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Public Authority Under Sovereign Encroachment: Leadership in two villages during Sri Lanka's war



In this article, we compare two kinds of public authority under conditions of civil war. We study two villages in eastern Sri Lanka, both of which came under LTTE rule during the 1990s and 2000s. The first case study describes a rural development society, which was co-opted by the LTTE to rule the village. The second describes the leaders of a Hindu temple, who defied LTTE attempts to settle temple-related conflicts. Conceptually, we draw on the notion of the public sphere as a space of encounter between the rulers and the ruled. This perspective helps us come to grips with the convoluted political landscape of war. Our two case studies suggest that public authority and sovereignty are mutually constituted. We argue that both forms of power are reworked in the encounter with the public sphere. A sovereign aspirant like the LTTE does not simply impose itself on society, it encroaches on it. This involves contingent efforts of reigning in other forms of public authority, some of which are more defiant than others. Conversely, public authority not only derives validity from sovereign endorsement, but from contestations around sovereignty as well.

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1 Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Appadurai, Arjun and Breckenridge, Carol A. (1998) ‘Why public culture?’, Public Culture Bulletin, 1 (1), pp. 59; Cody, Francis (2011) ‘Publics and politics’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 40, pp. 3752; Gilmartin, David (2015) ‘Rethinking the public through the lens of sovereignty’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 38 (3), pp. 371386.

2 Hansen, Thomas B. and Stepputat, Finn (eds) (2001) States of imagination: Ethnographic explorations of the post-colonial state. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 27.

3 Klem, Bart (2012) ‘In the eye of the storm: Sri Lanka's front-line civil servants in transition’, Development and Change, 43 (3), pp. 695717; Klem, Bart and Maunaguru, Sidharthan (2017) ‘Insurgent rule as sovereign mimicry and mutation: Governance, kingship and violence in civil wars’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 59 (3), pp. 629656; Sidharthan Maunaguru (under review) ‘Vulnerable sovereignty: Sovereign deities and Tigers' politics in Sri Lanka’; Maunaguru, Sidharthan and Spencer, Jonathan (2013) ‘Tigers, temples, and the remaking of Tamil society: Report from the field’, Religion and Society, 3 (1), pp. 169176; Spencer, Jonathan, Goodhand, Jonathan, Hasbullah, Shahul, Klem, Bart, Korf, Benedikt and Silva, Kalinga Tudor (2015) Checkpoint, temple, church and mosque: A collaborative ethnography of war and peace. London: Pluto.

4 Bart Klem and Bert Suykens, ‘The politics of order and disturbance: Public authority, sovereignty, and violent contestation in South Asia’ in this special issue.

5 Alagappa, Muthiah (1995) Political legitimacy in Southeast Asia: The quest for moral authority. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Lund, Christian (2006) ‘Twilight institutions: Public authority and local politics in Africa’, Development and Change, 37 (4), pp. 685705; Sikor, Thomas and Lund, Christian (2009) ‘Access and property: A question of power and authority’, Development and Change, 40 (1), pp. 122.

6 Douglas, Mary (1986) How institutions think. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press; Moore, Sally Falk (1978) Law as process. London: Routledge; Lund, ‘Twilight institutions’.

7 For discussion on these dynamics in the context of Punjab, see Nicolas Martin, ‘Corruption and factionalism in contemporary Punjab: An ethnographic account from rural Malwa’ in this special issue.

8 For examples, see two of the contributions on Nepal in this special issue: Sarah Byrne, ‘“From our side rules are followed”: Authorizing bureaucracy in Nepal's “permanent transition’”; Andrea J. Nightingale, Anil Bhatterai, Hemant R. Ojha, Tulasi Sigdel and Katharine N. Rankin, ‘Fragmented public authority and state un/making in the “new” Republic of Nepal’.

9 Geertz, Clifford (1980) Negara: The theatre state in nineteenth century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Hansen and Stepputat, States of imagination.

10 Lund, ‘Twilight institutions’, p. 686, emphasis in original.

11 Appadurai, Modernity at large; Cody, ‘Publics and politics’; Elshtain, Jean B. (1981) Public man, private women: Women in social political thoughts. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Habermas, Jürgen (1989 [1962]) Structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge: MIT Press; Keane, Webb (2003) ‘Public speaking: On Indonesian as a language of the nation’, Public Culture, 15 (3), pp. 503530; Latour, Bruno and Weibel, Peter (eds) (2005) Making things public: Atmosphere of democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press; Rajagopal, Arvind (2001) Politics after television: Hindu nationalism and the reshaping of the public in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Taylor, Charles (2004) Modern social imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

12 Gilmartin, ‘Rethinking the public’.

13 Appadurai and Breckenridge, ‘Why public culture?’.

14 Kantorowicz, Ernst (1997 [1957]) The king's two bodies: A study in mediaeval political theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

15 Heesterman, J. C. (1985) The inner conflict of tradition: Essays in Indian ritual, kingship and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

16 Benda-Beckmann, Franz von and Benda-Beckmann, Keebet von (2013) Political and legal transformations of an Indonesian polity: The nagari from colonisation to decentralisation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

17 Asad, Talal (1993) Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Dirks, Nicholas (1987) The hollow crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Sidharthan Maunaguru (2014) ‘Sri Lankan Hindu temples and politics: Contesting spaces of politics and sovereign deities’. Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Conference; Sax, William (2000) ‘Conquering the quarters: Religion and politics in Hinduism’, International Journal of Hindu Studies, 4 (1), pp. 360; Veer, Peter van der (2001) Imperial encounters: Religion, nation, and empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

18 Arjona, Ana (2014) ‘Wartime institutions: A research agenda’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58, pp. 13901418; Arjona, Ana, Kasfir, Nelson and Mampilly, Zachariah (eds) (2015) Rebel governance in civil war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Caspersen, Nina (2012) Unrecognized states: The struggle for sovereignty in the modern international system. Cambridge: Polity Press; Hansen, Thomas B. and Stepputat, Finn (eds) (2005) Sovereign bodies: Citizens, migrants and states in the postcolonial world. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Kalyvas, Stathis (2006) The logic of civil war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Klem and Maunaguru, ‘Insurgent rule as sovereign mimicry and mutation’; Mampilly, Zachariah (2011) Rebel rulers: Insurgent governance and civilian life during war. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press; Staniland, Paul (2012) ‘Organizing insurgency: Networks, resources and rebellion in South Asia’, International Security, 37 (1), pp. 142177; Weinstein, Jeremy (2007) Inside rebellion: The politics of insurgent violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Wood, Elisabeth (2008) ‘The social processes of civil war: The wartime transformation of social networks’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11, pp. 539561.

19 De Silva, Kingsley (2005) A history of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications; Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006) Sri Lanka in the modern age: A history of contested identities. London: Hurst.

20 More specifically, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a leftist revolutionary youth movement with elements of Sinhala ethno-nationalism. The JVP staged two highly destabilizing uprisings in the 1970s and 1980s. See Moore, Mick (1993) ‘Thoroughly modern revolutionaries: The JVP in Sri Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies, 27 (3), pp. 593642.

21 De Mel, Neloufer (2007) Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular culture, memory and narrative in the armed conflict. London: Sage; Goodhand, Jonathan, Spencer, Jonathan and Korf, Benedikt (eds) (2011) Conflict and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka: Caught in the peace trap? London and New York: Routledge; Loganathan, Ketesh (1996) Sri Lanka, lost opportunities: Past attempts at resolving ethnic conflict. Colombo: University of Colombo; Moore, Mick (1985) The state and peasant politics in Sri Lanka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Rupesinghe, Kumar (ed.) (2006) Negotiating peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, failures and lessons. Colombo: Foundation for Co-existence; Thiranagama, Sharika (2011) In my mother's house: Civil war in Sri Lanka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; Uyangoda, Jayadeva (2007) Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka: Changing dynamics, Policy Studies 32. Washington DC: East-West Center; J. Uyangoda (2011) ‘Travails of state reform in the context of protracted civil war in Sri Lanka’, in Stokke, Kristian and Uyangoda, Jayadeva (eds) Liberal peace in question: Politics of state and market reform in Sri Lanka. London: Anthem Press, pp. 4675; Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age.

22 Niels Terpstra and Georg Frerks, ‘Governance practices and symbolism: De facto sovereignty and public authority in “Tigerland”’ in this special issue.

23 Klem and Maunaguru, ‘Insurgent rule as sovereign mimicry and mutation’.

24 See also: Mampilly, Rebel rulers; Mohan, Rohini (2014) The seasons of trouble: Life amid the ruins of Sri Lanka's civil war. London: Verso; Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna (2007) ‘In pursuit of a mythical state of Tamil Eelam: A rejoinder to Kristian Stokke’, Third World Quarterly, 28 (6), pp. 11851195; Stokke, Kristian (2006) ‘Building the Tamil Eelam state: Emerging state institutions and forms of governance in LTTE-controlled areas in Sri Lanka’, Third World Quarterly, 27 (6), pp. 10211040; Thiranagama, In my mother's house.

25 Klem, ‘In the eye of the storm’; Korf, Benedikt (2004) ‘War, livelihoods and vulnerability in Sri Lanka’, Development and Change, 35 (2), pp. 275295; Korf, Benedikt, Engeler, Michelle and Hagmann, Tobias (2010) ‘The geography of warscape’, Third World Quarterly, 31 (3), pp. 385399; Terpstra and Frerks, ‘Governance practices and symbolism’.

26 The 1953 census estimated the Veddahs at only 1,000 (out of a population of 8 million); subsequent censuses have grouped them under ‘Others’ along with other small groups. Given the fuzziness involved in demarcating the Veddahs and a level of fluidity in their self-definition, these numbers have limited value.

27 James B. Brow (1974) ‘Veddah villages: A study of the history and social structure of Veddah communities in Anuradhapura District, Ceylon’, PhD thesis, University of Washington; Brow, James B. (1996) Demons and development: The struggle for community in a Sri Lankan village. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

28 See also: Woost, Michael (1994) ‘Developing a nation of villages: Rural community as state formation in Sri Lanka’, Critique of Anthropology, 14 (1), pp. 7795.

29 For similar observations in the context of Nepal, see the contributions of Byrne and Nightingale et al. in this special issue, specifically with regard to the role of village development committees (VDCs) and their positioning between state and community, buffeted by the forces of patronage politics and Maoist insurgency: Byrne, ‘“From our side”’; Nightingale et al., ‘Fragmented public authority’.

30 For a discussion of the interconnections between elections and community in contemporary Sri Lanka, see Klem, Bart (2015) ‘Showing one's colours: The political work of elections in post-war Sri Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies, 49 (4), pp. 10911121.

31 For interesting parallels, see Shah's work on Adivasis and alcohol in relation to the Maoist movement in eastern India: Shah, Alpa (2011) ‘Alcoholics Anonymous: The Maoist movement in Jharkhand, India’, Modern Asian Studies, 45 (5), pp. 10951117. Similarities include the civilizational narrative of bringing about a pure and equitable society, in which the LTTE's alcohol ban was steeped, and the caste and class dimension of customs around alcohol.

32 Klem, ‘In the eye of the storm’, pp. 705–709. There are interesting parallels to the plight and coping mechanisms of Nepal's civil servants during the Maoist insurgency. Byrne, ‘“From our side”’; Byrne, Sarah and Shrestha, Gitta (2014) ‘A compromising consensus? Legitimising local government in post-conflict Nepal’, International Development Planning Review, 36 (4), pp. 434453; Nightingale et al., ‘Fragmented public authority’.

33 Geertz, Clifford (1973) The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books; Asad, Genealogies of religion; Spencer et al., Checkpoint, temples, church and mosque; Sax, ‘Conquering the quarters’.

34 Mines, Mattison (1994) Public faces, private voices: Community and individuality in South India. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 65.

35 Appadurai, Arjun (1981) Worship and conflict under colonial rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Fuller, Chris J. (2003) The renewal of the priesthood: Modernity and traditionalism in a South Indian temple. Princeton: Princeton University Press; McGilvray, Dennis (2008) Crucible of conflict: Tamil and Muslim society on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Durham: Duke University Press; Mines, Diane P. (2005) Fierce gods: Inequality, ritual, and the politics of dignity in a South Indian village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Mines, Public faces, private voices; Theyvanayagam, S. (2006) ‘Tantonrisvaram, Kokkatticcolai’, in Pathmanathan, S. (ed.) Hindu temples of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Kumaran Book House, pp. 279304; Van der Veer, Imperial encounters; van der Veer, Peter (1999) Nation and religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

36 Maunaguru and Spencer, ‘Tigers, temples’.

37 Whitaker, Mark (1999) Amiable incoherence: Manipulating histories and modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu temple. Amsterdam: VU University Press; Whitaker, Mark (1999) ‘Tigers and temples: The politics of nationalist and non-modern violence in Sri Lanka’, in Gamage, Siri and Watson, I. B. (eds) Conflict and community in contemporary Sri Lanka: ‘Pearl of the East’ or the ‘Island of Tears’? Colombo: Vijitha Yapa, pp. 183196.

38 This is particularly clear in his work on the temple entry movement in northern Sri Lanka in the late 1960s. Hindu temples became a centrally important arena for contentions around caste and power, when so-called low-caste members struggled for their rights to enter the temple. Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1982) Caste in Tamil culture: The religious foundation of Sudra domination in Tamil Sri Lanka. New York: Syracuse University Press; Pfaffenberger, B. (1990) ‘The political construction of defensive nationalism: The 1968 temple-entry crisis in northern Sri Lanka’, Journal of Asian Studies, 49 (1), pp. 7896.

39 Whitaker, Amiable incoherence. See also: McGilvray, Crucible of conflict.

40 Patricia Lawrence (1999) ‘The changing Amman: Notes on the injury of war in Eastern Sri Lanka’, in Gamage and Watson (eds) Conflict and community in contemporary Sri Lanka, pp. 197–215; Lawrence, P. (2000) ‘Violence, suffering, Amman: The work of oracles in Sri Lanka's eastern war zone’, in Das, Veena, Kleinman, Arthur, Ramphele, Mamphela and Reynolds, Pamela (eds) Violence and subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 171204.

41 In eastern Sri Lanka the role of spiritual authority under conditions of war varied significantly across the religious landscape. See Spencer et al., Checkpoint, temple, church and mosque.

42 Maunaguru, ‘Vulnerable sovereignty’.

43 Ibid.

44 Mosque federations and Catholic priests are the two most obvious examples of religious leadership that took on very visible roles and engaged much more directly with the ethno-political conflict itself. Spencer et al., Checkpoint, temple, church and mosque.

45 Hoole, Rajan (2015) Palmyra fallen: From Rajani to war's end. Jaffna: University Teacher's for Human Rights (Jaffna); Thiranagama, In my mother's house.

46 Adivasipuram is a small Veddah village of poor labourers, which was only recently settled. It does not have the elaborate caste and kudi structures that we find in Mukkuvarpattu, a more significant village with a complex arrangement around temples and paddy cultivation. This contrast (simply put, a dichotomy between erstwhile forest dwellers and a hierarchical community of rice cultivators) arguably accentuates the contrast between the two village bodies that we are analysing.

47 For more detail, see Maunaguru, ‘Sovereign deities’.

48 Whitaker, Amiable incoherence.

49 Appadurai, Worship and conflict. Appadurai points to the significance of colonial government replacing pre-colonial kings, who were seen to act on behalf of deities. When colonial authorities sought to manage the temple through legal procedure, this created tension between temple politics and the state, resulting in endless court cases.

50 For a broader discussion on the LTTE's attempt at governance in relation to questions of legitimacy, see Terpstra and Frerks, ‘Governance practices and symbolism’.

51 Appadurai, Worship and conflict.

52 Pfaffenberger, ‘The political construction’.

53 Anushay Malik, ‘Public authority and local resistance: Abdur Rehman and the industrial workers of Lahore, 1969–1974’ in this special issue.

54 Byrne, ‘“From our side”’.

55 Lund, ‘Twilight institutions’, p. 686.

56 Hansen and Stepputat, States of imagination, p. 27.

*The alphabetical listing of our names reflects our equal authorship of this article. We would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. We also gratefully acknowledge Amanda Gilbertson, Atreyee Sen, and Bert Sukyens for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this article. Thanks to Shahul Hasbullah, Benedikt Korf, and Jonathan Spencer for the collaborative work that has informed this article. We are also grateful to all those who helped us during fieldwork, with suggestions and translation or by sparing their time to talk to us. Bart Klem gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) for the fieldwork (grant numbers PDFMP1-123181/1 and 100017_149183). Sidharthan Maunaguru acknowledges the start-up grant provided by the National University of Singapore and the Newton Fellowship funded by the British Academy and the Royal Society, both of which supported the research.

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