Anthropology and History in the Mix in Political Analysis

Muralidhar Reddy, in Frontline, Vol 26/20, Sep. 26-Oct. 09, 2009, a review article

Michael Roberts’ collection of essays on Sri Lankan identity is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere polluted by callous accounts.

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SRI LANKA, a country of 20 million-odd people of distinct identities, is witnessing a series of momentous events in the post-Prabakaran period. Michael Roberts’ latest book is a collection of 13 analytical essays, most of them written by him an d others edited by him, on the much-debated issues of collective “Sri Lankan identity” and the cultural roots and ideology of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil nationalisms, and a detailed study of the projects of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a staunch Sinhala Buddhist who made a conscious effort to swim against the tide and launched a full-throated campaign against British rule and Christian missionaries.

It comes as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere heavily polluted by callous and hasty accounts of fly-by-night journalists and self-appointed Sri Lanka experts on Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009). The value of the collection woven together by Michael Roberts is doubly enhanced by over 35 photographs that adorn the book.

An introduction to the author is in order to grasp the import of the 450-page anthology, which assembles under one cover analytical essays written over the past 15 years. The preface to the collection titled “Before Pirapaharan, after Pirapaharan” is, needless to say, written after the military decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 18 and the discovery of Prabakaran’s body the following day. At the end of every chapter Roberts has attempted to link the discussion to the post-Eelam War IV realities of Sri Lanka.

The author and the publisher characterise their labour of love as an endeavour for critical scrutiny by the Sri Lankan people at home and abroad. And there is plenty of scrutiny, ranging from outright denunciation of thoughts to blind adulation bordering on veneration.

Michael Roberts is a Sri Lankan-Australian whose secondary and university education was in Sri Lanka. He attended school at St. Aloysius College in Galle and graduated with honours in History at the then University of Ceylon at Peradeniya before proceeding to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. After securing his D. Phil. in History in 1965 he taught at the University of Peradeniya from 1966 to 1976. He joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide in 1977 . He has since retired and is now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the same university.

In the words of the publisher: “His [Michael Roberts’] special interests are in cultural anthropology and historical sociology. In the result his research work tends to straddle the field of politics, history and culture. He has published a host of articles and a number of books on Sri Lanka. His expertise encompasses social mobility and social history, agrarian and tenurial issues, peasant protest, popular culture, urban history, caste in South Asia, practices of cultural domination and issues in ethnicity and nationalism. He has ventured occasionally to write on Indian socio-political history, Australian myth-making and the sociology of cricket.”

Very few scholars on Sri Lanka can match the credentials of Michael Roberts, though it must be emphasised that his theses, propounded from time to time, on the ethnic strife in the island nation have been contested and debated by equally erudite personalities. Love him or hate him, Michael Roberts’ works cannot be ignored.

The temporal focus of the essays encompasses the last two centuries for the most part, though there are excursions further back. Issues of collective identity and nationalism, the core issue of the ethnic conflict, as well as modes of communication and embodied practice during different eras provide some of the overlapping themes.
aareddyDisplaced Tamils released from government-run camps look for transport to get back to their villages on September 11…. Pic by CHAMINDA HITTATIYA/AP

Sinhala nationalism

Sinhala consciousness serves as a central theme within the collection, with particular attention to its modern form, namely, the currents of Sinhala nationalism from the British period onwards. One facet within this current has been the extreme form identified in critical fashion as “Sinhala communalism” or “chauvinism”.

The text of the essays leaves no scope for ambiguity that the crisis of conflicting interests faced by Sri Lanka as a nation was born several decades before Prabakaran, and the unstated subtext makes it known in loud terms that the core issue is not going to vanish into thin air as long as the root causes of the ethnic conflict are not addressed and redressed.

One chapter scrutinises the pogrom directed at the Muslim Moors by segments of the Sinhala population in mid-1915 and reveals the religio-political inspirations that prompted the violent attempt to teach a lesson to these migrants from southern India whose connections with the island go far back in history to the time of the arrival of their forefathers as traders.

A fuller understanding of this ideological current is provided by a detailed study of the political and evangelical projects of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933). This essay is complemented by another revelatory chapter that explores Dharmapala’s struggle for self-mastery and his relationship with his diaries – texts maintained in the English language.

Essay 12, on ethnic identity, and the next one, on how the logic of association led the Kandyan rulers of the early 19th century to merge enemies past with enemies present, provide theoretical excursions of import beyond their case material.

The attention to Sinhalese thinking in the collection is balanced, even if unevenly, by considerable attention to Tamil nationalism.

One essay indicates that the first sustained exposition of Sri Lankan Tamils as a “nation” was presented by the Ceylon Communist Party in 1944. However, the book does not trace the history of this current and jumps to a consideration of specific threads informing the commitment of those who joined the LTTE.

Two essays elaborate upon the cultural roots of the sacrificial ideology and the martyr cult, the “suicide-martyrdom” the LTTE employed as a political strategy for self-determination and for liberation from “Sinhala hegemony”. The protagonists have given a new political-religious meaning to the historically celebrated acts of religious martyrdom, which took place in the name of faith and belief. Martyrdom, characterised as witness to “astute faith” and the “reward of paradise”, has been transposed systematically in the present conflict into the “planting of seeds” of a suicide-martyr sharing and dying for the vision of liberation and self-rule. The families of these exceedingly motivated men and women suicide-strikers are held in high esteem within the community. Suicide-strikers do not believe that the suicide acts they commit are lethal.

The essays deal with the contours of the militant insurgency pursued by the Tigers, specifically the Cankam poetry and Bhakti traditions of southern India, as well as a whole range of everyday practices of religious devotion oriented towards the negation of the self and the offering of votive gifts to powerful entities/goals.

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Filed under British colonialism, communal relations, economic processes, electoral structures, ethnicity, historical interpretation, language policies, life stories, LTTE, Muslims in Lanka, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, riots and pogroms, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes, zealotry

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