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A Labour of Recovery

Theorising the National Crisis: Sanmugathasan, the Left and the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka by Ravi Vaitheespara;

BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200837A Labour of RecoveryRadhika DesaiOne of the first headlines of 2008 announced that the six-year-old ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil insurgents (in fact long de-ceased in the continuing fire of Tamil militancy and government repression) brokered by the Norwegians had ended. Even before that, Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict had been one of the most intractable of our times, defying many attempts at resolution – by neighbours, international actors and donor powers; through negotiations and the use of peacekeeping forces. More than half a century after the problems first emerged, and a quarter century after the civil war began,the conflict seemed endless and, ironically, normalised. The neoliberal economic model dating back to the 1970s had kept the economy humming along at a decent pace even as its rewards accrued disproportionately to those privileged by class, ethnicity and geography. It had also, by many accounts, catalysed the civil war and kept it simmering. As the violence resumed in early 2008, many feared that economic growth might finally be one of its casualties though whether that opened up possibilities foranearlyend to the conflict was still anybody’s guess. Revival of AnalysisThe very intractability of the conflict may, perhaps, have exhausted analysis. One of the principal aims of this slim volume – two articles and a substantial introduction by Shanmugaratnam of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences – is to try to revive it in an intriguing fashion. Though the mainstream of the Sri Lankan left infamously capitulated to parliamentarism, and to the Sinhala majoritarianismwhich necessarily went with it, reneging on, and failing, the national question, Vaitheespara focuses on the far more interesting, and analytically powerful, positions taken on it by prominent left intellectuals – princi-pally Sanmugathasan, but also Kandiah, Karalasingham and Ponnambalam –who dissented from that capitulation. The complex intertwining of the social and national questions in Sri Lanka and espe-cially the intractability of the conflict which this intertwining produced, gives this volume, which might otherwise seem merely to explore some particularly esoteric aspects of an arcane world – that of the Sri Lankan left – the potential to play a key role in discussions about politics in that country and about nations and nationalisms more generally. For, contrary to myths about the congenital inability of an all-too-cosmopolitan left tounderstand the national question, myths rather irresponsibly perpetrated by those who should have known better,1 the left has produced some of the most penetrating analyses of nationalism, evenifthesemay have fallen short of its own theoretical ambitions and foul of its own politicallimitations.2 Vaitheespara’s Theorising the National Crisis: Sanmugathasan, the Left and the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lankaby Ravi Vaitheespara;Studies on the Sri Lankan Left – 1, Social Scientists Association, Colombo, 2007; pp 78 +xvii.
BOOK REVIEWmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly38sensitive explorations of dissident left positions in this volume confirm this in the Sri Lankan case. They also highlight the importance of the Sri Lankan case – in which class and nation, and the revolu-tionary and national struggles, proved too hard to separate – to the understand-ing of nationalism at a time when the operation of neoliberalism has exacerbated inequalities along class, but also along every other social faultline – national, ethnic, gender – making the understanding of their complex intertwining that much more urgent. Vaitheespara’s volume fills another gap. The literature on the Sri Lankan left, including major works such as Kumari Jayawardene’s, aimed at explaining and criticising the capitulation of the mainstream left on the national question. However its focus on broader national developments meant that it neglected dis-cussion of the relatively marginal figures which Vaitheespara focuses on. Marginal though they may have been, Vaitheespara’s labour of recovery clearly demonstrates that their understanding of the national question in Sri Lanka was some of the most insightful that could be found. Its insights emerged from at least attempting to navigate the uncharted waters where nation and class flowed into one another making perilous whirls and eddies whose vortices of violence continue to spiral more than five decades on.Refreshingly DifferentFinally, this book will strike a refreshingly different note against the background of contemporary scholarship. Though early accounts of the conflict in Sri Lanka attempted to identify its historical roots in the nature of the Sri Lankan state and specifically its Sinhala content and dyna-mics, as time went on, the focus shifted to Tamil violence and “terrorism”. The newscholarship suggested that it was Tamil violence and not discrimination and repression by the Sri Lankan state, that bred Tamil identity (pp 40-41). It also seemed to “focus on the local and the ‘fragment’ and [was] more ethnographic in orientation”. It expended its theoretical sophistication on no longer attributing “the causes of the conflict to basic material and ideological struggles over access to jobs, resources and land, but toward a more rarefied… failure of the imagination – albeit of Sri Lanka’s ruling classes and policymakers” (pp 1-2). Shying away from any semblance of argument or accusation (a necessary political act), preferring description and exoneration, it never-theless attributed legitimate agency, the capacity to change things for the better, exclusively to the ruling classes, if only they would muster the imagination to do so. Needless to say, the agency of the Tamils themselves was delegitimised by equation with terrorism and violence alone, shorn of any justice or legitimacy. In these discourses, “communalist and populist forces, masquerade[d] as leftist and socialist” to obscure the reallegacy of the left in Sri Lanka, as Shanmugaratnam notes in his introduction.In these circumstances, Ravi Vaitheespara has begun an important work of recovery.

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