Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri
Abstract of a talk to be delivered at the ICES, Colombo, Friday, 26 August 2011: While it is well-known that the interpretation of the past of the island is one of the battlefields of the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic politics in Sri Lanka, there is no adequate explanation as to how the ethno-political function of “history” has been possible irrespective of the presence of strong empirical scholarly tradition in the historical scholarship. The explanation has to be found in the way in which methodologically empirical and ostensibly ideologically-neutral scholarly discourse and the hegemonized popular understanding of “history of Sri Lanka” have been articulated into one discursive construction.
This discursive construction functions as a “Charter of Right” for the Sinhala-Buddhist, especially in the context of the escalating ethno-nationalist tension. In other words, it was through a particular version of the past of the island that Sinhala-nationalists built their case against the ethno-nationalist claims of Tamils. Quite understandably, Tamil nationalists are vehemently opposed to this construction, but still failed to build a more attractive version to the public as well as to the scholars. Subsequent to the military defeat of Tamil Ethno-nationalism, the importance of non-military battle-fronts has gained momentum. Sinhala-Buddhist pilgrims flocking in to Jaffna peninsula and sites claimed to be linked with the early Buddhist activities of the island have become their popular destinations. These visitors are highly emotional about the “historical significance” of these places and being watched by politically sensitive Tamils with utmost caution. To add more fuel to the tension, Sinhalized names of these places, which were hitherto restricted to the discourse of virtually unknown group of Sinhala intellectuals, are now displayed openly in these places. In the meantime archaeologists are also busy with making further inroads to this “territory of distorted history” in order to discover remnants of the “true history”, again to the delight of Sinhala-Buddhist pilgrims and to the fury of politically sensitive Tamils.In this intervention I will try to shed some light on this unfolding warfare in this intensifying battlefield of conflicting discourses of the past