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

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

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

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

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

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

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Sunday
Mar252012

Thinking Through and Beyond the Sandahiru Saya

 

Pradeep Jeganathan, Ph.d.

The construction of the Sandahiru Stupa in Anuradhapura, which we are told, is the “first among nine such Stupas to come up in all the nine provinces, giving due recognition to the memory of those War Heroes who defended the country from threat of separation, sacrificing their precious lives for the sake of our future generation,” raises inevitably a question about ‘history.’ Have Sri Lankans always done this kind of thing, after a war? Is this an age old Sinhala-Buddhist practice? Did Dutugamunu? Is this a straightforward replay of history, that goes back, in constant replays, to the 5th Century AD, or before?

No. A critical history is an account of change; of both continuity and ruptures. Imagining, quite blithely, that something we see today,  comes down to us from the distant past, is sort of an optical illusion; we need to try to see through it.

In what has become our common sense understanding of our shared past, what’s happening at Anuradhapura today is a replay of the “Mahavamsa” which is commonly understood today, as the repository of Sinhala Buddhist ideas and practice. So then the Sandahiru Saya is a simple sequel to the Ruwanveli Saya. Again, as I have argued before, there isn’t a straight line between the two; it’s not historically tenable to assume the second is a sequel of the first. Yes it seems like it; that’s part of its power. All nations claim to be ancient, but this idea itself, is recent. It’s modern.

One of the key features of modern identity is equality. Everyone is putatively equal within a group, Sinhala = Sinhala. Tamil = Tamil. This is not to be confused with real hiarachary or inequality. It’s putative, supposed. Hence, to make a couple of logical jumps forward, the Sandahiru Saya is “to the memory of those War Heroes who defended the country from threat of separation.” It’s a war memorial. War memorials are quintessentially modern; it is a keystone argument in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. In its paradigmatic form, such a memorial also includes a body of an ‘unknown soldier’ who stands in for all the others who were killed. Again, this is only logical if all are equal. So this is the first way that Sandahiru Saya is different from anything that happened in ancient Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, the identities of Sinhala, Tamil and ‘Moor,’ were racialized throughout the nineteenth century, by linguists, anthropologists, and census commissioners. Ways of being that were fuzzy, were put into exclusive boxes, counted and ranked. The idea that each of these groups then need representations of their own ‘race,’ came into being and solidified. These idea are still with us; we have imagined these ideas into national communities and into nationalisms.

It may surprise some to hear that we’ve done better, on this score at least, in the recent past; on the banks of the Victoria-Randenigala reservoir complex are three steel needles rising into the sky in a large square, anchored in each corner by markers of our four great religions. That memorial, designed by the well known architected Mano Ponniah, is still a memorial to GoSL soldiers who were killed, not to everyone who died in this brutal, long drawn out war.

There is something to be said, as I’ve done before, for imagining a nation through death, without taking sides. Without trying to figure out, who was right and who was wrong, in an unending cycle of accusations and counter accusations. All we need to do is stretch our imaginations to encompass all those in our country who grieve.

 

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