Dept. Of Fine Arts, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Eastern University Sri Lanka: Discussion Workshop with Traditional Religious Leaders, Batticaloa District 8 May 2012 I was invited to this forum as an outsider. Someone who would say she is committed to social justice is engaged as a member of the international community to work in the field of human rights and a newcomer to Sri Lanka who has a lot to learn about this complex and diverse society. While this was not a forum about human rights as such, its aims and objectives are clearly aligned with an agenda that is about social justice, community empowerment and protection of values and ways of life that have important meaning to those who live them. As a result I believe there are some important observations to be made for and by a human rights teacher, researcher and practitioner. What follows are my thoughts: not well-organised or systematic, quite probably littered with errors and misinterpretations and certainly not thoroughly reasoned – for which I hope you will forgive me – rather my reflections as I sat and listened.
As I sit in this workshop I am struck by the contrast between the soulless, mindless (and pointless!) rendition of formal human rights education that I have sadly seen in many different parts of the world – in the form of university classes or ‘human rights’, ‘development’ or ‘empowerment’ trainings – and the energy, engagement and dialogue in this room!
In many human rights trainings there is a bland recitation of international legal principles or notions of ‘development’ and ‘empowerment’ that are delivered as devoid of all context, completely abstract with no real understanding or engagement. This gathering was different. Through the skilful mediation of Dr Sivagnanam Jeyasankar, what emerged was a rich, complex discussion of the challenges, the opportunities, the advantages and the limitations contained within practices that have survived and been nourished within communities for centuries if not longer.
Key to the success of this workshop, to my mind, was the fact that it was a forum that genuinely allowed people – in this case traditional priests – to tell their stories, in their own way and identify for themselves what were the most pressing concerns they had. As a result, there was a real engagement in the workshop: participants paid attention, sat forward in their chairs, eager to respond to others’ comments and to share their thoughts. This was such a marked contrast to an event I went to last year in Sierra Leone which was also designed to engage with religious and community leaders (in that case on the issue of women’s rights). In that case the leaders sat there blankly as they were lectured on the content of CEDAW and other international principles and during the break-out discussion sessions they numbly parroted what they knew they were supposed to say, while actually making clear in their comments to each other that none of their more conservative views had been challenged in the slightest.
It is also an interesting illustration of GayatriSpivak’s (2004) point regarding education. In an essay critiquing existing human rights practice, Spivak specifically calls for the dismantling of the legacies of a colonial education in favour of a form of education, which really engages with those who have always been assumed to know nothing: treating them as also capable of producing knowledge and certainly equal partners in the education process. Only then, Spivak argues, can human rights deliver on its promise of equality and freedom and not simply reproduce a power relation in which there will always be some who are wronged (the poor, weak, voiceless) and others who must save them (the elite).Similarly Partha Chatterjee (2011) explains: ‘Within a context that is defined as educational, there is an authorized relationship between one who “knows better,” and one who doesn’t quite know enough’. As he points out, this neat relationship becomes much more complicated when there is an attempt to engage outside of the university; especially with populations who have for too long been subjugated and who the educator is apparently committed to empowering. It is truly admirable and courageous of Dr S.Jeyasankar to be embarking on precisely this task and doing it in such a sensitive and thoughtful way.
At the same time I wonder how do those of us considered ‘educated’ (academics, intellectuals, professionals) ‘unlearn’ the restrictive thinking practices developed through formal education whilst maintaining a critical perspective? Sitting here I can feel how challenging it is to suspend my own belief system and genuinely engage with the beliefs of the speakers. And yet their worldview is equally valid and their beliefs are wholeheartedly felt, lived and real. Surely this is a key issue for those of us working in the field of human rights when so often the ‘traditional’ is set up as a barrier to the realisation of (secular, modern, enlightened) rights. How to engage in an egalitarian, genuine but critically reflexive manner? It requires both respect for others’ opinions and values but at the same time does not mean a blind endorsement of anything that is different in the name of ‘cultural tolerance’. As Uma Narayan (1998) has pointed out, this cultural relativist position is often itself a form of racial superiority (‘we wouldn’t do that, but they don’t know any better’). It also allows certain forms of oppression to escape examination. For example, much of the discussion today has focused on men speaking about rituals relating to what women should and should not do! Thus critical engagement, disagreement and debate remain crucial for someone committed to a feminist agenda. Yet at the same time this must be done in a way that resists the imposition of a fixed frame of analysis or the quick condemnation of cultural practices as ‘backward’, ‘barbaric’ and therefore necessitating total rejection.
For this reason I find Dr T.Gadampanathan’s contribution to the discussion extremely useful. He asks: how to combine the benefits of rituals with those of education and development (and I would add here, human rights)? And how to create a space where different people with different perspectives can come together and talk, debate the advantages and disadvantages of particular ritual practices? (Of course something that is rendered even more difficult in a heavily militarised site). After all, it surely should not be about the maintenance of a ritual for its sake alone. Rather it is about identifying how and why this ritual developed, the contribution it makes to the lives of people and the value it can add to the lived experience of people now.
This leads to my other major observation: this is subaltern studies come alive!! A radical, politically motivated body of scholarship that emerged in the early 1980s, subaltern studies was the attempt by a few Indian historians at first, then others, to capture the experience of those who had traditionally been ‘left out of history’, deprived of any voice. In particular, subaltern studies scholars saw the term ‘subaltern’ as a means of moving beyond Western Marxist theory that concentrated on industrial working classes (the ‘proletariat’). As the subaltern studies scholars pointed out, in the context of colonial and postcolonial South Asia there was in fact a pressing need to identify and speak about the peasants, lower castes and tribal peoples who did not fit neatly into the Western model but who together formed the majority of South Asian society. As such they dedicated extensive work to trying to identify how this disadvantaged majority were excluded as well as how they developed their own strategies for resistance.
Having read subaltern studies literature in the comfort of an Australian urban university, I have to admit it all seemed very abstract to me. Who were these ‘subaltern classes’ who were constantly deprived of voice and yet nonetheless found ways of exercising agency and resisting the domination they experienced in almost every aspect of their lives? And how were their experiences, their demands and their ways of viewing the world different to mine or indeed the poor, underprivileged in Australia? What did it mean to recognise and validate subalterns as positive human agents and autonomous historical subjects (Spivak 1985)?
And suddenly in this room I understand. Here they are: ordinary village people so often forgotten in ‘big conversations’ of economics and politics, struggling to maintain their sense of life, identity and their survival. I do not mean to romanticise and indeed, there were important sites of tension in terms of age, gender, education and other that pointed to hierarchies of power and processes of domination within. But here is a group of people who have survived (and bear the trauma of) 30 years of war, a devastating tsunami, chronic under-development (and let’s bracket the concerns here about what ‘development’ would mean) and continue to face both internal and external forces of exploitation, domination and oppression while struggling to find a way to live as they wish.
On the one hand they talk about the forced sanskritisation of their religious practices. While traditionally indigenous practices had been blended with Hinduism to form a set of beliefs and rituals that served the community within which they existed, the imposition of Brahminical order threatens both the egalitarian processes by which priests are trained and the very existence of certain rituals deemed inappropriate by the official religious orthodoxy. Meanwhile there is of course the pressure of the Sinhalese state, which having annihilated the LTTE has done little to address the grievances which fuelled so many years of armed conflict and instead has embarked on the frightening path of reinforcing a form of Buddhist nationalism that will continue to exclude large portions of the population.
At the same time, the intervention of international governmental and non-governmental organisations – ostensibly to help ‘preserve’ traditional practices – has, in the words of Dr S.Jeyasankar assisted with the ‘museumification’ of cultures that were not only alive (albeit threatened) but meaningful to the lives of the people who practiced them. This ossification of cultural practices fits nicely into the model of what John and Jean Comaroff(2009) have called ‘Ethnicity Inc’– the commodification of culture. But it also does something more sinister for those of us committed to social justice, human rights and progressive politics. It essentialises a culture to the point that there are those who speak of preserving ‘authenticity’ and as a result are able to dominate in matters of interpretation. This tends to reinforce existing structures of power (to the disadvantage of those traditionally excluded or marginalised) and to obstruct natural developments within the culture that both make it viable and alive and also that allow those living within it to develop it to meet their contemporary needs.
‘Preservation’ is clearly the wrong word here – as Dr S.Jeyasankar seems to be acutely aware. It stultifies, makes fixed and rigid when instead it should be a question of maintaining ongoing, living practices that give meaning to peoples’ lives and provide valuable sites of empowerment, community and service to others. And of course, at the same time also allow us to keep an eye on how these traditions have also historically excluded and therefore need to continue to evolve to engage with new progressive ideas and ideals that those within the community may raise.
One thing is for sure: in an atmosphere where these traditions are themselves under threat progressive revision and rearticulation is rendered if not impossible, at least hugely difficult. This reminds me somewhat obscurely of the book by ElahehRostami-Povey (2007) on Afghan women in which she points out that those women living in the apparently repressive regime of Iran have in fact been able to engage more productively with shifting restrictions and conservative values and to gain greater freedom than those who have migrated to a West gripped by Islamophobia. There they are too often trying to defend themselves, their families and their identity as Afghan/Muslim women against attack and criticism.
What this suggests to me is that the role of the human rights activist must be to help secure and protect a place within which communities and individuals are able to work through their disagreements and renegotiate their practices, cultures and beliefs in ways that remain meaningful and relevant to them, allow them to engage with new ideas and change as all cultures do without being forced to adopt a model imposed from outside. These are issues I look forward to debating further as how to achieve this remains far from certain to me. But all in all, I am leaving this workshop feeling inspired and hopeful that this is the start of a very important conversation about tradition, culture, community and rights.
Dr. Kiran Grewal
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of Sydney