A novel reading of Sri Lankan scholarship on nationalism

Reviewed by Anushka Kahandagamage

Harshana Rambukwella, The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism, 2018. 178 pages, London: UCL Press. ISBN: 978-1-78735-128-8. Open Access book: https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/95138

The over-use of the concept, ‘Sinhala nationalism’ has made it a tedious and an outdated analytical tool in Sri Lankan scholarship. Many scholars have made Sinhala nationalism ‘the reason’ of conflict and war, making it a dead-end socio-political analysis. Rambukwella’s book finds its roots in the rupture of the existing scholarship where nationalism is seen as the endpoint in understanding Sri Lankan politics. Pushing the boundaries of analysis beyond the surface of prevailing scholarship, Rambukwella deconstructs the idea of nationalism, rather than understanding it as ‘given’ or ‘universal’. The study explores these concepts with fluidity and points out the danger of using them in a ‘given-universal’ form. The author comes out from the comfort zone of what is ‘given’ or deemed inevitable. Efforts have been made to separate ‘nationalism as a category of action’ and ‘nationalism as a category of analysis’. The study is engrossed in understanding nationalists’ conduct within ‘nationalism’ and how they produce and reproduce nationalism than to understand what nationalism is.

Nationalism often seeks to associate with ideas of ‘authenticity’. The study links the concept of ‘authenticity’ with the Sinhala word ‘apēkama‘, which can be loosely translated as ‘ourness’. The author historicises the notion of ‘apēkama’ by guiding the reader to navigate through different times, spaces and phases. As per his explanation and analysis, the notion ‘apēkama‘ is not a personal, idiosyncratic belief, but a discourse which reproduces and transmits from generation to generation.

In his journey towards grappling with nationality and nationalism, the author analyses the similarities and differences between writers like Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson. For Gellner, ‘nationalism’ emerges from transforming society from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. In that case, mass education, literacy, and bureaucracy are considered as preconditions of nationalism. The nation-state is built upon and energized upon nationalism. Anderson approaches the phenomena differently, explaining how mass circulation of print media such as novels and newspapers enables a community to imagine itself as a homogenous group regardless of their differences and diversities. In this new milieu, ‘time’ escapes from the religious frame and locates itself in a more secular frame. In this context, ‘time’ is defined by the clock or the calendar, which Anderson understands as ’empty homogenous time’. The ‘nation’ imagines itself as a homogenous entity occupied by connected individuals who share the same time-frame. While Gellner projects the institutional nature of nationalism, Anderson sees nationalism both as institutional and cultural. Post-colonial knowledge production forecast nationalism in a different theoretical frame with attempts of decolonization. However, these attempts to decolonize the knowledge of nationalism barely escape from the trap of generating an ‘authentic past’. As Rambukwella correctly proposes in his book, nationalists and post-colonial scholars hardly escape from the geopolitical duality between East and West. Within this kind of discursive framework, the book explores the politics of Sinhala cultural and political authenticity which emerged in the colonial period and evolved into a hegemonic force during the post-colonial era. The book critically offers a sense of Sri Lankan political history at a glance.

Adhering to the above theoretical framework, the author explores three thinkers who appeared in colonial and post-colonial contexts: Anagarika Dharmapala; S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Gunadasa Amarasekare. The author locates the first two thinkers in a broader socio-economic and political sphere where they continually crisscross across the nation-state’s boundaries. The third thinker, Gunadasa Amarasekara is occasionally used as a tool of analysis for the first two thinkers. As indicated in the book’s title, the ‘poetics’ is used as an analytical tool through Gunadasa Amarasekara’s writings.

The use of ‘poetics’ as an analytical tool gives a sense of novelty and a different colour to the study. Instead of orthodox analytical approaches, using ‘poetics’ marks a more nuanced approach to studying, analysing, and exploring Sri Lankan socio-political scenarios. The study finds its own analytical tools that challenge the more mechanistic conventional methods, which often sacrifice the research content to maintain an ostensible sense of ‘scientificity’.

The book consists of six chapters. The first chapter discusses the problem of authenticity while ploughing into the broader theoretical field within which this discussion can be sensibly located. The second chapter is devoted to understanding the continually changing nature of ‘authenticity’ concerning forces such as Buddhism, nation and history and explores the socio-historical changes which shaped Sinhala nationalism and authenticity in the 19th and 20th centuries. The third chapter is assigned to investigate the impact of global and local ‘realities’ in creating Anagarika Dharmapala’s character, thoughts, and activism. The next chapter discusses S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a father-figure in the Sinhala nationalist narrative, even though he also posited a paradox in the scheme of nationalism due to his elite and anglicised upbringing. Gunadasa Amarasekara becomes the focus of the fifth chapter, where the author discusses the role of Amarasekara in constructing ‘authenticity’ as a political ideology. The final chapter is devoted to understanding how the discourse of authenticity gave birth to post-colonial nationalist and cultural politics.

Rambukwella’s book presents a novel reading of Sri Lankan scholarship on nationalism. Further, it provides an excellent synopsis of society’s socio-political and economic evolution to readers interested in understanding colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka in the 19th and 20th centuries. Simultaneously, the book is also a reference point and guide to local and global scholarship that have attempted to read various aspects of nationalism.

Anushka Kahandagamage (anuappri@gmail.com) is reading for her PhD in Sociology at the South Asian University, New Delhi

5 Viewers