I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Liminality of South Asia

Observations made at the plenary session of the conference, 'Reimagining South Asia: Explorations in the History of Ideas' organized by the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, 17th February 2017:

The Audience. Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
I wondered for quite some time over the last few days what to say in this session which is focussed on ‘Thinking South Asia.’ I don’t think I had much success. But I hope what I have to say would be in the very least minimally coherent. My anxiety and relative confusion comes from the fact that South Asia is such a flippantly used and blatantly abused term like terrorism, fundamentalism, anti-national and health food, all of which have far more discursive meanings linked to them which defy their basic English language sensibilities.

Besides, I am often invited to seemingly South Asian gatherings to offer these events some exotic flavor given the fact that I do not carry an Indian passport or the privileges of Indian citizenship, which invariably offer these events some sort of simple and simplistic plurality of citizenship by virtue of what I lack and in the same sense, what I have – citizenship of another country in South Asia. All this by virtue of my accidental, and in the case of conference organizers, serendipitous and inexpensive presence in Delhi.

Plenary Session. Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
Similarly, the the idea of ‘regional consciousness’ often stressed by my own university, euphemistically called the South Asian University and established by South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is anything but regional in its outlook or the way in which it works. Besides the name and and the matra-like deployment of the term, it is very much like any other university in the country. 

What is more shocking is the banality with which the words ‘South Asia’ are used by everybody from students to colleagues to administrators and bureaucrats beyond the university. That is why, very recently, in this liminal existence of South Asia that the Board of Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences insisted that our research should ideally attempt to stay within a South Asian perspective.

So I think, given my institutional and personal locations and the experience which comes from these, I am very well within my rights to be skeptical of what South Asia means in the way it is deployed today in most hegemonic discourses. 

Peter De Souza at the Conference. Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
However, it seems to me, it is precisely this undefined perspective that our Board of Studies was trying to articulate, which I think has considerable potential that one needs to embrace, and take over, if one needs to fathom a kind of South Asia not too closely linked to the shackles of its cartographic imagination mandated by the limiting logic of nation states. But in my mind, this can only be achieved if one has the personal intellectual ability and institutional freedom to be adequately subversive with ideas. 

on 'the liminality of South Asia.' Photo: Romy Ahuja, MA Program in Political Science, University of Delhi
It is in this scheme of things that I was pleasantly surprised when I realized this workshop is organized by a mainstream political science department with a clear International Relations presence as well. The concept note of the workshop says this is an “attempt to find out possibilities for the creation of new episteme in order to understand the idea of South Asia.” It further notes, “The search for new episteme is impelled by our disenchantment with the existing parochial definition of the idea of South Asia which is often confined within the colonial/post-colonial bounds of a cartographically marked region.”

I stress the words, our disenchantment, new episteme and bounds of a cartographically marked region. But if you are serious about what all these lofty ideals mean, then it is necessary to take the venture you might begin today way beyond the confines marked by the traditional understandings and disciplinary domains of political science and international relations, and for that matter sociology as well. In fact, one will need to cultivate closer proximities with cognate disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, literature, dance, music, film and theatre studies and so on if one were to embark on this journey more meaningfully. 

This might seem messy, but I think such a seemingly messy beginning is the only option to think South Asia more inclusively and closer to the experiential and historical realities of people as opposed to the anticipations of those who govern nation states and the work of those who simply document such statecraft, which almost clinically remove the messy and muddy realms of what may broadly be called 'culture' from these reckonings. 

To me, in today’s dominant academic discourse, South Asia is often seen as a concrete reality, imagined primarily in geo-physical or cartographic terms, which the conference organizers also readily flag. I think this limitation in thinking is mostly due to our inability to transgress what might be called ‘nationalized’ domains of knowledge production, which hinders the possibility of comprehending the region across both disciplinary and national borders. This is because whatever knowledge we produce, some of which can be serious, tend not to transgress beyond the borders of the nation. 

In general, my concern is, when all of us take South Asia for granted, as does SAARC and much of contemporary academic practice, do we get a fuller and a nuanced perception of the region and its political and socio-cultural complexities? Or in other words, does South Asia as a modern finished entity communicate its latent as well as manifest incomplete personality? Is our knowledge of the Maldives for instance, comparable to that of India? Or, to take a less extreme example, do we know at least as much of Maldives as we do of Sri Lanka? 

Or, does our perception, understanding and knowledge of the region remain merely at the level of rhetoric? 

Despite incessant meetings, cultural events and conferences, where South Asia seems to be clear, why is it so difficult for some of us to imagine it, and even more difficult to achieve? Providing a partial answer to this question, Asish Nandy has described South Asia as the only region in the world where most states prefer to define themselves, “not by what they are, but by what they are not”. According to him, “Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal try desperately not to be India” while Bangladesh “has taken up the more onerous responsibility of avoiding begin both India and Pakistan.”

Despite Nandy’s exaggeration of regional politics, it seems to me that at some level, he is referring to these countries’ established practice of being the antagonistic ‘other’ of each, based on the manner in which contemporary political compulsions of nation states unfold locally, rather than with reference to some of the shared cultural practices that no longer take centre stage in regional or national-local politics. More insidiously, these practices and histories are no longer within recallable collective memory for most people as well. 

In this context, what if we try to take a different route? What does it mean when Bhartha natyam is so popular in Sri Lanka when most young people hardly know anything of Indian history in general or its cultural history more specifically? What does it mean when Bollywood music and cinema touch people in such distant places as Colombo, Dhaka, Katmandu and Lahore despite enmities authored by actors of nation states, which flow across international borders? What is the kind of cartography created by Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims who annually come to India? Do they see the Indian nation state as it exists today or the land of the Buddha they have learned of from books, or do these two worlds meet, and if so, how?? 

What is the nature of the cultural cartography that was created when Binaca geetmala broadcast popular Bollywood songs all the way from Non-Hindi speaking Colombo to the Hindi heartland of India from 1952 to 1988? What is the kind of South Asia the well-connected contemporary artists of the region create today in their work? 

These are simple examples of the possibilities that can be opened up if we take sociology, political science, international relations and other disciplines to places where one least expects to find them in our explorations for South Asia.

I think what I have said so far should make it very clear that I prefer to see ‘South Asia’ as an incomplete idea or as a problem we have inherited from the way modernity and its intellectual and political practices have manifested in our region, and from the ways in which the nation states in the region have interacted with each other, rather than as a concrete and coherent reality. 

It should be self-evident however, that this incomplete picture of the region, with its inherent contradictions and uneven play of politics, and the difficulties these situations throw out, are not taken into account whenever South Asia is invoked in both political and academic rituals of our time.

My hope is that this conference might open some space for such obvious, necessary and subversive thinking. But one must have the will to do so. It is in such a context that Nandy has noted, “the more the scholars, artists and writers talk of the common heritage of the region, the more the functionaries in the region nervously eye their neighbours as enemies planning to wipe out their distinctive identities.” 

My conviction is, much of these limitations in understanding South Asia are conditioned by modern cartographic strategies, as I have already suggested. Some effort to broaden the discusrive framework by factoring in the not so obvious realms of culture, which may not be conducive to dominant academic practice could bring about the possibility of starting a discussion of a different sense of contemporary South Asia. 

For me, what is important is this sense of embedded subversiveness in the acts of people like all of us. But I am not sure if many of us have invested as much time in these possibilities as we could and should. In fact, when it comes to the issue of South Asia, I have very little confidence left in my own generation of scholars barring a few exceptions like Imtiaz Ahmed, Shiv Vishvanathan, Ashish Nandy, Kanak Dixit and so on. That is because we are satisfied merely with intellectual output as opposed to intellectual output tempered by a passion, an imagination and a sincere ideological and intellectual commitment to South Asia.

I hope the next generation such as the young people who are presenting their ideas today have better sense and much more entrenched passion than their predecessors.

Thank you for your time.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

From 'On Uncertain Ground' to Research Across South Asia

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University 
The forum offered by the launch of my colleague, Ankur Datta’s book, On Uncertain Ground: A Study of Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir (Oxford University Press, 2016) on 24th February 2017 and sponsored by the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, Society and Culture in South Asia, India International Centre and Oxford University Press saw the exchange of crucial ideas which were addressed in the book. These are perhaps the first formal commentaries on the book as it enters the world of intellectual circulation. Personally, it was good to see a book written by one of my own colleagues getting into the public discourse. It was not simply a matter of personal credit for himself alone but also a matter of further establishing our intellectual presence in the city as a department in a very new university.

For those with an interest in research in South Asia,the following are some of the brief comments I made in the evening of 24th February 2017:

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University
--- Though I will say nothing about Ankur’s book today, as I read it over the last two weeks, I also re-read Prof TN Madan’s classic ethnography, Family and Kinship: a Study of the Pandits of Rural Kashmir. I could not help but feel that both books indicate the two ends of a very sad story, which has unravelled over fifty years or so. That story would make additional sense if one were to read Agha Shahid Ali poems such as his collection, The Country Without a Post Office rather than regular sociology on the region. In fact, this is what I did.

But I must confess I am a reluctant chair as I am exterior to both Kashmir and the sociology of India as well as to India, the nation state and Delhi itself. But Ankur did not seem to see it that way. I guess his point was if one comes from a place wracked by violence and has worked on violence and its consequences in one messy place in our region, that should be good enough to handle a discussion on yet another place currently consumed by violence and displacement.

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University 
In this specific context, I want to make one final comment, not about Ankur’s book, but about what these kinds of texts suggest for scholarship in our part of the world. Ankur, Prof Roma Chatterji and other colleagues have produced serious scholarship on violence and its consequences in India. All of us are familiar with this textual tradition. 

Others have done the same for other places ranging from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Pakistan. That is, in our own 

comfort zones demarcated by the borders of nation states, we have narrated quite well the stories of our collective unhappiness. And I think the study of violence and its consequences is one of the most obvious contributions to global scholarship, particularly in anthropology from South Asia. And there are many other similar themes.

But almost none of us, including myself, have moved beyond the comfort zone of the nation to see how thematics such as violence, migration, displacement, nationalism, being anti-national and so on might seem and mean across these borders. Intriguingly, even those amongst us very critical of the nation state as a specific formation due to its own limitations, have opted not to go beyond its borders in their work. By itself, this is not a problem. But for me, it is a missed opportunity. I hope Ankur’s generation might be more adventurous in the possibilities of this scheme of research, of the possibilities of coming up with a theoretical and methodological framework for research across South Asia than my generation has been ---

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change

Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle; Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. xvi; 247. ISBN 978-0-230-24961-5 (hardback); ISBN 978-0-230-24962-2 (paperback)

When I started reading Sanjay Chaturvedi’s and Timothy Doyle’s book, Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change, the discourse the book generates immediately took me to a specific set of discomforting memories and my present circumstances on the planet, both of which are enmeshed in issues of climate change. On one hand, the authors’ lucid and sometimes apocalyptic prose reminded me of the climate-change-related haunting images that are crystalized in my mind ever since watching Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth and Jeff Orlowski’s 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice. On the other hand, the second location this reading took me is the suffocating and poisonous environment of Delhi, its citizens, its industrialists and politicians have collectively created for themselves and have thereby ushered in a kind of grey, unhealthy and environmentally compromised present, of which I have become an unwilling prisoner.  

These kinds of unpleasant realities documented in the book as well as what was circulating in my own mind are amply captured by book’s haunting cover of a temporally frozen moment of stillness devoid of life, which offers a kind of visual indication of what is to be expected in the book. Obviously, this is not a pleasant theme, and it is certainly not of the future. It is about the potential lack of a future, where all of us are centrally implicated.

In intellectual terms, the book is located squarely in the midst of the relatively new disciplinary domain, ‘critical geopolitics’ which emerged in the post-1980s period. But self-consciously, the authors are offering a perspective on and from the global south (2015: 5-7). In doing so, they are actively pushing the convectional boundaries of their own disciplines, Political Science and International Studies, which in my mind is clearly a necessity in the context of 21st century academic practice. Early in their text, Chaturvedi and Doyle suggest, “critical geopolitics needs to pay far more serious and systematic attention to how imaginative geographies, anchored in fear, are deployed at the service of objectification, embodiment and instrumentalization of abstract risks, threats and dangers” (2015: 10). What they urge is for the systematic scrutiny of the strategies used for this abstraction, and the politics embedded in them. Partly, it is in this discourse and the system of camouflage it throws up much of the crucial issues of climate change are often made invisible and exiled from public collective consciousness. 

Through the eight chapters of their book, Chaturvedi and Doyle have weaved a master narrative on how climate change transpires in the wake of global warming and where these processes and politics might lead, without the rhetoric and the noise of fear, but with evidence as available and theoretical postulation as necessary. Their emphases vary from ‘Terrorizing Climate Territories and Marginalized Geographies of the Post-Political’ to ‘Violence of Climate Markets’ and ‘Climate Security and Militarization: Geo-economics and Geo-Securities of Climate Change’, which specifically captured my attention.

For me, the eight chapters in the book work as stand-alone explorations of specific and often under-discussed issues of global warming in our part of the world. Through these chapters, the authors explain the highly charged politics in the context of which global warming actually works across various geographies. Their investigation presents illustrations of the unsettling conditions upon which we sit at present and not too often seeing what the future holds in the midst of global warming and resultant climate change. The image of the world they create is truly disheartening. But at the same time, Chaturvedi and Doyle warn quite earnestly that fear itself has catastrophic possibilities as fear-driven discourses on climate change can easily lead to new kinds of dependencies and new forms of domination. Above all, they bring to our attention the ways in which understandings of 'climate security' could become militarized, which itself creates multiple scenarios for global insecurity. 

Particularly in the global south and more so in South Asia, issues of environmental security and climate change are hardly core concerns of public discourse. In this context, the two authors present some of the most significant environmental issues people face in the global south by bringing to the stage of discourse specific cases, where they acquire performative value, which narrate stories that can affect large populations. Precisely due to their exploration of specific cases, which after all affects real people, the book at times employs a clear register of ‘anger.’ But how else can one discuss climate change without a sense of anger, angst and urgency on one hand, but also in the backdrop of rational theoretically informed thinking, all of which the two authors employ in weaving their text.

What is crucial in any discussion on climate change today is to understand how a vocabulary of terror is often used to address issues of climate change as a quotidian practice. This is most obvious in discourses of politics and media practice. The authors deal with this issue in considerable detail referring to how technologies of control, systems of regulation and domination comfortably existing within the present global system dominated by a neoliberal and post-political sensibility, which end up reproducing untenable asymmetries with regard to economic growth and human development within which people in the global south often become unwitting victims. 

As they progress in their narrative, what Chatuvedi and Doyle basically ask is weather the dominant discourse on climate change and global warming could be re-configured in such a way as to formulate a more legitimate and responsible forum where issues of environmental justice and sovereignty would be taken more seriously as they deserve, rather than eclipsing them in the din of neoliberal political arguments on both climate and nature, which are necessarily lineally bound to a reductionally perceived idiom of simple profit. In this context, they also pose the question if the discourse on climate change could somehow provide an audible voice to global peripheries, which includes our own region, and in this new configuration, if this idealized forum could offer more nuanced and reasonable avenues for emancipation. 

The propositions they make as concerned academics and the hope these propositions offer make sense to me at the level of both ideology/idealism and necessity/survival. But core issues in this discussion should also revolve around how receptive the global periphery itself is to these concerns. After all, the poisonous air that I breathe today in my treelined suburb of Delhi is not necessarily merely a product of neoliberal profit-making from the global north. More realistically, it is the result of unbridled and unregulated industrialisation and urbanization, which the Indian nation state itself has allowed within its own discourses of nationalism and as by-products of fantasies in becoming an industrially-enabled regional supper power. And two of the most obvious casualties in this state of affairs are the people within the boundaries of the nation state and the natural environment in which they live. In this context, I wish the book paid more attention to the enhanced ‘messiness’ of climate change and environmental degradation authored by states in the global south itself within their own parameters and concerns of nationalism and regional contestations of hegemony and profit.

Overall, the picture of global warming and climate change that Chaturvedi and Doyle paint is not a pleasant one. It is is fearful and truly unpleasant. But it is also real. But they are not in the business of generating fear and rhetoric. In the midst of the tragedy of human-made climate change the two authors have presented, they also offer possibilities of hope arguing for an increased and more reasonable understanding of the environment, not simply as an entity that could be changed at will as power politics and profit ventures might perceive, but as a multilayered system of living which includes people as well as other living beings which together construct our bio-system. For them, that ideal place should have the ability to provide secure access to global citizens irrespective of their national location to basic nutrition, reasonable health-care and shelter, and the necessary security to practice their livelihoods, which are not detrimental to themeless or the planet in which they live.

For me, what Chaturvedui and Doyle have attempted to do is to provide a script for both the history of climate change as we understand it now and possibilities for the future if reasonable people might be able to capture the momentum. As the sun refuses to shine upon my garden due to a smelly layer of fog and as the flowers in my garden are reluctant to blossom, their script metaphorically offer a moment of hope amidst hopelessness. But I am not sure if the time for hope has already eluded us.

Sasanka Perera
Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi

(Initially published in India Quarterly 72(4) 423–430, December 2016)

Monday, August 1, 2016

කුලය, පන්තිය සහ ලංකාවේ සමාජ ගැටුම්

කාලිංග ටියුඩර් සිල්වා. කුලය, පන්තිය සහ ලංකාවේ සමාජ ගැටුම්, 2016. පිටු: 221. බොරලැස්ගමුව: විසිදුනු ප්‍රකාශකයෝ. ISBN 955-9170-76-7. මිල: රුපියල් 390.00  

මහාචාර්ය කාලිංග ටියුඩර් සිල්වා විසින් රචිත ‘කුලය, පන්තිය සහ ලංකාවේ සමාජ ගැටුම්’ නම් කෘතිය මා ඉතා උනන්දුවෙන් කියවූයේ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ කුලය පිළිබඳව 1950 ගණන්වල මහාචාර්ය බ්‍රයිස් රයන් ලියූ ප්‍රසිද්ධ කෘතියේ සිංහල පරිවර්තනය කියවා මාස කිහිපයකට පසුවය. ඒ පරිවර්තනය කියවීමේදී මාගේ සිතට නැගුනු ගැටලුවක් වූයේ කුලය වැනි සමාජ සංසිද්ධි පිළිබඳව පෙරටුගාමී ශ්‍රී ලාංකේය සමාජවිද්‍යාව 1950 දශකය පමණ වන තෙක් අපට දායක කළ දැනුම පුළුල් ලෙස යාවත්කාලීන කිරීමට තත්කාලීන සමාජවිද්‍යාව උනන්දු නොවන්නේ මන්ද කියාය. මහාචාර්ය සිල්වාගේ කෘතිය යම් දුරකට මාගේ සාංකාවට සහනයක් ලබාදෙයි. එනම්, කුලය හා සමාජ පන්තිය යන පුළුල් සමාජ ප්‍රවර්ග ද්විත්වයේ ලාංකේය අතීතය පිළිබඳවත්, ඒවායේ ඇතැම් තත්කාලීන ප්‍රකාශන හා ගතික පිළිබඳවත්, මේවා මගින් ජනනය කරන සමාජ ගැටුම්වල ස්වභාවය පිළිබඳවත් මහාචාර්යවරයා අපගේ අවධානයට ලක් කරයි. 

මෙය හුදු සාහිත්‍ය විමර්ශණයක් නොවේ. මෙකී කෘතිය මා දකින්නේ කුලය හා සමාජ පන්තිය යන කරුණු පිළිබඳව වසර තිහක පමණ කාලයක් මුලූල්ලේ ලංකාවේ ශාස්ත්‍රීය කතිකාවට නිරන්තර දායකත්වයක් ලබාදුන් විශ්වවිද්‍යාල ගුරුවරයෙකුගේ බුද්ධිමය මැදිහත්මක් වශයෙනි. 

කෘතිය මූලික වශයෙන් පරිඡ්චේද අටකින් සමන්විතය. ඉන් මුල් පරිඡ්චේදය වෙන්වී ඇත්තේ කුලය හා සමාජ පන්තිය අනිවාර්යයෙන් තේරුම් ගත යුතු සමාජ ස්ථරායණය පිලිබඳ සමාජ විද්‍යාත්මක සංකල්ප හා න්‍යායික ප්‍රවේශ පිලිබඳව කෙටි විවරණයක් ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමට සහ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ සමාජ ස්ථරායණයේ පදනම් පැහැදිලිකිරීමත් සඳහාය. කෘතියේ අන් පරිඡ්චේද පදනම්ව ඇත්තේ මේ මූලික අර්ථගැන්වීම මතය. ‘සිංහල කුල ක්‍රමය’ ලෙස නම්කර ඇති දෙවන පරිඡ්චේදය මූලික වශයෙන් වෙන්වී ඇත්තේ අත්‍යාවශ්‍ය ද්විතීයික මූලාශ්‍ර මත පදනම්ව සිංහල කුල ක්‍රමයේ  ඉතිහාස පසුබිම, එම පද්ධතියේ ස්ථරායණීය ලක්‍ෂණ, එහි සේවා පදනම හා කුල පද්ධතිය විසින් නිරන්තරවම ක්‍රියාත්මක කරන සමාජ ආන්තීකරණ (කොන් කිරීම) ගතිකත්ව විස්තර කිරීම සඳහාය. මේ විස්තරාත්මක තොරතුරු හා සැසදීමේදී කුලයේ වර්තමාන තත්ත්වය පිළිබඳව දියත්කර ඇති කතිකාව මීට වඩා පුළුල් හා විස්තරාත්මක වූයේ නම් කෘතියේ සම්භාශණීය බලපෑම වඩාත් තීව්‍ර වනු ඇතැයි යන්න මාගේ වැටහීමය.

‘කුලය, නමගම සහ උඩරට ගැමිසමාජය’ ලෙස නම්කර ඇති තෙවන පරිඡ්චේදය මහනුවර අවට ප්‍රදේශයක සිදුකරන ලද ක්‍ෂේත‍්‍ර පර්යේෂණ හා ද්විතීයික තොරතුරු මතද පදනම්ව ඉදිරිපත් කරන කුලය පිළිබඳ සප්‍රමාණික විස්තරයකි. එය මූලික වශයෙන් සාම්ප්‍රදායිකව නම්ගම් ආශ්‍රයෙන් කුල අනන්‍යතාව සමාජීයව ප්‍රකාශ වූ ආකාරයත්, කාලීනව සිදු වූ සමාජ වෙනස්වීම් ද සමග ඇතිවූ පුද්ගලික නම්වල නව්‍යකරණය හා කුල හා සබැඳි පාරම්පරික නම්ගම් ඇතැමුන් විසින් අතෑරීමත් සමග ඇතිවූ ව්‍යුහාත්මක වෙනස්කම් පිළිබඳ විවරණයකි. මේ වෙනසට පාදක වූ හේතු ලෙස මහාචාර්යවරයා දක්වන්නේ නිදහස් අධ්‍යාපනයේ හා සන්නිවේදන මාධ්‍යයවල ව්‍යාප්තිය හා ග්‍රාමීය බල ව්‍යුහයේ ඇතිවූ නොයෙකුුත් විපර්යාස යනාදිය වේ. මේ පරිඡ්චේදය ඔස්සේ කුලයේ එක් තත්කාලීන ප්‍රවණතාවක් පිළිබඳ සවිස්කරාත්මක විග්‍රහයක්  පාඨකයාට ලැබේ.

කෘතියේ සිව්වන, පස්වන, හයවන හා හත්වන පරිඡ්චේද වෙන්වී ඇත්තේ ප්‍රධාන වශයෙන් සමාජ පන්තිය යන යථාව හා ඊට අනුබද්ධ ප්‍රපංච පිලිබඳ අදහස් ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමටය. ‘පන්ති ස්ථරායණය, සමාජ ගැටුම් සහ වෙනස්වන ලංකා සමාජය’ යන සිව්වන පරිඡ්චේදය සමාජ පන්තිය යන අදහස සහ පන්ති විග්‍රහය පිළිබඳ සංකල්පීය විවරණයක් ඔස්සේ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ පන්ති සවිඥනකත්වය හා ඒ මත පදනම් වූ ලාංකේය සමාජ-දේශපාලනික අරගල පිළිබඳ විග්‍රයහකි. බෙහෙවින් උනන්දුසහගත කියවීමක් ඉදිරිපත් කරන ‘ඉංගිරිසිය, නුවණ හා පන්ති භේදය’ වශයෙන් නම්කර ඇති පස්වන පරිඡ්චේදය හරහා උත්සාහ ගෙන ඇත්තේ ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ඉංග්‍රීසි බාසා භාවිතය පිළිබඳව පවත්නා දේශපාලනය පංතිමය විග්‍රහයකට පාත‍්‍ර කිරීමය. 

මහාචාර්යවරයාගේ මූලික තර්කය නම්, ඉංගිරිසිය ප්‍රභූ පන්තියේ හඬ, උරුමය හා සංකේතය බවයි. ඉතිහාසිකව මෙය යථාවකි. එනමුත් තත්කාලීන තත්ත්ව විග්‍රහ කිරීමේදී මේ පන්ති-කේන්ද්‍රීය විශ්ලේෂණීය රාමුව රුචිකත්ව විශ්ලේශණයක් දක්වා ව්‍යාප්ත කළහැකි බවත් ‘ප්‍රභූ’ යන පදයේ තත්ත්කාලීන භාවිතය පිළිබඳ ගැඹුරින් සිතාබැලිය යුතු බවත් මගේ විශ්වාසයයි. මන්ද යත්, මෑතකාලීන සමාජ විපර්යාස ඔස්සේ අද දින ප්‍රභූ යන සංකල්පය ඔස්සේ විග්‍රහ කරන කොටස් ඒ ප්‍රභූ අනන්‍යතාව අයත්කරගෙන සිටින්නේ ඉංගිරිසිය හැසිරවීමේ හැකියාව මත නොවන නිසාත් ප්‍රභූ ලෙස පාරම්පරිකව නොසැලකූ කණ්ඩායම් අද වනවිට ඉංගිරිසිය තම සමාජ රුචිකත්වය දැනවීමේ සංකේතයක් ලෙස භාවිතකරමින් සිටින නිසාත්ය.

මහාචාර්ය සිල්වාගේ කෘතිය සමාජගතවන අද වැනි යුගයක අප රටේ සමාජවිද්‍යාව මූලික වශයෙන් වල්මත් වී ඇති විෂයක් බව අප පිළිගත යුතුය. ඒ තත්ත්වය වඩාත් පැහැදිලි වන්නේ සමාජවිද්‍යාත්මක කෘති වශයෙන් අව්‍යක්තව ලියා පළකර සමාජගත කරන අති සරල හා ගැටළුකාරී කෘති දෙස බලන විටය. එවන් සන්දර්භයක් තුළ මහාචාර්ය සිල්වාගේ මේ කෘතිය මා සලකන්නේ කුලය, පන්තිය හා සමාජ ගැටුම් පිලිබඳ වඩාත් පුළුල් අනාගත සමාජ පර්යේශණ සඳහා අත්‍යාවශ්‍ය හා අනේක ඉගි සපයන මැනැවින් ලියා ඇති ප්‍රවේශාත්මක කෘතියක් වශයෙනි. ඔහු සිදුකර ඇත්තේ සරසවි ගුරුවරයෙකුගේ අත්‍යවශ්‍ය භූමිකාවන්ගෙන් එකකි. ශාස්ත්‍රීය ප්‍රකාශන පද්දතියක් මුල්බැසගෙන නොමැති අප රටේ එවැනි ශාස්ත්‍රීය  කටයුත්තකට සම්මාදම්වීම සම්බන්ධයෙන් විසිදුනු ප්‍රකාශකයන්ට ද පාඨකක ස්තූතිය හිමිවිය යුතුය.

සසංක පෙරේරා
දකුණු ආසියානු විශ්වවිද්‍යාලය
නව දිල්ලිය
21 ජූලි 2016

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Buddhist Categories, Contemporary World and Sociology: Incomplete Thoughts

(Speech delivered on 21st May 2016 on Buddha Purnima at Buddha Vihar, Mahaobodhi Society of India, New Delhi)

Venerable Summithananda, Bikkhu-in-Charge, New Delhi Centre of Mahabodi Society of India and other venerable monks; High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in New Delhi, Mr Esala Weerakoon and Mrs Weerakoon; Mr. Tsering Shanoo, Member, National Commission for Minorities, Government of India; Swamy Shantamananda, Secretary, Ramakrishna Mission; Dr A.K. Merchant, National  Trustee, Lotus Temple and Baha’i Community of India; colleagues and friends.

Coming from Sri Lanka, and that too from a Buddhist background, the celebration of Buddha Purnima, which we call Vesak, comes naturally to me. Even so, it would be dishonest of me if I do not say that today I think of myself as a reluctant speaker for the following reasons.  Late last month, Rev Summithananda met me in my office in Chanakyapuri  and invited me to speak today, on the theme, ‘The Buddha’s Message to the Modern World and the Contribution of Maha Bodhi Society of India in this Process.’

I explained to him that I am not a scholar of Buddhism nor a historian of Buddhist institution-building. As such, I was not the ideal person to speak on such an occasion. At the same time, given my own upbringing, I was reluctant to turn down the invitation from a member of the clergy made with good intentions, without a good reason.  The reason for my reluctance of course was my own self-accepted relative ignorance of both Buddhism and Buddhist history in our part of the world.

But given Venerable Summithananda’s gentle persuasion, I thought I would use my ignorance as a point of departure and make a few simple observations, which in some way would address the first part of today’s theme, which is ‘The Buddha’s Message to the Modern World’. But I would rephrase this statement in the form of a question, and attempt to answer it briefly in a way it makes sense to a sociologist such as myself interested in the worldly affairs of contemporary existence and politics.  And this is my question:

How do the Buddha’s thoughts make intellectual sense to a person interested in society and politics in contemporary times?

The Buddha as we know, did not speak to our world. He spoke to the world in which he lived, and was inspired in his thinking by what he saw in his own world. Today, we know of his world only in fragments through the incomplete picture painted by archeology and history and often clouded by myth. The question of course is, can his thinking transgress his world across time and make sense today not only in our world, but more specifically in the practice of a thoroughly contemporary discipline such as mine?

Let me try and address this question. I am a sociologist, and I explore human conditions, anxieties, contradictions and the incredible messiness which define our existence in contemporary times. As a rule, my process of analysis is thoroughly rational, theoretically-based, highly analytical and completely devoid of emotion. Can such a seemingly clinical process of reading the world be informed by what the Buddha taught?

It seems to me that much of abhidhamma which constitutes of the Buddha’s thoughts, works in much the same way. But when attempting to make this association, we have to be mindful that we are talking of two different systems of knowledge.  As we know, sociology emerged in the latter part of 19th century in Europe in the context of industrialization and post-Enlightenment knowledge. Comparatively, Buddhism came into existence over 2,500 years ago under very different socio-political circumstances in the extended neighborhood which we call South Asia today. 

But if one is careful and within limits, I can’t see any reason why Buddhist thought cannot inform sociological analysis. But I emphasize my caution which comes with the words, ‘careful and within limits.’

Let me clarify my position by referring to two important Buddhist concepts which emerge in discourses on consciousness and reality.  According to abhidhamma, there are two kinds of reality: these are conventional reality known as sammuti and ultimate reality known as paramattha. In this scheme of things, conventional realities describe ordinary and mundane conceptual thought and conventional or taken for granted modes of expression.  This is what all of us deal with, on a day to day basis.  They include everything which meets our eyes, from men to women, animals, trees, things and many other seemingly stable objects which demarcate the extent of our unanalyzed world. I emphasize the word unanalyzed here.

According to abhidhamma, all these things are devoid of any sense of ultimate reality because the objects they signify cannot exist on their own as irreducible facts.  In my reading of what this means, men, women, animals and other things do not make sense or exist by independently by themselves. Instead, they exist in relation to each other as well as in the context of a larger field of meaning, which requires explanation, analysis and knowing.

That larger field of meaning is what abhidhamma refers to as ultimate realities. They exist on the basis of their own intrinsic nature. Abhidhamma calls these the dhammas, or final components of existence which cannot be reduced further.  In other words, they become possible only on the basis of a properly and consciously undertaken process of analyzing experience; an analysis of what is seen, heard and felt. This becomes possible by crossing from the unanalyzed to the analyzed; from taken for granted knowledge to realms of actual knowing. In terms of abhidhamma, these realities cannot be reduced any further.

What I have just described comes from the core of abhidhamma, and therefore from the realm of Buddhism.  So technically, these explanations are from a specific religion and therefore cannot be part of science such as sociology if we go by the logic of post-enlightenment rationality, which drives most contemporary academic disciplines.

But at the same time, it is also possible to perceive what I have outlined within a paradigm that has nothing to with religion.  More realistically, this is simply a highly rational and unemotional method of analysis which can well be employed to read society and its multiple complexities. In fact, one of Buddhism’s main intellectual combustions is its ability to deal with highly emotional issues such as desire and suffering within a highly rational and non-emotional system of analysis. It seems to me that many theoretical approaches or ideas I have used  in my own thinking over the last two decades  and which have influenced many others in humanities and social sciences such as  Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics and Jean Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation and simulacrum in certain ways work as ideas in making sense of our social world in much the same way as do sammuti  or conventional reality and paramattha or ultimate reality. All these, from the words of the Buddha to more recent theorization attempt make sense of the world.

I am not making a simplistic argument for the replacement of social sciences with abhidhamma. For me, as a person for whom Buddhism offers intellectual inspiration, without emotional entanglements, this makes no sense. Clearly, Buddhism is a vast system of knowledge for living as well as for knowing the social world.  Comparatively, contemporary academic disciplines are merely limited tools for making sense of the social world.  They certainly cannot offer an ideal for living. So one cannot and should not attempt to replace one with the other. My suggestion is some careful and self-reflective thinking might well allow us to formulate very contemporary approaches to reading society and theorize social action which might be sensibly informed by a corpus of knowledge such as abhidhamma. As far as I can see, possibilities of such an attempt have not been seriously explored yet.   
Of course, this is also journey which might entail considerable dangers at a time when unmitigated violence in the name of Buddhism has become possible in many predominantly Buddhist societies.  As we know, violence in any form cannot be formulated in terms of Buddhism.  It can however be explained via Buddhism. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka and Burma are both examples of this sad and anti-intellectual and decidedly un-Buddhist turn of events.  This has become possible as a result of people who claim allegiance to the ideas once propagated by the Buddha having opted to drift further and further away from the core of his ideas, and seek solace in ignorance or moha.

I flagged this danger of our times to conclude with a warning.  Today, we see many systems of faith around the world, despite their robust intellectual moorings and ideals of compassion being reduced to discourses of division. This becomes possible when core ideals of a system of knowledge and faith are misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted in order to suite contemporary exigencies and ill-defined circumstances.  

In this context, when we are thinking of Buddhism’s relevance to contemporary world and to contemporary practices, it would make sense to also keep in mind that disruptions to such thought will mostly come from within, from  amongst moral communities who have lost touch with their own ideals and are lost in a world of ignorance.  

Abhidhmma might have described this unfortunate contemporary dilemma as our inability to transgress from the emotional shackles that bind us to the day to day realities of sammuti and cross over successfully to paramattha which might have explained the nature of our predicaments, and hopefully point the way out.

Thank you for your time and may this Buddha Purnima bring you and others in your respective worlds much enlightenment.

Sasanka Perera
South Asian University 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Shrillness of Nonsensical Cultural Politics and the Social History of a Song

The latest news from Sri Lanka’s often bizarre domains of cultural politics is that Buddhism is under threat along with Sinhala culture. This however, is not due to the corrupt and violent politics that still remain the hallmark of the country’s mainstream politics or because of the unethical and anti-doctrinal work of marauding Buddhist monks who have become storm troopers causing bodily harm to people, disrupting court proceedings and vehicular traffic in the country putting Hitler’s dreaded Brown-shirts to shame. The apocalypse of Sinhala culture and the island’s Buddhism is supposed to happen as a result of Soprano Kishani Jayasinghe’s masterful rendition of the well-known Sinhala song, 'Danno Budunge' within an operatic sensibility in a cultural program organized to mark the 68th anniversary of the country’s independence. Personally, I am thankful to the organizers of the event for attempting to do something out of the ordinary. 

But going by the attacks on Jayasinghe orchestrated by sections of the mainstream media (see for example, the undignified assault by Derana TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlrLDZwNHU) and the multitude of comments from unenlightened swaths of the social media, the doomsters’ main concern is that that Jayasinghe’s new rendition has insulted both Buddhism and Sinhala culture as they perceive these, and this act alone would bring the house that ‘Vijaya’ built, crashing down. Interestingly however, she also sang at the same event -- in the same kind of musical sensibility -- the old folk verse (paru kavi), “Matara gange inna kimbulige petiya” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMfIjUOtVdw&feature=share). That however, has by and large escaped the scorn and anger of doomsters. One can assume this is because the latter has no reference to Buddhism while the former has. Musically speaking, both were good examples for specific genres of songs which can be successfully reinterpreted within the parameters of an entirely different genre, if one was competent enough to know what to do. 

The attacks have come from a certain sense of crude cultural nationalism tempered by a pronounced and very dangerous insularity which suggests everything seemingly ‘sacred’ in cultural or religious terms, should not and cannot change. It also assumes that cultural products somehow should not mix and must remain ‘pristine.’ In real life however, culture is not that simple. It changes, borrows and reinterprets as the only way in which it can survive over time. Most Sinhalas of my generation would know well enough that Angeline Goonatilake, H.R. Jothipala and Lata Walpola, among others, owe at least a part of their fame and popularity to numerous Sinhala songs they sang which were set to the music of Bollywood songs. Here, there was no interpretation as such but a mere act of mimicry, which was nevertheless well done. But despite some opposition, there was no heartfelt anxiety at the time that the purity of Sinhala culture was being destroyed by this relentless borrowing from North Indian popular culture. This however is a much broader debate, which needs more time to engage with. What is interesting and of more immediate relevance is that the kind of virulent attacks Jaysinghe’s rendition has brought and the cultural wilderness from where they come from is so clearly negated by the social history of the song itself. 

Without a doubt, 'Danno Budung'e is a trans-generational cultural icon of the Sinhalas. It has remained popular, and its words and soothing melody relatively well-known to many people since it first came to the public sphere in the early 20th century (1902 or 1903). But the parochial religiosity infused into it upon which many of the recent criticisms against Jayasinhe’s rendition is based, is something very recent. It is the result of our cultural practices having been overshadowed by a sense of narrow exclusiveness embedded in a problematic and highly parochial historical consciousness. After all, this is a song written by a mortal for entertainment and not a hymn delivered by a divine being for the nation’s spiritual well-being. The lyrics of Danno Budunge were written by the well-known early 20th century Sinhala playwright, John de Silva as part of his play Sirisangabo where it was sung by three princes Sangha Tissa, Sangha Bodhi and Gotabhaya (not the Gota of recent ill-fame) as they approached the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura. It is essentially a description of what they saw and felt: the majestic stupas; flowing bodies of water, out of which sprang beautiful lotuses while swans swam around; monasteries where monks in search of Nirvana spent their time were in the vicinity; and enlightened sages were flying around magically across the sky, their shadows preventing the rays of the sun reaching the ground! And crucially, the people who are familiar with the words of the Buddha were expected to live according to the spirit of those words. Very simply, this is what de Silva’s lyrics essentially depicted. Such incredible imagination was meant to paint Anuradhapura as a heaven on earth. 

Obviously however, it is a long distance from Anuradhapura of de Silva’s idealized imagination and the cultural wilderness and relative intolerance of real-time contemporary Colombo. Thankfully, there are no more sages (arahats) floating across Lanka’s cotemporary skies. If there were, the shockwaves of present day cultural politics and crudity as well as their inherent lack of vision would have dragged the sages towards the merciless earth. And that would have been the end of their search for bliss.

Interestingly, de Silva’s Catholic background has much do with the social history of the song though it was written much after he had adopted Buddhist and Hindu practices in his personal life. As a person who went through a formal Christian education and also coming from such a religious home environment and given the nature of his times, he must have been familiar with church music as well as western classical music which seem to be the foundation for the music of Danno Budunge. Even today, in whatever rendition it is sung, it sounds more like a Christian hymn than a Buddhist devotional verse. Though not a musician by training, it is fairly obvious that de Silva wanted his song to be set to the kind of music he was familiar with and admired, and also felt could create the mood he was hoping to create in his play. This, he obviously managed to do. According to some sources, many of de Silva’s songs were set to music by a Hindustani musician known as Vishvanath Laugi who might also have helped with Danno Budunge (see, World Music: The Rough Guide – Latin and North America, Caribbean, India and Pacific; Vol. 2; 2000, p 231).

De Silva’s words and the song itself became popular as his play captured the imagination of the people who were looking towards Tower Hall and other theatre productions of the time for new forms of entertainment. By the 1920s, the song was made popular by the Tower Hall singer, Hubert Rajapaksha (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ds_CMOa3J8). Recordings of this version were made by Cargills Ceylon Ltd in the 1920 on vinyl records, and some copies have survived to-date. The operatic tenor of Rajapaksha’s rendition is unmistakable though I suspect he was singing without the benefit of the kind of formal training exhibited very clearly by Kishani Jayasinghe. But fortunately for him, given the times, no one was after his blood, arguing that he was going to bring down Sinhala culture and Buddhism. Interestingly, Kishani Jayasinghe rendition brings the song much closer to Rajapaksha’s original melody, which is now almost forgotten. 

Since it first emerged, Danno Budunge has remained a perennial cultural artifact that simply would not go away. It was at times used as a kind of a ‘national song’ when there was no designated ‘national anthem' mostly due to its instant local recognition. But more importantly, it was a true hybrid product which owes its existence to nuanced borrowings from different cultural sources and had the ability to cater to varied tastes at different times. Even the lyrics are highly Sasnskritized, and it takes some effort to work out the Sinhala and the Sanskrit, and to fathom the overall meaning. Since the 1920s, different people have sung this song at different times. It varies from the renditions in the different productions of the de Silva’s play, some of which we do not know much about, to well-known performances initially on Radio Ceylon, and then on a much wider scale as recording technology expanded. W.D. Amaradeva and Rukmini Devi are among those radio artists who gave the song their own flavor and signature over time. In other words, while the words and the general structure of the melody have remained constant, its tune has been interpreted by different artists at different times in keeping with their times as well as the nature of their training, the genres of music they were located in and their personal preferences. At none of those times, neither Sinhala culture nor institutionalized Buddhism came crumbling down. 

It is this history and this reality of cultural accommodation which have been such an important foundation of Sinhala culture which the virulent critics of Kishani Jayasinghe’s rendition have forgotten about. What she did was merely to add yet another rendition to the various interpretations of a perennial song. What was different was the time. She was singing at a time when our country and our entire cultural-landscape have been hijacked by a vocal and powerful coterie of cultural puritans with a very reductionist understanding of culture as a process as well as the history of Sinhala culture and Sri Lanka’s traditions of cultural accommodation more specifically. Even in a nominally democratic setup, political and cultural choices are supposed to be a matter of option, which people are supposedly free to exercise. Admittedly, many of our people do not have a taste for opera music. This is hardly surprising in an extended cultural landscape where Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti or any other tenor or soprano would be unheard of. Fair enough. So one can listen to many others whose music one can relate to and is more palatable, including the multitude of popular songs from the 1960s set to Bollywood melodies. But that unfamiliarity of global cultural products and the distance one may legitimately have from the tastes for such unfamiliar products cannot be an excuse for the shrill and undignified claims of cultural apocalypse and the demonization of decent people. 

All I can advise such doomsters is to make themselves more familiar with the words of the Buddha himself in whose name much of this posturing is brought about: Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. May the triple gem bless them and may sanity prevail upon our once enlightened land!

(Originally published in Groundviews on 8 February 2016: http://groundviews.org/2016/02/08/18976/)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Amidst Violence: Politics, Memory and New Possibilities for Sociology

I take it as a given that we live amidst violence, and that we as a species are born within an inheritance of extreme violence and pain, which all mothers have to endure at childbirth. But of course, in South Asia, no mother would ever consider the birth of a child as indicative of violence. That has to do with our collective cultural conditioning. I was born in August, on the very same day the Americans atom-bombed Hiroshima, but seventeen years later, which has added historically significant dimension of violence when thinking of my own biography as something that has begun with a natural act of violence.

Much later, as my childhood Buddhist socialization began to make intellectual sense, even as I experienced a steady decline in my personal sense of spirituality and religiosity, I was reminded what the Buddha had very aptly reminded all of us a very long time ago: that is, an individual’s coming into this world, and becoming a part of samsara or getting entangled in the “the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” is the beginning of dukkha or “suffering.” It is this scheme of things that I had initially somewhat clumsily referred to as the violence surrounding the process of birth.

I began with this personal reflection to make two simple points: one, that all of us live amidst violence, from natural to domestic as well as extreme forms of war and other forms of political violence. So there is nothing strange or unfamiliar with the idea of violence, expect for its degrees of experience. Two, as an individual and as a scholar, I suspect that my personal understandings of violence of percolates into my intellectual interests in violence as well. That is, for me, if one undertakes research into something like violence in your own contexts of living, working and reflection, one cannot simply hide behind the seemingly axiomatic ramparts of ‘objectivity’ that sociology has so robustly tried to construct. But I don’t see this as a problem that cannot be creatively controlled in the practice of sociology. So my research into violence over the last 25 years and what I have to say today have to be understood within the limitations and strengths of these personal and intellectual worlds.

Today however, my interest is not in violence in general, but in political violence, which all of us in South Asia are necessarily familiar with. My thoughts presented today are based on some reflections over the last twenty years or so, some of which has also been published at different times and in different places. I am sure you know quite well that the sociology of India has produced a very significant body of work which deals with different manifestations and politics of violence in India, which has also impacted the global scholarly discourse on the sociological study of political and other forms of violence. 

Some of the key texts that immediately come to mind include, Asish Nandy, Shikha Trivedy, Shail Mayaram and Achyut Yagnik’s Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and Fear of the Self; Roma Chatterji and Deepak Mehta’s Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life; Veena Das’s Life and Words - Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary and Rustom Bharucha’s Terror and Performance. 

One can also see a less prolific but nevertheless a quite pronounced interest in the politics of violence in other South Asian countries as well. A few examples would be, S.J. Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka; Jayadeva Uyangoda’s edited volume, Matters of Violence: Reflections on Social and Political Violence in Sri Lanka; Haroon K. Ullah’ Vying for Allah's Vote: Understanding Islamic Parties, Political Violence, and Extremism in Pakistan and Ayesha Jalal’s Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. 

As such, I take it for granted that different aspects of violence in our region have been reasonably well studied in sociology. And I will not dwell on this any further. My interest now is to see how the idea of memory might be understood when studying political violence and to suggest why this might be important. I also want to take some time to think what kind of new methodological possibilities might be available for scholars who are keen to study political violence in our region.


Let me now talk a little bit about memory. As Eric Kandel has noted, in the simplest understanding, memory is the ability to acquire and store information which may range from mundane things to complex ideas (Kandel 2006: 10-11). Recalling the past however, is not a simple matter of bringing into consciousness an incident or a cluster of experiences from the past. It is also a matter of “experiencing the atmosphere in which it occurred – the sights, sounds, and smells, the social setting, the time of day, the conversations, the emotional tone” (Kandel 2006: 3). In this sense, at one level, we may opt to remember the least traumatic or the least disturbing.

At yet another level, we will opt for the most traumatic or the most distressing. But it is due to our personal preferences as individuals or due to the political hegemony of a particular moment in the context of societal or collective politics, that we decide what and how to remember, and what to forget. So the partition of India and Pakistan is never forgotten either by Indians or Pakistanis though the memory of individuals who directly experienced its trauma and violence has now mostly faded with their own deaths. But the idea of that memory and its collective pain is reproduced everyday through other means, which vary from the arts, formal histories to routine cross-border incursions with their own specific dynamics. 

In any event, other than documents of various kinds, ‘memory’ is the most crucial repository of information when it comes to scholarly work on political violence. Since the 1980s, there has been a marked increase in the scholarly interest in social or collective memory across numerous disciplinary borders, which includes sociology and anthropology. These scholars have attempted to understand how individuals and societies “retain a sense of the past” and how such a sense of the past would impact their politics, religion, art and social life in general (Roth and Salas 2001: 1). Much of this recent scholarly interest in memory in the social sciences tends to be located within preoccupations in the study of war, ethno-religions conflict, nationalism and so on. As Michael Roth and Charles Salas in their edited volume, Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century have observed, experiences of violence or “trauma breaks through the categories we use to take in the world, and thus it seems to be registered in our memories in ways that are unlike those used to register conventional experience” (2001: 1). 

Since at least the latter part of the eighteenth century, the emphasis and political demands on memory as a potent political tool has been enormous. Since this time, and in the context of the invention of nation states, the necessity of a ‘common past’ as well as common future emerged as a key requirement in the process of ‘nation-building.’ In this situation, major monuments erected in public space urged individuals to remember. But such urging was not merely on the basis of individuality, but more on the basis of each individual defining himself as a member of a larger community (Weissberg 1999: 12). 

In other words, in such contexts, memory was part of a collective effort. According to Maurice Halbwachs, memory was mostly a burden that individuals carry, in the context of which even the most primal individual memories were framed socially, and as such, it was never easy to make a clear distinction between individual and social memory (Halbwachs 1992; Olick 2007: 6). When it comes to experiences of violence, what is important to us is to remember that there are two kinds of memory even through it is not always easy to make this distinction: One is, private memory as narrated by individuals and the second is: collective or social memory as constructed by larger collectives. At the most fundamental level, Halbwachs’ argument is that memory fulfils social expectations that are already in place in society, which are framed by the answers it seeks (Halbwachs 1992). 

It is in this context, that Halbwachs has noted that every manifestation of collective memory needs to be anchored within a group of people that is “delimited in time and space” from which it can draw support (quoted in Coser 1992: 22). One problem in Halbwachs’s emphasis on collective memory is that it almost completely removes from individual or private memory all possibilities of agency, and subsumes the recollections of individuals within the dictates on the past, of the collective. 

Lillian Weissberg has suggested that in the context of memory, language plays an important role. That is, “words that are formed by social life, and that appear intelligible, offer themselves as both recollections and the language in which we recall. Language itself is already a system of social conventions that makes the reconstruction of ‘our own’ past possible” (Weissberg1999: 14). While accepting Weissberg’s general position on language, one has to wonder if language could work in this manner in extreme conditions marked by violence and pain which may impact society’s normative expectations of language. As Elaine Scarry contends, “whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language” (Scarry 1985: 4). 

Scarry, referring to language's inability to express pain suggests that this problem has to be essentially located in the utter rigidity of pain itself, and that pain's "resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes, but is essential to what it is" (Scarry 1985: 5). This issue of language’s rupture when dealing with violence should be important to sociologists who focus on memory when studying violence and also depends perhaps too much on individuals’ ability narrate their memories – through words. I will take up this matter in some detail in the last part of my presentation. 

On the other hand, a focus on larger societal or official memory is inadequate when exploring the complexities of political violence. This is because often, memories of individuals or small communities do not become part of official public memory as research in South Africa has amply demonstrated (Das et. al. 1999; Reynolds 1999). In my work, I prefer to consider memory of individuals and small collectives as a particular genre of text that is not always readily visible or audible while that text is also not be completely autonomous. A particular memory of an individual or community may be autonomous to the extent that specific memory is based on an actual experience which only that individual or community had lived through. At the same time, the narratives of such experiences cannot be taken as autonomous texts within a larger context as the politics and actors which made such experiences possible and inevitable at a particular moment, are generally beyond the control of people who experienced the repercussions of these actions. 


Let me now move away from my thoughts on memory to think aloud on new possibilities of sociology in the study of violence and memory. So far, what I have tried to do is to establish the centrality of memory in the study of violence but also to warn of the limitations of over-emphasizing collective over individual memory and the over-dependence on the written and the spoken word, or quite simply on language in eliciting narratives of memories on violence. Can’t we think of other repositories of memory beyond documents based on the written text and beyond human being’s ability to recall and narrate a story in an interview or case study?

Can’t discourses on violence and memories of such violence be embedded in other kinds of texts that do not depend on the written and the spoken word? If so, would this not help further expand the possibilities of sociological research into violence? I am specifically thinking about the narrative possibilities of contemporary art, and particularly what might be called ‘political art’ in the study of violence, war, pain and memory? Is it impossible for sociologists to think that works of contemporary art might be repositories of memory; that they can be narratives of violence; that they might be a worthwhile terrain for ethnographic inquiry? 

The futurist artist and critic Gino Severini, made the following observations in 1946 with reference to Pablo Picasso’s well-known painting Guernica, that depicted the 1937 bombing and devastation of the Basque town of Guernica. The incident was one of the best known and documented cases of political violence in the first half of the 20th century. And this is what Severini Said:

There could be no severer condemnation of the bourgeoisie and the Fascist systems with which it defends itself than his magnificent picture, Guernica. In work of this kind, and especially in that great picture, he reached the extreme limits of expression and abstraction, of an almost monstrous representation of all the evils which have led to war and for which the whole world is responsible (Severini 1946: 9). 

Over twenty years ago, when I first began to think of expanding the methodological domains of sociology and when I first encountered Severini’s essay in a secondhand book store in Los Angeles, I wondered if a painting can contain such feelings and expressiveness of politics, pain and violence, why can’t such works of art speak authoritatively to sociologists? So what I have to say in the rest of my presentation today is based on that initial thought, and subsequent and incomplete thinking that has followed me since. 

Picasso, in this particular case did not simply produce a painting, but a painting that had a specific political narrative that was effectively communicable in the context in which it was produced, and now beyond that time as well because of the preservation of that work along with the discourses of art history it has since generated. Perhaps Guernica is the best-known painting that is based on memories of violence of a particular political moment. We know quite well that very expressive political art of this kind has been produced in California in the 1960s in the context of the Vietnam War and the American youth movement as well as in the post 1980s period Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka responding to their own socio-political circumstances. In the book, Mortality-Immortality: The Legacy of 20th Century Art, with reference to how 20th century art would be remembered in times to come, Miguel Angel Corzo observes, “if we accept the notion that arts reflects history, then contemporary art is, in some way, a monument to contemporary civilization. It is the cultural heritage of our time…” (1999: XV). 

Within certain limits, I think Corzo’s observations create an avenue to pose a series of questions on the politics of memory as they are reflected in contemporary artworks in our part of the world and elsewhere, which might inform sociological research into political violence. 

One of these questions has to do with how notions and experiences of pain, war and trauma might be represented in visual arts. 

Yet another question is whether art reflects history, and if it represents particular civilizational attributes of a particular place or moment? If so, what kind of histories would art narrate? What would it not narrate? Who narrates these memories and who are the consumers? What are the absences and silences in these narratives? 

My personal conviction is, if we can successfully pose and answer these questions, then contemporary political art could become audible in a manner that would make sociological sense.

Caroline Turner, talking specifically about contemporary Asian art has noted that political and social changes in the region and beyond have been “mirrored and reflected” in the region’s art, and that individual changes within countries have significantly impacted upon the development of art practices in these countries (Turner 2005: 1). In this regard, she also notes that “artists can, through their work, reflect the values and aspirations of their own society, and of humanity. While some react with cynicism and even despair, others produce an art of resistance. Over the past decades, many artists in the Asia Pacific region have protested colonialism and neo-colonialism; global environmental degradation; cultural loss; illness due to poverty; sexual exploitation; social and political injustice; war; violence and racism. Their work is in the broad area of social justice” (Turner 2005: 4). Don’t these constitute the very same areas of interest for sociologists working on political violence? 

It is in this context, marked by specific local political conditions and global concerns that Indonesian artists in particular have produced a significant collection of work opposing human rights violations in that country, often facing personal danger in that process (Turner 2005: 9). According to Jim Supangkat, these particular tendencies manifested in the 1990s; and in terms of one such tendency, artists were interested in locating the “truth based on morality” (Supangkat 2005: 223). It is within this particular manifestation that he locates the work of an entire range of artists who explore “social realities which they see as reflecting poverty, injustice and oppression” (Supangkat 2005: 223). The other tendency, represented by artists such Dadang Christanto, Tisna Sanjaya and others critiqued the government as “an oppressive, corrupt and powerful group of people who deceived the poor” (Supangkat 2005: 222). Dadang Christanto is perhaps the best-known Indonesian artist who has consistently narrated in his work extreme conditions of human suffering such as the work he and three others presented at the fiftieth Venice Biennale in 2003 under the theme, Paradise Lost: Mourning the World (Turner 2005: 9). In this series of works the artists took as their point of departure, the Bali bombing incident in which over 200 individuals perished (Turner 2005: 9). Similarly, Thai artist Vasan Sittiket has commented on issues of war in Iraq and corruption in Thailand in the shadow puppet-based work, The Truth is Elsewhere (Turner 2005: 10). Earlier, in a painting titled If Buddha Returned to Bangkok, he depicted the image of the Buddha among scenes of corruption and social dislocation, thereby commenting in very graphic and easily communicable manner, his own thoughts on the events surrounding the 1992 coup in Thailand (Turner 2005). 

However, looking at contemporary political art, not as artists, not consumers and not as art historians, but as sociologists, a question that must be posed at this moment is this: can we assume that art in fact reflects history or memory in some linear and coherent fashion without any contradictions? Is art such a simple text? I would suggest that everywhere some of the fundamental assumptions of Corzo’s observations I referred to earlier, would have to be reformulated to some extent. For instance, art does reflect history in the sense that all art is produced at particular historical and political moments within clear social and cultural geographies and are impacted upon by temporal realities. As such, in many ways such works are products of that moment in terms of material used, stylistic conventions and often in what is represented. Representational politics is certainly very obvious in political art. 

However, despite that historical location in spatial and temporal terms, art does not always narrate clear histories as it also does not always capture and transmit coherent memories. In other words, despite the possibility of historically locating a work of art, it does not necessarily visually represent that moment in all its complexities. But is this any different from other sources of information and discourse that sociologists regularly deal with? As scholars, we are expected to place our material in context, check their validity and sense, and offer interpretations. It seems to me, this methodological possibility is well within contemporary art even though sociology the world over has not realistically assessed its possibilities. 

Based on this kind of thinking, in my work dealing with political violence and memory in Sri Lanka over the last 14 years, I have spent considerable time, looking at contemporary political art, particularly the art of the 1990s and beyond as well as public monuments, as repositories of memories of violence. I have also talked to people, read through countless documents as conventional sociology has trained me to do and keeps insisting that I do. 

However, in a country where official records are not always complete or available, where talking to people about their experiences on violence is not as easy as one may think due to both political and ethical reasons, if I had not self-consciously veered somewhat away from conventional sources of discourse to the less conventional repositories of memory such as contemporary art and public monuments, my work would have been substantially incomplete. It would have been much less nuanced. In fact, I am convinced no substantial political history of Sri Lanka is possible without this kind of methodological innovations. And my sense is that similar necessities exist elsewhere in South Asia though conventional sociology is extremely reluctant to make the effort

Part of the problem in this methodological conservatism is that sociology in our part of the world in particular and elsewhere more generally, is imprisoned in appears to be an inherent lack of innovativeness. Sociology in our contexts shows clear trends of being theoretical and methodological followers rather than innovators in these domains. Sociology in South Asia also seems to suffer from a more general fear of the visual that we also see elsewhere in the world. Besides, in this context, some innovations if they emerge at all, might well be labeled ‘soft sociology’ as opposed to ‘hard sociology’ represented by the recent influx of statistics into the practice of sociology. In this context, methodological approaches towards possibilities such as contemporary art or photography quite possibly would be seen as an embrace of ‘soft sociology’ and a matter of compromising the discipline’s analytical rigor. So clearly, these are not conducive circumstances for a discipline to reinvent itself.


Let me now bring these thoughts to some kind of conclusion by going back to the subjective and personal domain from where I began my presentation. The Buddha has advised long time ago that one should not preach to people with empty stomachs. While I strongly believe in this sentiment in my own teaching, I also believe that speaking to anyone soon after a meal or any time after 1.00 pm might also not achieve much. Hence, my interest to conclude soon.

My attempt was not to present to you something conclusive and coherent. That is the work best suited for the confines of the of the classroom. It is also not possible, when one’s own thinking is closer to a work in progress rather than a process of thinking that has somehow been concluded. Instead, my attempt was to simply address some issues in how memory can be understood in the study of violence, and how we might be able to explore different and uncharted ways of trying to do this with a focus on contemporary art. 

I also thought it might be better to spend the time talking about these issues to you, as people whose minds might not yet be closed, as opposed to my colleagues in Delhi and beyond in my generation whose minds might be already quite tightly locked in their regular conventional mode, or quite snug in their well-travelled comfort zone. For me, talking to them on these matters – which I have done many times before -- would be a waste of time. Talking to you, might not make any difference either. But there is some possibility of hope. And for me, that is good enough.

I have not talked of ethics today though ideally I should have. Working on violence is not an easy thing for a scholar given the ethical issues one might be confronted with on a regular basis. But such investigations would be necessary, particularly if they would have an impact on everyday circumstances beyond the Ivory Tower within which we work. For most individuals in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as far as South Asia is concerned, and other colleagues elsewhere in the world, who have opted to work and live in the midst of violence, including myself, any exploration into memory, erasure and their public and private manifestations, cannot be a simple academic inquiry. It is an emotional endeavor as well. We cannot be aloof from the reality of these memories and the pain inscribed in them, and take refuge within the ramparts of sociological objectivity beyond a point.

On the other hand, writing on violence also poses a series of difficulties in much the same way as it does in the process of research. From the experience of writing his recent book, Terror and Performance, Rustom Bharucha notes that for him, “this writing demands stamina as it faces an onslaught of uncertainties and cruelties at the global level that challenges the basic assumptions of what it means to be human” (xi). Bhraucha further identifies quite accurately two predicaments that writers on terror and violence have to face. One is the seeming non-existence of an exit from the act of writing in the sense of not “being able to free one’s self from the closure of violence” (xi). Particularly in the uncertain political circumstances of countries in South Asia and other regions of the world with similar political experiences, there is no seeming end to violence. As such, how would one end his narrative? This is not a simple matter of cataloguing acts of terror, but the interpretation of what happens. The second predicament he refers to is the need to “accept a state of suspension” with no other choices (xii). In other words, “once one enters the narrative of terror, one has no other choice but to keep wading through the blood even as the possibility of reaching the other side cannot be readily assumed” (xii). In this sense, writing about violence and terror in many ways is an immersion in the violence itself, particularly when this has to be done from our kind of political and social circumstances where the distance between the constant unfolding of terror and the relentless and seemingly fruitless search for collective sanity is not so great. This would be a reality for all of us researching and writing on violence in our region. 

For me, working in contemporary Sri Lanka and talking to people touched by violence in India is a matter of living in crisscrossing fields of memory; and in fields of erasure; amidst survivors; amongst ghosts; and surrounded by variously narrated discourses of memory rooted to a common past of violence and pain. As such, for research or for leisure, if we take a simple walk down a street, irrespective of where one might be, that could easily mean one is in the midst of interlocking landscapes of memory gesturing to us about events that have happened and people who have been lost. That is because as the words of the 17th century Spanish poet, Francisco de Quevedo would remind us death itself does not necessitate erasure:

It will leave its body, not its cares;
they will be ashes, but still will feel;
dust they will be, but dust in love 
- Francisco de Quevedo –

So working with violence is about working in fields of emotion, among people who are dead but memories of them might not be. If you opt to take this journey by being a conventional sociologist, or if you decide to do so by becoming slightly innovative, you are still going to transgress a world of liminality. My hope is that you would have the sense to be cautious.

Thank you for your time.

(Lecture Delivered at Maitreye College, New Delhi on 21st August 2015 at the inauguration of the lecture series of Department of Sociology; Images from the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, Japan, 2010)