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Sri Lanka's Conflict: An Interview with PACT (part ii)

Dr. Jeganathan , speaking to PACT, compares and contrasts Sri Lanka’s particular colonial experience with the experiences of other colonised countries, under Britain and France.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking about a number of territories that have difficulties integrating themselves as single countries. I think if I really work it out, I would give you six examples.

Take the example of the sub-continent of India, that has been trifurcated into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - that was a British colony, ‘the jewel in the crown,’ its said - and it has gone through really three partitions. Take the case of what used to be called Malaya, that then became the Federated States of Malaya and has undergone one partition and is now Singapore and Malaysia. You take the island of Cyprus, which is a British colony, and very early on in the 1970s, it went through a partition which still exists really, into a Turkish side and a Greek supported Cypriot side. Even in Canada, the question of Quebec and Canada has to be understood in relation to the Canadian colony. Fiji would be another example of another British colony that has had enormous problems with integration. There has been continuous political instability and a lot of what I can clearly understand as ethnic tensions between native Fijians and Indians and so on. But the most stunning example is Israel and Palestine, which is the result of a British mandated partition. It is beyond any doubt, one of the most intractable partitions, that’s come out of British colonialism. But there is another example, the oldest, and really one of the deepest partitions, which now seems to have reached a still simmering resolution: Ireland and its northern Zone, Protestant and Catholic; Britain’s oldest colony. I think I’ve come up with 8 examples, really! I’ve lost count, but I hope its food for thought. Sri Lanka is just the last example, that's what I want to underline.

But there is more: in countries like Australia and Southern Africa, and certainly the United States in the British colonial period, and after, and again Canada, what you have is white settlor colonies, that also practiced partitions, in a far more violent, white supremacist way. In those territories, settlers, governed by the British Colonial office, and then dominion regimes, had no compulsion in decimating the native populations or confining them to small arid zones, or reservations, after expropriating land. This happened in all of Southern Africa; what used to be called Northern and Southern Rhodesia which is now partly Zambia and Zimbabwe, and in the southern half, now called South Africa. In Australia, for example, the entire population of Tasmania was decimated, and native inhabitants in other places, were placed in partitioned reservations, which can certainly be compared to what happened in Southern Africa. Now, as I said, I’m not trying to make a moral point here. What I am saying is, take a comparative look at the experience of French colonialism. If you look at Vietnam certainly it was partitioned, for some twenty years, but along ideological lines, not on ethnic lines. If you look at Algeria, another French colony, that fought a bitter war of independence, or if you look at West Africa, where there are a number of Francophone countries, including Senegal or Cameroon, you find nation unity, not partitions. Now I’m certainly not validating French colonialism, or making a moral point about it. I hope that’s clear. My point in making the comparison with French colonialism is to stress that unless we understand our own experience with British colonialism in a disciplined, comparative way, we will fail to surmount the enormous difficulties our country faces. That’s why a careful, measured understanding of colonialism is important; I’m sorry there isn’t enough discussion about it among Sri Lankans who care about radical democracy and diversity these days.

[the second part of this section, was delayed because of an editing error on my part. Here it is:]


There is a large body of literature that recounts how British colonial ideas about community, caste and difference, guide policy and produce violent difference, ‘communalism’ on the ground, in colonial India. But in relation to Sri Lanka, that strand of literature is much thinner. Not because similar socio-historical phenomena didn’t take place, I don’t think, but because scholars, with some important exceptions, haven’t addressed it. A lot of nineteenth centuries histories were written in the ‘administrative history’ mold, and there are continue to be several British neo-colonial historians and anthropologist, who manage keep studies about the effects of imperialism at bay.

Again, this is unfortunate, because its not viable think that we can begin to work out what's happened in Sri Lanka, over the last few decades, if you simply start in 1948. And most analysis of the conflict start there, with the well worn, vacuous clichéd ‘at independence Ceylon was prosperous and peaceful...’ sort of story. Or worse the ‘model colony’ story. This is poor analysis, because by 1948, we already have the idea that there are these multiple ‘communities’ in Ceylon that cannot live in peace with each other, without some overarching guidance constitutional guidance or a very heavy hand of law and order, from above. That’s exactly the same in India, and at independence, after in 1971, these ‘difference’ become the partition(s) I spoke of earlier. In the case of India it is widely recognized that divide and rule, between colonially constructed communities, was very much an ongoing strategy.

But ultimately, ‘divide and rule’ is the wrong analytical tree to bark up. On the contrary, the first analytical issue to address, should be the conditions that make these ‘divisions’ appear natural. That’s should be the problem in the first place, why are there these separate ‘communities’ of Sinhala (several kinds), Tamils (several kinds), Moors (several kinds), Burghers, Europeans are made to represent themselves as such, and only as such, within the framework of British rule. As I pointed to earlier, this is a little understood feature of British colonial practice, that has led to over half dozen partitions in former British colonies or administered territories.

So that’s how we should understand, the much discussed section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution. What the section says is that the legislature may not pass any kind of legislation that discriminates against one group or the other. The groups here are not taken to be poor people/rich people or tall/short people or people with long/short hair, but people who belong to these well defined ‘communal’ groups that come into being in the 19th century. This is really a strategy of British rule -- creating the groups and then saying, ‘we will oversee differences between them and see that the pie is shared equally.’ That’s where is section 29 comes from. It is part of the colonial project that says, ‘you guys are always going to be divided, but we'll balance it out for you.’

So this is what we've been left with, as a consequence of colonialism, and unless we pay sufficient attention to that we'll never get beyond it. I think that in some ways everything that has come after has remained within that frame; remained within that frame of ‘yes we are all divided and now we have to have some sort of arrangement that holds the scales between those divisions evenly.’ We've never managed, as polity, set that aside those ideas of ‘separate but equal’ and try to work out what we have in common rather than what divides us as a polity. And then try to work form there and strengthen that. People have talked about it but I don't think we've ever done it as a people.

In other British colonies, where such minority protections existed, did that continue there? Is Sri Lanka unique in getting rid of them an caused the consequent fissures?

As I’ve been saying, it is this idea of constructed difference that is at the root problem. That’s what’s led to partitions through the examples I’ve given. And of course post-partition polities are left with the same problems, usually. Lets take one of the most successful examples of partition in the British post-imperial landscape there is, that of Malaysia and Singapore.

If you look at Malaya, then Federated States of Malaysia and now Singapore and Malaysia, what you have really is a de jure separation; it happens in the '60s. Singapore really is the Chinese end of things; what is called Malaysia today is the Malay end of things. The Indians, the ‘third group’ are in between in both cases. Singapore follows a very authoritative model, basically it was and continues to be a one party state. Very much like colonial rule, really, that’s wasn’t, we keep tending to forget, democratic. Nor is it concerned with undoing the Colonial project of ‘racial’ demarcation at all. If you do the 'hop on the bus' tour of Singapore, the guide will tell you with no sense of irony at all that this is 'Little India' and so on. You'll find that there is still a MRT station called dhobi ghat. The word dhobi actually I think would be unusable, in an official way in this country because of its profoundly negative human connotations. But Singapore hasn't gone through such a postcolonial reconstruction of knowledge, so I guess its useable there. If you are flying in one of their airplanes and are lucky enough to be upgraded, you will find that it is called Raffles class, and then you’ll find out that Sir Stamford Raffles was a colonial administrator. Singapore, as a polity hasn’t changed colonial stratification or ‘communal’ divisions or separations. But they have taken that separated conglomeration, and said  ‘discrimination is wrong. Equal rights for all.' Everyone is taught that no one is different and that race, as they call it, doesn't really matter. This is of course, a continuation of the ‘heavy hand of colonial law and order’ I’ve been speaking of. But on the other hand, it is perfectly clear that Singapore has a Chinese dominated administration and a ruling class. And also that’s confined to a particular sliver of the Chinese population, a particular ‘ethnic’ group within the Chinese population. The technical word in the Social Science discourse for that is hegemony; and there is no better example than modern Singapore. Now the opposite is true in Malaysia, if you replace Chinese with Malay. And the state enforces significant affirmative action for Malays, in several spheres. So they haven’t really transcended the legacies of Empire, at all, but they’ve worked within them. Economically, they’ve been far far more successful than Sri Lanka, and there have not been armed insurrections, in postcolonial period. So its been a particular kind of postcolonial journey.

The case of India, taken as a remnant of partition, has within many failures on the score of minority and diversity, but one important success, which I will come to. By and large, even though it remains a secular state, religious and ethnic minorities have not had the best deal. Here too, at bottom, there is heavy colonial legacy of identify and divide that undergirds the whole process. There was massive ‘communal’ violence at the time of partition, and there have been many many anti-minority riots and program after that. Quite similar to Sri Lanka there. The most recent example is that of Gujarat, where thousands of Muslims were killed with impunity and the victims were offered no real justice. Muslims are often under suspicion for being terrorists or being part of treasonous activities by their very name. In the North-East of India, there are several states that have separatists movements, and draconian tactics are used by the State in response. But even worse off are so called ‘tribal’ groups, racialized by British Colonial classification, that still undergo really untold hardships. All that having being said, India did manage to transcend this colonial legacy of ‘communal,’ ‘racial’ classifications, that I’ve been talking about, in relation to some groups, by introducing linguistically demarcated states, in the 1950s. Especially in south, in relation to Tamil and Teligu, this move worked to reduce conflict with the Center. I think its an example Sri Lanka should have followed, and I’ll come to that in a moment.

So I don't think it's a matter of should we or should we not have gotten rid of section 29 (c). I think the basis of that constitution was a flawed colonial logic. What we should have, as a polity, understood, by 1956, that there had been massive, but largely analytically noticed, shift in the way identity was being constituted, between the later part of the nineteenth century, and middle of twentieth. The colonial constructions I’ve been talking about were based on nineteenth century ideas of ‘race.’ That is, phonotypical characteristics, and idea of ‘blood.’ That’s at bottom, how we were classified as ‘different.’

By the 1950s, as it would expected, anti- colonial linguistic identity had come to the fore. This identities grew up through colonial classifications, but were also very different. Modern communities imagine themselves, internally, through modern languages. That is how the idea of internal equality is imagined and produced in modern community. That’s really well known now, in the analysis of nationalism. In Ceylon, the languages of community were Sinhala and Tamil. Hence, by 1956, in “Ceylon,” you had two political parties deeply enmeshed in linguistic nationalism, Bandaranaike’s (Sinhala) MEP and Chelvanayagam’s (Tamil) FP. The way we usually tell this story is as defensive response of the Tamil linguistic group, to the more powerful Sinhala party. That’s certainly correct, within the colonial frame, in which the story is told. But if you step back, and take seriously what I’ve been saying about colonially constructed divisions, what’s really going on is a struggle against Anglicization, and colonialism as well. That’s part of what the demand for “Sinhala Only” and a “Tamil Speaking Nation,” was about. This was the moment to seize, and move beyond our colonial legacy, but we didn’t. The creation of linguistic, quasi-federal states in India was a successful Neruvian response to exactly this linguistic nationalism; Bandaranaike’s MEP produced an exclusivist response, and institutionalized “Sinhala Only,” and we’ve had to live with terrible violence and brutality because of that.



PACT, (the Peace and Conflict Timeline project) is an independent initiative of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Colombo, Sri Lanka, that is concerned with, "[t]he events that surround the history of the Sri Lankan conflict, their impact and interaction with other events, [which] are still highly contentious. As a contribution to this ‘live’ debate, [it] was developed as a participatory initiative to help those with an interest in the Sri Lankan conflict gain a deeper understanding of the conflict’s roots, manifestation and trajectory and to promote discussion around events, themes and experiences of peace and conflict related events.

I, Pradeep Jeganathan, do not endorse any other claims, explicit or implicit, on the PACT website.



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References (4)

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Reader Comments (7)

I have now read all the articles on this site regarding the conflict in Sri Lanka, and I just want to say thanks a lot for an extremely interesting read!
Great! Thank you for reading.
May 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Even in this extremely remote part of the world, the atrocities that are currently taking place in Sri Lanka make the news' headlines.

I cannot say that I am particularly well informed about what is going on, and it is also quite likely that the Norwegian media are not on top of things. Therefore, it is very interesting to read your comments and articles. Because, not only are you a well-educated, intelligent and well-informed man, but you also have the added advantage of being in situ and seeing things from the inside (although; I am not in any way suggesting that you personally are part of the conflict, but only that you are living in that very country and that you, as such, somewhat, are experiencing what is going on, and that you therefore have tremendeously more insight than anyone from (let's say) Europe ).

Sorry, I am just ranting. But anyway, your comments about it all being linked to your colonial past (I really found your comments on the difference between British and French colonies to be extremely interesting). I also found your remarks on how identities are constructed, and that the Sinhalese/Tamil/Muslim division is somewhat new and partially caused by the colonial powers, very interesting and informing.

Quite a few of my Norwegian Facebook-friends post stuff like "what's going on in Sri Lanka is terrible". I shall, to each and one of them, post a link to this blog. You really deserve to be read!
again, thank you. its really nice this blog is getting read. there are several more segments of this interview coming up, and i'm also writing a longer essay on 'the international community' and sri lanka's conflict.

hope to see your friends comment as well!
May 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Facinating, fascinating, fascinating!. Having grown up in Fiji, I can relate very well to the gist of your interview. The post colonial situation there was somewhat different to that in Sri Lanka (perhaps the Bristish had learned a little from their South East Asian (mis)adventures but the eventual breakdown along ethnic lines seems almost inevitable. Looking forward to more articles!
May 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVinit Kewal
thank you for reading and commenting. i'm pleased you see some sense in what i'm saying...
May 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Hi.. great article! It will be more interesting if you will add the more interview segment!
January 4, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkids learning games

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