On 19 May 2009, with the violent deaths of the top rung of the LTTE leadership, including that of its leader V Prabhakaran, Sri Lanka’s 30-year-old civil war came to an abrupt end. While the conclusion was a traumatic event for many in the country – not necessarily because of the destruction of the LTTE, but because of the huge loss of life and immense suffering of roughly 300,000 people, as well as the sheer scale of the breakdown of social cohesion – it also ushered in an era of possibilities, particularly in rethinking the pathways of nationalism. With these ideas in mind, this reviewer began to read Pathways of Dissent, edited by the sociologist R Cheran.
What would one expect from a volume on Tamil nationalism at this critical juncture? Having written and worked on this subject for many years, wading through the volume proved to be frustrating. The work provides no direction to any one of the burning questions that are currently posed for the academic or the activist situated at the cusp of the post-war political scenario. This is distressing, as so many are today seeking answers to questions that became so pressing in the context of the disastrous conclusion to the war. At that time, the Tamil diaspora, again paying scant attention to the lives of these people, turned out in their hundreds of thousands in the capitals of Europe and Canada to demand the release of Prabhakaran. What had gone so wrong with Tamil nationalism that it had became consonant with the actions and imperatives of LTTE and Prabhakaran? Unfortunately, although the essays of this volume were written fairly recently, they do not touch upon the destructive path that Tamil nationalism has long been taking, particularly in the new millennium.
The academic allure of the title’s use of the term dissent provides an analytical entry point into the volume and the entire project of Tamil nationalism. Dissent has a political salience that is useful and productive, particularly at this juncture of charting new directions for those who work with and within the idea of a Tamil nation. The sweeping hegemony of Jaffna-centrism dominant in the volume contradicts the idea of dissent, striking a note of dissonance from the very beginning. This bias is no accident – if all the chapters, barring one, take Jaffna as their focus, they do so not in the spirit of dissent, nor to scrutinise its dominant place in the narrative of nationalism. Rather, through academic sleight of hand, they do so to reinforce its dominance.
Dissent without resistance
Let us begin with Cheran’s introduction to the volume, which provides the framework for the subsequent chapters. Interestingly – and perhaps inevitably, given the very linear narrative of the history he charts – Cheran’s trajectory of Tamil nationalism collapses itself into the imperatives and dominance of the LTTE within the Tamil nationalist scenario, following the familiar nationalist path of recounting the ‘textbook’ version of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ history. Though certain class and caste implications of nationalism are signalled in the manner of political correctness, Cheran’s approach itself does not plug the dissonances of caste and class as a theoretical device of inquiry.
While Cheran’s introduction lays the foundation for such a reading, the chapters of the book fall neatly into a linear, historicist paradigm. Both S K Sitrampalam (a historian) and V Nithiyanandam (an economist) approach the issue from the ‘root causes’ angle, posing the question: How did Tamil nationalism emerge? Loosely reactive and focusing on the formation of the Sinhalese state, the essays by Sitrampalam and Nithiyanandam – which, respectively, look at the historical and archaeological, and the economic angles of the rise of the so-called Tamil nation – chart little that would speak to the varying forces that sit uneasily within that ‘nation’. Nithiyanandam attempts to trace the historical formation of the economy of the Jaffna as a separate socio-political entity; he gives little sense of the political economy of the entire region as a historical force that nourished and pushed the emergence of Tamil nationalism in multiple ways. Once again, it is a Jaffna-centric approach that prevails.
On the political front, the chapters on militancy are disappointing. Ravi Vaitheespara’s “Towards Understanding Militant Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka” is contradictory and strangely un-analytical. Its attack on the activist-scholar authors of the seminal The Broken Palmyra (1989) and the widely respected University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), the UTHR (J), is partisan, disguising its nationalist rhetoric in a thinly veiled populist brand of leftwing discourse.
Sidharthan Maunaguru’s essay, “Brides as Bridges?”, is anthropological and focuses on evolving generational patterns in trans-nationality. It is, once again, passive on the political front. While it provides some insight into movements of people that go beyond the boundaries of territoriality, what the writer envisions as its impact on the construct of the Tamil ‘nation’ remains unclear. Similarly, Rajesh Venugopal’s chapter on the neo-liberal economy brings up certain interesting questions regarding the anxieties of statist nationalism, the structural framework of the LTTE during the peace process of 2002-06. However, it stops short of pushing this analysis through to its logical conclusion, the unviability of the nation state as envisioned by the LTTE and separatist Tamil nationalists.
Daniel Bass’s essay on the Malaiyaha (Up-country Tamil) community is perhaps the only chapter that strikes a discordant chord in this volume, questioning the idea of the ‘monolith’ of the Tamil nation in its entirety. While one could not call it dissenting in the way suggested earlier, his chapter on the marginalised Tamil community of plantation workers does depart from Jaffna-centrism in a critical fashion. Academically speaking, Bass moves from tracing the genealogy of nation-making through the act of enumeration as initiated by the colonial government (his contribution is titled “Making Sense of the Census”), to broader more contemporary notions of citizenship and belonging to Sri Lanka. The essay does not directly allude to the project of nationalism until the very end, when he concludes with “the rise of a distinct up-country Tamil ethnic identity has … undermined the supposedly pan-Tamil appeal of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism, while providing a counterpoint to dominant discourses of Tamil identity.”
The chapters on literature and art raise interesting issues but are ultimately disappointing. Chelva Kanaganayakam’s chapter on the literatures of the nation is selective and, both wittingly and unwittingly, makes a case for homogeneity. On the contrary, T Shanaathanan’s “Painting the Artist’s Self” reveals an engaged reading of the emergence of the artist as Tamil. His historiography of the artist is interesting, but when it comes to Shanaathanan’s theoretically marked commentary, one is let down. For example, the “fragment and the collage” that Shanaathanan says had come to dominate the Sri Lankan scene during the 1990s is understood in purely formal terms. He repeats clichés such as “In post-traditional societies individualization of the artist is also associated with commercialization and commodification of art work. In post-colonial societies it also directly or indirectly is connected with emerging nationalist sentiments.” Of course, one could ignore this as marginalia and look for something more substantial and theoretically sustained in the crux of his essay. But one is left with a sense of dissatisfaction, feeling engulfed by the overarching inevitability of the nationalist discourse in any narrative of the Tamil.
Nimanthi Rajasingam and Radhika Coomarasamy’s chapter, “Being Tamil in a Different Way”, looks at the ramifications of gender in colonial and postcolonial times and, importantly, during militancy. While it is historical and largely a literature survey, it is perhaps the only chapter in this volume that talks about dissent as resistance within the Tamil community. While one might have asked for a greater intimacy with the material and a more engaged positioning, this chapter undoubtedly represents an inquiry into dominance and dissent through the subversive category of gender, which is lacking in the rest of the volume.
In addition to caste, which is dealt with only cursorily and tellingly suppressed, one of the central absences of the volume is any work on Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. A glaring omission, this is also an admission of the overarching politics of dominance of the volume. Why are the Muslims so important? Politically, Muslims posed a challenge to the hegemony of Tamil nationalism, both from within and without. Laying claim to the north and east as their homeland, the Muslim polities provided an alternative reading of Tamil nationalism and its framings that could have been productively exploited by those who worked on Pathways of Dissent. Indeed, the resounding silence on Muslims has an intricate connection with the Jaffna-centrism of the volume as a whole. Its nationalistic platform, which refuses to take even the east as a full-fledged category for inquiry, is an additional aspect of this.
The east, after all, provides a counterpoint to the domination of the Tamil nationalism. More multiethnic than Jaffna in the conventional sense, a serious engagement with the happenings in the east could have opened up illuminating faultlines. Tamil nationalism in the east has had a chequered career, and has posed great challenges to the myth of the cohesiveness of the nation. In deciding to focus almost exclusively on the north, particularly Jaffna, this work was able to conveniently sidestep the complexities informing the fraught unity of the nation and the challenges of the Muslim polity, including the mass eviction of upwards of 85,000 Muslims from the north, in 1990 (See accompanying article, “Ignoring two decades”). It is interesting that Kanaganayakam omits prominent Muslim literary figures in his piece on literature, including several writers who have brought in an inquiring note to the literary quest of nation-(un)making.
All in all, the title Pathways of Dissent is both politically hegemonic and academically wanting, as the volume does not in any way touch upon the critical tools afforded by dissent. Another work is clearly needed in order to bring that critical thrust into the analysis of Tamil nationalism.
~ Sivamohan Sumathy teaches literature, critical theory, theatre and film theory at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Her works include Thin Veils, like myth and mother, Piralayam and Oranges.