Recent scholarly work on Sri Lanka has sought to align itself with postsecularist trends in global scholarship. The Sri Lankan variant does not emerge from a direct concern with the place of religion in public or political life, but it exhibits similarities to its global counterpart in its desire to move beyond the legacies of the Enlightenment. David Scott initiated this critique by arguing that seemingly endless debates between contesting versions of national historiography demonstrate the limits of using the past to find justice in the present. Qadri Ismail builds on Scott’s work and calls for replacing history with “postempiricism,” a possibility he locates in literature. A third contributor, Ananda Abeysekara, proposes a radically dehistoricized present that is forged through the Nietzschean notion of “active forgetting.” In rejecting the legacies of British colonialism and the Enlightenment, all three writers question the value of history. This strategy is predicated upon the assumption that cultural nationalism is derivative of the Enlightenment and the West, and consequently dependent on empirical historical narratives. I argue that this strategy may be ineffective because an important strain of majoritarian cultural nationalism, ජාතික චින්තනය (Jathika Chintanaya), makes the same critique of history and the Enlightenment but uses it to promote the very views that the postsecularists are attempting to undermine. A more effective framework for ethical and intellectual interventions against exclusivist cultural nationalisms may be found in the idea of secular criticism deployed by Edward W. Said, which holds history and historicist thinking as crucial in developing a critical position that can contest essentialist thinking without resorting to the postsecular gesture of rejecting all that is putatively “European.”
Postcolonial Nativism? Exploring the Postsecularist Critique of History on Sri Lanka
Harshana Rambukwella is director of the Postgraduate Institute of English at The Open University of Sri Lanka. He received his PhD from the University of Hong Kong, where he is honorary assistant professor in the School of English. His research interests are in postcolonial literatures, sociolinguistics, and the intersections between literary history and nationalist discourse. He is the author of The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity: A Cultural Genealogy of Sinhala Nationalism (2018).