Roshan de Silva-Wijeyeratne interviewed about his researches

Roshan De Silva Wijeyeratne as AUTHOR OF THE MONTH for ROUTLEDGE

Nation plus ROSHAN DE S-W

1. How did you become interested in teaching Law? (Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a Lecturer in Law at the Griffith Law School in Australia)

I planned on practicing law initially via a history degree (my real passion) but in the end I studied for an undergraduate law degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). SOAS provided an environment which quickly set me on another path – that of teaching and research. I took a keen interest in comparative law and soon abandoned the idea of legal practice. I was introduced to anthropology during my Masters at the LSE and this has informed my approach to both thinking about law and teaching law, be it property law or the more esoteric subjects that I teach such as legal history and law and culture.2. What factors led you to writing Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka?

While at SOAS, I read a report by the International Commission of Jurists on the 1983 riots. The report made a reference to a trope in the lexicon of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism – that the Sinhalese imagined themselves to be Aryans. As someone of Sri Lankan Sinhalese heritage who had grown up in London I was puzzled by such a (what appeared) bizarre claim. It spurred me towards an undergraduate dissertation on how and why this trope of Aryanism had taken hold and how this imaginary had informed the post-colonial legal order. At the time I had not yet read Bruce Kapferer’s Legends of People, Myths of State(1988) which would go onto influence my approach in my doctorate and subsequently Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism.

During my doctorate, my reading of Sri Lankan history increasingly took a post-structuralist turn. Drawing on Kapferer’s work on ritual and Sinhalese nationalism, I advanced an argument about how key moments of post-colonial nation building in Sri Lanka (citizenship, language policy and constitutional structure for example) were informed by a mytho-ritual imaginary.

The intensification of the Sinhalese nationalist project following the victory of President Rajapaksa in 2005 provided an opportunity to write a book on Sri Lanka. Informed by phenomenology the book presents an ontological reading of the cosmic order of Sinhalese Buddhism which I argue provides a performative ground for a variety of pre-colonial Sinhalese Buddhist practices, both popular and State-centric. Post-colonial nation building in Sri Lanka is similarly informed by the performative logic of this cosmic order, but under the British colonial State the cosmic order of Buddhism was subjected to a rationalist revaluation. The book goes onto argue that it is this transformed cosmic order that gives the discriminatory practices of the Sinhalese State an ontological ground.

3. Have you read any Routledge books? If so, which is your favorite Routledge book at the moment?

Yes I’ve read quite a few. Most recently I’ve read Tim Ingold’s Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, a book that speaks to my phenomenological approach and I am currently writing a review of Ian Duncanson’s Historiography, Empire and the Rule of Law.

4. How much impact has the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 had on Sri Lanka do you think?

I believe Rajapaksa’s mission is very much the completion of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist project initiated in the mid-1950s. Rajapaksa’s regime is thoroughly patrimonial. Having defeated the LTTE in 2009, the international community expected the regime to move towards reconciliation with the Tamil minority and a generous power sharing model that devolved administrative power to the Tamil dominated northeast of the island. However, the Sinhalese nationalist forces that had coalesced around Rajapakse and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party have made that impossible – indeed Rajapakse himself did in rather Schmittian terms declare that there were only friends and enemies in Sri Lanka – those who advocated ‘minority rights’ were enemies of the State.

The regime in many ways is the apotheosis of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s period of government in the mid-1950s. Under Rajapakse Sinhalese nationalism stands renewed, its key ideologues shaping a Hindutva model of Sinhalese Buddhism, one that can trace its genealogy to the Orientalist/modernist refashioning of Sinhalese Buddhism in the late 19th century – a process intensified by the withdrawal of the colonial State from Buddhist affairs. With Beijing now bankrolling the Sri Lanka State there is little the West (inclusive of India) can do to influence events in the island.

I’ve written more about this in a couple of journalistic pieces – and

5. What makes this book different from others about nationalism in Sri Lanka and why do you think people should buy Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka?

My book positions Sri Lanka’s constitutional history within a cultural framework that has informed Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history. Taking my cue from Marshall Sahlins – that history always reveals its cultural form – I argue that modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism emerges through the conjunction of discourse, power and knowledge at a distinct moment in the trajectory of the colonial State.

There is little in the current literature on Sri Lanka’s post-colonial constitutional history that positions that history within the cultural milieu of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism – a nationalism that reveals the power of a re-valued Buddhist cosmic order for example to still inform the institutional history of the post-colonial Sri Lankan State. Herein resides what I think is an originary point and a critical extension of the scholarship of Bruce Kapferer, Gananath Obeyesekere, Michael Roberts and Stanley Tambiah – while human beings create their social and political worlds generating the very realities of their existential horizons, the practices of the State similarly reveals the ontological but contingent force of the Buddhist cosmic order. However this logic also reveals the power of modernity to systematically revalue pre-colonial ways of being in the world, a process that can have devastating consequences for those caught up in these processes of cultural revaluation.

    Published July 31st 2013 by Routledge 

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Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka

by Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne

Routledge – 2013 – 256 pages;  Series: Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series

Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka offers a new perspective on contemporary debates about Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. In this book de Silva Wijeyeratne argues forcefully that ‘Sinhalese Buddhism’ in the period prior to its engagement with the British colonial State signified a relatively unbounded (although at times boundary forming) set of practices that facilitated both the inclusion and exclusion of non-‘Buddhist’ concepts and people within a particular cosmological frame. Juxtaposing the pre-modern against the backdrop of colonial modernity, de Silva Wijeyeratne tells us that in contrast modern ‘Sinhalese Buddhism/nationalism’ is a much more reified and bounded concept, one imagined through a 19th century epistemology whose purpose was not so much inclusion, but a much more radical exclusion of non-‘Buddhist’ ideas and people.

In this insightful analysis modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, then, emerges through the conjunction of discourse, power and knowledge at a distinct moment in the trajectory of the colonial State. An intrinsic feature of this modernist moment is that premodern categories (such as the cosmic order) were subject to a bureaucratic re-valuation that generated profound consequences for State-society relations and the wider constitutional/legal imaginary. This book goes onto explore how key constitutional and nation-building moments were framed within the cultural milieu of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism – a nationalism that reveals the power of a re-valued Buddhist cosmic order to still inform the present.

Given the intensification of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist project following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, this book is of interest to scholars of nationalism, South Asian studies, the anthropology of ritual, and comparative legal history.

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Filed under British colonialism, Buddhism, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, fundamentalism, historical interpretation, island economy, language policies, legal issues, LTTE, modernity & modernization, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, racist thinking, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, religiosity, religious nationalism, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, world events & processes

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