they first knew without a doubt that he was being tortured?

The answer which Jani’s research elicited was that, because they loved their son, they didn’t want to antagonise the camp authorities if they could possibly help it! And Vinodh’s parents weren’t the only ones whose hands seem to have been tied and lips sealed while the fate of their sons hung in the balance. In a few families, two sons were taken and yet nothing was done.
As to the reason why the boys were killed, Jani has slowly but surely dug that out too.

What the soldiers wanted was for these boys to confess to their being JVP collaborators or sympathizers. Only three of their number had the wit, finally, to realize this and these three “confessed” to crimes they had never committed. All three were released!

The silence of the majority of the hostages was interpreted as evidence of their involvement with the JVP. They were seen as hardened cases who seemed beyond ‘rehabilitation’ in the eyes of the soldiers who therefore felt justified in doing their worst.

Even so, it seems unbelievable that the UNP which was in power, tried to cover up the horrendous crime. Both the Government and the Sixth Artillery Regiment completely denied the gruesome event had occurred at all.

International Human Rights organizations, led by Amnesty International, kept up their protests at the loss of innocent young lives and no doubt emboldened the parents finally to band together in a group called the Parents of the Disappeared Schoolboys, to fight for the murderers of their children to be brought to justice.

It was only after the defeat of the UNP in 1994 that the case against Galappati and the soldiers of the Sixth Artillery Regiment, was filed.

It came as a surprise to me to learn that the ultimate “udhgoshanaya” carried out by the male students of NMMV, took place only in 1992, almost three years after the abductions, and so the participants this time were students who had no claims to kinship or friendship with the “disappeared”, but were “simply those who happened to be the senior students in the school at this time” and who were driven by the feeling that their Principal, Galappati, had to be made to pay for his leading role in the whole nightmare.

By this time, there was little doubt in anyone’s minds that the missing boys were dead.

The 1992 udgoshanaya at NMMV was so turbulent that the police were called in to quell the violence. But according to Jani’s findings, the police didn’t wish to get embroiled in the controversial affair and took no action. At this stage, even those parents who had hitherto consistently disapproved of students resorting to `udhgoshanayas’ as an effective means of displaying their opposition to unpopular measures taken by school authorities, kept silent in the face of this particularly violent expression of student feelings.

It appears that confirmation of the fate of the disappeared schoolboys first came through the disclosure made by former Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Premadasa Udugampola, who had fallen out with the UNP. He gave out that the assassins were a group of so-called “Black Cats”, operating from the Sevana Army Camp in Navagammane and the soldiers were subsequently identified by name.

The `Navagammane Students’ Abduction Case’ was heard in the Ratnapura High Court in 1995.

Ten years imprisonment didn’t seem to me a high enough price to pay for such an appalling crime. We are told that the accused soldiers made an impassioned appeal, citing the JVP terror imposed on the country, the general state of chaos that existed and the threat to their own families as justification for what they did.

They were not willing to be cross-examined. So, it would seem that the Black Cats did indeed get away with murder most foul.
The word `ahimsaka’ is what spontaneously comes to the lips of any Sinhala-speaking man or woman as the highest compliment that can be paid to anyone.

I myself did not appreciate the full significance of such an adjective, taking it to describe a meek and mild sort of person. I understand now that it has a much more positive connotation of an `innocent’, wholly virtuous person and that most boys and girls consider it very desirable that they should be seen as “ahimsaka” persons. Ironically, after the tragic events were finally played out, the parents of each murdered boy regarded their own as “ahimsaka”, while the others, they implied, were probably guilty as charged!

There is also the matter of `deferential behaviour’, deemed essential to the proper conduct of the teacher/pupil relationship and to the parent/child relationship and generally extending to other spheres such as elders/juniors and even employer/employee.

Another powerful cultural tradition is “lajja-bhaya” (fear of public ridicule and sense of shame, appropriate conduct) which operates strongly to inhibit or prevent unacceptable behaviour.

This applies even more particularly to the female of the species, an instance of which is chillingly reported by Jani.“The educated young now do not adopt an involuntary stance of deference to those their parents did,” observes Jani. This is largely true and rightly so in this day and age.

But the grim story of Navagammane is proof that even today, those who choose to ignore or defy old attitudes and concepts of proper modes of conduct, may do so at their peril.

The schoolboys whom Principal Galappati betrayed to the soldiers, did not realize how deeply they had offended Galappati by their defiant and unruly behaviour which undermined his authority and diminished his status in the community.

It is unclear, even to Jani, whether Galappati intended the boys to be eliminated or whether he only wanted them harshly treated and taught a lesson they would never forget.

As to the soldiers themselves, I am left confused as to what led them to be so brutal and callous regarding the young lives they held captive, since Jani herself confesses towards the end of the story that she found herself swayed by the impassioned eloquence of the soldier, Epa, who claimed at his trial in the Ratnapura High Court, that everything he did was done in order to “restore order in a situation of total disorder,” and to save his parents who were receiving death threats from the JVP. Epa concluded, simply, “I am a soldier.”

I found the book chilling to read and yet I’m glad I did. Episodes like this one should not be allowed to be forgotten ,- any more than we should forget the atrocities committed by the JVP - if only to make sure they are not re-enacted another day.

We are so quick to censure, condemn and recall incidents like the My Lai massacre carried out by American soldiers in Vietnam long ago, but how do we react to as infamous a deed right here in our own country, against young men with their whole future before them?

Young men, it must be remembered, who were all exonerated of any JVP involvement when the CID conducted its own investigations in 1992.

I am grateful to Jani de Silva for her painstaking research and her honesty in presenting the facts as she learned them, and in persuading the reader against making any snap judgements.

Her book needs to be translated into Sinhala, so that it will reach the much wider readership it deserves and, hopefully, will result in people learning how we might avoid any possibility of repetition of similar acts of inhumanity in the future.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.