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Showing One's Colours: The political work of elections in post-war Sri Lanka*

  • BART KLEM (a1)
Abstract

This article analyses Sri Lanka's April 2010 parliamentary elections as they played out in the Muslim community on the east coast. The political work of elections, as the article shows, involves a lot more than the composition of government. Antagonism over group identities and boundaries are at centre stage. Elections force people to show their colours, which causes turbulence as they grapple with several, possibly contradictory, loyalties. The article argues that elections bring together different political storylines, rather than one master antagonism. It is the interaction between different narratives that paradoxically provides elections both with a sense of gravity and dignity, and with the lingering threat of rupture and disturbance.

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*

For valuable help during the field research, the author would like to thank Shahul Hasbullah, Jasmy, and Mubarak. Mr Ajiwadeen's archival research is also gratefully acknowledged. Many thanks are also due to Mukulika Banerjee, Ward Berenschot, Sarah Byrne, Georg Frerks, Timmo Gaasbeek, Urs Geiser, Benedikt Korf, Jonathan Spencer, and two anonymous reviewers who provided constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this article. For help with the drafting of the map, I am indebted to Marc Vis.

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1 Banerjee, M. (2008) ‘Democracy, Sacred and Everyday: An Ethnographic Case from India’, in Paley, J. (ed.) Democracy: Anthropological Perspectives, Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press, pp. 6395; Banerjee, M. (2011) ‘Elections as Communitas’, Social Research, 78 (1), pp. 7598; Berenschot, W. (2011) Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the India State, London: Hurst; Bertrand, R., Briquet, J.-L. and Pels, P. (eds) (2007) Cultures of Voting: The Hidden History of the Secret Ballot, London: Hurst; Cupples, J. (2009) ‘Rethinking Electoral Geography: Spaces and Practices of Democracy in Nicaragua’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, NS 34, pp. 110124; Harriss, J., Stokke, K. and Törnquist, O. (eds) (2004) Politicising Democracy: The New Local Politics of Democratisation, Basingstoke: Palgrave; Paley, J. (ed.) (2008) Democracy: Anthropological Perspectives, Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press.

2 Spencer, J. (2003) ‘A Nation “Living in Different Places”: Notes on the Impossible Work of Purification in Postcolonial Sri Lanka’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 37 (1), pp. 123; Spencer, J. (2007) Anthropology, Politics and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Spencer, J. (2008) ‘A Nationalism without Politics? The Illiberal Consequences of Liberal Institutions in Sri Lanka’, Third World Quarterly, 29 (3), pp. 611629.

3 Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State, p. 78.

4 Banerjee, ‘Democracy, Sacred, and Everyday’, p. 73.

5 Uyangoda, J. (2005) ‘Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Imagination and Democratic Alternatives for Sri Lanka’, Futures, 37, pp. 959988; R. Venugopal (2009) ‘Cosmopolitan Capitalism and Sectarian Socialism: Conflict, Development, and the Liberal Peace in Sri Lanka’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford; Wickremesinghe, N. (2006) Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. A History of Contested Identities, London: Hurst.

6 Berenschot, Riot Politics; Brass, P. (2003) The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, Seattle: University of Washington Press; Hansen, T. (2001) Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Spodek, H. (2010) ‘In the Hindutva Laboratory: Pogroms and Politics in Gujarat, 2002’, Modern Asian Studies, 44 (2), pp. 349399; Tambiah, S. (2005) ‘Urban Riots and Cricket in South Asia: A Postscript to “Leveling Crowds”’, Modern Asian Studies, 39 (4), pp. 897927; Wilkinson, S. (2004) Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

7 Doron, A. (2010) ‘Caste Away? Subaltern Engagement With the Modern Indian State’, Modern Asian Studies, 44 (4), pp. 753783; Roy, D. (2012) ‘Caste and Power: An Ethnography in West Bengal, India’, Modern Asian Studies, 46 (4), pp. 947974.

8 Gayer, L. and Jaffrelot, C. (eds) (2009) Armed Militias of South Asia: Fundamentalists, Maoists, and Separatists, New York: Columbia University Press.

9 The fieldwork in 2010 comprised 136 interviews (in English or with translation), observations of election rallies, speeches and so-called pocket meetings, perusal of (English language) newspapers, and archival research on Trincomalee's electoral history (by Mr Ajiwadeen). All quotes in this article are taken from these interviews, unless otherwise attributed.

10 Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State, p. 3.

11 Common references include: Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso; Mouffe, C. (2005) On the Political, London: Routledge.

12 Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State, pp. 76–78.

13 Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State, p. 94.

14 Venugopal, ‘Cosmopolitan Capitalism’; Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age.

15 Banerjee, ‘Democracy, Sacred, and Everyday’.

16 Bertrand, Briquet and Pels, Cultures of Voting.

17 Bastian, S. (2005) ‘Electoral Systems and Political Outcomes’, Law and Society Trust Review, 15 (210), pp. 1825; Uyangoda, ‘Ethnic Conflict’; Venugopal, ‘Cosmopolitan Capitalism’; Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age.

18 Population statistics are based on the author's calculations, using 2007 census data taken from: Department of Census and Statistics (2007) ‘Basic Population Information on Trincomalee District—2007, Preliminary Report Based on Special Enumeration—2007’ [ISBN 978-955-577-616-5].

19 Bastian, ‘Electoral Systems’.

20 McGilvray, D. (2011) ‘Sri Lankan Muslims: Between Ethno-Nationalism and the Global Ummah’, Nations and Nationalism, 17 (1), pp. 4564.

21 Haniffa, F. (2008) ‘Piety as Politics Amongst Muslim Women in Contemporary Sri Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies, 42 (2/3), pp. 347375; Klem, B. (2011) ‘Islam, Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka’, Journal of Asian Studies, 70 (3), pp. 730753; McGilvray, ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’.

22 Goodhand, J., Klem, B. and Korf, B. (2009) ‘Religion, Conflict and Boundary Politics in Sri Lanka’, European Journal for Development Research, 21 (5), pp. 679898; Hasbullah, S. and Korf, B. (2009) ‘Muslim Geographies and the Politics of Purification in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Tsunami’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 30, pp. 248264; McGilvray, D. and Raheem, M. (2007) Muslim Perspectives on the Sri Lankan Conflict, Policy Studies 41, Washington DC: East West Center.

23 Klem, ‘Islam, Politics and Violence’; McGilvray and Raheem, Muslim Perspectives.

24 T. Gaasbeek (2010) ‘Bridging Troubled Waters? Everyday Inter-ethnic Interaction in a Context of Violent Conflict in Kottiyar Pattu, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka’, PhD thesis, Wageningen University.

25 Data taken from: Department of Census and Statistics (2007) ‘Basic Population Information on Trincomalee District—2007’.

26 Klem, B. (2012) ‘In the Eye of the Storm: Sri Lanka's Front-Line Civil Servants in Transition’, Development and Change, 43 (3), pp. 695717.

27 Gaasbeek, ‘Bridging Troubled Waters?’, pp. 107–109.

28 For discussion, see Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State, pp. 79–84.

29 The United People's Freedom Alliance was a compilation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and junior partners. People simply called them ‘government’, however, and to prevent confusion, so will I.

30 Haniffa, ‘Piety as Politics’; Hasbullah and Korf, ‘Muslim Geographies’; Klem, ‘Islam, Politics and Violence’; McGilvray, ‘Sri Lankan Muslims’.

31 Banerjee, ‘Democracy, Sacred, and Everyday’; Bertrand, Briquet and Pels, Cultures of Voting; Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State.

32 Spencer, Anthropology, Politics and the State.

33 Bastian, ‘Electoral Systems’; Uyangoda, ‘Ethnic Conflict’; Venugopal, ‘Cosmopolitan Capitalism’; Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age.

34 Berenschot, Riot Politics; Spodek, ‘In the Hindutva Laboratory’.

35 Doron, ‘Caste Away?’; Roy, ‘Caste and Power’.

* For valuable help during the field research, the author would like to thank Shahul Hasbullah, Jasmy, and Mubarak. Mr Ajiwadeen's archival research is also gratefully acknowledged. Many thanks are also due to Mukulika Banerjee, Ward Berenschot, Sarah Byrne, Georg Frerks, Timmo Gaasbeek, Urs Geiser, Benedikt Korf, Jonathan Spencer, and two anonymous reviewers who provided constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this article. For help with the drafting of the map, I am indebted to Marc Vis.

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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