15th February 1998


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business


Patriotism with a gun in the hand

Professor A. Appadurai propounds some new theories to add to the ones that have been adduced to explain ethnicity and the ethnic crisis.

Who would have thought that ethnic violence could be linked to the hu-man body, or that all the brutality and genocide that takes place in Sri Lanka boils down to the body of a person? This is yet another explanation to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict , or more likely conflicts anywhere in the world. In its unique way, this explanation makes you want to wonder..

"It is of course true that the most extreme forms of ethnic violence involve huge dramas of power......It is also true that some of this is explicable as part of a cycle of memory and counter memory , where one remembered atrocity becomes the basis for another . But there is something else which is present in at least some of these situations : it is a horrible effort to expose , penetrate and occupy the material form - the body - of the ethnic others," says Professor A. Appadurai Department of Anthropology - University of Chicago, who delivered the Eight Punithum Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture recently in Colombo.

He explains that in his study on ethnic conflicts tension, political strife and social differences turn into violence rape and murder at a point when there is a need to establish "certainty" . (Certainty of persons, ethnic groups, race , religion etc.,)

In a country such as Sri Lanka where Sinhalese and Tamils look alike it becomes difficult to make a distinction. Similarly in Bombay where most of his research is done, it becomes difficult to distinguish 2 million Muslims in a 10 million population.

Thus the desire to do so (distinguish between ethnic communities ) becomes unbearable, and the distinction is made not by ideas but by bodily characteristics. This is why physical violence is inflicted on human beings.

Strange yet feasible, says Appadurai who points out that there has to be some explanation for brutality. What is at bottom, is the need to vivisect, to decimate the human body to the extent that ones ethnicity is proven.

This extreme violence only occurs once when tension reaches a point of bursting, but then what causes tension?

Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict he says shows some major signs of common ethnic conflicts everywhere, but has a deep rooted historical genesis as well. The historical aspect of it however, he believes, does not play such a vital role contrary to popular belief that the ethnic crisis is originated entirely in the country's history. Appadurai draws upon examples of how communities lived together in the past.

His primary argument to justify the hypotheses that history plays a minimal role, is the fact that this strong Sinhala Tamil divisions did not exist in the past, because there was no notion that the nation belonged to the majority Sinhalese, and not to the minority Tamils. The argument of "belongingness" cannot be justified, he says, because Sri Lankan history proves that all races including the Sinhalese originated from India, and were not of local origin. Similarly he says features such as 'majority'' and "minority'' are modern concepts that came into being with social features like "consensus" that did not exist in the past. In the past, he says, communities did not identify themselves as a whole — they too had divisions based on cast , region etc.....but this modern concept of identifying a community as a whole came with globalization and the use of census he says.

A root cause of the ethnic problem is the concept of nationalism, Prof Appadurai explains.

The concept of nationalism tends to originate with some kind of ownership, and ownership can usually be traced only to one ethnic group. Sri Lanka's conflict has signs of all these features deeply embodied in it. The people who have been the victims of this conflict are not interested in reasons any more — they require solutions. The current approach of devolution is a good step, says Appadurai, Regional autonomy plays a big role in easing ethnic tension. However devolution must not be seen as a gift to the minorities, which only emphasises their minority status. It should more likely be seen as a useful method of government for the country as a whole. The other solution which is easier said than done, is the creation of an anti nationalist feeling within the community itself . Basically that entails asking the Buddhist community to stop considering themselves as the "majority community'' who own the country. Lastly, he says it is important to open up more effectively the historical debate, and to determine exactly where this conflict began.

"Patriotism is kind of a love of a country and nationalism is patriotism with a gun in the hand" he points out. Many people commit horrendous acts of physical violence against each other. They are in some extraordinary way, trying to resolve the "uncertainty" of the other person, by literally taking them apart, he theorises.

"Such violence specially between ordinary people is so extreme, we have to have some explanation. Saying they are angry , frustrated , doubtful is not enough. My theory is that the doubt reaches an intolerable level that only literally vivisection helps...."

At the end of the day for ordinary people ethnicity is a bad thing , what you are eating how you smell, are not tied up with what your ideas are ."

Conflicts that are said to be age old, often are quite recent.'' he adds.

"It is a long "time line'' but a time line that has been activated and reactivated by the protagonists of today."

In the past there have been people mixing and ''synchronizing'' with people in the island, and out side the island. It is an interesting point because the Sinhalese, who now see themselves as protectors of Buddhism themselves came from outside. So a rigid line cannot be drawn.

Part of the nation state, in a way, only allows one ethnic identity, thus nationalism itself calls for one identity. You can't have national loyalty attached to two kinds of people

So a state can be secular and broadcast that it wants to protect minorities, but once you have a nation attached to that, it means some "singleness'' which in short translates to some "singleness'' of ethnicity, he adds.

Continue to Plus page 3  *  You too? then…   

Return to the Plus contents page

Read Letters to the Editor

Go to the Plus Archive



Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to