Modern Asian Studies


Collective Violence and Everyday Practice in Sri Lanka

Jonathan Spencera1

a1 University of Edinburgh

In July 1983 communal violence in the southern towns of Sri Lanka left between 300 and 3,000 people dead, nearly all of them members of the minority Tamil population. While such a disturbing manifestation of social pathology would seem to demand a response from concerned social scientists, there are special difficulties in confronting such events. Dominant trends in the historical study of popular disturbance, for example the concern to recover the rationality and dignity of participants in food riots (Thompson 1971), or the current interest in manifestations of ‘resistance’, may look altogether inappropriate in this context. Explanation can all too often look like apologetic, and this may explain why much of the existing writing on communal violence in South Asia deals with virtually everything except the violence itself. One recent study in Sri Lanka, Bruce Kapferer's Legends of People, Myths of State (Kapferer 1988), has recently tackled this question head on, arguing that there is a clear link between collective violence in Sri Lanka and what the author describes as a ‘logic of being in the world’, or ‘ontology’ to be found in everyday Sinhala life. While Kapferer has earned our gratitude for even raising the issue of the connection between collective violence and everyday life, his specific argument, as I shall show below, is based on a limited reading of the available evidence.