Ideology, Ethnicity, and the Critique of Postconflict in Sri Lanka

From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

Failure to resolve the so-called national question of the political rights of minorities to education, employment, land, and representation has long constituted the chief impediment to peace in Sri Lanka.1 The government’s postconflict discourse conceives this historically constituted complex of issues as an irritation to be palliated through some minimal measure of devolution within a unitary state, but ultimately resolved through a strategy of development, security, and reconciliation. Development consists chiefly in attracting global capital to Sri Lanka in the form of aid, sovereign bonds, and infrastructure development projects; financialization and economic deregulation; and remaking Colombo as a world city through high-end tourism and the disciplining of its poor. Security for development is provided by the military’s ubiquitous presence, especially in the north and east of the island, where its decision-making has become central in land settlement. The concept of reconciliation further simplifies the national question into a subjective problem of recognition between communities.

While the ideological character of the government’s postconflict solution to the national question is rightfully critiqued as Sinhalese-nationalist, my interest here is the ideological and discursive content of such critiques themselves.2 At a recent conference in Colombo on Sri Lanka’s postwar future, amid discussion of the many dispiriting aspects of the present political terrain, the national question figured centrally. Less expected, though, was some participants’ enthusiasm for revenant culturalist models to describe the formidable obstacle Sinhalese nationalism poses to the development of a multicultural Sri Lanka. This became particularly evident in the ascription of popular Sinhalese tolerance for the government’s misdeeds to the president’s Asokan persona and the recourse to Sinhalese Buddhist ontology to explain recent anti-Muslim violence.

I recount the above to underline a methodological point: although the phenomenon of postconflict is an emerging topic in political anthropology, it is necessarily grasped through an archive of concepts, objects, and thematics that have organized scholarship on Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Reconstructing and recognizing the legacy of this archive becomes critical if we are mindful of historical anthropology’s basic insight that fieldwork’s objects are not transparently meaningful, but discursively constituted. The deconstruction of Sinhalese nationalism’s hegemonic projects rightly constitutes a central problematic in the study of Sri Lanka and informs critiques of the regime’s postconflict claims. Here, I want to sketch the intellectual history of the concept of ethnicity that has underwritten work on Sinhalese nationalism for the past thirty years or so. Noting its identity as an “appraisive term" (Quentin 2002, 161), I approach ethnicity as a means of conceptualizing difference, rather than as a synonym for identity itself, and foreground some of the political assumptions the concept’s deployment encodes.

Three significant moments can be identified in ethnicity’s conceptual history in the study of Sri Lanka. First, its emergence as a term specified premodern, traditional forms of identification distinguishing Sri Lankan nationalism from secular, European prototypes (Roberts 1979). Second, leftist, secularist work from the late 1970s exposed ethnicity’s modernity and role in the primordialization and consolidation of an otherwise fissured Sinhalese polity (Abeysekera and Gunasinghe 1987). A third moment follows the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, with anthropological theorizations of Sinhalese culture’s receptivity to nationalism framing an isomorphism between identities themselves and Sinhalese nationalist projects of identity-making. My concern here is not to question ethnicity’s timeliness and its critical adequacy as a response to the problem of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. I do suggest, though, that ethnicity’s conceptual form has served to collapse identity and ideology, circumscribing discussion of the political within the Sinhalese social formation. This impoverished understanding of the political has slipped disciplinary boundaries and become normalized in an increasingly ubiquitous shorthand of ethnicization, ethnocracy, and so on. Ethnicity’s deployment now typically describes Sri Lanka’s pathological divergence from the normative democratic standards of secular political modernity as a species of “failed state.” Yet the interrogation of democracy’s secular imaginary remains an outstanding critical demand articulated by postcolonial theorists of South Asia. This would entail approaching an event like the Sinhalese democratic revolution of 1956 not primarily as a milestone in the unfolding of ethnic ideology, but rather as instancing the democratic political reason that makes the ideological mobilization of ethnicity effective (Scott 2000). It is the late-colonial introduction of this political rationality in Ceylon that naturalizes majority and minority on the island, through its sureness of the superior political virtue of the unmarked individual voter over her communal, circumscribed counterpart. Indeed, this moment marks a shift in the discussion of community from equal representation to minority protection or safeguards, where it has since resided.

Can the analytic of ethnicity escape the secular imaginary of its conceptual and political history? Or does it reinscribe old assumptions about the proper political appearance of self and community in its search for a national identity that might better incorporate minorities as minorities? My suggestion is that critique of the Sinhalese-nationalist character of the government’s postconflict discourse, while necessary and laudable, has limited conceptual value if it reproduces the national question as a familiar postindependence story of the intransigence of Sinhalese-nationalist ideology. For this obscures the more generative problem of the democratic naturalization of majority and minority. After all, if ideological constructions of Sinhalese culture serve as guarantees of its majoritarian propensity, then what is envisaged by asking the majority to be less majoritarian? The contemporary postconflict conjuncture in South Asia provides an opportunity for a reflexive examination of the political adequacy of the “gatekeeping concepts” (Appadurai 1986, 357) that mediate our critiques of postconflict claims. Here, I have suggested how the secular character of an influential disciplinary problematic forecloses a more discomfiting order of questions centered on the critique of democracy itself.


1. The formulation “national question” emerges from the leftist tradition but has now become a shorthand in Sri Lanka for discussion of the relations between majority and minority communities, as well as inequalities of gender, caste, and class within and across communities.

2. Sinhalese nationalism identifies Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist nation in which minorities exist at the discretion of the majority population.


Abeysekera, Charles, and Newton Gunasinghe, eds. 1987. Facets of Ethnicity. Colombo: Social Scientists Association.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. “Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 28, no. 2: 356–61.

Roberts, Michael. 1979. “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs. Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900–1940.” In Collective Identities: Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, edited by Michael Roberts, 337–60. Colombo: Marga Institute.

Scott, David. 2000. “Toleration and Historical Traditions of Difference.” In Subaltern Studies, 11: Community, Gender, Violence, edited by Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan, 283–304. New York: Columbia University Press.

Skinner, Quentin. 2002. “The Idea of a Cultural Lexicon.” In Visions of Politics, Volume 1: Regarding Method, 158–74. New York: Cambridge University Press.