Analytical Anthology

by B.Muralidhar Reddy
[REVIEW of CONFRONTATIONS in SRI LANKA: SINHALESE, LTTE & OTHERS]

Amended and abbreviated version or article in Frontline, Vol. 26, No. 20, 26 Sept 2009

Michael Roberts’s latest book assembles thirteen of his recent academic essays on the cultural and ideological roots of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil nationalisms in Sri Lanka. It includes a study of the pogrom against the Muslims in 1915 and a remarkably detailed analysis of the projects of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933), a staunch Sinhala Buddhist who launched a full-throated campaign against British rule and Christian missionaries.

The author‘s preface “Before Pirapāharan, after Pirapāharan” was written after the military decimation of the LTTE early this year, but all the other articles are the product of years of research. This journey, clearly, has been a labour of love. We now have some of the results before us so that they can be subject to critical scrutiny.

Taken as a whole, this book of 450 pages that include 35 striking photographs with mini-essays comes as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere heavily polluted by hasty accounts penned by fly-by-night journalists and self-appointed Sri Lanka experts on Eelam War IV.

The temporal focus encompasses the last two centuries for the most part, though there are excursions further back. Issues of collective identity, modes of communication and the embodied practices of committed people provide some of the overlapping themes that straddle past and present.

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. The author’s readiness to depict some of these expressions as “chauvinist” provides a clue to his political positioning today.

The book clearly shows that the crisis which Sri Lanka faces today was born well before Prabākaran. The roots of Sinhala claims to hegemony go deep. If the chapter on Dharmapäla’s thinking and the “Marakkala Kolahālaya” in 1915 are not revelatory enough, that on the logic of association and conflations of time which inspired the Kandyan rulers of the 1810s to link the threat posed by the demonic white foreigners with that of the “sädi demalu” (vile & fierce Tamils) of Dutugämunu’s time is illuminating: it highlights the historical depth of sharp differentiation.

Attention to Sinhalese thinking is balanced, albeit unevenly, by some space devoted to Tamil nationalism in modern times. Roberts 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 on the religio-cultural roots of the martyr cult deployed by the LTTE in the course of the Tamil struggle for self-determination. This takes Roberts on a journey into the southern Indian heritages around the Cankam poetry and bhakti movement. These chapters also dwell upon 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. Renewal of self through fusion with a deity, it is argued, is conducive to martyrdom on behalf of one’s people and their cause.

Michael Roberts’s corpus of writings is substantial. They “straddle the fields of politics, history and culture;” while his disciplinary specialities are described as “cultural anthropology and historical sociology” (publisher). Few scholars on Sri Lanka can match his credentials, though his arguments on the ethnic strife in the island nation have been contested and debated by equally erudite personalities. Love him or hate him, Michael Roberts’s works cannot be ignored.
(COURTESY FRONTLINE)

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