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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2526

'Invoking History' - an intellectual Bad Habit: A Response to Professor Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England

I read Professor Fernando's response (18.02.2007) to my article published in the Asian Tribune (15.02.2007) with a great deal of interest thinking that he was beginning a critical dialogue based on 'correct interpretation' of what I wrote. However, as I proceeded to read his response, it became clear that he has not yet recovered from the intellectual bowel syndrome (IBS) that many other federalists on the Sri Lankan conflict also suffer.

Federalists get annoyed easily when they hear the word 'unitary state' irrespective of the context. By the same token those who argue for a unitary position get irritated at the sight of the word 'federal'.

This is how Sri Lankanists have barricaded themselves into two camps as reflected in the current political and academic discourses-even though some politicians such as Professor Vitharana, chairman of the All Party Conference, is not apparently dissuaded by this kind of binary terminology. I can only surmise that Professor Fernando was irritated by his own assumption that I was trying to invoke history to argue that a unitary state existed during the Kandyan Kingdom; therefore that is what should happen today. My article does not go near such an assumption directly or indirectly.

Not only Professor Fernando injects 'his own' words, meanings and interpretations to what I wrote in my article and then blames me for 'intellectual bad habits' but also he doubts as to whether the Sinhalese people have a consciousness and identity reflecting unitary thinking even today! This reminds me of the saying that ’a person can't see the trees for the woods'.

The title of my article was 'The Concept of Unitary State and its Roots in the Sinhala Consciousness - Historical Hints from Michael Roberts's 2003 book'. Any literate reader with a modicum of intelligence can understand that I was not referring to a 'unitary state' itself and its roots. Rather I was referring to the 'concept' and its roots. There is a vast difference between a concept and the entity or phenomenon it refers to. It is somewhat similar to the difference between theory and practice.

In writing the article in question, my aim was to alert the readers to Michael Roberts's book, which I thought was an excellent piece of research concerning the Kandyan Kingdom or Sinhale as he calls it. As it was impossible to summarize the many arguments and conclusions in the book in a short article, I wanted to present some key points from the book so that the readers can appreciate the new insights and understandings that the book presents.

When reading Roberts's work, it became clear to me that the concept of unitary state existed in the minds of the king and his officials who communicated with others officially. I was impressed by Roberts's incorporation of hitherto relatively unutilized vernacular scholarly work by the Sinhalese writers, painters, storytellers, poets, etc also. As many academics do, I made some of my own comments as well in passing while raising some questions that other scholars could investigate further. However, Professor Fernando seems to have taken my comments and questions to read that I was somehow arguing against a federal system, where maximum devolution of power should be granted to the Tamil minority. In other words, he has jumped into a simplistic conclusion that I am either arguing against a federalist solution or arguing for a unitary state for Sri Lanka, and then open up a series of severe criticism which are unfounded and unjustified. By any measure, this sort of practice is an intellectual bad habit.

He has understood my intention correctly at times, for example when he says 'An expectation is hardly a reality'. Then he misreads my writing and says 'But according to Gamage, the existence of 'several centres of power' is an 'indigenous version of a unitary state'. Where have I stated this in these words? It is not my writing. Professor Fernando injects this sentence and meaning as if I have assumed or argued this point.

Colleagues in the academia are entitled to critically examine other colleagues' work and come up with counter arguments and conclusions for constructing knowledge and understanding. But it is not customary and in fact unusual according to academic conventions to inject a totally different reading and interpretation to a piece of work by another, and then criticize the original writer for 'bad intellectual habits'. In such situations it is not possible for the commentary writer to hold moral high ground without being highly vulnerable.

My summary of Roberts's work in the previous article has upset Professor Fernando to such an extent that he criticizes me on several grounds. Look at the following for example:

1. What Gamage is trying to do is to interpret the present debate of 'federalism vs. unitary state' in 'primordialist' terms. I cannot find any post-colonial traits in his analysis. Post-colonial approach cannot mean a 'pre-colonial' approach. Post-colonialism should not move backwards.

2. The major Gurus of Gamage's approach are not in the East but in the West, including the 'ethno-symbolists.' But that is not the important point. The important point is the apparent fallacy of the approach and its mystic nature. There are people who thrive on mysticism and most of them can be called 'academic Kattadiyas.' But I did not consider Gamage to be one, until I read his recent article.

3. In other words what he wants to probe is that whether our political system at present is as corrupt as the Kandyan tyranny assuming that it is sanctioned by the 'Sinhala psyche and the consciousness' like in the case of "decapitation and dismemberment.

On point 1, I must state that it was not my aim to interpret the present debate in primodialist terms. I was simply raising the possibility that continuity in consciousness and identity could occur among the Sinhalese via the many mechanisms that Roberts has examined. (Incidentally, Roberts is working on his second volume dealing with the more recent history and we have to wait and see what emerges from that work). Readers may want to ask Professor Fernando on what grounds he says that 'To me, there has been no continuous 'Sinhala consciousness' to talk about now or in the past.

This is common to any other community'. This assertion is based mysticism and such assertions when made qualify one for the title of academic kattadiya -to use Professor Fernando's label. The thrust of Roberts' book, which has been compiled after meticulous analysis of various sources (Unlike Professor Fernando's outburst), seems to suggest that there has been continuity in the Sinhalese consciousness and identity over the centuries. Whether this consciousness was subject to a degree of change or not is another matter. If Professor Fernando can't see any post colonial traits in my analysis he is not mistaken because I did not venture into such an exercise in my article other than referring to the approach. He should rather read Roberts's work himself to find more on the approach if he so desires.

It is well known in the literature on ethnic communities/groups around the world that collective memories and histories play a significant role in the social construction of their members' identity and consciousness as well as the struggles for self-determination. Such memories and histories are transmitted down the generations via various mechanisms including oral histories, story telling, poems, paintings, writings, and enactments and so on. The case of Sinhalese is no different. They went through a period of long colonization with severe hardships imposed on their life. If someone argues that the Sinhalese did not or do not have a consciousness about their history, identity, the place where they live, the struggles they had to face in preserving their place and identity, the effect of colonial interventions, and now the burden of neo-colonial and corporatist adventures on their land and people, one has to doubt the credibility of not only those who argue this but also the erroneous intellectual frameworks from which such arguments emanate.

At this time in Sri Lanka, those who argue for a unitary state, especially among the Sinhalese, are more vocal than those who argue for a federalist solution. Isn't this evidence that the unitary concept is widespread among the Sinhalese thought and action? If this is the case, what is wrong in examining the history or roots of such consciousness and concepts that emanate from such consciousness based on academic research, as Roberts has done? Why is it called a practice of invoking history and a bad habit? I can see that there is a danger in dealing with the concepts and history etc. when readers misinterpret the writing but this should not prevent those who can do research and write on the subject from doing so. Will Professor Fernando be happy if I write another article on the basis of historical evidence (or mysticism) to show that there was a federal system in Sri Lanka during pre-independence period?

On the second point, I can only say that the work of Roberts (2003) and other writers such as Quadri Ismail (2005) fall into the postcolonial tradition of thinking, examination and argument. They are from the East -not west. There are many Indian and other South Asian writers and thinkers who follow a postcolonial approach to history and society. They are too numerous to mention here. These writers, including Roberts and Ismail, have not thrived on 'mysticism' to argue their cases. Rather their work contains a thorough critique of hitherto taken for granted assumptions, arguments, concepts and conclusions in relation to countries of the South such as Sri Lanka. Mine was simply a brief newspaper article referring to a work by another colleague- not a research based paper as such. Hence Professor Fernando may not see postcolonial methodology in my article. But to label mine as a primodialist - knowing very well the difference between a review article and a research based book or paper- is utterly wrong and misleading to say the least.

On the third point, I must say that I did not intend other scholars to investigate whether the current political system in Sri Lanka is as corrupt as the one that existed during the Kandyan Kingdom - as he claims. This is purely Professor Fernando's interpretation and fantasy. If he said that my intention was to investigate whether there is a 'tributary overlordship' today as there was in the Kandyan kingdom (see Roberts 2003), his point would have been somewhat correct. Is he arguing that the current political system in Sri Lanka has no any traits - materially or symbolically - that go as far back as the Kandyan political system? Is it totally implanted from the West? Does he like it to be that way? He seems to be in the category of intellectuals who want to interpret politics and state in Sri Lanka purely from Western concepts, theories and categories. Those who follow this line of practice have conveniently disregarded vernacular sources of scholarship in favor of the Western concepts and theoretical frameworks when dealing with political and other institutions in the developing world thereby de-legitimizing the former. It is time that we incorporate vernacular sources into the academic praxis without treating these as 'non-objective'. Positivist social science that objectifies reality and excludes vernacular sources as simply subjective has been discredited even in the Western academic world during recent decades. In dealing with post colonial realities academics need to incorporate so-called subjective elements thereby empowering the indigenous scholarly work of different sorts.

I can go on like this pointing out errors and misinterpretations of my article by Professor Fernando but the foregoing would suffice the intelligent reader to evaluate the content of my previous article independently.

I agree on his point that any democratic government has to take into account the consciousness of both the majority and the majority. I also agree with him when he states that ’In recent times, not only the public opinion but also the opinion of the major political parties on the question of 'unitary state vs. federalism' has changed under different political circumstances'. However, his following assertion needs careful scrutiny.

'Ethnic categories or groups - whether Sinhalese, Tamils or any other - are not living beings to carry their consciousness from pre-colonial past (through colonial period) to post-colonial times, as Gamage anticipates'.

The literature on ethnic groups, especially the ones that are fighting for self-determination against actual or perceived enemies such as powerful states, show that they have developed ethno -nationalisms based on readings of history, memory, etc. Such literature seems to suggest a contrary position to what Professor Fernando has stated.

There is continuity and change in group consciousness. If we are to believe Professor Fernando, Sinhalese or Tamils today do not have a consciousness nourished by their respective histories and collective memories. To him, any consciousness they have either originated yesterday, during colonial times, or they do not have a consciousness at all! Being a political scientist of some repute, he should know that the literati in such groups and the broader society (these days politicians also) invent and re-invent histories and interpret and re-interpret them to suit their own interests-yet at a fundamental level one could discern continuities in thought patterns. There is a continuing dialogue and discourse on critical aspects of life (and death) pertaining to ethnic groups unless such ethnic groups have been decimated or absorbed totally by powerful groups. For example, see the case of Veddhas in Sri Lanka. Empowerment of dis-empowered ethnic groups-whether they are majority or minority - is a valid focus of many writings and research around the world. Ethnic group consciousness and the mechanisms of maintaining the same are key elements of such research.

Even though Professor Fernando charges me as an 'academic kattadiya' (sorcerer) because of his own mis-readings of my words and erroneous assumptions he himself has made about what I wrote, I do prefer not to make a similar charge directly against him based on the foregoing because I know that erring is human. Nonetheless I do hope the readers of my article would understand the difference between a 'concept' and the 'phenomenon' it refers to, and will find Michael Roberts's book an interesting piece of work to read.

Finally, those who want to research the parallels between the Kandyan Kingdom and the contemporary Sri Lankan system of governance may reflect on another dimension of dekum in terms of continuity and change. It seems that dekum is present today in reverse order. Instead of the head of state receiving dekum from local subordinates as such, the process seems to have reversed. Subordinates are receiving gifts from those in power in various forms. The question is whether this indicates a significant shift in the political processes OR a continuity of the previous consciousness and practices in a different way to suit the current context.

Dr. Siri Gamage Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership, Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies, University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia 2351.

- Asian Tribune -

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