Identities in an uncertain history
Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities
Author: Nira Wickramasinghe
C. Hurst: London and University of Hawaii Press 2006
pp. 360, Price: Rs. 1,100
Vijitha Yapa Bookshops, Colombo
Review: Amit DHOLAKIA
HISTORY: In her earlier works, Nira Wickramasinghe, a history
professor at the University of Colombo explored diverse themes as ethnic
politics, the role of civil society and the politics of clothing in Sri
Lanka. In this new 360-page book she offers us a narrative history of
20th century Sri Lanka through the prism of 'identities'.
Ground-breaking changes in the modes of writing, understanding,
interpreting and explaining history have occurred over the past two
Setting off from the post-colonial, post-structuralist and post-Orientalist
historical perspectives that have been evolving through a loosely
connected body of literature since the 1970s, Sri Lanka in the Modern
Age then breaks free from these previous approaches to make its own
significant contribution to Sri Lankan historiography. Critically
interrogating the founding texts of Sri Lankan historiography.
Critically interrogating the founding texts of Sri Lankan history
Wickramasinghe argues that the prevalent liberal, Marxist or nationalist
interpretations of modern Sri Lankan succeed in telling us only a part
of the country's complex story.
These approaches undervalue the role of the common people in major
political developments and the evolution of social identities.
The book attempts to correct the biases of the positivist and static
view of what constitutes political history by exploring the impact of
colonial and postcolonial knowledge and rules on the Sri Lankan people's
consciousness, culture and identities.
She challenges the idea of an essentially stagnant Sri Lankan society
unaffected by colonial era happenings.
The author works to deconstruct established understandings of
national, ethnic and religious identities in Sri Lanka. She does this by
decoding the myths of their continuity and monolithic character that
have long constituted the standard fare of most of the narratives of Sri
The Sinhala, Tamil, Buddhist and Sri Lankan identities have been
continually constructed and reconstructed over the last hundred years in
response to the political conditions of the colonial and the
Wickramasinghe does not write 'ordered' history. She purposefully
inserts disjunctions and discontinuities to open the reader's eyes to
the uncertainties of history and identities. How vaguely defined
identities were transformed into those of nation and territory forms the
central theme of her book.
The interaction between identities and their political milieu has
taken place in many forms and through a multitude of agents. The cases
analyzed here demonstrate how Sri Lanka's communities negotiated
modernity during the period of late colonialism, and how political
consciousness was culturally grounded.
The author's goal is to unravel the many layers of multifaceted
associations between culture, identity and politics. The book sensitizes
the reader to the fact that Sri Lanka's multiple identities have not
remained passive or dormant as social symbols.
They have often politicized themselves into passive social movements
and sometimes violent political movements.
Readers need not be misled by the book's title and identify Sri Lanka
in the Modern Age as a typical political history of Sri Lanka.
The book belongs to a different genre of Sri Lanka's political
history than the type popularized by earlier historians such as K. M. de
Silva, James Manor, James Jupp or C. R. de Silva. 'High politics' is
only a peripheral subject of this work.. The narration of regime changes
or activities of political parties are conspicuously absent.
Of course, the author does discuss all the familiar political themes
of modern Sri Lanka: the colonial conquest, Tamil migration,
constitutional developments after independence, Tamil separatism and
violent ethnic conflicts, the role of welfare state, rise of civil
society and so on.
However, the point of reference for these themes is not the State or
elites but rather people and cultural understandings.
This book is an illustration of a 'history from below' - an
examination of the national from the local perspective.
Wickramasinghe forcefully states that "writing a political history of
the twentieth century that does not incorporate the richness of multiple
experiences is ... an enterprise that lacks heart and soul."
She, therefore, attempts to understand twentieth century Sri Lanka
not in the context of its institutionalized politics, upheavals and
conflicts, but rather through the prism of its peoples and identity-centred
The study, therefore, captures the many-splendoured aspects of the
recent history of the country: the lifestyles, food and drink habits,
changes in clothing, preferences for cosmetics and the like.
Exploration of images
Through the exploration of images, practices and symbols, the book
reflects upon the role of identities in addressing the country and its
meaning. It highlights the growing recognition that there is no single,
definitive interpretation of what constitutes Sri Lanka.
The alternative perspectives challenge the traditional and often
misleading perceptions and representations of Sri Lankan nationhood, and
suggest possible lines for its reinterpretation. The Sri Lankan nation
thus becomes 'an imagined community' and an area of contestation.
Such an approach is in line with the post-Orientalist interpretation
of the construction of social identities in South Asia.
It resonates with what such scholars as Partha Chatterjee, Ranajit
Guha, and Gyanendra Pandey accomplished during the 1980s under the
rubric of subaltern studies - which studied history through the
perspectives of non-elites and later with respect to nationalism in
India. While this work may not exactly be a subaltern history, it is an
effort in that direction.
At another level, Wickramasinghe's work demonstrates flexibility in
transcending many of the limitations of the subaltern project in India,
particularly its Marxist shadow and over-privileging of the peasantry as
the 'underneath' of the society.
Importantly unlike some of the subaltern studies, her project does
not remain one of fragmentary local histories - local and community
histories are also contextualized within the national political context.
Avoiding dichotomous ways of interpreting history, the author has not
posited the local against the national or the non-political against the
political, but sought to uncover the connections between them - though
in some cases such connections are not very apparent.
Wickramasinghe has traversed vast ground in this
theoretically-informed and conceptually sound volume, a work that should
be valuable both for the interested layperson and for the professional
The author' has the ability to write lucid, eloquent and her
narrative and absorbing style is coupled with a discursive approach that
makes the work eminently readable.
There is a dearth of good general histories of modern Sri Lanka with
most of the extant works on the era limiting themselves to examinations
of specific themes such as ethnic politics, religious conflict and
The present work is one of the very few general history books
available that functions as a general history of 20th century Sri Lanka,
albeit one that focuses on the evolution and transmutation of
The one disadvantage is that the book's wide canvas has left little
scope for its author to dwell on any one aspect intensively.
Histories of peoples and communities, as distinguished from histories
of the State, are difficult to write, and still more difficult to
interpret. Wickramasinghe's critical reading of modern Sri Lankan
history has raised a series of timely and trenchant questions.
Hopefully this will inspire other scholars to carry out deeper
investigations into the areas of modern Sri Lankan history into which
she has delved and to help correct some of the biases and silences in
the conventional histories of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka in the Modern Age also engages in several boundary-crossing
disciplinary experiments to appear, in the end, as a mixture of history,
anthropology, cultural studies and political theory.
The book should prove useful in furthering our understanding of the
complex relationship between social identities and political process in
the context not only of Sri Lanka but of the larger South Asia as well.
The writer is Reader in Political Science, The Maharaja Sayajirao
University of Baroda, Gujarat, India.