Conflicts in Sri Lanka reviewed in 2009 by Muralidhar Reddy

Muralidhar Reddy, in Frontline, vol. 26/20, Sept 26-Oct 09, 2009 where the title reads “Analytical Anthropology”

Michael Roberts’ collection of essays on Sri Lankan identity is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere polluted by callous accounts.

SRI LANKA, a country of 20 million-odd people of distinct identities, is witnessing a series of momentous events in the post-Prabakaran period. Michael Roberts’ latest book is a collection of 13 analytical essays, most of them written by him and others edited by him, on the much-debated issues of collective “Sri Lankan identity” and the cultural roots and ideology of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil nationalisms, and a detailed study of the projects of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a staunch Sinhala Buddhist who made a conscious effort to swim against the tide and launched a full-throated campaign against British rule and Christian missionaries.

It comes as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere heavily polluted by callous and hasty accounts [presented by] fly-by-night journalists and self-appointed Sri Lanka experts on Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009). The value of the collection woven together by Michael Roberts is doubly enhanced by over 35 photographs that adorn the book.

An introduction to the author is in order to grasp the import of the 450-page anthology, which assembles under one cover analytical essays written over the past 15 years. The preface to the collection titled “Before Pirapaharan, after Pirapaharan” is, needless to say, written after the military decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 18 and the discovery of Prabakaran’s body the following day. At the end of every chapter Roberts has attempted to link the discussion to the post-Eelam War IV realities of Sri Lanka.

Displaced Tamils released from government-run camps look for transport to get back to their villages on September 11…..Pix by Chaminda Hittatiya of AP

The author and the publisher characterise their labour of love as an endeavour for critical scrutiny by the Sri Lankan people at home and abroad. And there is plenty of scrutiny, ranging from outright denunciation of thoughts to blind adulation bordering on veneration.

Michael Roberts is a Sri Lankan-Australian whose secondary and university education was in Sri Lanka. He attended school at St. Aloysius College in Galle and graduated with honours in History at the then University of Ceylon at Peradeniya before proceeding to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. After securing his D. Phil. in History in 1965 he taught at the University of Peradeniya from 1966 to 1976. He joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide in 1977. He has since retired and is now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the same university.

In the words of the publisher: “His [Michael Roberts’] special interests are in cultural anthropology and historical sociology. In the result his research work tends to straddle the field of politics, history and culture. He has published a host of articles and a number of books on Sri Lanka. His expertise encompasses social mobility and social history, agrarian and tenurial issues, peasant protest, popular culture, urban history, caste in South Asia, practices of cultural domination and issues in ethnicity and nationalism. He has ventured occasionally to write on Indian socio-political history, Australian myth-making and the sociology of cricket.”

Very few scholars on Sri Lanka can match the credentials of Michael Roberts, though it must be emphasised that his theses, propounded from time to time, on the ethnic strife in the island nation have been contested and debated by equally erudite personalities. Love him or hate him, Michael Roberts’ works cannot be ignored.

The temporal focus of the essays encompasses the last two centuries for the most part, though there are excursions further back. Issues of collective identity and nationalism, the core issue of the ethnic conflict, as well as modes of communication and embodied practice during different eras provide some of the overlapping themes.

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Inserting HERE two of the photographs in CONFRONTATIONS ….








and complmenting that act by two photogaphs of Muralidhar Reddy, as an intrepid journalist in the war zone

Murali Reddy’s Frontline Access to the War Zone in May 2009



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