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Home > Tamilnation Library > Eelam Section > 'Beyond 'Benign' and 'Fascist' Nationalisms: Interrogating the Historiography of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism' - Dr. Ravi Vaitheespara


  • 'Beyond 'Benign' and 'Fascist' Nationalisms: Interrogating the Historiography of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism'-  Dr. Ravi Vaitheespara in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 29:3, 435 - 458 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00856400601032003

About the Author From the Introduction From the Conclusion Select Bibiliography

About the Author

Ravi VaitheesparaDr. Ravi Vaitheespara is  Assistant Professor of History at the University of Manitoba. His research interests include colonial and postcolonial South Asia with a special interest in the area of nationalism, national liberation movements and left politic. His other publications include - " The Question of Colonialism and Imperialism in Tamil Nationalist Thought: The Case of Maraimalai Adigal and non-Brahmin Tamil nationalism in Southern India," Imagining Collectives: Continuities, Changes and Contestations. Toronto: Scholars Press, 2008; Theorizing the National Crisis: Sanmugathasan, the Left and the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, published by the Social Scientists� Association, Colombo, 2007 )

From the Introduction

The simmering ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the militant Tamil nationalism associated with it have attracted a great deal of interest to the subject of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. This has generated a growing body of literature, both scholarly and otherwise, on various aspects of Tamil nationalism and militancy.

Surprisingly, there has been little attempt so far to take stock or critically assess the achievements of this body of work. The objective of the present discussion is to reflect critically on this body of scholarship�to observe its major trends and orientations and perhaps, more importantly, to pin-point areas of neglect and areas that need further enquiry.

Keeping this goal in mind, the paper subscribes to a broad definition of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism both in terms of its nature and chronology, and critically surveys the scholarship that traces its inception from around the mid nineteenth century to its more recent militant manifestation.

It does not however by any means attempt to provide a comprehensive survey. Rather it seeks to focus on the dominant trends in this scholarship, particularly that dealing with the more militant phase of Tamil nationalism.

A striking feature of the historiography of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka generally is that despite the enormous sufferings caused by nationalism, it is rather unreflexive and under-developed, particularly in comparison to the rich body of literature available on nationalism in India.

There could be a number of reasons for this. One of the more obvious is that that there was no significant popular mass-based all-Ceylon anti-colonial movement, anti-colonial forces in the country being confined to a small coalition of Left/liberal elites whose ideological hegemony over the masses may have been even more limited than was the case in India, which has been characterised as a case of �dominance without hegemony�...

I would like to thank the following people for their useful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper: Militon Israel, M.S.S. Pandian, S. Anandhi, Rajan Kurai, N. Sivahurunathan and Ravi Subramaniam. I would also like to acknowledge the valuable discussions I had on this subject with professors S. Sivasegaram and K. Sivathamby.

From the Conclusion

This brief critical survey of the literature available in English on Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism reveals that, despite some notable advances, much remains to be done� particularly with respect to the militant phase of Tamil nationalism. Although more is known about the early phase of Tamil revival/nationalism during the colonial period, the almost exclusive focus of this scholarship on the Navalar-centred Tamil/Saivite revival has tended to preclude a broader exploration of the heterogeneity and complexity of Tamil elite formation in Sri Lanka. The fascinating� almost symbiotic�partnership between the Tamil Protestant and Saivite elites is also occluded by this preoccupation with the Hindu side.

And the same could be said for the next phase of Tamil nationalism which has largely been covered from a purely political history perspective. The story of defensive Tamil nationalism as Peravai�whose radical goals included inter alia the empowerment of the lower classes/castes irrespective of ethnicity, the empowerment of women, etc.

Among the relatively small body of scholarly works in English on the militant phase of Tamil nationalism, the dominant approach of recent years has been one that leans towards a kind of �othering� of Tamil militancy and nationalism.

Since at least the publication of The Broken Palmyra, the Tamil movement has been seen as an expression of ethnic fanaticism, violence and �terrorism�, rather than as a product of broad politico/economic/military transformations.

In one way this is not surprising, given the theoretical shifts that have occurred since the 1980s in Anglo- American social science�particularly its embrace of post-structuralism and postmodernism. But it is a tendency that has obscured more than it has revealed. If indeed we take seriously the Broken Palmyra�s charge that the LTTE is a fascist or neo-fascist movement, it is all the more imperative that we come to grips with both the class/caste basis and the class forces behind the LTTE and how, as a movement, it was able to subvert rival movements who offered a more liberationist, if not more empowering, alternative.

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