1996 Colombo & 2008 Mumbai: Comparing 31/1 And 26/11

Michael Roberts

This essay was drafted on 15 Dec. 2008 as sequel to the article on “The Spectre of Terrorism” and was also reproduced in the Island newspaper.

The LTTE commando raid in the quarter of Colombo on 31 January 1996 bears comparison with the Lashkar raid in Mumbai beginning on 26 November 2008. Both struck at the heart of two bustling Asian cities, though the latter had greater reverberations worldwide because of the hyper-cum-hysterical media coverage.

This contrast obscures the greater physical damage inflicted by the Tamil Tiger attack. Their squad was confined to three, with two arriving by 3-wheeler taxi and firing RPG and bullets at buildings and people around them. But the critical force was through a truck bomb which rammed the bollards in front of the Central Bank Building and left it so devastated that it had to be built anew. 91 died; while around 1400 persons, including a few foreigners, were injured.

While both LET and LTTE share a dream of setting up an independent state, their ideology has different emphases. Given its Salafi inclinations and its Al Qaeda affinities LET does not desire Western approval in quite the manner sought by the LTTE. The Tigers have been a transnational corporation for over 20 years with many arms in many countries. A direct attack on Western interests in 1996 would have been counter-productive.

It is a side-issue connected these two attacks, that is, the ramifications in the cricket world, which I address today. In India in November 2008 the England cricket side immediately cut short their ODI tour and returned home. Likewise in early 1996 Australia and the West Indies forfeited their first-round World Cup matches scheduled for Colombo in March. While the latter decision may have been rendered easier by the format of the World Cup, which gave both sides the likely prospect of entering the second stage despite the forfeit, the critical imperative derived from convictions within media circles in the West (and the Caribbean) that Sri Lanka was unsafe for visitors.  A similar conclusion regarding India tout court swept over Western countries in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai carnage.

The climate of opinion on both occasions is what interests me. It is of import beyond the field of cricket because my criticisms are directed at perspectives that were shared by political commentators and the general public.

In brief, the general verdict was that both lands were volatile and unfathomable places filled with fanatics. Sweeping generalisations were the order of the day and were expressed with certainty of voice. The adamantine positions were quite remarkable for their empty vagueness. In 1996 in Australia some said that one could not shop or walk around Colombo because of the prospect of another suicide attack. Some news items implied that the bombing of the Central Bank was a warning shot directed at the World Cup; while others feared that the LTTE would use the World Cup matches as grandstanding theatre to advertise their cause (forgetting the grandstand impact already displayed so graphically on print and TV image).

In the process there was no unpacking of the specificities of the LTTE cause. The Tigers were merged into that seamless category “terrorists.” The fact that the LTTE at that stage had migrant propaganda arms in many cricket-playing countries and were eager for international recognition of their demands for self-determination was not brought into the assessments. Not one analyst in Australia dwelt on the timing of the bombing, viz., on 31 January 1996. Among other objectives, the strike was a symbolic protest directed against the annual celebration of Sri Lanka’s independence on 4th February. The explosive blast was telling both Sri Lankans and the world that Sri Lanka’s independence did not mean anything to the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The puerile generalities that were purveyed in the Australian media on this occasion bear similarities with some evaluations of the Indian situation after the Mumbai raid. One witnesses magnified fears and the drowning of refined analysis by sheer prejudice.

One exceptional letter to the editor in 1996 by a true-blue Aussie did identify such prejudice by pointing to the different scales of evaluation. Few Australians, he said, had considered London unsafe during the height of IRA bombings in the 1980s. This pinpoint criticism can be confirmed today by noting that the Australian cricket team did not scurry back home when they were in UK at the moment of the bombings that devastated the London transport system on 7th July 2005.

Such glaring proof of double standards demonstrates the thick strand of Eurocentric parochialism and downright ignorance that sustain such readings of terrorising raids of a political character. This is not a racist argument. Blacks and Browns brought up in the West or near-West-Caribbean have revealed these shortcomings as much as White people. Cricketing programmes are going to suffer as long as such tendencies prevail.

There is one silver lining now in December 2008. England has returned to India to continue its Test Match stage of the tour – with blanket security constraining their social life. This contrasts with 1996 when Australia did not have either the acumen or the fortitude to adhere to their touring commitments later in the year. This was gutless irresponsible action.

The absurdity of this stance was enhanced by the fact that they visited Colombo in July 1996 for a short ODI tournament for the Singer Cup. This they did because they had been tied down by a commercial agreement, with punitive fine for default, signed before 31/1 occurred. So, like the English side in India now, they sought blanket security protection, that is, suffocating imprisonment during the spells away from the cricket field. On both occasions these were prisons of their own making – quite unnecessary in my view. In July 1996 The Aussies could have asked commentator Ian Chappell how dangerous it was out on the streets of Colombo. He would have told them he was having a whale of a time being shown around by Sam de Silva, Aravinda’s father, and learning to baila at the disco scene.

For cricket-lovers the two comparisons in my survey raise a big question for the near future: on how many occasions are we going to witness such prejudices and failures of intelligence result in the abandonment of international cricketing responsibilities?

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