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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

Now in a 2nd Edition, with a new preface, and a comprehensive index.

"Stimulating... Excellent..." -- Journal of Asian Studies. 

"Will be of great value to all those concerned with... nationalism [and] violence..." -- Arjun Appadurai.

"...[F]orces us to think about Sri Lankan symbolic and social formations in an entirely novel fashion." -- Gananath Obeyesekere


« Sri Lanka's Conflict: An Interview with PACT (part ii) | Main | "The mirage of Eelam" »

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


Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan talks to the PACT team about why it is important to pay particular attention to Sri Lanka’s colonial past when looking at roots of conflict in Sri Lanka.

Is it important to look back at Sri Lanka’s conflict history and its root causes?

History is important in trying to trace out the structural determinants of any kind of conflict. I wouldn’t put much weight on history in the sense of ‘a blame game’. I don’t think it’s worthwhile unearthing the past to point a finger at one party or the other because if Sri Lanka is going to be a viable country at all, we need to move forward. But I don’t think we can move forward without understanding how we got here. And in doing that, while not appropriating blame, I think it is important in a dispassionate way and in a scholarly way to work out what really the structural elements are in our conflict.

What are those structural elements?

I think first we have to understand that we’ve been colonised for 450 years, roughly from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 20th century. I think it’s important to understand the last period of colonialism, the British period, to understand where we are, when we talk about the Sinhala, the Tamil and the Muslim communities. And, of course, even the Portuguese and the Dutch periods also are important, but less so, in many ways.

Generally in discussions that proceed these days, about conflict resolution and peace building and so and so forth, I find that little attention is paid to the colonial period. And I think that’s unfortunate because we have to really try to understand what colonialism did to construct these communities in the way we see them now, really as enmeshed in conflict and often in violence. So I think one important thing to realise is that the social historical evidence, in my opinion at least, is that at the beginning of the 19th century, we didn’t have in Sri Lanka the kind of communities that today we call Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. There were certainly differences and diversity in the polities such as it was, but the evidence says that compartmentalised communities, that had clearly defined and putatively watertight boundaries, that conceptualised themselves, internally, as imagined equalities, didn’t exist at all. I think what you had were overlapping population groups, with strong a sense of internal hierarchies that may well have not been able to answer clearly the question, are you Sinhala, are you Tamil, are you Muslim. They may have taken on different kinds of identities, possibly in relation to what constituted faith at the time, but not religion in the European sense, but also based very much on locality and region; kin, and hierarchy. So a person in answer to the question, “who are you?” may well have said “I am from the conglomeration of seven villages in this particular district and this particular sub-district,” or “the leader of my kin group is x”, which is not an answer that would be couched in the kinds of ethnic terms that we see today.

So what happens really through the 19th century and the 20th centuries is that these communities begin to solidify with putatively well-demarcated boundaries, internal coherence, arguments about internal homogeneity and equality. And the very content of those identities gets transformed radically; this is better known, and has been thought through more than my first point, which is a point about the lived texture of the ‘identity’ itself. There are several aspects of colonial rule that you have to understand in relation to the construction of what we see today as ethnic communities. One important one is the colonial project in representation, in what was called ‘native’ representation, in the various kinds of administrative and legislative councils that were created after the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms in demarcating representation according to community. So there were Sinhala members, Tamil members, and by the end of the 19th century, an argument about a Moor representation. By producing representation in relation to community, the colonial project did a lot to demarcate these boundary groups. In fact, the very construction of the idea of the ‘Moor’ can be traced to the Ramanathan-Aziz debate, which was, at bottom, about representation in the framework of ‘native’ representation in the colonial government.

Another point of impact of colonial knowledge can be seen in the way that British colonialists, and then increasingly Sinhala and Tamil nationalists, began to understand their own history. It’s very clear that Sri Lankans didn’t think of their history as an interconnected record that went back to a distant past in a linear timeline that stretches back 2,500 years, at the beginning of the 19th century. Now there is this idea that Sri Lanka does have such a history, and that it is the history of Tamil invasion and conquest and Sinhala defensiveness, and occasional reconquest, until a great decline sets in. And modern identities, very different from the ones I described earlier, are superimposed on this divisive history. There is very little historical evidence to really instantiate that overlapping kingdoms on the island, which is now called Sri Lanka, and South India, various ones in South India, and other surrounding kingdoms - if you think of Java and Burma and Thailand and so on - that those overlapping kingdoms that fought wars and battles of conquests, basically the shifting of imperial centers and power, can really be understood through the prism of modern ethnicity. In fact as I said before, these groups may not have so conceptualised themselves. There is clearly good research to show that they didn’t imagine themselves as Sinhala and Tamil and Muslim in the way we do today. But it is after the colonial translation of the Mahavamsa and the reconstruction of ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa that we begin to imagine that these ancient sites, stupendous and marvelous as they are, were really a product of bitter Sinhala and Tamil quarrels that go back through time. So I think in that instance, what you have is a British colonial understanding of native community as compartmentalised and watertight and so on, being reinscribed on the landscape, in a totally divisive way. I would suggest that the interested reader take a look at my paper, “Authorizing History, Ordering Land: the Conquest of Anuradhapura” in Unmaking the Nation, to get a more grounded sense of what I mean here. It’s this colonial history that I think was and has been to this day extremely divisive for the territory that is this island. Put another way, when that colonially constructed history is inscribed on the landscape, it produces a divided island of Ceylon.


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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