Analytical Anthology: CONFRONTATIONS by Michael Roberts



Amended and abbreviated version or article in Frontline, Vol. 26, No. 20, 26 Sept 2009

Michael Roberts’s latest book assembles thirteen of his recent academic essays on the cultural and ideological roots of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil nationalisms in Sri Lanka. It includes a study of the pogrom against the Muslims in 1915 and a remarkably detailed analysis of the projects of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933), a staunch Sinhala Buddhist who launched a full-throated campaign against British rule and Christian missionaries.

The author‘s preface “Before Pirapāharan, after Pirapāharan” was written after the military decimation of the LTTE early this year, but all the other articles are the product of years of research. This journey, clearly, has been a labour of love. We now have some of the results before us so that they can be subject to critical scrutiny.

Taken as a whole, this book of 450 pages that include 35 striking photographs with mini-essays comes as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere heavily polluted by hasty accounts penned by fly-by-night journalists and self-appointed Sri Lanka experts on Eelam War IV.

The temporal focus encompasses the last two centuries for the most part, though there are excursions further back. Issues of collective identity, modes of communication and the embodied practices of committed people provide some of the overlapping themes that straddle past and present.

Sinhala consciousness serves as a central theme within the collection, with particular attention to its modern form, namely, the currents of Sinhala nationalism from the British period onwards. The author’s readiness to depict some of these expressions as “chauvinist” provides a clue to his political positioning today.

The book clearly shows that the crisis which Sri Lanka faces today was born well before Prabākaran. The roots of Sinhala claims to hegemony go deep. If the chapter on Dharmapäla’s thinking and the “Marakkala Kolahālaya” in 1915 are not revelatory enough, that on the logic of association and conflations of time which inspired the Kandyan rulers of the 1810s to link the threat posed by the demonic white foreigners with that of the “sädi demalu” (vile & fierce Tamils) of Dutugämunu’s time is illuminating: it highlights the historical depth of sharp differentiation.

Attention to Sinhalese thinking is balanced, albeit unevenly, by some space devoted to Tamil nationalism in modern times. Roberts indicates that the first sustained exposition of Sri Lankan Tamils as a “nation” was presented by the Ceylon Communist Party in 1944. However, the book does not trace the history of this current and jumps to a consideration of specific threads informing the commitment of those who joined the LTTE.

Two essays elaborate on the religio-cultural roots of the martyr cult deployed by the LTTE in the course of the Tamil struggle for self-determination. This takes Roberts on a journey into the southern Indian heritages around the Cankam poetry and bhakti movement. These chapters also dwell upon a whole range of everyday practices of religious devotion oriented towards the negation of the self and the offering of votive gifts to powerful entities/goals. Renewal of self through fusion with a deity, it is argued, is conducive to martyrdom on behalf of one’s people and their cause.

Michael Roberts’s corpus of writings is substantial. They “straddle the fields of politics, history and culture;” while his disciplinary specialities are described as “cultural anthropology and historical sociology” (publisher). Few scholars on Sri Lanka can match his credentials, though his arguments on the ethnic strife in the island nation have been contested and debated by equally erudite personalities. Love him or hate him, Michael Roberts’s works cannot be ignored.





PART I: Landscapes of Debate, Encounter, Review

1.   Language and national identity: the Sinhalese and others over the centuries

2.   Saivite symbolism, sacrifice and Tamil Tiger rites

3. Nomadic intellectuals: Asian stars in Atlanticland

PART II:  Sri Lanka: Analytical Accounts from the 1990s

4Marakkala Kolahālaya: Mentalities directing the pogrom of 1915                                                                                                      5.  Nationalism: the past and the present: the case of Sri Lanka                          .

6.  Beyond Anderson: reconstructing and deconstructing Sinhala Nationalist Discourse

7. Filial devotion in Tamil culture and the Tiger cult of martyrdom

8.  For Humanity. For the Sinhalese. Dharmapala as bosat crusader

9.  Nationalisms today and yesterday

10. Himself and Project. A serial autobiography. Our Journey with a Sinhala

zealot, Anagarika Dharmapala

11. Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist failures in comprehending the Kandyan period of Lankan history

12. The collective consciousness of the Sinhalese during the Kandyan era: Manichean demonisation, associational logic



1. Anagārika Dharmapāla

2. Piyadāsa Sirisena & W. A. de Silva

3. Middle Class Gentleman at the Orient Club, 1907

4. Mass Agitation: The Temperance Movement

5. Banda at Spinning Wheel

6. D. S. Senanayake addresses Crowd from Podium


7. Bandaranaike’s Pūjā

8. Homage to the Buddha: Leftist Leaders offer Thanks at the Daladā Māligāva, ‘70

9. A “Holy Trinity”


10. Colvin R. de Silva in Action

11. Walking among the People

12. Wijeweera in Demagogic Mode


13. Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam All Smiles after BC Pact, 1957

14. Bhikkhu berates Bandaranaike, 1957

14b. Bhikkhus and Vimala Wijewardena protest outside Rosmead Place

15. Assaults on Tamils, 1958

16. Buddhist Monk views Portrait of Bandaranaike

17. Wijeweera’s Press Conference

18. Checkpoint at Height of JVP Insurrection, 1971

19. JVP Rally, Town Hall in Colombo, 7 November1977

20. Mob at Borella Junction, 24/25 July 1983

21. Protest against Ambassador Dixit and India, June 1987

22. Rajiv Gandhi, Jayewardene and Others All Smiles, July 1987


23. Tamils En Masse at Sudumalai Ammān Kōvil await Pirapāharan’s Peroration, 4 August 1987

24a. Tiger Fighters with Cyanide Vials or Kuppi, late 1980S

24b. Young Tiger Lad with a Pottu in Holy Ash heads for Battlefield, 1980s

25. Female Māvīrar surrounded by Tropes of Abundance at VVT Shed, November

26. Palatial Settings for Māvīrar, Tirunelvely, November 2004

27. Kittu Up, Kittu Down

28. Pongu Thamil Float with Pirapāharan & Pot, Geneva, 2003

29. Fifty Pots for Pirapāharan, 26 November 2004

30. Pirapāharan’s Homage to Miller & Black Tigers, 5 July 2005

31. Tiger Demonstrator invades Cricket Pitch, West Indies, 2007

31b LTTE supporters in Toronto, October 2008

32. Women and Men marshalled for Struggle in the Northern Vanni, 2007                                                                                                                                      

+++             +++             +++             +++

ISBN 9789556650358

Publisher:  Vijitha Yapa Publications

Pages 450

Size 210x145x22mm Weight 800 g.

Price Rs. 1,800.00

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Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, life stories, LTTE, power sharing, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil migration, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism

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  1. Pingback: Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist Failures in comprehending the Kandyan Period of Lankan History | Thuppahi's Blog

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