Spatialising Politics: Culture and Geography in Postcolonial Sri Lanka


Edited by: Cathrine Brun & Tariq Jazeel

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    List of Abbreviations

    ADBAsian Development Bank
    ARIAAntagonism through Resonance, Intervention and Action
    BCEBefore Common Era
    CECBSri Lanka's Central Engineering Consultancy Board
    CPACentre for Performing Arts
    EUEuropean Union
    FPFederal Party
    GAGovernment Agent
    ICESInternational Centre for Ethnic Studies
    IDPsInternally Displaced Persons
    IEGInstitute of Economic Growth
    IMFInternational Monetary Fund
    INGOInternational Non-Governmental Organisation
    IPKFIndian Peace Keeping Forces
    JHUJathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party)
    JVPJanatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front)
    LTTELiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
    MPMember of Parliament
    NGONon-Governmental Organisation
    PPFPeople's Peace Front
    PULSEPeradeniya University Lecture Series
    SLMCSri Lankan Muslim Congress
    TECHThe Economic Consultancy House
    TULFTamil United Liberation Front
    UKUnited Kingdom
    UNUnited Nations
    UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
    UNFUnited National Front
    UNPUnited National Party
    USUnited States
    UTHRUniversity Teachers for Human Rights


    The cover image for this volume is an untitled piece by the Toronto-based Sri Lankan artist Geevan, a.k.a. Nanda Kandasamy. The image depicts a figure whose gaze faces not quite upwards, downwards, towards us, or away from us. Not only is her gaze difficult to read, but the forms inside her head seem to reference shapes within shapes—spaces intersecting one another—and a dense complex of lines and textures. The composition of the image—its framing of a figure with immaculate poise and balance—give the lie to legibility, but the rich layerings of form, orientation, and trajectory in and around her head seem to us to indicate the contradictions and complexities of spaces imagined. The painting indicates the complexities of the many spatial forms, orientations, trajectories, and histories of contested nationalisms in contemporary Sri Lanka that are lived, experienced, imagined on the ground, by people. The cover image offers the perfectly troubling visual introduction to this book on spatial politics in the Sri Lankan context. To Geevan, thank you for allowing us to use this image here.

    This collection of essays grew out of a series of off-stage conversations amongst friends and colleagues at the Annual Sri Lankan Studies Conference some years ago in Matara. We are extremely grateful to Kanchana Ruwanpura, Sharon Bell, Camilla Orjuela, Isak Svensson, and Benedikt Korf for conversations both sane and inspiring. For us, as editors, these conversations provided the basis for continued forms of creative collaboration, experience, and dialogue that have ultimately led to this collection.

    Along the way, many people have offered us sound advice and critical commentary at different stages. Many thanks to Maite Conde, Steve Pile, Jenny Robinson, John Allen, Denis Cosgrove, Jennifer Hyndman, Satish Kumar, Nira Wickramasinghe, and Nick Van Hear. At SAGE, we would like to thank four individuals who have nurtured this project, Tejeshwar Singh, Ashok R. Chandran, Gargi Bhattacharya, and especially Elina Majumdar, whose enthusiasm has been infectious. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for comments along the way that have sharpened the collection. Finally, we want to express our thanks to all the contributors to this collection. Without their hard work and patience this book would not have come together.

  • Afterword


    American movies, English books—remember how they all end?’ Gamani had asked that night. ‘The American or Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombassa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace he can look through the clouds. The tired hero… the war, to all purposes, is over.’ (Ondaatje 2000: 285–86)


    I begin my afterword to this important collection of essays that thematises the ‘spatial’ with an evocation of a memorable passage from the celebrated Sri Lankan–Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, one which seems increasingly well known in the quarters his work circulates in (cf. Jazeel, this volume).

    This was also a pivotal passage for me in a recent argument I have made on the limits of post-enlightenment anthropological disciplinarity and the category of ‘violence’, but the resonances of the passage increase given a concern with the ‘spatial’ (Jeganathan 2005a). Location, the place where one is, physically and discursively, must be constitutive of any spatial argument, I suggest, and as such an elaboration on the importance of location in general—and then my own location—seems crucial at the beginning.

    Before I do so, I will also point out that I have organised my analytical remarks in this afterword as a delineation of, and then a brief engagement with, the different locations that can be detected within the logic of the chapters. These notes come after a few introductory paragraphs, and in them the chapters are discussed not in sequence of the volume, but through another sequencing that makes location itself the guiding thread.


    I write from a post-national location, from within the uncomfortable place of a nation that never was, and never will be.1 I write as a national who does not celebrate the possibility of the nation or its eventual becoming, who is unpersuaded by the vision of a heroic utopia that is nationalism's torch, and who has only uncertain and unstable knowledge of the descent of national life into a grotesque world that has become ordinary. To write from this location, then, is to write of a place of loss that is so singular, that the fullness of this loss cannot be known completely—as perhaps in Freud's description of melancholia. It is telling, I find, that in a sophisticated discussion of space and place that moves through both Lefebvre and Massey, Malathi de Alwis (2004) touches on the importance of ‘home’ as a category that is always already defined by loss and a melancholy wake. I have, in other work, tried to think through what is clearly an impossible construction: ‘the work of melancholia’—and have called that lost home ‘the island formally called Ceylon’. This is not simply to mark the passing of a colonial proper name, but to mark our own incomprehension as to what was lost when Ceylon became Sri Lanka (Jeganathan 2004b).

    Insisting that location matters, as home, is not a claim to more or less ‘authenticity’. All locations, if they are worked through and delineated honestly, might well be equally sincere and authentic. Location matters, firstly, because it relates to the stakes of an argument. The contrast that Ondaatje, who is not located in Sri Lanka, draws between Anil Tissera, the forensic anthropologist, a concerned expatriate like himself, and Sarath Diyasena, the archeologist who practises in the island that he will never leave, is stark. They collaborate on an argument that identifies a skeleton and implicates the state in his murder; Sarath is killed over it and Anil leaves. Stakes matter, even though they may not always be about life and death.

    Location matters, secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, in relation to the intellectual traditions of inquiry and scholarship that appear before it. For example, if one is located in the metropolitan university system, the questions one asks are often conditioned by the currently authoritative theoretical text that appears before one as the answer to a lack in a previously widely read text; as Agamben might be held up as a mirror to Foucault's omissions. In another location, as in Sri Lanka, my colleagues and I, battling the categories of International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs)—such as ‘participation,’ ‘empowerment’ and ‘psycho-social’—that govern the frame of grants and grant proposals, place value on arguments that problematise these very categories. And at other times, when faced with mounting daily terror, I may worry about ‘checkpoints’ or ‘identity cards’ (Jeganathan 2004a), or the legality of evictions and deportations. I do not think one effort is less intellectual than the other; yet they are products of different locations, each quite parochial in its own way.

    Nevertheless, it should also be obvious that in the world as it were, outside any claims we as scholars may wish to make for ourselves, epistemological locations are not all equally authoritative. Euro-American or northern locations, descendents of colonial ones, are indeed far more authoritative than southern ones, say, in Sri Lanka. The world has never been equal, and perhaps never will be. Thinking through location, then, requires consideration of this imbalance of authority.


    Benedikt Korf's chapter in this volume speaks quite directly to this matter. Following Jennifer Robinson (2003), his is a concern to postcolonialise geography—and one tactic he adopts after her, is to engage with scholars of the subject who are in fact located in the regions studied, recognising, as I do, the built-in imbalances of global scholarly production. That is laudable, and Korf's engagement with G. H. Peiris’ and C. M. Maduma Bandara's work on the spatial categories of rule in the island of Ceylon serves both to demonstrate the centrality of the category space to debates in and about nationalism in Ceylon over a long period, and also to raise questions about fact and evidence, political claims and scholarly claims.

    I do agree with Korf that Peiris's work, for example, is to be understood as a contribution to Sinhala nationalist thought, and both his engagement with and his critique of it are important. But it should also be noted that this work, and work like it, represents but one side of positions articulated from locations within or engaged with nationalist thought on the island. Peiris has been associated with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, for many years, and both of his articles with which Korf engages are published by one of the major journals of the centre. It is important to note, however, that I am located, as a scholarly practitioner, at the parallel campus of the research centre in Colombo where my colleague Sunil Bastian's work (1995), which Korf also cites in passing, might well be understood as the other side of that represented by Peiris. Bastian, who is embedded in a series of dense debates located in the island, offers a counterpoint to Peiris and Maduma Bandara's arguments from what is a scholarly location in the same (extended) institution that has been, from time to time, identified with liberal Tamil nationalism. Nevertheless, Bastian is neither Tamil nor a Tamil nationalist, and we see that the plot thickens. In other words, one might suggest that the specificities of Korf's locative argument stops too soon; a more granulated understanding of location would perhaps have yielded richer results.

    When one considers the novelty of an approach such as Korf's, it seems clear that it has taken us long to fully understand the enormous role that location has played in the very constitution of modern authoritative knowledge about Sri Lanka. In the early years of scholarship enabled by the work of Michel Foucault and Bernard Cohn, a good deal was made of the ‘colonially constructed’ nature of knowledge. But this only touches the tip of the iceberg if the texture of the epistemological apparatus that produces that knowledge is not examined in detail on the one hand, and on the other hand if the appropriation of those knowledges by postcolonial nationalisms is not taken into account.


    The translations of the series of Pali texts that have come to be called chronicles, and are now understood as clustered around the proper name Mahavamsa, are a case in point. As Jonathan Walters (2000) has demonstrated in his erudite and unchallenged reading of their Orientalist (Inden 1990; Said 1978) appropriation by George Turnour and others of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in the first half of the 19th century, what emerged as the printed and bound Mahavamsa by the second half of that century, is really epistemologically quite different from what he, Walters, or another differently located person might read out of it. But what is more, as I have argued at length elsewhere, this textual reading is linked to the entire landscape of Ceylon and imbues places with new meanings that are simultaneous with a series of material practices. These practices, which were hydraulic, archaeological, and aesthetic, transform the spatial formation of the island in an irreducible way throughout the 19th century (Jeganathan 1995). One of the consequences of these formations of practice is the racialisation of the landscape of Ceylon. So much so that by 1887, John Ferguson, the colonial editor of a newspaper published in Colombo, could write in a special commemorative annual of the ‘determined and constant… southward flow of the successors of the old South India invaders’. He means to place on one landscape ‘the influx of Tamils’ in the second half of the 19th century, to which he is a supposed witness, and ‘old…invaders’ as from the Mahavamsa, in the ancient but now well-known past (cited in Jeganathan 1995: 122). Herein lies the problem of ‘Ceylon’. It is constituted as a divided unity by certain kinds of colonial knowledge at its very inception. Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms have competed to appropriate these knowledges, but have not, and perhaps can never, transcend them.


    Given this perspective, I find Tariq Jazeel's choice to work with Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost an exemplar of both the dilemmas of scholarly location within as well as without the island, and as a text that is sensitive to socio-historical construction of space in its most minute form, to be apt. He understands that new spatialities were made in the wake of archaeological practice in the 19th century, as I have in previous work, and then goes on to grapple with the continuation of this in the 20th century by a careful reading of the Palipana/Paranavitana double in Ondaatje's novel. His point, that life and lives are constitutive of—and constituted by in turn—politicised, racialised spaces, is an important one. What I find harder to fully grasp is his own location. On the one hand, I agree that while Ondaatje lives most of his life physically out of Sri Lanka, Anil's Ghost is not simply a Canadian novel. It can perhaps be considered a contribution to the tradition of Sri Lankan English literature, which in an old and venerable one, but I would not (Jeganathan 2005b; cf. Jazeel, this volume). Nevertheless, I could consider it a contribution to cosmopolitan Sinhala nationalist thought, which as I have argued elsewhere is inaugurated by Ananda Coomaraswamy's Medieval Sinhalese Art (Jeganathan 2005a). It should go without saying surely that Ondaatje's acclaimed The English Patient (1992) or In the Skin of the Lion (1987) are not contributions to either of these traditions. Then again, given the logic of the location of Anil's Ghost, I would want to distinguish it from say Romesh Gunesekera's Reef (1994) which is, I would argue, the product of a different kind of location: that of the exile who does not wish to return. I have detoured here through the multiple locations of Ondaatje's work, wondering if in this chapter Jazeel wants his location to be close to the Ondaatje/Tissera double in Anil's Ghost. If so, I think it a most productive one. Nevertheless, I would also like to suggest that a scholarly or literary work can gain traction from an articulation between different locations, taken both materially and discursively. I expand on this later.

    Øivind Fuglerud's chapter, ‘Fractured Sovereignty’, presents a subtle contribution to our understanding of the question of sovereignty in that aspect of Sri Lanka's conflict. It is both an attempt to rethink the ‘state’ and its distribution, and also to argue in very located ways with the claims of a certain strand of Tamil nationalism. I see Fuglerud's location as a triangulation between three points of reference: a Scandinavian scholar such as Stokke whose work may have some sympathy with the official ideology of the LTTE, a critic of the LTTE located within the island of Ceylon such as Saravanandan (quoted by Fuglerud), and Fuglerud's own voice that at times is embedded with, and sensitive to, a second or third generation of European Tamils who might inhabit the cyberspace of ‘’, demonstrating, I would argue, how a location outside the island can lead to epistemological purchase. This triangular location ultimately strengthens his argument that the claims of the territoriality of ‘the emerging LTTE state’ are tenuous at the level of interpellated citizenship, but even more importantly, something of a chimera given that the very idea of the state such claims pursue may be impossible.

    Nihal Perera's chapter can also be read, I would argue, as triangularly located. One point of reference for him, as for a volume as a whole, is the category ‘space’ that he pursues with the conviction that a new category might well lead to new conceptual purchase on the old chestnuts of Sri Lankan studies. This I will suggest—if I can do so in a non-pejorative way—is a metropolitan preoccupation. However, I am not persuaded of Perera's claim that Sri Lankanist literature ‘lacks well developed engagements with the role of space in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict’. It seems the work of Peiris, Madduma Bandara and Bastian would be worth pausing over at this point; and there are others that come to mind as well. But that does not matter, apart from the claim of ‘firstness’. Space is surely an important category.

    Another more puzzling locational point for Perera seems to be within a well-known, but hardly well-worked-through, populist Sinhala nationalist narrative that does not take cognisance of the socio-historical emergence of Tamil nationalism within Ceylon, but suggests that it was a quick invention of a communalist Tamil elite of the 1920s consolidated by an unexplained and socio-historically unmoored TULF electoral victory in 1977 (Perera, this volume). On another view, which I confess I share, the ‘Sinhala–Tamil binary’ does not emerge full blown out of elite machinations in the 1920s, but is one that emerges from the very colonial reading and remaking of the landscapes of Ceylon after the 1830s, and is consolidated as modern, that is, horizontal, ‘Sinhala-ness’ and ‘Tamil-ness’ under the signs of persons such as Dharmapala and Bandaranaike on the one side, and Navalar and Chelvanayakam on the other. This view then is produced from a different location from Perera's account.

    Perera's location is important for his third and most important one, which seeks to displace the putative centrality of ‘Jaffna’ in this congealed Tamil-ness. This re-description does take up most of his chapter, and it is rich with details that seem to want to navigate close to the perspective of northern Tamils, claiming at times an affinity with the views of Tamil resident informants in the north. Yet this remains confusing to me, since it is well known that Tamil nationalism seeks to claim and build its centre in Trincomalee, not Jaffna or Kilinochchi. While Jaffna is certainly central to a particular parochial Tamil imagination, the possibilities of linguistic nationalism and electoral politics, certainly by the 1950s, propelled the Federal Party and then the TULF to look east to Trincomalee as the capital of a (federal) state that would encompass the ‘Tamil-speaking people’, which at the time certainly included the Muslims as well. And hence the enormous, continuing importance of the question of merging or demerging the two provinces, North and East, to Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim nationalisms. I find that Perera's constant and consistent avoidance of some of the basic nuances of the Tamil nationalist narrative risks repositioning him within the eddies of, populist Sinhala nationalism.

    Nira Wickramasinghe's chapter is an effective contrast to Perera's while located within the scholarly traditions of the historiography of the island. As Brun and Jazeel have already noted in their introduction, Wickramasinghe's detail helps render afresh, and with new insights, the well known permeability of Ceylon's boundaries (cf. Roberts 1974). But furthermore, as she prises apart tea from gin and tonic, and machine-sewn, block-patterned sari blouses from top hats and tailcoats, she also, in her quiet way, retells and then decentres Sinhala nationalism's own biography that might insist on a different division of foreign and indigenous. Yet, what one misses is a doubling of location that might also have considered the issues raised from a location outside the one that a critical historian of empire might have adopted. Perhaps then, Wickramasinghe may have been able to address the founding of the Empire Marketing Board in 1926, and its role it in the economy of imperial commodities (Constantine 1986; Hitchens 2004: 61).

    James Duncan's paper occupies this very location—that of the metropolitan critic of imperialism. His is a location outside Ceylon, but it is an important one for it allows him to grasp the place of coffee both as crop and drink, and plantations, both in relation to labouring bodies and ecosystems. It is this location that allows for the insight that the effects and consequences of imperialism have to be understood as a relationship between the colony and the metropolis, and that the massive changes wrought by imperial incursions, such as coffee plantations in Ceylon, may have unintended and devastating consequences. The coffee blight, for example. But then, as contrasted with Wickramasinghe, Duncan does not engage with the historiography of Ceylon, and so we can not fully compute the space his insights may have on that tradition.

    Camilla Orjuela's chapter attempts to trace, through spatial metaphors and categories, fault lines in the field of ‘peace work’ in the country. While the categories centre and periphery are common to those working out of diverse locations, and arguments about what we might call after Raymond Williams The Country and the City (1973) are also common in many intellectual traditions, I detect in Orjuela's analysis a point of view frequent in scholars, and even others, who are visitors to this country. In this view the binaries ‘Westernised/indigenous’, ‘rich/poor’, ‘Colombo/village’ can be seen as oppositions of great substance and then naturalised as such. In another view, these oppositions may be seen as the products of the relatively recent past, and encompassed in a more robust category of the ‘modern’ as in a ‘Sri Lankan modern’. Furthermore, it is not often understood that as measured by the most widely used economic indicator, economic inequality in Sri Lanka is less than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. Since this is counter-intuitive, perceived inequality seems to loom large, and easily begins to be treated as a ‘natural’ social fact, which then can be folded into a Colombo/village binary. It is not that this simply is a view of outsiders; often it is a view shared by some, located elsewhere, who are concerned with inequality, and populist nationalists located in Sri Lanka. From my own location, the perceived relationship between categories like centre/periphery, country/city, Westernised/indigenous must themselves be subject to inquiry and understood as rendered contingent to shifting political alliances and enmities. It is that political field that we need to grasp if we want to dissect what has come to be called ‘peace work’.

    I turn to Sharon Bell's chapter at the end of this afterword as it considers in some detail the question of the social identity of the investigator, often taken to be key, in contemporary understandings of location. My own effort has been an attempt to displace simplistic arguments about identity and its politics that seem common to contemporary, metropolitan scholarship. As such, I find Bell's chapter helpful in some ways, for while she is clear that her own identity, and perceptions of it, structure her interactions with informants, she also points to nodes in her biography that are not as strongly structured by her ‘whiteness’. Importantly, she places some emphasis on her intellectual training and scholarly interests as constituent elements of her approach to things—an argument that I have elaborated on at length elsewhere through a detour into the history of early modern experimental science, returning to the limits of disciplinary anthropological knowledge, including my own (Jeganathan 2005c).


    But it is when Bell touches on the intersection of location and stakes that I find myself marvelling at the echo of Ondaatje's Anil:

    Unlike many of my colleagues [in the island] I am free to divorce myself from intractable social and political problems and even physically leave, or not engage, if I feel at risk. This is…an extra-ordinarily privileged position—any pretext to equality is shallow. (Bell, this volume)


    1. I owe this formulation to M.S.S. Pandian. I owe the idea of the post-national, to the discussions of the postnational collective, particularly at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) Delhi, in August 2005.

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    About the Editors and Contributors


    Cathrine Brun is Associate Professor in Geography at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. With a geographical focus on Sri Lanka, her teaching, research, and writing are in the fields of forced migration, humanitarianism, and development geographies.

    Tariq Jazeel is Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, UK. His research and teaching interests are in social and cultural geography, South Asian Studies, and postcolonial and critical theory.


    Sharon Bell is anthropologist and film-maker, and Senior Programme Developer at the L.H. Martin Institute in the Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, Australia.

    James Duncan is Reader in Cultural Geography and Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, UK.

    Øivind Fuglerud is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oslo, Norway.

    Pradeep Jeganathan is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Colombo, Sri Lanka, and has held professorial appointments and fellowships at Chicago, Minnesota, The New School, and Delhi University.

    Benedikt Korf is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Zürich, Switzerland.

    Camilla Orjuela is a Research Fellow at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

    Nihal Perera is Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Planning, Ball State University, Indiana, US.

    Nira Wickramasinghe is Professor of History at the Department of History and International Relations, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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