Michael Roberts, 6 March 2010

One’s academic trajectories and journeys are invariably subject to vagaries and contingencies. The events and researches leading to my interest in “communal violence” and “zealotry” in the 1990s, and thereafter to what I have called ‘sacrificial devotion” (embracing the topics of “terrorism,” suicide bombers and Tamil Tigers),[i] were shaped by such contingencies. Since my web site will present some short essays on both these topics in the course of this month, let me detail some moments during my research work that resulted in the journeys that produced such outcomes.

In 1986-87 I spent about 14 months in Sri Lanka on research work during my sabbatical year. I was completing my research and writing on the history of Colombo in British times and the associated rise of a Westernized middle class-cum-bourgeoisie – work that resulted in the book People Inbetween (Sarvodaya, 1989).[ii] The island was still under the clouds cast by the attacks on Tamils in the southern parts of the island in July 1983. Following the British colonial lexicon this momentous and tragic set of events was generally described as the “1983 riots.” But such politically-aware scholars as Newton Gunasinghe and Shelton Kodikara were among those who depicted the event as a “pogrom.” This was a sensitizing revision that I accepted.

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

The lesson crystallised when a chance event, one of those “contingencies” that I spoke of in my opening sentence, cut into the lines of research that had dominated my focus in the 1980s. Neelan Tiruchelvam buttonholed me and asked me to provide a broad overview on the event known as the “1915 riots” (marakkala kolahalaya in Sinhala) for a conference that was being organised in the Maldives by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, a gathering that encompassed South Asia writ large and included several scholars from the subcontinent.

Apart from the attractions of the enterprise, the Maldives as place of meeting made the offer irresistible to a beachcomber such as me. As matters turned out, the event was held in Kathmandu in February 1987, but that location was no less attractive. In effect my research direction took a U-turn in the sense that my existing field of research now had an additional field alongside it.

This terrain of research was not entirely new. Neelan approached me because he was aware of my earlier article on the “1915 riots,” one that was initially a Ceylon Studies Seminar paper at Peradeniya in 1972 and then appeared in print after revision in 1981.[iii] Both versions were moulded by an approach directed by the British empiricist tradition of historical research, albeit leavened by some sociological threads.

When I took up this particular baton once again, however, both my reflections and my subsequent explorations of additional bodies of source material were leavened by my experiences in teaching and reading social anthropology. One of my presentations at Kathmandu was a summary overview of the 1915 pogrom directed at the Sri Lankan Mohammedans (as the Muslims were called then), with some reflections thereon. This presentation was point-form and never re-written as such. But I also presented a written draft of another paper that eventually saw print under the title “Noise as Cultural Struggle” in a book edited by Veena Das which assembled some of the papers presented at Kathmandu (Mirrors of Violence, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1990).

With People Inbetween bedded as a book, from 1989/90 my research work was now directed towards a study of communal violence as well as nationalism in the modern world. My intent was to produce a book on the anti-Moor pogrom of 1915, a work that would run alongside research on another book on Sinhalese nationalism in the British period. The latter field was informed by the literature on South Asia, notably “subaltern studies.” It was also directed by my questioning of some lines of argument within this literature that were influenced by Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”[iv]

These lines of interest were not without the impact, emotional and otherwise, of the July 1983 pogrom. During my long sojourn in Lanka in 1986/87 and other visits I had gathered anecdotal data on the 1983 pogrom that deepened my reflective thoughts, and indeed, my anger about that cluster of events.[v] This material, moreover, had led me to conjecture that in their minds the stirrers and assailants behind the atrocities in 1983 as well as 1915 were moved by a sense of ‘legitimate’ vengeance so that their awful actions were deemed righteous. They were teaching the Moors (1915) and the Tamils (1983) a lesson.

I did not, however, wish to be submerged by the local particularities of empirical detail and my local particularity as a Sri Lankan. Comparative studies of ethnic violence in Europe, USA and India seemed advisable in order to preclude tunnel-vision. Short six-month sojourns at the University of Virginia in 1991, Delhi (1995) and Leiden (1996) rendered feasible by Fellowships secured as well as Australian research grants enabled me to broaden my vision. These travels included brief visits to the library archives at the Weiner Foundation in London and YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The considerable bodies of data from these fields that I collected remain on the shelves — mostly unanalysed. However, these explorations provided perspectives and raised useful questions.

Furthermore, they yielded photographs, startling photographs at times. I still have in my mind’s-eye an image of Nazi men and women clambering among a mound of Jewish bodies searching for booty – a newsprint photograph of poor quality that I saw at the Weiner Foundation. My quest for photographs had been inspired by two of the shocking scenes from the atrocious mayhem at Borella Junction, Colombo, on 24/25th July 1983 that had been reproduced in the Tamil Times.

1983 Borella rioters - burning

1983 Borella rioters - burning

Culled from the poor-quality reproductions in that periodical these images were reproduced in my literary essay, a personal statement of protest, entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983” when it was reprinted in the anthology entitled Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History (Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994).

Both the limits and incisiveness of visual imagery surround the embellishments attached to these pictures. One reveals a mob of jubilant looters and assailants and indicates that ordinary people participated in the pogrom (as indeed confirmed by numerous witnesses — from Karen Roberts in her July to the research work on the July 1983 pogrom undertaken by Naren Kumarakulasingham[vi]). The other is even more shocking, but also highlights how a picture can sometimes mislead.

When I saw this picture I took it as given that (A) the naked man was a Tamil and (B) that he was subsequently killed. Both interpretations were conjectures that amounted to cultural readings, interpretations that, say, a Canadian may not have essayed. Reading the image at face-value I also called the reproduction “Dancing the Killing.” (see Roberts, 1994d, page 324).

It was not till my article had reached the bookshelves that Charles Abeysekera gave me the name of the intrepid cameraman who took these flash pictures in extremely dangerous circumstances. This was Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who had then been attached to the Communist Party newspaper, Äththa, whose offices were a stones throw from Borella Junction. This led me to contact Amarasinghe and purchase better copies of the photographs he took that night. I also gathered empirical details from his observations as a witness of the activities that night both at the Kanatte cemetery initially and then on the streets around.[vii]

1983 Borella rioters - kick boxer
1983 Borella rioters – kick boxer

He confirmed both my principal conjectures. That poor Tamil man had indeed been killed. But he also modified my third assumption. The assailant was not dancing, said Chandragupta. He was swivelling around as he administered a karate kick. So I was mistaken on this detail. The critical aspect, however, was the fact that this killer, together with others around him, was certainly enjoying this horrendous work. Yes, as Chandragupta attested, both adrenaline and ecstasy were coursing thought their veins (see also a photograph from the 1958 mini-pogrom reproduced in Ivan’s Paradise in Tears, Plate 247).

These details, then, reveal a form of zealousness that is not motivated by religious fervour, but by ethnic prejudice, that is by relational subjectivities and sentiments based on ethnic differentiation (distinct in some ways from racial differentiation based on skin colour)[viii] and reaching a climax through political processes, rumour-mongering and currents of rhetoric.

It was within this background that I penned an essay, “Understanding Zealotry,” in 1995 for the Newsletter produced by my hosts at Leiden University, namely, the International Institute of Asian Studies. This essay will be inserted in this web site soon together with some other pictures illustrating the violence emanating from zealotry and extreme forms of nationalist or communalist action directed against an Enemy Other. A broader selection can also be reviewed by visiting the website and surfing down the right panel and clicking “Photos.” This site in its turn was due to an initiative from Dan Nourry[ix] after a Workshop I organised at Adelaide University in late 2005 to discuss “Sacrificial Devotion in Comparative Perspective: Tamil Tigers and Beyond.”

The projected book on the 1915 pogrom never eventuated. The reasons are two-fold: in preparing my anthology Exploring Confrontation in the years 1991-94 I distilled my work on the pogrom into two chapters. One, “The Imperialism of Silence” improved and filled out the circumstances that generated religious disputes and thus superseded my previous essay on “Noise as Cultural Struggle.” The other, “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against Moors in 1915,” summarised my main findings and arguments.

That done, I did not have the energy for a ball-by-ball coverage of the details clarifying the manner in which a section of the Sinhalese population terrorised most bodies of Mohammedans in their midst.[x] Besides, by 1994/95 I was fully immersed in my work on Sinhalese nationalism. By 1996 I even had several chapters in draft form.

Yet, these have never appeared in print. Twist, turn and contingency interrupted this book-venture. For one I was diverted to the work of editing a new set of articles on Collective Identities Revisited (Colombo, 1997 & 1998 under the Marga imprint). This endeavour in turn flowed into the interventionist project organised by Godfrey Gunatilleke on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation that involved several workshops in Sri Lanka between 1999 and 2003. Since all these ventures engaged the political processes and various currents of ideology within modern Sri Lanka, clearly, my research findings for the book remained directly pertinent to whatever I wrote under the ambit of these programmes. Indeed the draft chapters have informed all my articles within the period 1995-2009. Thus, the condensed abstracts that feature within the title “History-Making in Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese” in fact embody some of the findings destined for this unfulfilled book.

There was another reason for the delay in production, a major force in fact. While focusing on the changes arising in the period of British colonial domination, my outline for the book envisaged an initial background chapter that would condense the ideological and political circumstances preceding the advent of British control. The intention was to set up a “baseline” so that one could the better comprehend the changes emanating in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This meant a summary view of what we tend to refer to as the Kingdom of Kandy (though it is more proper to call it the Kingdom of Sinhalē). Well, then, as it turned out, this chapter ballooned out and became a book Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Associates, 2004).

This expansion backwards, let me assure you, was an educational experience. One could say it was a tale involving the “re-education of Roberts.” It was a lesson in humility. I discovered that one could be wholly illiterate but nevertheless highly knowledgeable about one’s society and able to transmit this knowledge by chant, poem, story and artistic expression on stone or wall. I had previously derived some experience of the power of oral transmission, and thus of oral sources for history-writing, through my anthropological teaching and research in other societies, notably Africa.[xi] But the active engagement in material on the Kandyan period and my serial conversations with such scholars as Ananda Wakkumbura, Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura, Srinath Ganewatte, Mayadunne, KBA Edmund, Ananda Tissakumara, Sandadas & Sandagomi Coperahewa and JB Disanayake inscribed the message indelibly in my consciousness and methodology.

Sinhala Consciousness is a complex book and far from easy reading. I assert here that the second chapter on the power of oral and visual means of cultural transmission is a central foundation for its findings. It is so central that Radhika Coomaraswamy understood its import and arranged for the ICES to print a re-worked version even before the book appeared in print: see Modernist Theory. Trimming the Printed Word: The Instance of Pre-modern Sinhala Society (Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2002, 46 pages, ISBN: 955-580-068-7).

As this title indicates, this essay underlines my previous criticisms[xii] of Benedict Anderson’s influence in the social science thinking. It is not that his Imagined Communities is erroneous. Print-technology in the era of capitalist market forces did revolutionise modes of transmission and heightened nationalist (and other) currents of thinking. But the alacrity with which scholars embraced this argument, deepened by some post-modernist currents of scholarship immersed in textuality,[xiii] has led to the underestimation of other modes of transmission that remained forceful in the modern era. It also meant that such scholars could not grasp the fact that people who did not possess a written script possessed the capacity to develop ideas of political community that embraced large numbers and spread over a wide area. Here, I am thinking of such African peoples as the Nuer, Dinka, Ashanti and Zulu, rather than the Mons, Lao, Burmese, Khmers, Vietnamese, Thai, Bengali and Sinhalese of Asia who had the backing of a written script as well. One did not require “concrete” local networks of kinship and interaction to develop sentiments of oneness with others who were not immediate neighbours. Anderson’s “imagined” rests on far too sharp a distinction from an unelaborated theoretical category identified as “concrete.” The latter is unelaborated and rests on the flimsy example of the aristocratic classes of early modern Europe characterised by relatively small size, “fixed political bases, and the personalization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheritance.”[xiv]

Imagined Communities could also be said to have misled the scholarship on Europe. Its emphasis on print technology took readers away from the sort of data and perspectives that led Adrian Hastings to contend that England and France had national identities by the later Middle Ages or the early modern period.[xv] Thus, my work on the Sinhala material, that of Hastings and the book Thant Myint U on Burma make nonsense of Hobsbawm’s assertion that there could have been no mass linguistic uniformity in countries lacking a formal system of education.[xvi]

Here, then, we see that the tracks of scholarship are beset with contingencies and sharp turns. The dribs, drabs and twists in my trajectory did flow into each other though not always in planned manner. Thus, for example, the work that went into the central chapter in People Inbetween, one that is entitled “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” has been of critical significance for my subsequent researches on Sinhalese nationalism. For those with access to this book let me stress that one of the principal arguments in this chapter is distilled within Chart I on page 15 which is entitled “Some Twentieth Century Ethnic Pejoratives in Sinhala and Ceylonese English.”

Indeed, I stress here that this deciphering work in “Pejorative Phrases” on the underlying semantic structure of disparaging epithets in the Sinhala language – inscribed as they are by a history of migrant encounters, devastating wars and colonial subjugations in the past – has led directly to my two signature essays, “Why Thuppahi” and “The Sinhala Mind-Set.” Both may arouse distaste in some Sinhalese minds. They are meant to generate reflection and self-examination rather than anger. If anger is aroused, then, I ask readers to pause and think “Why?”

Likewise, it was during my work among historical sources in the early twentieth century, and specifically my reading of Anagarika Dharmapala’s “A Message to the Young Men of Ceylon,” that I literally stumbled upon the ideological current involving the subsuming of whole (Ceylonese) within the part (Sinhalese) in a powerful taken-for-granted manner.[xvii] This was but one ingredient that entered my analysis in “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhala Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.” This article was drafted in 1976 and appeared in print initially in 1978; but it was influenced strongly by the pessimism that had overtaken me from 1973/74 while at Peradeniya University about the direction which ethnic relations in Sri Lanka were moving at that point of time. It provides no pleasure for me that subsequent events justified my pessimism and went beyond my forecast in the degree of severity envisaged.


Anderson, Benedict 1983 Imagined Communities, London Verso.

Brown, Kenneth and Michael Roberts (eds.) 1980 Using Oral Sources: Vansina and Beyond, special issue of Social Analysis, vol. 4, Sept. 1980.

Dharmapala, Anagarika 1965 Return to Righteousness, ed. by Ananda Guruge, Colombo, Govt. Press, Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Hastings, Adrian 1997 The Construction of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric 1990 Nations and Nationalism since 1880, Cambridge University Press.

Kemper, Steven 1991 The Presence of the Past, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Roberts, Karen 2001 July, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Roberts, Michael 1978 “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies 12: 353-76 [reprinted in Exploring Confrontations, 1994: chap. 10]

Roberts, Michael 2002 “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists?: Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences 1981, 4: 83-126.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “The Two Faces of the Port City:  Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.), Brides of the Ocean:  Port Cities of Asia, 1500 to Modern Times, Sydney, Allen and Unwin. pp. 173-87.

Roberts, Michael 1990 “Noise as Cultural Struggle: Tom-Tom Beating, the British and Communal Disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s-1930s,” in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots, Survivors in South Asia, Delhi: OUP, pp. 240-85.

Roberts, Michael 1993 “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 16: 133-161.

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “The Imperialism of Silence under the British Raj: Arresting the Drum,”  in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994, pp. 149-82.

Roberts, Michael 1994 c “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994, pp. 183-212 [reprinted under an altered title as chapter 5 in Roberts, Confrontations, Colombo, Vijtha Yapa, 2009].

Roberts, Michael 1994d “The Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994, pp. 317-30 [also reprinted in Nēthra, April-Sept. 2003, vol. 6, pp. 199-213].

Roberts, Michael 1996a “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 30: 245-72.

Roberts, Michael 1996b “Beyond Anderson: Reconstructing and Deconstructing Sinhala Nationalist Discourse,” Modern Asian Studies 30: 690-98.

Roberts, Michael 2001a “Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism,” in G. Gunatilleke et al (eds.): A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, No 4.

Roberts, Michael 2001b “The Burden of History: Obstacles to Power Sharing in Sri Lanka”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n. s., May 2001, 35: 65-96.

Roberts, Michael 2001c “Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History,” Ethnic Studies Report 19: 69-98 [reprinted in Roberts, Confrontations, 2009].

Roberts, Michael 2002 “Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhala Nationalism in Sri Lanka: Urumaya as Ur,” Colombo: Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, No 20.

Roberts, Michael 2004 Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Associates, 2004).

Roberts, Michael 2005a “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2005b “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2007a “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30:  857-88.

Roberts, Michael 2007b “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.

Roberts, Michael 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today June 2008, 24/3: 22-23.

Roberts, Michael, Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem 1989    People Inbetween:The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1980s, Vol 1 Colombo: Sarvodaya Press, with volume 1 drafted by M. Roberts, 389 pages.

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1997 Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol 1.

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1998 Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol. 2.

Rogers, John 1994 “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-Modern and Modern Political

Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 53: 10-23.

Thant Myint U 2000  The Making of Modern Burma, Cambridge University Press.

[i] See Roberts 1996a, 2005a, 2005b 2006, 2007a, 2007b, and 2008 in bibliography.

[ii] Also see Roberts, “Two Faces of the Port City,” 1989.

[iii] “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists?: Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences 1981, 4: 83-126.

[iv] This field is usefully summarized by John Rogers in his “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-modern and Modern Political Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 1994, vol. 53: 10-23.

[v] I had picked up anecdotes re the mayhem taking place in Sri Lanka in July 1983, two from Tamil friends who witnessed events first-hand. I wrote my article on the “Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom” (1994d) in a particularly pensive mood while relatively isolated on my own in a research environment in Charlottesville, Virginia. This essay is deliberately presented in a separate section of Exploring Confrontation as a counterpoint to the sanitized air of my other academic writings.

[vi] Kumarakulasingham has just finished a dissertation on the topic of July 1983 at a university in USA and has provided me with some information. The fictional background in Karen Roberts’s book is based on her experiences in Colombo, notably when she walked down the middle of Galle Road from Colpetty to her home in Dehiwala on Monday 25th July (as she clarified for me during the Galle Literary Festival in 2008). Note that Karen is no relative, but is as mixed as I am – being of Sinhalese and Burgher lineage with her Sinhala side being a mix of Navandanna and Govigama.

[vii] These photos are used for my web pages and also were deployed in the reprint of “Agony” in Nēthra. Thus the caption in Nēthra should now be read as my finalised perspective on this scene.

[viii] A clarification of the relational and experiential factors promoting ethnic differentiation and competition can be found in Roberts, “Ethnicity after Said,” 2001c.

[ix] From Macquarie University, Nourry, is working on the Catholic Church’s conceptualizations of martyrdom, past and present.

[x] Note that at Beruwela and Maradana the Moors had sufficient numbers of men to mount a defence and indulge in street battles.

[xi] Note the earlier influence of my editorial experiences in organising the articles reprinted within Using Oral Sources: Vansina and Beyond, special issue of Social Analysis, vol. 4, Sept. 1980, edited by Kenneth Brown and Michael Roberts.

[xii] See Roberts 1993 and 1996b. Also see Kemper 1991. This criticism seems to have had little influence on scholarly research. Anderson’s felicitous prose and his location at the centres of production seem to have sustained the hegemony he has secured in academic circles.

[xiii] Some post-modernist scholars seem to dwell in a discursive world enveloped by their own erudite texts. These texts serve as source of data and argument as they address each other. The lives of ordinary people and the societal structures that mould their lives simply become irrelevant: the cumulus clouds of post-modernist discourse reign supreme. See also, Roberts,”Ethnicity after Said,” 2001c.

[xiv] Imagined Communities, p. 74. For critical reviews, see Roberts 1993: 152-54 and Roberts 1996b.

[xv] Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood , Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[xvi] Hobsbawm, 1990: 92-130, espec. 93 and Thant Myint U, The Making of Modern Burma,2000.

[xvii] Return to Righteousness, 1965, pp. 501-18 – originally published in 1922 [but I believe it was presented earlier].

Kaplan’s Savage Orientalism


by Michael Roberts

2 January 2010

The original version of this article was drafted in September 2009. There was no response from Atlantic Monthly when I sent it to them. Nor did it pass muster with SLATE, Mother Jones, the NY Times, International Herald Tribune and Tehelka. However, HIMAL accepted it, but also made a few editorial changes and suggested some extensions. Their format did not have space for footnotes or citations. The version that is reprinted here is an amalgam of my original piece and the article that appears in Himal,

January 2010.

I here acknowledge the courtesy extended to me by the Editors of HIMAL. See for article and the Comments it drew.


The senior US journalist Robert Kaplan is well-connected and famous, a master of prose. He is versed in wrapping his international forays with word-pictures of place, person and context. His texts may ramble in places, but they are rarely ornate. The ‘word foliage’ displays are designed to be pleasing and are sometimes capped with striking titles – what could be more catchy, for instance, than the title of his Sri Lanka-focused piece in the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Buddha’s Savage Peace”?[1] But these invitations to buy into his investigations of the political terrain are mixed with dubious contentions. Notably, his recent interpretations of the Sri Lankan political scene are as simplistic as they are misleading.

    Although a longtime reporter, Kaplan was first widely recognised for his striking essay from February 1994, “A Coming Anarchy,” also published in The Atlantic. This article was prefaced by the line, “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” Kaplan is currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and his essays regularly feature in leading US newspapers. He has revealed remarkable versatility and has ventured into many battle terrains – authoring several books, including Warrior Politics: Why Leadership demands a Pagan Ethos (2001), Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005) and even a travel book entitled Mediterranean Winter

    Now, 15 years after “A Coming Anarchy”, Kaplan continues to depict images of anarchy by stirring up American fears of the Oriental ‘Other’. When Sri Lanka, normally an obscure place in most American eyes, re-entered the world stage with a showdown war in spring 2009, Kaplan seems to have jumped on board to continue this agenda of fear-mongering. South Asian tales of brutal wars and killings without ethical restraint have now been added to his offerings of looming anarchy. Here, the “morality of the result” (namely, suppression of the ‘terrorist’ LTTE in American eyes) has been conveniently discarded in favour of his dichotomy of the moment.
    Kaplan’s analysis of the Sri Lankan dispensation is not all dross. During his recent travels through the island, he talked at length with Bradman Weerakoon,[2] and mingled with several noted politicians and NGO representatives, such as the activist Kumar Rupesinghe. Kaplan also absorbed riveting arguments between Sinhalese and Tamils in the lounge room of the Indian diplomat who oversees the work of RAW in Sri Lanka.[3] He even dipped into the odd book, for instance one by K. M. de Silva and another by Channa Wickremasekera on Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka, 1594-1818 (Delhi, 2004).

    This image of the Sinhalese community in fear is deepened by a trip that Kaplan takes into the past with the aid of Wickremasekera and de Silva. The sturdy resistance to European invasion pursued by the Sinhalese for several centuries is highlighted. Unfortunately, this is done in ways that enable Kaplan to heighten two elements: the present-day Sinhalese political paranoia and the significance of Kandy as a “sacred city”. Thus, sacredness and serenity today are conveyed as being permeated by threads of political anarchy – juxtapositions and contrasts that are crafted into Kaplan’s increasingly Orientalist work in general. 
    These lines of emphasis dovetail neatly with the spin that Kaplan imposes on the contemporary conflict. It is a tale of “a quarter century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils” (emphasis mine). In keeping with his title, the essay drives home an associated point: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” During the brutal war, “the Buddhist Sinhalese relied on a powerful sense of communal religious identity” in order to defeat that “quasi-cult terrorist group” known as the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom Kaplan paints as a sadistic ogre. Thus, the victors in this war drew upon the same “emotional wellsprings as the tradition of worship at Kandy’s tranquil Buddhist shrines.” 
    In this neat manner, Kaplan builds upon his opening travelogue in serene Kandy by depicting a ‘torso’ marked by the awesome bloodletting of a war driven by religious fuel. This is a tactical ploy that, from the time of Edward Said, we comprehend as a standard element within Orientalist strategies. From the eighteenth century, the European literati developed a picture of a static unchanging ‘East’ that served as a foil for its self-affirming construction of a progressive and dynamic ‘West’. This process, of course, admits to various twists: currently, one sees sections of the Western media deploying Sri Lanka as an arena of inhumane war crimes in ways that highlight their own ethical superiority. If one deciphers the plot organising both Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and “Buddha’s Savage Peace,” their striking similarity is indicative of an Orientalist framework.

Christian Lacunae

There is a major omission in this analysis, one that has Kaplan presenting a potentially dangerous quarter-truth. Either by design or out of ignorance, Kaplan does not tell his readers that Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhalese participated in the bloodletting on both sides. Most Christians on both sides are Catholic and the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka has been sharply split down the middle as a result of the war. Indeed, any journalist worth his salt would know that Catholic priests have been ardent supporters and important ideologues in the LTTE enterprise;[4] and that Christians of all faiths have been among the Tamil Tigers who have carried out suicide attacks. In 1981, Roman Catholics made up around 41 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent of the largely Tamil districts of Mannar, Jaffna and Mullaitivu, respectively, even outnumbering Hindus in Mannar. Several senior LTTE personnel in the 1980s (such as Victor, Rahim and Lawrence Thilakar) as well as LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham were raised Catholic.    

    If this is deliberate obfuscation on Kaplan’s part, the question obviously arises: Why such a silence? In fact, this writer would suggest that this needs to be seen as firmly in step with Kaplan’s Orientalism – a branding of the religions (and peoples) of the East as those conducive to ‘savagery’. It is reasonable to contend that any reference to Christian involvement at the heart of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle would muddy the turbulent seas of the dangerous Orient that Kaplan is carefully moulding.

    In this, Kaplan is not alone. Another American intellectual, the well-known political scientist Robert Pape, has likewise maintained a studied silence on the Christian dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict. In his book Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), there is a chapter on the LTTE’s suicide bombers. In setting out the background, Pape notes:

The most prominent factor driving Tamil community support for individual self-sacrifice is fear of Buddhist extremism. Especially since the establishment of the new state constitution in 1972, prominent Tamil leaders have consistently claimed that the Sinhalese government is motivated by the goal to extend Buddhism into the Tamil regions of the island, a religious game plan that justifies treating the Tamil people harshly, which in turn justifies extreme self-sacrifice as necessary to meet the threat (emphasis mine).[5]

Pape drives this point home by relating religious inspiration to the suicide ‘cult’: “fear of religious persecution, not internal dynamics within Tamil society, largely accounts for the pervasive use of suicide terrorism in this case” (2005: 140). Sinhala Buddhist extremism is indeed a problem, but there are also Sinhala Christian extremist voices that sharpen the confrontations. The phenomenon thus becomes far more complex, ultimately boiling down to extreme forms of Sinhalese nationalism. Further, it should be stressed that the term used locally by moderate voices to depict the extremists at both poles of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide is usually “chauvinists,” a label that captures differentiation that is not based on observable racial features.

    Robert Pape’s thesis came out earlier in 2003 as an article in the American Political Science Review.[6] On this occasion, Satchi Sri Kantha, an ardent Tamil nationalist, contacted Pape in order to correct his presentation of the LTTE as a “Marxist group”. In the course of correspondence with Pape throughout 2004, Sri Kantha supplied him with information on the suicide cadres of the Tigers, including the role of Christians within such operations (mostly, I add, battlefront naval acts[7]). But in 2005, Pape proceeded to give an interview to the rightwing journal American Conservative in which he carefully avoided any reference to such facts. He could not escape the remarkable Sri Kantha, however, who got back in contact to ask him why he had failed to include mention of Christian cadres. “Is it because this would offend the sentiments of the American Conservative readership?” he asked.[8]

    Why indeed? These glaring omissions of the involvement of Christian Tamils in militant acts, omissions perpetrated by Pape as well as Kaplan, point towards prejudices and strategies of political import. They underline hidden agendas and political conservatism, as well as their unreflective Orientalism.

All that glitters
It should be noted that Kaplan’s coverage has been far better than that of some other media groups. In the tense period since the end of military action in Sri Lanka in May, some organisations have been criticised for running biased or even concocted stories critical of the Colombo government (the UK’s Channel Four being a foremost example).[9] Kaplan does not go up that path. His ‘deceit’ works instead through half-truths and oversimplifications. He is clearly not always alive to his blunders. This blindness arises not only from inadequate local knowledge and shallow spadework in certain regards, but also because Kaplan appears to be under the spell of his own wordplay.

However, deliberate tunnel vision does seem to intrude when Kaplan enters the realm of international politics. Stark evidence on this count was on display when he was reverentially interviewed in early July 2009 as an “expert” on Sri Lanka by Michael Totten, a high-profile conservative journalist and blogger, for the benefit of an American audience. [10]

Totten: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government ……

Kaplan then tells us that, by supplying Sri Lanka with arms, China has secured permission to build a deep water port at Hambantota as part of “its string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean — said to be a means by which China can encircle India with various military installations. He then refers to the killing of a “prominent media critic”[11] – eliciting a “wow” from Totten and encouraging Kaplan to proceed thus:

Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government.[12] So that’s one thing they did. …. The government killed thousands of civilians.

MJT: Tamil civilians?

Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.

MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?

Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months. 

So, the Sri Lankan and Russian operations in Chechnya are all of a piece. This is certainly an argument that one can place on the debating table, but there are glaring omissions here once we proceed to the global stage of comparisons: George Bush’s enterprise in Iraq and its subsequent ramifications, the range of American operations in Afghanistan, recent Pakistani-US operations in the Swat Valley for instance. While it may have been Totten who suggested the comparison, Kaplan seems happy to run with it. If Kaplan’s charm calls to mind the proverbial real estate agent, here, then, we find out that he is an American real estate agent.

    Nor is there much pleasure for Tamils in Kaplan’s reading of Sri Lankan events. Interspersed within his replies to Totten, one finds the following comment: “The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say ‘you have to kill all the people to get to us.’ So the government obliged them.”    

    Later, Kaplan was asked how popular the LTTE was amongst the Tamil population. “Not particularly popular,” he responded. “The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.”[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response – the second sentence does not follow from the first, and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

    Nonetheless, and predictably, the latter information drew an exclamation from Totten. The LTTE’s military capacities were indeed remarkable and was matched by its ruthlessness and use of suicide bombers. But it is typical that both Kaplan and Totten immediately honed in on the spectacular within its three military arms – namely, the air wing. Glitter evidently draws those without much background knowledge. Any amateur military analyst would have told them that the LTTE’s maritime capacities were in fact a central aspect of the LTTE’s strength, and that the embryonic air wing offered little more nuisance than a mosquito in hardline military terms. (Kaplan, it should be noted, has written well-regarded articles on naval power elsewhere.) From the very outset, during the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers’ coastal smuggling-and-shipping resources made India a safe haven and a steady source of supplies, while simultaneously enabling troop movements of immense strategic value for them. For over 20 years, their ‘brown water’ navy of speedboats was a major thorn in the side of the Sri Lankan military; while its international shipping company was a vital logistical medium for military hardware, as well as an economic asset.[14] Indeed, on one occasion in the 1980s, Prabhakaran himself stressed that “geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas.”[15] Kaplan, it appears, is blissfully ignorant of this dimension of the LTTE’s history, though to the detriment of his own analysis.
    As breathtaking, too, is the confidence with which Kaplan can tell the world that the Tamil Tigers were not “particularly popular” among the Tamil people. This is quite erroneous. Without visiting the Jaffna Peninsula, without much background reading, his unqualified response highlights his conceit. But, then, he was presumably addressing an American audience through Totten. To tweak the old saying, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man can play king.
Michael Roberts is an Adjunct Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University of Adelaide. 

[1] Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2009,

[2] Now retired, Weerakoon was a senior administrator who served at the highest levels, including stints as the right-hand of some Presidents. He is knowledgeable and widely respected.

[3] I was present too on this occasion at one point in late May 2009 and was among those participating in raging arguments. Key figures in this salon-debate included several Tamil parliamentarians, Minister Tissa Vitharana and Kumar Rupesinghe, with the latter often acting as mediator and peacemaker. Kaplan was mostly a listener.

[4] For instance, Bishop Emmanuel (now in Germany), Revd. Chandrakanthan (now in Canada) and Frs. Bernard and Pakianathan.

[5] Pape, Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, Random House, 2005: 146.

[6] Pape, “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 2003, 97: 343-61.

[7] See Stephen Hopgood, “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gambetta (ed.) Making Sense of

      Suicide Missions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: 43-76 and Roberts, “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of commemoration,” Social Analysis, 2006, 50: 73-102.    

[8] See Sri Kantha, “On educating Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago,” representing the Ilankai Tamil Sangam, namely, the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in USA.

[9] In late August 2009 Channel Four in UK broadcast a video purporting to show executions of Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan soldiers as filmed on mobile camera in January 2009, with the qualifying note that it was not authenticated. This video has been analyzed by experts and shown up as a concoction (Asian Tribune, 31 August 2009 and Neville de Silva’s article in Island, 14 Sept. 2009). In fact, one could say that Channel Four has tended to run a campaign marked by a pronounced animus against the Sri Lankan government. One of its journalists, Nick Paton Walsh, was deported from Sri Lanka around 10 May 2009 for filing a video and report on the IDP internment camps that was sullied by hearsay information about horrible conditions. On this issue, see Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in, 8 December 2009,

[10] Totten: “A conversation with Robert Kaplan,” 2 July 2009, archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php.

[11] Though he is not named, this would be a reference to Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sunday Leader, killed on 8th January 2009. Note that 34 media personnel have been killed – and others intimidated – between 2004 and 2009, so this is serious issue and indeed an indictment of the governing order (see 090722 _jds_ journalists.shtml).

[12] This is an exaggeration. The Sunday Leader was, and remains, relatively independent. There are a few English-media newspapers as well as Tamil and Sinhala newspapers/magazines that have some independence, while there are a few vibrant cyber-net sites such as http://www.groundviews. org. All the print media, however, work within a highly intimidating backdrop that constrains comment; while encouraging many independent news channels to cater to Sinhalese – repeat “Sinhalese” not just Sinhala-Buddhist – prejudices. This threatening environment does require emphasis.

[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response. The second sentence does not follow from the first and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

[14] See Roberts, “Ideological and Caste Threads in the early LTTE,” (2009, mss under journal review) and M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1994: 54, 71, 74, 78 and “Interview [by Ahilan Kadirgamar] with Ragavan on Tamil Militancy (Early Years),”

[15] Quoted by Shyam Tekwani, “The Man who destroyed Eelam,” ( home/20090523/default.asp. 2009, p. 10)




On Tuesday 20 October 2009 I received an unsolicited email pointing me towards a video clip in which an Islamic American lady named WAFA SULTAN takes on the Islamic world – full frontal so to speak — through Al Jazeera network. In doing so I included the email introduction which was part of the unsolicited message (see below).

A good friend, young and of sharp intellect, has indicated to me and others in our special cluster, that I have contributed to extremism by implicitly praising a form or reprehensible right-wing ideology with its own partialities, etc etc. SO, a process of re-education has been initiated for those on the fringes of certain debates. This is precisely what SACRIFICAL DEVOTION, VIRULENT POLITICS is about – note the second part of the title!!

Hence I enter the lively exchange initiated within our restricted circle within this open site so that others can join in. I thank Ajit for opening the subject up and others who joined in,

MICHAEL ROBERTS, in Adelaide, 21Oct. 09

An exraordinarily brave woman. Watch this quickly before it is taken off the WEBThis is amazing. WATCH THIS, BEFORE IT’S TAKEN OFF THE WEB =
It is extremely surprising that the Arab financed TV station in Dubai would allow this to air. Be sure and watch this, it is so powerful I have no doubt she now has a very large price on her head. I also have no doubt it won’t be on the net very long.
She is one impressive woman.
Here is a powerful and amazing statement on Al Jazeera television. The woman is Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American psychologist from Los Angeles . I would suggest watching it ASAP because I don’t know how long the link will be active. This film clip should be shown around the world repeatedly!

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Oct 20, 2009 at 8:39 PM

Dear Dr. Roberts,

I wonder if you email account has been hacked again, or if indeed you had intended to send out this link to this email group that you have kindly reconstituted, and with which you share many valuable links – and let me thank you for them. Your work continues to be very influential and provoking, and I look forward to reading more.

Just a brief however, to say in response – in case you do wish for this video clip to be circulate – Wafa Sultan’s clip has been widely circulated before, and I find it reprehensible in every way. Not only is her message saturated with racism and a portrayal of Islam that does not disguise its contempt, but it is factually untenable, and intellectually flimsy. Consider, for example, her ludicrous assertion in 4:43 of the clip “we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.” This comment, and many such others that she makes, betray – apart from an absurd effacement of history – a fawning acceptance of American and Israeli rhetoric.

But I am even more puzzled at your introduction of this message, and the endorsement that it is a rare or threatened on the web. In fact, it is not – it is freely available on Youtube. Second, and more troubling, is your claim that she is “brave” or “powerful.” First, she was speaking in the US – not in the Middle East. Second, her power or bravery comes from a parroting a view that is disseminated by the most vociferous right-wing American and Israeli groups – even the most critical Israeli scholars would disagree with her. And her belligerence is the same belligerence as, say, Fox news, (and ironically, the same belligerence that she accuses “Muslims” of having) and so I certainly do not think that there is anything that we need to celebrate in Sultan’s so-called “bravery.” In fact, we should acknowledge how commonplace and vulgar her views are.

However, this argument against her, has been made before, and the larger arguments that she makes (for example, a zealous faith in reason, secularism and modernity) have been shown to be simply untenable by scholars such as Edward Said and Talal Asad. And, as these scholars show, more to the point, that adopting a critical stance towards her does not mean one supports the Taliban, for example. In fact, I would wonder if your own work does not, in a Sri Lankan context, strive to undo the kinds of things she says.

What I do want to draw attention to here, however, is to say in response, in this (semi)public forum, that I will certainly not be circulating this video, at least not with any triumphalist tenor; rather, I might attempt to do so with an acknowledgment of how racist, imperialist and xenophobic her views are. But, one only has to turn on the news here in the US to see just how unexceptional and hawkish her views are.

And in that sense, your endorsement of her views and the sense of urgency with which you ask us to consider it are a re-iteration of those hawkish and insular views; I wonder how comfortable you would be, then, in affixing your signature to this video clip.

With profound respect and best wishes,

SWATI PARASHAR Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 9:44 PM

Dear Ajit

I read your response with interest and feel sufficiently provoked to express my views here. To me what is striking is how easily you dismiss her views, without locating it or even bothering to engage with her politics. I would not be surprised if you had similar views about Tasleema Nasreen, Ayan Hirsi Ali or such like. Your so called critical stance does not make you tolerant towards this kind of criticism of a faith thats coming from people who may have more experiences of the kind they speak about than you or me.

We have moved much beyond Talal and Said and much beyond teh political correctness you seem to espouse. Its not just about these women, who incidently happen to be Muslims, but about several brave others who critique their own regious and cultural experiences. I know of several Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who do that and face enough flak for the same. I do not see why you think its less courageous for her to speak in America than in teh middle east. To me its not teh location, but what she speaks that is imp. incidently thats also a very narrow view of America where such expressions would not make her life any more comfortable.

It is interesting that you feel the need to dismiss her views as racist and intellectually flimsy, denying her the right to her experiences and her politics. Moreover, you feel the need to protect communities ( whatever here you imagine she is spekaing against), over individuals right to speak up against their experiences. I am hoping your critique is not just targetted at women, who show exceptional courage to speka against the norm and knowing fully well the consequences of their actions. i am sure you are familiar of Hirsi Ali’s and Tasleema’s experiences.

Incidently, what she is spekaing against is a religion that she was born into and the way she has interpreted/experienced it. I do not see what crime that maybe, given that most religions do include racist and mysoginist concepts that have evolved through years of practices that are based on exclusion and violence. As I said she incidently is a Muslim. I am assuming you would have similar opinion of others who express deep anguish and rage at belonging to groups nad communities where their individual rights are non existent. Nothing is infallible and beyond questioning. Not religions of all kinds who treat women like beasts than anything else. I feel the need to reiterate that practices within Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, have all extended similar treatment to women and thsoe perceived as ‘others’. The least we can offer as intellectual space is for individuals to express themselves.

There is far more to her politics than racism, imperialism and hawkishness that you attribute to her. There are some people in the world who have shown exceptional courage in speaking up against what they perceive as injustices nad unfair treatment. I wonder who we try to please by rejecting such individual expressions. It is only unfortunate that her views are appropriated by the ‘right wing’, but that still does not mean that her views dont matter at all.

It is time we dropped all guards and understood the need to critique communities and groups and their politics. It doenst do any good to parrot ‘religions’ mean well…..we should jolly well acknowldge that militants, racists and rioteers have all emrged from within religious discourses and they locate their politics within religion.

I am disppointed by your reaction. In nay case, I am sure people have seen this video before it was sent on this email list (intentionally or unintentionally)…There is a need to debate certain uncomfortable issues instead of seeking refuge in the likes of Said and Talal. there is a need to look beyond ideologies as fortresses that need to be defended. There is need to realise that people matter more than the discourse.

best wishes


BODHI DHANAPALA Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:33 AM

You say: “I know of several Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who do that and face enough flak for the same.”
Could you give some details of Buddhists and substantiate your claim.

SWATI PARASHAR Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:45 AM

for Bodhi D’pala
So is the debate only about proving a point? then maybe u could look around yourself….

How many Hindus have spoken against the caste atrocities, against radical/militant Hindu politics…?

Likewise, there are enough Sri Lankan Buddhists, who have expressed grave concerns on the way the Tamil community has been treated by the state and are opposed to the religious nationalism that the state has propounded, that has often excluded minorities.

Christians have done likewise against the Church dictats which restrict freedom of individuals esp women.

The critical discourse has always been part of any religion….and those speaking have never had it easy esp women….

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:45
Dear Swati,
Thank you for your response; I have responded publicly on this forum once again, and I ask anyone not interested in this exchange to excuse this flurry of emails.
Swati, I am in disagreement in almost everything you say; not simply your political stances, but your theoretical claims as well – assuming that we can separate ‘politics’ from ‘theory.’ But I will somewhat artificially separate the two because I hope to pose a question that may leave this debate open, – and if people would like to comment, I invite them to do so, on this list serve or to please contact me to form a different email group.
So I will respond to one drift in your thought. You say, “Your so called critical stance does not make you tolerant towards this kind of criticism of a faith that’s coming from people who may have more experiences of the kind they speak about than you or me.”
One of the clear drifts of your response, I think, is to pose the question of people or discourses ( a distinction that I do not draw here), and to suggest that people’s experiences give them a right to speak (out) against certain violence. But I very much disagree that personal biography authorizes someone to speak in a way that indemnifies their positions, nor that they have a privileged viewpoint to their politics. Not that I want to suggest that certain authors have not experienced unimaginable atrocity, but that experience does not automatically produce a politics that we should espouse. In fact, is not you who psychologizes Sultan’s position by claiming that her experience authorizes her to have a certain kind of politics? But how is that different from, let’s say, and Israeli position that suggests that “their experience” of the Holocaust authorizes them to have certain views, or that the American experience of 9/11, allows them to practice all kinds of violence in the name of that event? I do not want to deny that these events occurred, but we must certainly guard against the fact that the myriad political positions that flow from them should all have equal merit, or are all equally valid. In fact, if politics automatically flowed from experience, we could not begin the questioning of everything that you call for. If we must “engage with her politics” as you say, then we must in some way refuse to psychologize or biographize Sultan’s position and consider her ability and choice to mediate her struggle against fundamentalist Islam in a number of ways.
You also note that: “we should jolly well acknowldge that militants, racists and rioteers have all emerged from within religious discourses and they locate their politics within religion.”
I completely agree with this statement, but I would extend it to Sultan herself: militants, racists and rioters have emerged claiming their “experiences” or “victimhood” as legitimation for the politics they espouse. And I certainly do not claim to defend religion or prevent the critique of communities and groups and I did not express this view. I despise the abhorrent treatment of women in certain Islamic regimes, but it seems that Sultan’s view offers very little in a critique or position that would promote a more inclusive politics.
I have many other disagreements with your position, and I invite you to continue this discussion by writing to my email directly if you choose. At least let me note that, Sultan’s views such as “we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people” are inexcusable and unjustifiable, at least not by an appeal to either a standard of intellectual rigor or a progressive or inclusive politics. And my intention to respond to Dr. Roberts’ email was to draw attention to this fact.
Thanks for your time and best wishes,

JEFFREY BALE Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 3:15 AM

I completely agree with your views, Swati.

BTW, Wafa Sultan periodically appears on al-Jazira, a news network that systematically peddles Arab nationalist and Islamist propaganda are adopts a virulently anti-Western stance, to challenge Islamist spokesmen. In the process, of course, she is subjected to incredible amounts of religious, political, and gender abuse. I would say that makes her courageous, though not as much so as Hirsan Ali, who had to have bodyguards assigned to protect her, merely for stating the obvious. The Islamist response to any criticism of Islam, no matter how legitimate, is to threaten to kill the critic, as one can document in numerous contexts. The fact that so many intellectuals not only try to appease them by advocating levels of “sensitivity” that are not granted to anyone else, especially in Western societies where all oxen are gored and everything sacred is (and should be) satirized, is itself the real scandal.

As for those who continue to worship that dishonest propagandist Said and his ilk, peddle other types of mindless political correctness, and slander everyone who disagrees with them as “imperialists” or “Islamophobes,” who really cares what they think about anything? The apologists for Islamism, like the apologists for communism and fascism, will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history. The sooner, the better. What we need is more George Orwells, not more Andre Gides.

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 4:45 AM
My last response:
It never ceases to amaze me how much ire scholars like Said and Asad (let us not talk about the likes of people like Foucault and Derrida!) evoke amongst the most gentle people; and I must assume that Jeffrey Bale is a kind and gentle soul, since he has evoked the most velvet passive-aggressive tones and allusions to belittle my comments. And since we are all here for a bit of fun, let me retort!
Let’s assume that Jeffrey Bale’s (I will refer to his proper name since I lack the tact he shows) comments have some merit; a far-fetched notion as that is. (Among the gems in his little email is his claim that Hirsan Ali is “more courageous” than Sultan simply because she needed bodyguards.) It is alarming, how the structure of his critiques and jabs parallel Wafa Sultan’s! I am a worshipper (of Said), in a religion which can be dismissed wholesale (“mindless political correctness”) as a backward, anti-modern ideology that goes against the grain of history (“consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history”). And he suggests, about the views of my fellow horde of zealots, “Who really cares what they think about anything?” What a lovely way of summing up American and Israel foreign policy attitudes towards the middle east over the last half century! Jeffrey Bale has certainly watched the video clip, I see, and is practicing Wafa Sultan-lite!
But since Jeffery Bale has made no reference to the two emails I shared (which claim no great merit on its own, they are quick dispatches) and showed no attempt to read, cite, argue, reason with anything like good faith with the people with who he is in dialogue (this email group in general, myself in particular – and for my disagreements with Swati, I thank her for the generosity she shows), I scarcely can believe that he has bothered to read “Said and his ilk” with any “sensitivity.” In fact, none of what he attributes to me is accurate. And though I am certainly not a huge fan of Said, I acknowledge the weight of his work (I am a bigger fan of Frenchies like Foucault and Derrida, and I say this to allow Jeffrey Bale to have a finer impression of me than he already does). Dear Jeffrey, did you know that Said in fact wrote quite a bit on both George Orwell and Andre Gide?
But since Jeffrey does not really care what my ilk thinks, I am afraid that I will loiter in the refuse of history. From here, we will all look up and forward to more to come from Jeffrey Bale. But I hope to find some comfort in the others I might find in the dustbin, for example Walter Benjamin, who often invoked that image to invoke the pathos of the wreckage of civilization (Edward Said and his ilk have written on this as well), and Jeffrey Bale may well want to look up this reference to note the profound irony that marks every comment of his own email.
from the Dustbin,
P.S. I will now refrain from further responses

GAUTAM GHOSH Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 9:27 AM

Hello All,

I am interested and invested in these debates. However I could not view this particular clip, either via the email below or by searching on youtube. Anyone else have this problem — and solve it?

From my — admittedly hasty — review of the debate thus far, and some basic info I’ve found on the Internet, my impression is her perspective is more problematic than promising. And the apparent approval she has garnered from people like David Horowitz and Glenn Beck doesn’t bode well.

But, again, I haven’t seen the clip and will appreciate being pointed to it.

Best wishes,


RIAZ HASSAN Wed. 21 Oct morning

Dear Michael,

Wafa Sultan is a vocal Syrian/American critic of Islam and you can find all her statements on the internet including the video you have circulated. She presents a personal view of Islam, Islamic world, Muslims and what is wrong with them. Sultan speaks for herself (and does so passionately) and those who share her views but not for all Muslims and even non Muslims as reflected in the ensuing exchanges following your postings of her video clip. I hope that for those who want to critique Islam, Islamism, Islamic regimes would, Muslims would consider going beyond applauding and identifying with criticisms of Ali, Tasleema and Sultan. There are a whole range of sources, critiques and commentaries which are easily accessible. I hope that in our haste to we don’t dump works of people like Said and Asad. The easy starting point for those interested will be the 2003 two part essay entitled “/Which Way to Mecca/’ by the late Clifford Geertz in the /New York Review of Books/, and then there are feminist NGOs like the/ Sharkat Gah/ in Lahore and scholars associated with them, books by Khaled Abou al Fadl (particularly ‘/Speaking in God’s Name’/ for gender issues and Islamic regimes), Hanifa Deen’s ‘/The Crescent and the Pen/’ on Taslema Nasreen and even my book /Inside Muslim Minds.


MICHAEL ROBERTS Wednesday morning, 21 Oct.Adelaide

The cross-reference to the WAFA SULTAN clip arrived unsolicited on Tuesday evening on via Lankan circuit with the “Preamble” penned by a Sri Lankan whom I did not know. I used ‘scissors and paste’ and sent the message on to our sacrificial devotion cluster.

I had never heard of Wafa Sultan or seen the clip before – which just goes to show that many in Australia and in Sri Lanka are not at the epicentre of worldly debate or power [while Guam and New Zealand seem beyond the cyber world of U Tubes to judge from Gautam’s and Douglas Farrer’s inability to view the clip].

Thus, impressed as I was by the forcefulness with which Wafa Sultan confronted the Islamic world in the heartland itself — insofar as Al Jazeeera is so located – I considered the ‘tale’ worthy of notice in our circle.

I am grateful to Ajit for bringing me up to speed and introducing me to a range of debates with which I have limited familiarity. I did note Wafa Sultan’s either//or approach to the subject – an attitude I do not share. Ajit’s comments notwithstanding, I think she is brave, as, indeed, indicated by the manner in which a mullah branded her a “heretic”.

I thank Ajit too for making me aware of the American context of debate and for opening up a fascinating, if contentious, terrain of discussion for consideration.

It will now be inserted on
which, incidentally, has VIRULENT POLTICS in its formal title.


Bodhi Dhanapala is not a member of our cluster and his intervention indicates considerable entreprenuership! Apropos of his query and its implicit political positioning, I note (A) that The present regime came to power on a campaign which explicitly lauded the 1956 political transformation and may even have contained references to its totemic emblem, Anagarika Dharmapala; and (B) that in the last 5-8 years there have been sporadic attacks on Pentecostal and Catholic churches.

I do not have figures on the latter phenomenon and would appreciate it if someone posts cross-reference or gives some basic empirical facts.

For those unfamiliar with Dharmapala (1864-1933) note the two articles in my anthology Confrontations. But what is more pertinent to this issue is the situation today and rohan Bastin’s article is hot press; see Rohan Bastin, “Sri Lankan Civil Society and its Fanatics,” Social Analysis, Spring 2009, vol. 53/1, pp. 123-40. His abstract runs thus: “The current moment, seen by some as an interregnum between societies of discipline and control, is marked by intense forms of religious fanaticism and iconoclasm that are striving to create new forms of the state. This is evident in the militancy and political engagement of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, who promote war against Tamil separatists as well as violent resistance to the proselytization identified with global civil society agencies that, due to the war and the 2004 tsunami disaster, have been active in the country. The article looks at this rising Buddhist militancy, which is associated with a political party that is linked to the more famous party known as the JVP. It argues that instead of resisting the formation of the new global civil society, the iconoclasm of this Buddhist political formation is facilitating its establishment.

If so disposed I encourage some of you to read Rohan’s article and initiate separate debate within the s/v/p web site.

MICHAEL Roberts, 25 Oct 09

On a different tack, I recommend a read of Mike Marqusee: If I am not myself, London: Verso, 2008. In this book “he reminds us … that Zionists and anti-Semites sg hare the same sinister, racialized concept of group identity. both in the eloquence of his writing and the deep humanism of his vision, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the spirits of Isaac Deutscher and Edward Said” (reviewer Mike Davis). Mike is an anti-zionist Jew, and an American in London who has written book on bob Dylan and on cricket. Indeed, I met him because of another cricket addict, Niggy Tiruchelvam.

Apart from content and thrust Mike presents his contentions in accessible language

SWATI PARASHAR Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Thanks Riaz for drawing attention to the critiques. Much appreciated. However, the debate is also about who can speak for whom. If Ali, Sultan and Nasreen can be dismissed as expressing ‘personal opinion and as speaking for themselves, might not it apply to all of us? when can/and most importantly who can effectively be representing a group especially a religious/ethinic group is also worth paying attention to. Why should the experiences of these women not be speaking for/to other women and men. They have received considerable support too and that cannot be overlooked. I have been greatly troubled by these questions because my fundamental understanding and postion is that religions are patriarchal domains and it is not fair to dismiss criticisms of people (women) who live through different experiences. Does that mean that only certain people’s experiences can be validated? For example, whats so unusual and ‘personal’ about Nasreen claiming the horrifying treatment of minority women by Islamists in Bangladesh and why should these women’s lives be brutally threatened by the radical forces only because they argue that their  experiences reveal religions are oppressive and patriarchal ? Whats so unusual and personal about critiquing ones experiences of belonging to any community? I am thinking of Rajini Thiranagama too, who had the courage to speak against the LTTE. She also spoke against a community that she belonged to, didnt she and paid the price with her life.

I am raising these questions in order to argue that we should not also be hasty in dismissing these women, their locations and their politics. Religions should not be sacrosanct domains which are beyond common critique and dissent. Religions/practices and popular culture  are so intrinsic to our lives (I speak as a South Asian and specifically as an Indian) that it is important to allow ‘personal’ critiques and enagage with them. I am against the politics of silencing these women only because they speak in a language we are unwilling to understand or appreciate. My point is again, how do we decide whose critique is valid and representative?
Thanks to Michael for facilitating this debate.

Analytical Anthology


by B.Muralidhar Reddy

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.



by Michael Roberts
22 May 2009
FRONTLINE VOL. 26, No 12, 6-19 June 2009.
[Note: The article is based on a talk/presentation before the Sri Lanka America Association on 26 May as part of a Forum that included Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu and Mangala Samaraweera. The topic addressed was : “Post-War Scenario.”]

Orient Club - 1907

Orient Club - 1907 -Founded in 1894 the Orient Club represented the peak of the indigenous social order in Colombo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its members were those doctors, lawyers, "landed proprietors," businessmen and administrators who were attracted to the recreational facilities around bar, lounge, billiards and bridge. The chat embraced politics and it is likely that many a memorandum in the struggle for constitutional devolution was drawn up within its portals. Indeed, this picture includes such key figures as EJ Samerawickrame, FR Senānāyake, James Peiris, Walter Pereira and Frederick Dornhorst.The Orient Club was trans-ethnic and cosmopolitan in orientation. Its minutes from the period prior to 1912 indicate a membership of 78 Sinhalese, 4 Moors, 12 Tamils, 25 burghers & Eurasians, 4 Colombo Chetties, 1 Parsee, 1 West Indian (TW Roberts) and one whose ethnicity could not be ascertained. There was one significant exception to its openness however: Europeans were specifically debarred from membership in what was clearly a counter colour bar, a form of anti-colonial resistance.

“One can win the War, but lose the Peace.” Cliché this may be, but it also a hoary truism that looms over the post-war scenario in Sri Lanka. The triumphant Sri Lankan government now has to address the human terrain rather than the fields of battle.

In facing this challenge both government and concerned people must attend to another truism: as Sinnappah Arasaratnam pointed out long ago, extremisms have been feeding off each other and undermining political compromise in Sri Lanka over a long period of time. Now, apart from the well-known Sinhala chauvinist forces outside and within the Rajapakse government, we must attend to the Tamil chauvinist forces in the TNA and elsewhere in Sri Lanka, in Tamilnadu and in the ranks of the vociferous SL Tamil diaspora across the world. These forces have to be corralled and undermined.

This is not an easy task. It calls for a multi-stranded strategy involving many moderate forces. One element is already in place: under the initiatives taken by the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs under Dew Gunasekera Tamil has been made a compulsory subject at school in the Sinhala-speaking areas since mid-2007; while proficiency exams have been introduced at various levels of the public service that give incentives to those with bi-lingual capacity. It remains to be seen whether these steps on paper reach deep and become implanted as effective practice.


Banda-Chelva Pact

Banda-Chelva Pact


Government’s Will and Political Reform

As clearly, all observers are wondering if President Rajapakse’s sweet words will be matched by substantive reforms in the political dispensation which institutionalize devolution and reach out to Sri Lankan Tamil hearts and minds. When some three lakhs of Tamils in the northern Vanni chose in the course of year 2008 to move east with the retreating LTTE forces, they did so because they distrusted the Government and believed the LTTE was their protector. So, President Rajapakse’s advisors have to ask two related questions. “How was this so?” “And why are the Tamil peoples, including many in the Jaffna Peninsula and in Colombo District, so alienated and distrustful of the present regime (and past regimes)?”

In addressing this issue they must thank the Tigers for their parting ‘gift’. By turning draconian around January 2009 and holding roughly three lakhs of Tamil people in “bondage”, to use DBS Jeyaraj’s term, till they eased constraints on the remnant 50,000 on the 10th May 2009, the LTTE alienated most of these people – sometimes to the point of virulent opposition.

But note, too, that the feeling of bitterness extends beyond the LTTE. “I do not know the purpose of my life. I wonder why and for what the LTTE and military fought the battle and what was achieved in the end. We believe the Tigers, Sri Lanka government and Indian people with whom we share a special bond are all responsible for our fate today,” said one 67-yearold named Aryanathan when he was interviewed at Manik Farm Zone IV by a body of foreign journalists (see Muralidhar Reddy article in Hindu, 27 May 2009). Aryanathan spoke in English and presented this view as a distilled statement embodying the views of some 21 IDPs assembled at one spot.

Subject to the caveats encoded within Aryanāthan’s statement, the feelings of the Tamil refugees towards the LTTE represent a reality check to the Tamil communalists in Lanka and abroad who are marooned within their very own island of rage and fantasia. The sentiments of such Tamil IDPs are also a potential boon for the government of Sri Lanka. But will the government demolish this opportunity by being too draconian in its treatment of the IDPs in what are effectively internment camps rather than “welfare centres”? Screening the IDPs is certainly called for and de-mining is an essential operation in the war-ravaged terrain of their old villages, but military adjutants who bark orders will undermine the political project of the government. The administrators, whether military or civilian, must be individuals with a humane touch. Their rule must also be transparent and marked by the registration of all IDPs.

While the Tamil IDPs are an immediate issue, the long-term question of constitutional reform cannot be postponed. This is not my field of expertise. The draft 2000 constitution is widely regarded as a good foundation which specialists in Sri Lanka can build on for this purpose.

But from the outside I suggest that these specialists should be ready to (a) think outside the box and go beyond the 13th amendment in the constitutional reforms that are put in statutory place; and to (b) insert some measures of asymmetrical devolution within these plans.

Ongoing Obstacles: Authoritarian Big Men, Anti-Democratic Practices
Suppose, then, that by some work of genius a wonderful new constitutional scheme of power-sharing is worked out and put in place. Will it last? Can it work? I foresee two major problems that will undermine this project, problems that have in fact undermined the working of democratic institutions in Lanka for six decades. In a nutshell these are (A) the overwhelming concentration of power in the President’s office in the De Gaulle constitution set up by J. R. Jayewardene in 1977 with advice from Professor A. J. Wilson; and (B) anti-democratic practices in electoral processes and party organization that are of endemic character. Both these facets are sustained by (C) a set of cultural practices that I have described as the “Asokan Persona” in the course of four essays in Exploring Confrontation (Reading: Harwood and Delhi: Navrang, 1994).

My path to this theory was accidental and began at Peradeniya University in 1970. I had placed an application for research funds in late 1969. Having no response by early 1970, I asked the deputy-registrar why no decision had been taken. Answer: “we could not meet because Professor HA de S. Gunasekera is too busy” (he was electioneering for Mrs Bandaranaike’s ULF alliance). I buttonholed HA de S at the earliest opportunity when no one else was around. He said: “Yes, yes, yes, I will attend to it.” Not easily fobbed off, I utilized his bosom-friendship with Dr. AJ Wilson within his own department to present an alternative pathway: “Why can’t Willie attend in your place?” The immediate and instinctive reaction was” No, no, no. I have to be there.” QED. I had to wait till the year never-ending.

That, in a nutshell, is what I conceptualize as the Asokan Persona. The Big Man (invariably male) has to control every fiddling little thing. My theory therefore highlights a deeply-rooted cultural tendency towards the over-concentration of power at the head of organizations and a failure (if not an ingrained inability) to delegate power.

Apart from generating administrative bottlenecks, such practices sustain a top-down flow of authority in ways that stifle initiative among higher-level and middle-level officers. This strand of interpersonal organizational practice, in turn, is shored up in Asia’s hierarchical context by cultural practices that encourage subordinates to kow-tow (significantly a Chinese word incorporated into English) to superiors in ways that encourage them to think themselves God-Almighty. This tendency is accentuated by standard practices associated with ministers of state at public functions: the ministerial or presidential persona is always pirivarāgena, surrounded by an entourage (or preceded by beeping security cars on road). The concept pirivarāgena is deeply etched within Sinhalese thinking: images of the Buddha are surrounded by disciples and followers in many temple wall-paintings; and it is known that chiefly journeys in Sinhalese kingdoms past were invariably pirivarāgena.

Where such practices pertain to the head of state, that is to President or Prime Minister, the Asokan Persona has one additional ingredient denied to, say, a head of department. At the apex the Persona not only embodies concentrated power with all the force of legitimised authority, but is also vested with the aura of sacredness. In brief, the position combines the roles of Pope and King (or Queen) with an Asian twist. Righteousness envelopes the person and his (her) acts. It follows that challenges from below are likely to be deemed to be unrighteous (or unpatriotic), a form of heresy.

Disturbing Thoughts
One does not need to be a Newton to conclude that what the Sri Lankan President gives as constitutional gift, he can withdraw too. Or his successor can. Ergo, it follows that constitutional transformation must also curtail the existing presidential powers. Is this likely? The short answer is: rivers do not flow backwards. In effect, any scheme of reform is vulnerable and on shifting sand.

Add to this the character of the two main parties: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party. Neither have internal democracy. Worse still, whispers from around suggest that elections in the past decade or so have been widely marked by intimidation, vote-rigging, denial of voting rights by clerical acts and all manner of chicanery. If these tales are valid, once we set them within the context of over-centralized organizational practices of the Asokan type, what we have in Sri Lanka is a form of democracy that is riddled with caverns and dungeons.

A Critical Issue: Part-Whole Relationships
Such concerns aside, many have welcomed the President’s parliamentary address on Tuesday 19th May. His symbolic deployment of a few sentences in Tamil was, indeed, as innovative as welcome. His dismissal of ethnic identity as irrelevant was also applauded widely.

This assertion was concomitant with an emphasis on the overwhelming importance of two categories of being in Sri Lanka: those patriotic (rata ādhara karana aya) and those unpatriotic (rata ādhara nokarana aya). Rata ādhara nokarana aya was used in the sense “un-Sri Lankan” – that is, in the manner “un-American” in Yankee-speech. For this reason, it is feasible to interpret the argument in dark ways as a warning to critics of the government.

I prefer, here, to dwell on the benign reading of this viewpoint as a rejection of the pertinence of ethnic identity and thus of ethnic differentiation. But I do so in order to argue that such a contention is beset with pitfalls and lacks substance.

For one the President’s stirring message was (and continues to be) contradicted by popular depictions of the triumphant war as a re-enactment of the Dutugemunu Elāra episode in Sri Lanka’s history, a trope now for indelible Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The President himself catered to this understanding by garlanding a statue of Dutugemunu a few days later.

As problematically, at the celebration honouring the war heroes on Friday 22nd May, the President spoke of the jātika kodiya, sinha kodiya (national flag, Sinha flag) in the same breadth. In this critical conceptualization a part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese people, is equated with the whole of Lanka. This ideological act of merger is presented in taken-for-granted manner, thus, insidiously and powerfully.

Let me clarify the relationship of part to whole via a comparative excursion that addresses the relationship between the concepts “England” and “Britain” and thus English” and “British”. Let me focus on this issue over the long period 1688 to 1945, a period when the British Empire was built up and sustained.

England was the central force in the regional and institutional complex that came to be known eventually as Great Britain. In the result it was common in the 19th and 20th centuries for English persons to use the terms “English” and “British” as synonyms. I have evidence of General Hay MacDowall (as Scot a name as you can get) doing the same thing unthinkingly as he sat atop Kandy in 1803. Since the Scots and the Welsh benefited immensely from British strength and expansion it would seem that they went along with the taken-for-granted hegemony of England within Britain. Thus, while ‘roaming in the imperial gloaming’ some Scots accepted English dominance – till recent decades when their nationalism has sharpened and taught new generations of English persons not to equate “England” with “Britain”.
I shall return to this facet, the incorporation of whole by part, within the Sinhala mindset at the concluding moment in my essay. But I must also explain why the President’s benign emphasis is impractical and lacking in substance. This calls for an excursion into the foundations of ethnic identity and patriotism, a complex subject that can n only be clarified incompletely in brief comment.

Identity and Patriotism
Endowed with speech and memory, human beings classify the world around them. Vernacular language schemes develop in the course of human interactions with different others in contiguous space. These relationships are inter-subjective and self-referential. Labels define “Us” in distinction from named “Others.” Though boundaries are not watertight and few peoples are totally homogeneous, the transgression of boundaries, say, by boy-girl affairs, sometimes generates an emphasis on the sanctity or worth of a group. Needless to say, the cluster of factors and practices that sustain the boundaries of named groups over an extended period of time can vary from place to place and, in any specific case, can alter over time.

Family and familiar locality is often of central significance in the nourishment of loyalty to group and its associated territorial space. Thus, in most instances a Sri Lankan’s patriotism to his island entity is built upon local experiences and sentimentalities. I conjecture that President Rajapakse’s Lankan patriotism is founded upon his love for his gama (village) and his pride in being a Ruhunu kollek (a lad from the Ruhunu South). My own profound Sri-Lankanness is built upon deep sentiments around the Fort of Galle, my life-memories around my alma mater, St. Aloysius College, and such beautiful landscapes as Peradeniya Campus and its Hantane Range.

To erase such pillars and familiar roots in any individual’s memory-bank is both impractical and silly. Likewise one must allow for the fact that among many individuals their Sri-Lankan-ness has been generated through their ethnic identity as Burgher, Malay, Sinhalese, Tamil et cetera. In other words, a pyramid of ethnic and other identities can strengthen patriotism and nationalism.

The Sri Lankan cricket team in the 1940s onwards was bolstered by the likes of a Sathasivam, a Heyn or a Coomarawamy. When Sri Lanka faced Tamilnadu (or Madras CA) for the Gopalan Trophy from the early 1950s, the Tamils of Sri Lanka faced up to the “Other” as sturdy “Ceylonese” to a man. The tragedy of Lanka’s history is that so many Sri Lankan Tamil patriots of yesteryear were led (for reasons I cannot tackle here) to discard their Lankan-ness and adopt a separatist Eelam identity or to discard their island roots altogether.

On these solid grounds of sociological theory, therefore, I assert that Sri Lanka today has to recognize that its patriotic identity “Sri Lankan” must be built upon a confederative principle that recognises the existence of several communities as well as three nations within the entity Lanka (Ceylon). The three nations are the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. The communities are the Malays, Burghers, indigenous Väddās, Colombo Chetties, Borahs, Sindhis, Parsees and Memons.

For this pyramid of loyalties and sentiments to be sustained, it is imperative that the Sinhalese=Sri Lankan equation must be undermined and split asunder (witness the manner in which the English=British equation has disintegrated in the last 40 years). A scheme of constitutional devolution directed by goals of appeasement is obviously vital to such a process. But my argument here points to the vital need for ideological work that seeks to undermine the hegemonic swallowing of the Sri Lankan whole by its Sinhalese part.

This is not an easy task. Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Categorical subjectivity is a hard nut to crack. Multiple strategies are required. Let me suggest one that is designed to work over two generations.

Briefly, my intent is to develop hyphenated categories of self-identity. By that I mean such labels as “Italian-Australian” and “Greek Australian,” labels that are deployed in Australia both as self-referential terms and as pertinent descriptions of a third persons.

Towards this end I would like to see the process of creating identity cards, driving licenses and census enumeration organized in terms that have it as said that all citizens are “Sri Lankan;” and, within that premise, for the forms to have separate boxes with the following categories for each person to tick (or have ticked): Vädda Lankan, Sinhalese Lankan, Burgher Lankan, Borah Lankan, Sindhi Lankan, Tamil Lankan, Parsee Lankan, Malay Lankan, Colombo-Chetty Lankan and, last but not least, Samkara Lankan (mixed descent).

The latter category is particularly important. For one, it is a step that gives equal place to matrilineal ancestry and thus enhances female rights. For another, it will register the important phenomenon of hybridity that is otherwise lost in the political weight carried by census enumeration. There are a significant number of Sinhalese-Tamil marriages even today, especially in Colombo District and in the low-country plantations districts; taken together with the mixes between other communities, it would not surprise me if the category Samkara amounts to anything between 7 and 10 per cent of the total population of Sri Lanka. If this conjecture is valid, then the Tamils, Muslims, Samkara and other tiny communities will add up to almost thirty per cent of the total population.

But the point of this proposal is not primarily devoted towards marking and assessing relative demographic clout (the census is not politically-neutral). The goal is to reform and transform the categories of self-identity so that hyphenated thought takes root and destroys the insidious incorporation of the whole, Sri Lanka, by the majoritarian dominant part, Sinhalese. My suggestion is quite fundamental. It will call for political imagination for the rulers of the land to accept it.



Posted in VIRULENT POLITICS IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on December 29, 2007 by heretic

Don Handelman in response to Roberts

This exchange of thoughts between two friends, Michael Roberts of Adelaide University and Don Handelman from the Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), occurred in April 2007 after the latter’s paper on, ‘Self-exploders, self-sacrifice, and the rhizomic organization of terrorism’, was circulated among those belonging to a small academic network. Continue reading


Posted in VIRULENT POLITICS IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on December 29, 2007 by heretic



This horrifying picture depicts the lynching of a Black American named Henry Smith at Paris, Texas in 1893 as depicted in an explicitly racist book by Robert Wilson Schufeldt. Here, it is made one part of a series of pictures meant to accompany and complement the essay “Understanding Zealotry.” The picture series is presented at a separate site for technical reasons. All the other photos happen to be instances of pogrom and riot in Sri Lanka and India. Some are equally graphic and horrendous. The victimization of Smith serves to balance these others by revealing to the world that horrible acts are not confined to the ‘Oriental East’.

The two provocative essays (links below) are interlinked and serve as challenges to certain strands of  post-modernist writing that are inflected with the same failings as those whom they castigate, namely, a reading of the present into the past. This slant is exacerbated by (a) their either/or epistemology, itself an integral facet of modernism and (b) their imprisonment within written sources (a restricted view that is also common among some diehard historians). Continue reading