Sovereignty as Tension: Sri Lanka and Its North-East

by | 3 Aug 2015

Shanthi Chandrasekar: Maya-cube (Acrylic on Canvas)

Shanthi Chandrasekar: Maya-cube (Acrylic on Canvas)

Even as neo-​liberalism attempts to trans-​nationalize the globe, the nation continues to be popular among many communities in both Europe and the postcolony. For Marxist postcolonial thinkers like Neil Lazarus (1999:48) and Timothy Brennan (1999:25 – 26), the nation and the nation-​state function mainly as communities of resistance to globalization and American-​centered global cosmopolitanism. But in places like the UK, Spain and Belgium and in many parts of the postcolony such as Somalia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the nation exists as a vibrant political entity primarily because it refuses to tolerate the character of the state under which it lives and due to its desire to have a state exclusively for itself. Nations in these places predicate their demand for self-​rule on historical claims over territory, the differences that they draw between themselves and other nations in terms of culture and language and the ripening of their collective self-​consciousness into nationhood. The dominance of one nation over others in these places intensifies the marginalized nation’s thirst for national liberation. Claiming to resist the hegemonic Sinhala-​Buddhist nationalist project of the Sri Lankan state, Tamil nationalism invokes many of these arguments to legitimize the Tamils’ right to self-​determination in the north-​east of Sri Lanka which the nationalist narrative inscribes as the historical habitat of the Tamils.

While national self-​determination may elevate the status of an oppressed nationality within a delimited nation-​state or a federal unit, its potential to ensure the harmonious cohabitation of different communities in a shared territory is limited. The parallels that Hannah Arendt (1951) draws between the minority and stateless populations produced by the creation of new states in Europe in the early twentieth-​century, the evacuation of Arabs from Palestine in order to settle Jews who were facing persecution in Europe and the exodus in the subcontinent resulting from the partition of the region into India and Pakistan (1951:290) demonstrate that the formation of nation-​states in both Europe and the postcolony involved the violent ejection of populations from territories that they inhabited.

Partha Chatterjee notes that it was anticipated that the states in the postcolony created at the culmination of anti-​colonial national liberation struggles, by constructing a private-​public binary, would safeguard the private selves from one another by being indifferent to “concrete differences” such as “race, language, religion, class, caste, and so forth” (1993:10). But paradoxically, the anti-​colonial nationalist elite, partly with a view to challenging the colonizer’s construction of the colonized as his inferior ‘Other,’ located national sovereignty in the spiritual realm which was inflected these very differences (ibid). The state thus became partisan and its post-​independence future was marred by violence and fragmentation.

State (re)formation is a process and each phase of this process cannot be blind to the consequences of the existing state structure. The re-​construction of the state must aim at levelling the inequalities produced by the current state without breaking the ties that it has created between its communities across territories and cultures. The (colonial) state and its laws give birth to political identities. In commenting on the formation Hutu and Tutsi as political identities, Mahmood Mamdani writes that “[p]olitical identities exist in their own right” and argues that “[t]hey are a direct consequence of the history of the state” (2001:22). State reformation envisions a shared future in which these political identities would merge into a single political community of citizens. But state (re)formation does not end there because the state is a dynamic entity that, as Etienne Balibar notes, infinitely and simultaneously pluralizes its citizens as subjects and singularizes its subjects as citizens (1991:54) The language(s) in which the state communicates with us, what it chooses to include and exclude in its museums and the manner in which it draws from the various architectural traditions of its people when designing public monuments are some instances that prove that the state continues to produce cultural and linguistic subjects while absorbing them as citizens into its body. Therefore, even if a revolution leads to the creation of a constitution that does not associate the state or any of its territories with a particular nation exclusively, the state would continue to exist as a site of struggle. As Balibar notes, the revolution that the Citizen Subject gives birth to and participates in simultaneously is a “permanent revolution” (ibid:54 emphasis original).

Nationalism, which combines identities, territories and the state in a linear fashion by trying to cast sovereignty as originating from a timeless past and effaces the pluralities and the tensions of the present, cannot be of much help in re-​structuring the state. It is precisely such awareness of the limitations of nationalism and national sovereignty that is absent in the political discussions taking place in the north-​east of Sri Lanka where Tamil nationalism is offered as the panacea to Sinhala-​Buddhist majoritarianism. As parliamentary elections are approaching in Sri Lanka, the two major Tamil nationalist fronts, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) foreground a pre-​political Tamil self in their campaign. The solutions presented by these two parties to the national question are, for the most part, in line with the fundamental principles of Tamil nationalism put forward by the collective of Tamil groups during their peace negotiations with a former Sri Lankan government in Bhutan’s capital Thimpu in 1985. They include the recognition of the Tamils as a nation and their right to self-​determination in their homelands in the north-​east of Sri Lanka. Realizing that creating a separate Tamil state is not feasible under the present circumstances, particularly in the wake of the defeat suffered by the secessionist militants, and because Sri Lanka’s constitution criminalizes those who advocate secession, these nationalist parties now demand federalism based on the Thimpu principles within in an undivided country.

Proponents of Tamil nationalism tend to create the impression that a binational/​multinational federal state, unlike secession, ensures peaceful ethnic coexistence in the island. But some forms of federalism can be as divisive as secession. In writing about Hannah Arendt’s critique of national sovereignty, Judith Butler notes that when a federated binational state was proposed by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber as solution to the Arab-​Jewish conflict in Palestine, Arendt opposed it on the grounds that their use of the term federation reproduced the nation-​state differently (2012:146). Arendt had argued that in order to prevent the member nations of the federation from being discriminatory organs like the nation-​state, no member nation should have its own sovereign authority (ibid). Instead of distributing sovereignty among member nations, Arendt recommends the dispersion of sovereignty “into a plurality that would be irreducible to multiple nationalities” (ibid). The rationale behind Arendt’s opposition to national sovereignty is that “national interests are not the same as common interests” (ibid emphasis original). Arendt argues that federation should be re-​imagined as a political structure that “undoes the notion of sovereignty as unified and ultimate power and requires a deindividualization of the nation so that it becomes quite literally impossible to conceive of a nation or its actions outside the context of plural and concerted action” (ibid). Arendt does not reject binationalism wholesale. But her critique of the binational federation proposed by Magnes and Buber underlines the importance of ensuring national equality and cohabitation at the local and regional levels.

The binationalism of the TNPF in Sri Lanka is in many ways similar to the binationalism that Arendt critiques. The sovereignty of the binational (Sri Lankan) state that the TNPF proposes is conceivable only if the separate sovereignties of the autochthonous Sinhala and Tamil nations and their right to self-​determination within demarcated territories are recognized in equal terms in a political contract. In advocating this line of thinking, the TNPF and its allies overlook the polarizing nature of the Tamil nationalist project and its sheer disregard for the political status of the large number of Tamils living outside the Northern and Eastern provinces, besides failing to situate in their vision for the political future of the island the Muslims and Hill Country Tamils who now distinguish themselves from the Tamils of Sri Lankan descent.

State re-​formation in a place like Sri Lanka at present cannot be indifferent to ethnicity. In fact, it is the ethnic unevenness of the state that keeps the Tamils’ demands for sub-​national autonomy alive. Stewart Motha’s (2012) theorization of the notions of liminality and infinitude in his discussion on sovereignty in the context of post-​apartheid South Africa points to new pathways for us to think about self-​determination and sovereignty without succumbing to the linearizing tendencies of nationalism. Motha argues that “[t]he character of being in the postcolonial setting is liminal” owing to the cross-​racial interactions and relations initiated by colonialism (2012:4). He views liminality as “a space in-​between – at once a place of refuge, invention, fluidity and movement along with the danger of being fixed in limbo” (ibid:16). Arguing that liminal subjects “defy regimes of recognition,” Motha describes the liminal being as “a subject without sovereign origin or destination” (ibid:22). The radicality of liminality lies in its resistance to discourses about territory, state and sovereignty constructed around the putative historical and cultural origins of communities.

Liminality is useful in theorizing the symbiotic relationship between ethnic identities and territories in Sri Lanka in light of state-​aided colonization, migration, displacement and resettlement. The movement of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim laboring communities across the national territories since colonial times has produced economic communities that do not align neatly with the Tamil nationalist accounts about territory. State-​aided colonization schemes since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 have altered the ethnic make-​up of the island’s territories. Even as we condemn the state’s attempts to alter the demography of the Tamil majority areas in ways that would benefit its Sinhala-​Buddhist project and demand reparations for the communities evicted from these lands, our proposals on state re-​formation should acknowledge that the Sinhala people settled by the state in the north-​east of Sri Lanka, many of whom are in the throes of severe economic hardships, have now become a part of the polity of that region and that they too have a place in its history. Similarly, thousands of Tamils and Muslims who were displaced during the war from the Northern and Eastern provinces now live in places like Wellawatte and Puttalam which according to the TNPF’s version of Tamil nationalism lie within the territory where the Sinhala nation would exercise its right to self-​determination. The mobility of ethnicized peoples across the national boundaries compels us to foreground in processes of state re-​construction the liminality of the country’s ethnic polities as they relate to territory and the inter-​nationality of its territories as they relate to the ethnic identities of its people.

In nationalist discourses the sovereignty of the nation is presented as fixed, originary and endogenous. They presuppose that the sovereign self determines its political future on its own in isolation of other selves. Stewart Motha introduces the notion of infinitude to discuss the character of postcolonial sovereignty. Infinite sovereignty casts “[t]he original colonial commandment” or the initiation of sovereignty in the colony as having “an infinite reach (always opening out) into a postcolonial juridico-​political order” (ibid:5). Temporally, infinitude “preserve[s] and disavow[s] the [original] sovereign event” (ibid:5). On the other hand, it “captures the spatial aspect of imperial sovereignty,” the effects of which are visible in the European conquest of territories and the creation bounded nation-​states (ibid:5). I would like to re-​deploy the notion of in-​finitude to link the twin goals of equality and cohabitation vis-​à-​vis state re-​construction in Sri Lanka. As ethnic identities appear like rhizomes in various parts of the country, they, in their relationship to territory, are infinite (unboundable). It becomes impossible not only to predicate the sovereignty of a territory on an ethnic group exclusively but also to imagine it by excluding that group. The infinite mobility of ethnic identities in spatial terms produces sovereignty as an infinite (always slipping into the future) tension arising from the simultaneous singular-​plurality of the constitutive selve(s) at both the center and the peripheries of the state when we imagine a federation for the people of Sri Lanka.

Articulating themselves as a collective self may help the Tamil community fight for its liberation from the Sinhala-​Buddhist state. But the self/​ves that seek/​s to re-​constitute itself/​themselves as a new polity and under a new political structure cannot be the same as the self that Tamils foreground when they channel their resistance to the current state; because the ethnic plurality that we observe in the country is irreducible to the territorial dualism of Tamil nationalism. The rhizomatic plurality of the island’s ethnic landscape, produced by local minorities, displaced populations and settlers, is a challenge to ethnic federalism in Sri Lanka.[i] But we need to see it as a productive challenge as it prevents the de-​coupling of ethnic equality and cohabitation at both the center and the regions when federalism is proposed as the solution to the national question. The Tamils in the north-​east of Sri Lanka may well demand a measure of self-​governance in that region. But they cannot self-​determine in the name of their nation alone as they share the north-​east of Sri Lanka with Sinhala and Muslim populations presently whether or not they like it. This is why it is important that they chart an alternative, inclusive and connective political route for their liberation by building bridges with the other communities in the north-​east and the rest of the island.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: The World Publishing Company.

Balibar, Etienne (1991). “Citizen Subject.” Who Comes after the Subject? Eds. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor & Jean-​Luc Nancy. Routledge: New York.

Brennan, Timothy (1997). At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Butler, Judith (2012). Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993). The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lazarus, Neil (1999). Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood (2001). When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Motha, Stewart (2012). “Colonial sovereignty, forms of life and liminal beings in South Africa.” Agamben and Colonialism. Critical Connections. Eds. Svirsky, M. and Bignall, S. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 128 – 154.

(Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a graduate student in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka)

[i] As opposed to framing systems and differences through binaries in a linear fashion, Deleuze and Guttari present the rhizome as a trope to highlight center-​less assemblages of multiplicities which take different forms with various entries, exits, connections (See: Gilles, Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). The rhizome is an enabling trope in thinking about the relationship of cultural plurality to territory and the different levels of the state in the Sri Lankan context.


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