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Event, Archive, Mediation: Sri Lanka's 1971 Insurrection and the Political Stakes of Fieldwork

  • Thushara Hewage (a1)


In recent years, much scholarship has revealed how archives and archival artefacts mediate processes of knowledge extraction, production, and representation. Yet, there remains a certain assumption of the archive's transparent availability as a given location for disciplinary work. This essay asks how less visible forms of mediation organize the critical conceptualization and experience of archival inquiry. It examines these conceptual questions through a focus on the 1971 JVP (Janata Vimukti Peramuna—People's Liberation Front) insurgency, a pivotal but now neglected event in Sri Lanka's political history. I explore how an authoritative monograph on the insurrection and its archive have mediated its problematization and enabled its nationalist recuperation. I ascertain the political stakes of returning to the event by locating the supervening context for my own interest in the insurgency, a discursive archive of the disciplinary conceptualization of Sri Lankan political modernity, its characteristic preoccupations, and their effects. I suggest that the event of 1971 offers a locus from which to examine a normative narrative that this archive yields. Recounting how these stakes animated my experience of the liberal archive, the paper's final section asks how different forms of archive implicate distinctive ethical practices and subjects of reading. I pursue this question through the representation and reading of 1971 within what I term the JVP's own pedagogical “archive.” I conclude by reviving a postcolonial concern with the critical stakes of disciplinary investigation and suggest a different approach to the problem of “ethnicized” postcolonial modernities.


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1 Goonetileke, H.A.I., The April 1971 Insurrection in Ceylon: A Bibliographical Commentary. 2d ed. (Leuven, Belgium: 1975), 8.

2 The United Front government, elected in May 1970, chiefly comprised the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its Marxist allies, the Ceylon Communist Party (CP) and the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).

3 The Republican Constitution, promulgated in May 1972, renamed Ceylon as Sri Lanka and ended its British Dominion status.

4 A separate CJC inquiry targeted foreign currency exchange violations.

5 Forty-one suspects were charged under the existing Penal Code with conspiracy “to wage war against the Queen,” among other offences, and thirty-three were convicted.

6 For counterinsurgency narratives of the second insurrection, see Gunaratna, Rohan, Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution? The Inside Story of the JVP (Colombo: Institute of Fundamental Studies, 1990); and Chandraprema, C. A., Sri Lanka—The Years of Terror: The JVP Insurrection, 1987–1989 (Colombo: Lake House Bookshop, 1991).

7 For an historiography of the JVP, see Wickramasinghe, Nira, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (London: C. Hurst, 2006): 231–51. For the JVP's ideological emergence, see Keerawella, G. B., “The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the 1971 Uprising,” Social Science Review 2 (Jan. 1980): 155. For critiques of its early ideology and leadership, see Victor Ivan, 71 Apr el K ä r ä lla [April ’71 insurrection] (Colombo: Lake House Investments, 1979); and Vasantha Dissanayake, Patrick Fernando, Sarath de Silva, and Ranjan Kumara, JVP: Prabhavaya, Vika ś aya ha D ēś ap ā lanaya [JVP: Origins, evolution, and politics] (Colombo: Diyesa Publications, 1995).

8 See, for example, Tissa Devendra's story “The Curious Hunt for Marusinghe,” in On Horseshoe Street: More Tales from the Provinces (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2005), 218–25; and Ranatunga, General Cyril, Adventurous Journey: From Peace to War, Insurgency to Terrorism (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009).

9 Alles, A. C., Insurgency-1971: An Account of the April Insurrection in Sri Lanka (Colombo: the Colombo Apothecaries Company, 1976).

10 Alles, A. C., The JVP: 1969–1989 (Colombo: Lake House Investments, 1990). Its Sinhala translation appeared in 2001.

11 Alles, preface to Insurgency-1971, n.p.

12 See Judgement of the Criminal Justice Commission (Insurgency): Inquiry No 1 (Politbureau) (Colombo: Department of Government Printing, 1976 [Feb. 1977]). The judgment runs to 445 pages and was not widely circulated.

13 A. C. Alles, “Insurrection,” pts. I–III, Ceylon Daily News, 22, 23, and 24 Dec. 1975.

14 The term is Ann Stoler's. See her “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 87–109.

15 See, for example, Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); Steedman, Carolyn, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, 2001); Stoler, Ann, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); and Dirks, Nicholas B., Autobiography of an Archive: A Scholar's Passage to India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

16 On the material “turn,” see Basu, Paul and De Jong, Ferdinand, “Utopian Archives, Decolonial Affordances: Introduction to Special Issue,” in “Utopian Archives, Decolonial Affordances,” Basu, P. and De Jong, F., eds., special issue, Social Anthropology 25, 1 (2016): 519.

17 On extraction, see Stoler, “Colonial Archives,” 90. On immersement, see Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 32.

18 See, for example, Hull, Matthew, Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

19 On immediation as a political practice premised on immediacy, transparency, and the denial of social contingency, see Mazarella, William, “Internet X-Ray: E-governance, Transparency and the Politics of Immediation in India,” Public Culture 18, 3 (2006): 473505.

20 For example, Ashforth., AdamThe Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth-Century South Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1990); Frankel, Oz, States of Inquiry: Social Investigations and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); and Sitze, Adam, The Impossible Machine: A Genealogy of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).

21 Sitze, Impossible Machine, 131–57.

22 Ibid., 180.

23 Parliament of Ceylon, The Criminal Justice Commissions Act, No. 14 of 1971, Section 2(b).

24 Ibid., Section 6(d).

25 Ibid., Section 11(2)(b).

26 Ibid., Section 11(1).

27 Ibid. The Act did not define natural justice, which refers to principles of procedural fairness established within the English legal tradition. They include the rights to a hearing and an unbiased trial, both of which its defenders claimed the CJC provided for.

28 “Debate to a Finish Today,” Ceylon Observer, 5 Apr. 1972.

29 “Debate Begins on New Bill,” Ceylon Daily News, 5 Apr. 1972.

30 Nihal Jayawickrama, “CJC Act in Retrospect,” Ceylon Daily News, 7 Nov. 1977.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Hussain, Nasser, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 107.

34 Ibid., 17.

35 See, however, Paul Alexander's questioning of the CJC's conspiracy framing of the event, in “Shared Fantasies and Elite Politics: The Sri Lankan ‘Insurrection’ of 1971,” Mankind 13, 2 (1981): 113–32.

36 Alles, Insurgency-1971, 261–262, 263.

37 Ibid., 264.

38 “Deniyaya—An Episode of the Ceylonese Insurrection of 1971,” in “Insurgency-1971. Deniyaya Inquiries,” 25.53/124, Private Accessions, A. C. Alles Collection (CJC Insurgency Papers—1971), Sri Lanka National Archives, Colombo.

39 Ibid., 12. Alles takes issue with Strother, R. S. and Methvin's, E. H.Terrorism on the Rampage,” Reader's Digest 107 (Nov. 1975): 7377.

40 In the manuscript, Alles seems to have initially chosen the names Kapila and Kusuma.

41 “Deniyaya—An Episode,” 12.

42 Ibid., 13.

43 Ibid.

44 See Judgement of the Criminal Justice Commission, 342–404.

45 Alles, “The Quest for Arms from Abroad,” in Insurgency-1971, 92.

46 “The Case against Susil and Viraj,” 25.53/123, Private Accessions, A. C. Alles Collection (CJC Insurgency Papers—1971), Sri Lanka National Archives, Colombo.

47 Ibid., 21.

48 Hyde, Douglas, Punarutthāpanaya: Rehabilitation; A Critical Evaluation of the Rehabilitation Effort of the Government of Sri Lanka (Colombo: Department of Rehabilitation, 1972).

49 See, Abhayavardhana, Hector, “A Private Army Based on the Marginalised,” Young Socialist 2 (1980): 3943.

50 International Labour Office, Matching Employment Opportunities and Expectations: A Programme of Action for Ceylon (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1971). The report said that nearly 15 percent of the labor force was unemployed in 1969–70. A significant proportion were young, educated, and from a rural background.

51 Ibid., 93.

52 See Samaraweera, Vijaya, “Land, Labour, Capital and Sectional Interests in the National Politics of Sri Lanka,” Modern Asian Studies 15 (1981): 127–62.

53 See Wickramasinghe, Nira, “Democracy and Entitlements in Sri Lanka: The 1970s Crisis over University Admission,” South Asian History and Culture 3, 1 (2012): 8196.

54 See, Ellman, A. O. and Ratnaweera, D. de S., New Settlement Schemes in Sri Lanka: A Study of Twenty Selected Youth Schemes, Cooperative Farms, DDC Agricultural Projects, and Land Reform Settlements (Colombo: Agricultural Research and Training Institute, 1974).

55 See Samaraweera, Vijaya, “Land Reform in Sri Lanka,” Third World Legal Studies 1 (1981): 104–22.

56 Gunasekara's two novels, Petsama (Petition) and Atsana (Signature), draw on his experiences of peasant life as a government administrator.

57 The poem appears in Gunasekara's collection Trikōna Aragalaya [Three-cornered struggle] (Moratuwa: Sarvodaya, 1976), 59–60.

58 Interview with Leel Gunasekara, Colombo, 12 Dec. 2007.

59 I claim no originality in noting this nationalist imaginary of the Sinhala rural. A large body of work discusses the cultural and historical institution of the village community as an object of Sinhala nationalist desire and development. See, for example, Tennekoon, N. Serena, “Rituals of Development: The Accelerated Mahavali Development Program in Sri Lanka,” American Ethnologist 15, 2 (1988): 294310; and the summary in Brow, James, “Utopia's New-Found Space: Images of the Village Community in the Early Writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy,” Modern Asian Studies 33, 1 (1999): 6786.

60 See Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Smith, A. M. Sheridan, trans. (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 126–31.

61 On “archival power,” see Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 51–53.

62 In this regard, see Gupta, Akhil and Ferguson, James, eds., Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Abu-Lughod, Lila, “Writing against Culture,” in Fox, Richard G., ed., Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1991), 137–62.

63 Pels, Peter and Salemink, Oscar, “Introduction: Five Theses on Ethnography as Colonial Practice,” History and Anthropology 8, 1–4 (1994): 134.

64 Scott, David, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 310.

65 This criterion differentiates a critical intervention from work that provides new answers to old questions by, for example, applying normalized theory to new empirical cases.

66 A tradition of postcolonial work reflexively considers Sri Lanka's discursive production through archives of such disciplinary objects. For an account of how this approach differs from area studies, see Ismail, Qadri, Abiding by Sri Lanka: On Peace, Place, and Postcoloniality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

67 I thank Pradeep Jeganathan for sharing his work on this narrative with me some time ago. See his ‘Violence’ as an Analytical Problem: Sri Lankanist Anthropology after July ’83,” Nethra 2, 4 (1998): 947.

68 See Thushara Hewage, “Ideology, Ethnicity, and the Critique of ‘Post-conflict’ in Sri Lanka,” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, 24 Mar. 2014, (accessed 26 Aug. 2019).

69 See Wriggins, Howard, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960); and Woodward, Calvin, The Growth of a Party System in Ceylon (Providence: Brown University Press, 1967).

70 Roberts, Michael, “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multiethnic Society,” in Roberts, M., ed., Collective Identities, Nationalisms, and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka (Colombo: Marga Institute, 1979), 337–60.

71 See Social Scientists Association of Sri Lanka, Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka: Papers Presented at a Seminar Organised by the Social Scientists Association, December 1979 (Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 1984); and Abeysekera, Charles and Gunasinghe, Newton, eds., Facets of Ethnicity (Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 1987).

72 Jeganathan, “‘Violence’ as an Analytical Problem,” 28.

73 Spencer, Jonathan, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble: Politics and Change in Rural Sri Lanka (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3. See also Brow, James, Demons and Development: The Struggle for Community in a Sri Lankan Village (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996).

74 Asad, Talal, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington, D.C.: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Occasional Papers, 1986), 8.

75 See, for example, Devotta, Neil, Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

76 See Chatterjee, Partha, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

77 This term is Shahid Amin's.

78 Goonetileke, April 1971 Insurrection, 6.

79 Fonseka, Manel and Wickremasinghe, Suriya, eds., Nadesan on the JVP Insurgency of 1971 (Colombo: Nadesan Centre for Human Rights through Law, 1988), 1. See also Obeyesekere, Gananath, “Some Comments on the Social Backgrounds of the April 1971 Insurgency in Sri Lanka (Ceylon),” Journal of Asian Studies 33, 3 (1974): 367–84.

80 Sarachchandra, Ediriweera, Curfew and a Full Moon (London: Heinemann, 1978).

81 See Uyangoda, Jayadeva, “Economic Change, the State and Question of Security,” in Jayasekera, P.V.J., ed., Security Dilemma of Small State. Part I: Sri Lanka in the South Asian Context (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1992).

82 See, respectively, Bastian, Sunil, “Post-Colonial Sri Lankan State, the Rural Sinhalese Society and the Ethno-Political Conflict,” in Uyangoda, Jayadeva, ed., State Reform in Sri Lanka: Issues, Directions and Perspectives (Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 2013), 189238; and Uyangoda, Jayadeva, “Social Conflict, Radical Resistance and Projects of State Power in Southern Sri Lanka: The Case of the JVP,” in Mayer, Markus, Rajasingham-Senanayake, Darini, and Thangarajah, Yuvi, eds., Building Local Capacities for Peace: Rethinking Conflict and Development in Sri Lanka (New Delhi: Macmillan India, 2003), 3764.

83 These are important tasks, but not my critical purpose here. On how returning to events produces new narratives and concepts, see Amin, Shahid, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922–1992 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Das, Veena, Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).

84 See Hussain, Jurisprudence of Emergency, 17.

85 Wickramasinghe, “Democracy and Entitlements,” 93.

86 Moore, Mick, The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

87 Scott, Refashioning Futures, 153–89.

88 For such an inquiry into the United Front, see Hewage, Thushara, “Rethinking Postcolonial Emergency: Constitutional Revolution and the Temporality of the Social in Sri Lanka,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34, 2 (2014): 243–59.

89 For recent historical anthropologies of postcolonial sovereignty, see Bonilla, Yarimar, Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); and Wilder, Gary, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

90 On the relationships between archival experiences and research, see Burton, Antoinette, ed., Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For a complex meditation on the limits of archival recovery, see Arondekar, Anjali, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

91 Stoler, Along the Archival Grain, 26.

92 For the archive as a technology of liberal citizenship, see Joyce, Patrick, “The Politics of the Liberal Archive,” History of the Human Sciences 12, 2 (1999): 3549.

93 Criteria of gender, ethnicity, and class also mediate access in this regard.

94 In June 2015, the Sri Lankan government declassified the CJC records along with a brace of other commission of inquiry records. In January 2016, I tried to consult the same proceedings I had accessed eight years earlier. Following the conventional procedure, I ordered up a number of the now-catalogued files. I was then informed that the director of archives would first have to check every page of every file I had ordered to see if anything mentioned therein pertained to living persons. I would then need to seek permission from the attorney general of Sri Lanka to consult these files.

95 The effect is magnified by the sparseness and inaccessibility of postcolonial state archives. See Shakry, Omnia El, “‘History without Documents’: The Vexed Archives of Decolonization in the Middle East,” American Historical Review 120, 3 (2015): 920–34.

96 Asad, Talal, “Where Are the Margins of the State?” in Das, Veena and Poole, Deborah, eds., Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2004), 279–88.

97 See Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

98 See Sharma, Aradhana, “State Transparency after the Neoliberal Turn: The Politics, Limits and Paradoxes of India's Right to Information Law,” POLAR; Political and Legal Anthropology Review 36, 2 (2013): 308–25. On the moralization of transparency and corruption within a colonial documentary regime, see Raman, Bhavani, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

99 In this regard, see Elkins, Caroline, “Looking beyond Mau Mau: Archiving Violence in the Era of Decolonization,” American Historical Review 120, 3 (2015): 852–68.

100 For detail on these ideological shifts and analysis of the tension between the party's current parliamentarism and former radicalism, see Dewasiri, Nirmal Ranjith, “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Radical Politics in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” in Shastri, Amita and Uyangoda, Jayadeva, eds., Political Parties in Sri Lanka: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018), 191221.

101 The government falsely accused the JVP and other leftist parties of being responsible for the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom.

102 For example, note current JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake's prominent public opposition to the Rajapakse government before Sri Lanka's 2015 presidential election.

103 For the argument that the JVP is hegemonized by and mobilizes members through an ideology of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist authenticity, see Rampton, David, “‘Deeper Hegemony’: The Politics of Sinhala Nationalist Authenticity and the Failures of Power-Sharing in Sri Lanka,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 49, 2 (2011): 245–73.

104 The lessons covered the subjects of the crisis of the capitalist system, the meaning of national independence, Indian expansionism, the failure of the Ceylonese left, and the path of revolution in Ceylon.

105 Captured insurgent suspects were categorized according to their exposure to the lessons and whether they had taken the final lesson on revolution.

106 Interview with former JVP Politbureau member, Colombo, 2 Feb. 2008.

107 Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 129.

108 Ibid., 126.

109 Ibid.

110 On the relationship between bodily ethics and self-actualization, see Mahmood, Saba, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

111 Uyangoda, “Social Conflict,” 41.

112 The old left mode of politics was dismissively described to me as petsamsvadiya (petition politics).

113 “Leftist Movement in Ceylon,” JVP lectures as narrated by Wasantha Dissanayake, unpublished MS, Marga Institute Library, Colombo, n.d., 1–4. I thank Godfrey Gunatilleke for providing this source.

114 Ibid., 8., sic.

115 Ibid., 12.

116 Ibid., 12–13.

117 Ibid., 13.

118 In recent years, the ability of this term to articulate experiences of the postcolonial state has been complicated by the JVP's appeal to urban, middle-class constituencies. See Dewasiri, “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna,” 211–12.

119 On how archives incite unrealized futures and subjects, see Kurtović, Larisa, “An Archive to Build the Future: The Recovery and Rediscovery of the History of Socialist Associations in Contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina,” History and Anthropology 30, 1 (2019): 2046.

120 See, for example, Prashad, Vijay, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2007).

121 Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories: (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 11.


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Event, Archive, Mediation: Sri Lanka's 1971 Insurrection and the Political Stakes of Fieldwork

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