The generation of communal identities

Thursday 21 December 2023

Nissan, Elizabeth and Stirrat, R.L. In Sri Lanka: History and the roots of conflict, edited by Jonathan Spencer, 19-44. London:Routledge, 1990.

This book chapter, written by Elizabeth Nissan and R.L. Stirrat, is part of the book ‘Sri Lanka: History and the roots of conflict’, edited by Jonathan Spencer, and looks at the role the past plays in shaping and influencing the recent Civil War in the country. Nissan and Stirrat’s chapter looks at the formation of communal identities since the pre-colonial period and how different understandings of the past have come to be through modern political identities. They question how contemporary historical debates on the dominant ethnic group presupposes an established distinction between ‘Tamil’ and ‘Sinhala’ racial groups. Instead, Nissan and Stirrat emphasise that such a partisan reading of ancient Sri lanka is inaccurate, pointing to anomalies in the pre-colonial state which evidence Sinhala-Tamil communal violence as originating from after Independence, and that differences of language, custom and religion in between the two groups was reinvented and imposed teleologically by the modern state. Nissan and Stirrat then explore why politics in Sri Lanka currently has come to be dominated by violence between groups differentiated by racial and linguistic traits and how these groups came to be polarised, and point to colonial rule as setting these processes into motion. They look at imported Western values such as the unitary bureaucratic structure, British understandings of ‘race’ and their ‘civilising mission’, and the developments of state education and mass media as creating an environment for the creation of the two separate and opposing communal groups. By highlighting the different understandings of the two groups pre-modern and modern state, Nissan and Stirrat emphasise the importance of viewing perceived continuities in their historical context. Their analysis underscores the critical need for reevaluating prevailing historical narratives and the malleability of these narratives to foster efforts towards a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of conflict for a more sustainable peace.

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