Understanding Zealots and Questions for Post- Orientalism

In late 1991 while engaged in a critical view of the instrumentalist readings of nationalist violence in South Asia, I penned an essay on the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 in Sri Lanka. This has since appeared under a rather melodramatic title, " The Agony and Ecstasy...", in a collection of my essays: viz, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History (Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers 1995). The essay was written in a particular mood. It adopts a personalized literary mode of expression and seeks to depict the interface of human violence. It also challenges the bourgeois tendency to foist the agency for violence primarily on state functionaries of a lumpen kind. My conviction is that many 'ordinary people' have participated in major 'riots' in Sri Lanka and India; and that quite normal people, myself included, are capable of killing an ethnic Other in specific circumstances.

By Michael Roberts

The essay 'Agony' brought me to a threshold: to endeavour to understand zealotry and to pursue the ethnography of ethnic and religious violence in selected contexts. To this end I have begun collecting secondary material on lynchings and race riots in early twentieth century USA, pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and communal violence in India since the 1970s. Such violence is often inspired or accompanied by various states of embodied emotion. Such emotion is not always directed towards an opposing Other. It can inspire violence on oneself: as suggested by the self-mutilation and suicides in Southern India when M.G. Ramachandran died in December 1987; and the handful of suicides in the same region sparked off by Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. Significantly, several of these suicidal projects chose the mode of self-immolation.
In brief, then, my project also engages the anthropology of emotion. And through such researches I hope to explore the limits of liberal humanism, the dominant value in academic circles, whenever it engages nationalist chauvinism. But that is a utopian goal that will take a decade at least to crystallize. My substantive interest at the moment is in (1) the ideology of Sinhala nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and (2) the Sinhala pogrom against the Mohammedan Moors in 1915 which was one of its violent expressions (on which I have two articles in Exploring Confrontation).

The work of Sinhala ideologues in both the British and post-colonial eras is thick with references to their ancient past. Tamil ideologues today have taken up these cudgels. History writing has become part of contemporary legitimations and verbal battles. Several scholars have begun to challenge this use and misuse of history, seeking thereby to undermine the intellectual ground of chauvinism. Some (e.g., R.A.L.H. Gunawardana 1990) have presented a variant of a modernization thesis which highlights the transformations wrought under the British and the influence of racialist thought about the Aryan origins of the Sinhalese inspired by the work of Max Muller. A swathe of scholars (e.g., Spencer, Rogers, Jeganathan) have taken up what can be identified in shorthand as a post-Orientalist position. They have pointed up the effect on the Sinhalese of the institutionalized practices of the British Raj and new intellectual frameworks rooted in the West. They have especially marked the influence of Orientalist readings of the Sinhala past by such people as Turnour, Geiger, Tennent, and Rhys-Davids. In a word, the argument is that the Sinhalese and their past were subject to processes of reification, objectification, and essentialization. In this view, Sinhalese nationalists and empiricist historians have lapped this up and participated in the construction of such images -- which, in the process, have set up the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict as an age-old affair. Such understandings, say the post-Orientalists, are quite wrong. "Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is a young creature" and the problems between Tamils and Sinhalese today "are of recent origin" (Spencer 1990: 248; Pfaffenberger 1994:4).

The post-Orientalist interventions are quite salutary. In particular they warn us against reading the present back to the past and challenge us to work out a more sophisticated understanding of change. While I share their antipathy to chauvinism, I believe their approaches contain shortcomings, drawbacks that are both ethnographic and analytical. It is this engagement with post-Orientalism that I am now taking up amidst my other projects.

Sinhalese ideology in vamsa texts
For those unfamiliar with the ethnographic context it can be noted that in Sri Lanka in the 5th-6th centuries AD some monk-literati produced historical chronicles which can be described as vamsa texts. These were in Pali, but gave rise to even more commentarial literature in Sinhala in subsequent centuries, including variant versions of the segments dealing with Sinhala culture heroes which entered the oral and iconic traditions as well as the textual. In this mythology, the Sinhalese are presented as a chosen people destined to preserve Buddhism in its pristine form. The island, therefore, is a S■had■pa that is a Dhammad■pa.

The implications of the Sinhala ideology inscribed within the early vamsas were sharpened when: (1) a militant Hindu revival more or less obliterated Buddhism in southern India between 6th and 12th centuries; (2) and Sinhala dynasts became embroiled in alliances and wars in southern India from the 8th century onwards. The culmination of the latter process was the subjugation of the northern part of Lanka by the C■la Empire in the 11th century. While the R■jarata civilization was soon liberated, it was again subject to the invasion of M■gha of Kalinga in the early 13th century and to subsequent invasions by Pandyan feudatories. The centres of Sinhala civilization around the dynastic state gradually shifted to the south-western parts of the island; while Magha's rule provided the foundation for the predominance of Tamil (and Tamilicized) peoples in the north within what became known as the Kingdom of Jaffna.

Such developments resulted in the amplified reconstitution of the Sinhala ideology when the Mah■vamsa was brought up to date in the 13th century. The invaders are presented as "bloodsucking demons" and "Kerala devils"; as purveyors of wickedness and "false views" (i.e., Saivite Hinduism). There are explicit references to "the Sinhalas" who opposed the various aliens on behalf of "that fair lady, the island of Lanka".

What we are seeing here, of course, is a state ideology. Bhikkhus were part of the cosmic centre around the Sinhala r■jar■ja. Whatever the de facto limits of the rump Sinhala state in the centuries that followed, this cosmological theory held to a view of the state patterned on the mandala design -- the "galactic polity" described by Tambiah. The centre (capital) stood for the whole. Each Sinhala kingdom stood for the whole island, referred to at this stage as S■hala or Tr■simhala.
The fuller implications of these perspectives demand careful and theoretically sophisticated historical research. I do not have the linguistic skills to engage in such exercises. I can only raise questions and hypotheses. The state ideology cannot be viewed only through the prism of political events. There must be attentiveness to the cultural and literary processes, including the movement to simplify and de-Sanskritize the Sinhala language which V■d■gama Thera and others initiated in the 15th century. Likewise, attention has to be paid to the expressions of Sinhala sentiment -- if at all -- in ritual dramas, oral stories, and iconic representations. These modalities and the literate texts influenced each other. One of the weaknesses of Gunawardana's seminal essay is its total immersion in the written sources of history. In his work, the oral does not count.

The evidence of opposition to Others from India in these varied sources must, of course, be set alongside the considerable evidence of enriching cultural exchanges between southern India and Sri Lanka during this period; and the incorporation of immigrants as individuals and communities within the Sinhala order. Sinhala society and the Sinhala state was, as Tambiah has revealed, "inclusive", "incorporative", "open-ended", and "pluralistic".

Post-orientalist writings, including Tambiah's, have latched on to the evidence of such heterogeneity and cultural exchange to limit the significance that one should attach to the Sinhala : Tamil opposition in pre-British times. A few would even seem to deny the pertinence of the categories or the opposition (e.g., Nissan & Stirrat 1990; Pfaffenberger 1994). That is my complaint.

The post-Orientalist literature on medieval Sri Lanka does not consider the possible pertinence of a segmentary structure of affiliation which permitted the critical significance of caste identities among the Sinhalese during the everyday round of existence without negating the force of Sinhalaness at critical sites/moments. Thus, the Sinhalicization of Tamil immigrants in southern Lanka did not dissolve the pertinence of the categories within the geo-political context of the island -- and thus in the theology of state purveyed by new additions to the vamsa traditions (textual, oral, iconic). The problem lies with those post-Orientalists who have interpreted this material in terms of the exclusivist modalities of an either or epistemology. They, too, have read the twentieth century into the past.
The post-Orientalist work on Sri Lanka is also vitiated by an undemonstrated assumption that in the Sinhala kingdoms of the 'medieval' period there was a massive gap between the mythology/ideology of the ruling classes and the ordinary folk -- in a context where 'the masses' have to be centred among the cultivating ranks of the Govigama caste which made up perhaps half the Sinhala population. But even more critically the debate has been influenced by the twentieth century conflict to the point that its historical delvings are restricted to a survey of Sinhala-Tamil relations. The influence of Portuguese and Dutch colonialism on Sinhala consciousness has been kept out of the picture. This is where Sri Lanka differs radically from the Indian subcontinent.

Colonial influences
In overviews of the Indian landmass and its history, to say "precolonial" is equivalent to saying "pre-British". For Sri Lanka that cannot be done. This becomes critical because the new epistemologies highlighted by post-Orientalist critics are those introduced under British auspices.
The Portuguese established their colony in the south-western lowlands and the north- eastern regions by force of arms in the period 1580s-1620s. They attacked Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims in the process; and engaged in intermittent warfare with the interior Sinhala states from the 1550s. For this reason they receive much sharper diatribes in the Sinhala historical traditions than the Dutch and the British. It is therefore of some significance that the anti-Portuguese and anti-Christian polemics within the hatana (war) poems in Sinhala produced in the 17th century were also tinged with a more generalized hostility to threats foreign in ways that embraced the Tamils and Hindus (see C.R. de Silva 1983:15-17).
The Dutch of the VOC were less inclined to indulge in military dominance than the Portuguese. They were also ready to use accept the 'fiction' that they were "the guardians of the coast" on behalf of the king. That is, they accepted the rhetoric and gained the trade goods. To them, commodity was value. To the Sinhalese in Kandy, rhetoric was value. In intercourse at this level, words were seen as constitutive acts. The Dutch words confirmed their king as a cakravarti and their kingdom as S■hala.

Displacing the Dutch in 1796, the British entered the scene at one moment in their imperial upsurge. They suffered a severe military setback at the hands of the Kandyan Sinhalese in 1803. Encouraged by this event and memories of previous Kandyan wars against invaders, as well as cosmological notions, a Kandyan courtier told the British authorities in 1811 that "One thing is certain, no foreign foe, be it British, Dutch, French, or Kaffir, will conquer Lanka. Through the protection of the four gods, the Guardians of its Religion and the Merits of the king, for five thousand years no foe will continue to reside here" (quoted in Malalgoda 1970: 433).

This confidence was misplaced. The British gained control of Kandy in 1815. But then had to suppress a massive rebellion in 1817-18. It was partly out of my interest in this event that I began to explore Sinhala consciousness in 1971-2. That was part of a wider interest in nationalism on a global scale arising from my involvement in teaching a subject devoted to the theme at Peradeniya University. The subsequent outbreak of Sinhala-Tamil hostilities has renewed my engagements in this domain. The form and character of Sinhala consciousness in the period 1200 to 1815 provide a critical baseline for any evaluation of the work of Orientalist frames of thought. That baseline is poorly developed in the writings of post-Orientalists to date. This is the arena which I am entering now in an ongoing monograph which I have tentatively entitled: "The Sinhala and the Other: Parangi, Tuppahi, Demala as Para". I write as a tuppahi (see Roberts 1989 and 1993 for clarification of these terms).

Dr Michael Roberts was a senior visiting fellow at the IIAS from September to December 1995. His field of research is: Ethnic violence and political culture.

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