Besetting Problems in the “Battle for Harmony” in Sri Lanka

“Battle for Harmony” in Sri Lanka was a Zoom Discussion organized by the Youth Rotary of Colombo East on the evening of 28th May 2020 …

Opening Statement by Michael Roberts

  Let me begin with the closing statement voiced by Kumar Sangakkara in his Cowdrey Lecture at the MCC in 2011: “My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their twenty million hearts beating collectively. They are my foundation. They are my family. I will play cricket for them….. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim,[1] Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am, today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.


I am afraid that these words and the orientation [Sangakkara] represents, an ecumenical orientation, an all embracing one, are very good; but I am afraid they are beyond the reach of a majority of Sri Lankans. And I say so from my interaction with Sri Lankans, from my knowledge of what has happened in Sri Lanka. But let me give more specific reasons for this pessimistic assessment.

To put it briefly, it is because of the commitment, widespread commitment to vengeance in Sri Lankan society spreading across all classes, all ethnic groups, all religious communities. And towards this end I suggest that all of you look at an article written by a colleague of mine, Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere, it is entitled “Sorcery, Premeditated Murder, and the Canalization of Aggression in Sri Lanka” published in 1975 and reprinted as a SSC Pamphlet by me and Ananda Chittambalam later on, (and) I think republished subsequently. Just Google that title. Look at that article.

Also look at two books by Bruce Kapferer, who was a Professor of Anthropology at Adelaide for a while. One is called A Celebration of Demons and set in the Southern Province, Galle, my hometown. Another is called, Legends of People. Myths of State. Take those studies together and try and get a distilled representation.

And if you go to Kapferer’s book, in one chapter there is a picture of a working-class woman approaching the gods because her husband has left her and left her destitute. She is asking the gods to punish him for what he had done, so as vengeance; and with her is the mother and then the kappurala asks the gods to do all sorts of things to this husband and, you know, slash him to smithereens, etc. etc. But I thought most atrocious suggestion to the gods was to inject and infuse the husband with eczema! So, here then is a poor, downtrodden woman who has being left destitute seeking punishment against the person who is responsible for her status. And with her was her mother. And there is a picture. I meant to bring it, but I do not know how to reproduce these things.

You look at the mother’s face. If looks could kill, that husband would be dead now. It is an intense, focused hate seeking punishment, seeking vengeance, seeking retribution; so that then is just one example. There are many such examples and these are not just individual examples. If you go to Obeyesekere’s article you will see he studied people who were visiting four powerful shrines, where people come to seek redress; among the redress is retribution, vengeance for believable wrongs done to them. One was at Seenigama, another was at Kahathapitiya, [a third at] Hunugama I forget the other. There is a statistical study, people from all classes go to these types of shrines. Ah [the fourth] was Munneswara. So here then are people seeking redress, but then seeking to punish other. It is the working out of vengeance acts at the local level and these are people from all classes. Some of the most (frequent visitors are) politicians in particular and businessmen who feel that their path is blocked seek ways and means and go to the gods and goddesses; it’s not just gods – [the goddesses] Karnagi, Pattini, Kali, all of them are approached.

By the way those who went to kill Rajiv Gandhi visited one of these shrines[2] before they went to Sriperumbudur. And their mission was successful, so the gods and goddesses have helped them to kill Rajiv Gandhi there.

  Dhanu in orange & green and Sivarasan (operational commander) wait for Dhanu to strike …… Dhanu’s head is seen on the left corner of this pix

This sort of practice is pretty widespread. So, how does one address a society, a set of people from all communities, who are inclined to seek redress by punishing others and hurting others? From there we progress to the awesome moments in Sri Lankan history where you have what were generally called riots. But in some cases they were more than riots; they were pogroms. I am thinking of 1958, 1977, 1983 and where in these cases mostly Sinhalese people, sort retribution and sort to punish Tamils in their midst and committed awful revengeful acts and set the ball rolling for the deepening of the conflict between Sinhalese, some Sinhalese and some Tamils, not necessarily all Tamils. So, that then is the field we have to address and overcome and take into account. Let me move on. It is not merely Sri Lanka that we have to take into account. …… . [at technical failure cut the talk off at this stage

…. Scenes at Borella Junction on the 24th July 1983 night … … pix taken by Chandragupta Amarasinghe a brave and ingenious cameraman



Bruce Kapferer 1983 A Celebration of Demons, Indiana University Press.

Bruce Kapferer 1989 Legends of People, Myths of State ……………………………………………………….. also see

Gananath Obeyesekere 1975 “Sorcery and Premeditated Murder: The Canalization of Aggression,” Ethnology, XIV:1, 1-2 reprinted now at …………………….……………………………………

Michael Roberts 2010 “Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu’s Sacrificial Metamorphosis in Death,” South Asian History and Culture Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2010, pp.25–41.

Michael Roberts 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,” 3 May 2018, …………………………………………………….….…………………..


[1] Thus, “Muslim” here is an ethnic category not specifically Religious and in fact does not embrace the Malays. In fact during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the term in use was “Moors.” It was only circa the 1930s that the concept was altered to “Muslims.” Note here my emphasis and elaborations after the recent 21/4 Easter attacks (Roberts 2019).

[2] Note these details: “just before their journey by bus from Chennai for Sriperumbudur [where Rajiv Gandhi was killed] on 21 May for their task of assassination, when Sivarasan met Dhanu and Subha at Nalini’s home at 3:15, the group of four first repaired to a local temple to offer prayers before meeting the cameraman Haribabu near the bus terminus. This was because Dhanu wished ‘to say her final prayers.’ The temple was a Pillaiyar kovil lorded over by that prince of powerful guardians, Ganapathi, the elephant headed ‘Remover of Obstacles’ or Vinayakar. It is reasonable surmise that Dhanu and Sivarasan propitiated Ganapathi, the protector, to ensure a successful assassination” (Roberts 2009: 36). Sriperumbudur was where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Dhanu.


Filed under accountability, atrocities, chauvinism, communal relations, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, language policies, life stories, LTTE, photography, politIcal discourse, power politics, religiosity, riots and pogroms, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, trauma, unusual people, vengeance, welfare & philanthophy, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes

2 responses to “Besetting Problems in the “Battle for Harmony” in Sri Lanka

  1. Chandra Wickramasinghe

    Thanks Mike. The basic problem lies in the desperate efforts made by the Tamil minority(who constitute only 12 per cent of the total population) to importunately, legitimize their highly stilted aspirations embodied in their ignis fatuus of Tamil EELAAM! The Sinhala majority quite naturally, view these ridiculous aspirations as demands that do violence to their own democratic rights !

  2. Pingback: Honeycombed with Societal and Political Fissures: Sri Lanka Now & Ever Befor | Thuppahi's Blog

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