Thoughts On Decolonising Lanka: From Servility To Dignity
Colombo Telegraph, 5 February 2019
To mark the seventy-first anniversary of Sri Lanka gaining dominion status.
One of the most insightful pieces of writing one would read this year is scholar-activist Senel Wanniarachchi’s excellent account of encountering Tara, a Buddhist and Hindu mother goddess of mercy and generous compassion at…the British Museum. Several excerpts of Wanniarachchi’s article are worth quoting at some length, and in this ‘independence month’, these words are absolute food for thought to all Sri Lankans:
Her [Tara’s] bronze statue plated in gold was stolen from Sri Lanka’s Kandyan Kingdom when the British colonized the island in 1815. Tara’s upper body is completely naked with a sarong draped around her hip concealing her body waist down. Her right hand is in the gesture known as varadamudra – of granting a wish.
At the museum, almost everyone passing by stops to take a look at Tara. A young white couple stands adjacent to me. The young man whispers something in his female companion’s ear. They both giggle. I’m inclined to assume it was a joke laden with some sexual innuendo. Many aren’t aware of Tara’s genealogy or her divinity. Many wouldn’t care. She fulfills an exoticized oriental fantasy. The audio explains that Tara was ‘given’ to Robert Brownrigg, the third Governor of Ceylon (as the British referred to Sri Lanka) who ‘donated’ it to the museum ‘perhaps finding her voluptuous form rather out of place in his English country home’. However, Tara was considered to be too obscene and perverse to be exhibited to the public. Her exposed bronze breasts too big, her waist too narrow and her hips too curvaceous for the respectability of the white gaze. As such, she was locked up in a discreet storeroom, aptly named ‘the Secretum’ for nearly thirty years. The Museum was mandated to create the Secretum, colloquially known as ‘the porn room’, through the 1857 Obscene Publications Act which gave the state power to destroy material it deemed offensive and obscene.
Here was a Sri Lankan mother Goddess worshipped by her devotees, stolen and taken by force to a foreign land where she is treated as some pornographic knick-knack only to be locked up in a storeroom along with phallic antiquities and European erotica that display orgies, bestiality and whatever else was deemed too indignant for the holy white gaze. Only adult white male specialists of ‘mature years and sound morals’ who constituted the very apex of the social hierarchy had access to enter the ‘Secretum’ for their pathologizing intellectual gaze. These scholars probably used Tara to enrich their knowledge system of ‘scientific’ racism that drove colonialism — the libidinous, ‘out of control’ non-humans were vice-indulgent and so were their vain gods. For the natives in the ‘Orient’, she represented mercy and compassion. The brown devotees who wanted to escape the illusion and suffering of the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth of samsara would stare into her bronze eyes and meditate. This would have perplexed the white missionary slave masters for whom she represented a sinful profanity. How could a naked woman be a God? A God so religiously venerated that even the most powerful of men would kneel before her image, join their palms and pray? They were convinced that these queer emasculated leaders weren’t capable of governing their lands and people and as such, colonialism was not only justified but also inevitable.
Colonialism is a destructive and criminal act. It destroys peoples, communities, social, cultural and economic traditions, knowledge systems, protocols and the humanity of peoples of rich heritage. This is the one and only truth. There is no space whatsoever for any counter-argument. Nowhere in the world did colonialism bring anything even remotely positive or beneficial to the colonised peoples.
A global movement of decolonial thinking, theorising, activism and politics?
Wanniarachchi’s informative words represent a decolonial text that carries strong echoes with a global movement. It is composed of young activists from the global South/s, from Indigenous communities worldwide, many of them positioned at the multiple intersections of race, non-cisnormativities and/or-non-heteronormativities. His ideas closely align with those of writers such as João Gabriel, a scholar-activist and writer from Guadeloupe whose work, together with that of individuals and collectives such as the Afrofeminist organisation Mwasi Collectif, is among the finest contemporary critical decolonial and intersectional feminist writing in the French language. This movement unapologetically stands for intersectional feminist and decolonial approaches to all aspects of our lives. The importance of this global movement cannot be summed up in words. The word ‘decolonial’ here implies challenging, un-settling and working towards the dismantling of oppressive systems, and multiple forms of systemic marginalisation, discrimination and erasure, doing so while centring an intersectional understanding of gender justice. Strongly enhanced by the work of Indigenous peoples worldwide in their innumerable struggles to challenge occupation, murder, gender-based, sexual and many other forms of violence on bodies, knowledges, traditions, lands and resources, and enriched by black feminist and women-of-colour feminist advocacy, decolonial approaches represent the sharpest and most innovative knowledge base and strategy in challenging interconnected forms of patriarchal, colonialist, misogynist, and ethno-racially discriminatory oppressions.
Today, we live in a world order in which fascism is on the rise. From the unceded Indigenous territories known as Brazil and the USA to many member states of the European Union, discriminatory and cis-heteronormative political discourses are increasingly gaining political traction. In today’s world, no individual, community or country can afford to avoid coming face-to-face with the destructive effects of the rise of fascist politics.
In this backdrop, the work of young people from the global South/s mobilising for intersectional feminist, decolonial and critical queer politics and public policy is highly significant and essential.
Jade Almeida, a critical queer decolonial activist from the occupied indigenous island of Guadeloupe, runs a weekly radio commentary on the tio’tia:ke/Montréal-based NéoQuébec radio. Almeida’s cutting-edge commentaries are marked by her razor-sharp analytical skills, where she unpacks coloniality, neo-colonialities, racial oppressions, the multiple forms of discrimination that systemically and systematically target the peoples of the so-called overseas territories colonised by France, and a range of gender justice-specific issues. Almeida recently received a very ‘white’ critique from some listeners, who maintained, [and I kid you not]:
« Sans la France vous ne parleriez pas français et vous ne serez pas aussi articulée! » [“if not for France you wouldn’t have spoken French and you wouldn’t be so articulate”]
In her first radio programme for 2019, Almeida addresses this remark, highlighting that the fact that her primary language is French is the result of a crime – that of ruthless colonisation. Almeida then articulately explains how atrocious it is to ask people to be grateful for being victims of a long-standing historic crime, the ramifications of which are felt to this very day, and are set to be around for generations to come.
At more than one occasion, this writer has come across individuals who maintain that colonisation, and the resulting looting of resources, heritages and knowledges, are somehow good things. Some people who hold such views are from marginalised groups, including the LGBT+ community. Some others are academics and educated professionals. This in itself is evidence of how people internalise oppression and fail to see beyond a very narrowly construed worldview through which they are accustomed to seeing the world. This, in fact, is the ultimate achievement of missionary and colonialist education, which was (and is) solely intended at producing ‘good’ [i.e. pathetically servile] subjects, who never dare to question oppressive systems or take a critical stand. They would also work hard to maintain the privileges of the coloniser on our soil, and their positions in a colonialist hierarchy.
Stand for what is rightfully ours
Tara is our goddess. She belongs in Lanka, and not in the British Museum. To quote the title of an ace book by British novelist and playwright Helen Oyeyemi, “what is not yours is not yours”. Tara’s return to Lanka is an act of natural justice, to which we should in no way be thankful to the British Government. In fact we should also clarify that all the gem stones that decorated her hair, which the British stole, should also be returned, or that due compensation must be paid for, in the form of finances, or on the policy front [e.g. including the easing of immigration restrictions on Sri Lankan citizens]. What we do with her statue, where we place her, is our business. In terms of Sri Lanka’s relations with the United Kingdom, addressing issues of this nature in an upfront, principled, and policy-focused manner can only be mutually beneficial in charting the course of future bilateral relations.
No belief in ourselves?
The fact that we have a lousy attitude when it comes to protecting and safeguarding our heritage has a great deal to do with colonial oppression, and the negative mindsets it leaves among colonised peoples. For the colonial enterprise to thrive, for the maintenance of stolen treasure hauls such as the British museum, it is important to have an ideology that systemically downgrades us, and makes us ‘naturally’ assume that we cannot look after what our ancestors created. This is why some very well-educated and well-travelled Sri Lankans harbour the view that we are a lost cause when it comes to protecting our heritage, our resources, our elephants, and everything else that is ours, or in progressing on any front. The first step in changing things in a positive direction is to challenge this pessimistic and colonially-induced way in which many of us perceive ourselves.
Coming out of this mentality – in theory and in action – is in fact the biggest and most significant act of “coming out” we are brought to carry out as Sri Lankans. It takes a great deal of commitment, a willingness to ‘un-learn’ assumptions that one upholds dearly, and a preparedness to critically assess where we used to be, what we went through [or were forced to go through], where we are now and where we are [and ought to be] headed. In his article about Tara, Wanniarachchi, a young scholar with very close ties to the United Kingdom, has set an example of how we could go about developing such approaches to ‘un-learning’, the only way forward in truly decolonising our mindsets. A key point to remember is that the problem is not limited to our island alone. It is an endemic challenge that can be observed in all parts of the global South/s. Coming to terms with the inferiority complexes deeply entrenched in the minds of colonised peoples of colour is a highly challenging venture that requires lifetimes, if not generations of work. What we can do today, on a day like the 71st anniversary of dominion status, is to reflect upon the importance of reviewing, challenging and transforming the ways in which we perceive ourselves as a people.
A servile political class: major challenge?
When moving ahead along a decolonial ethos, one of the foremost challenges we can observe across the global South/s is the absolute cluelessness of those in positions of leadership. Sri Lanka is a revealing example. The political class continues to operate along a very [neo]colonial paradigm, of benefiting from a superiority complex of having blinded and uncritical followers, and of sustaining their class interests first. The national interest, for its part, is at the receiving end of the most blatant disregard and indifference. The Lankan political class – including the less than handful of somewhat enlightened folk within it – has no understanding whatsoever of critical decolonial and intersectional feminist politics. We do not see any inclination to question existing structures of oppression within and beyond our shores. We have a political class that is happy to continue a system based on mass inequities and injustices, from incarcerating Tamil citizens without trial, inculcating fear psychoses among Tamil people in northern Sri Lanka, not raising a finger about discriminatory laws on reproductive justice, the rights non-heteronormative citizens, and people who are at the intersections of multiple forms of historic and ongoing oppression [the gender politics here are very important; the most pertinent example being plantation workers. The fact that the demand for a 1000 LKR daily wage is one that 98% concerns Malayaga Tamil women is a key reason why the majoritarian-nationalist, racist, patriarchal state and corporate class do not care].
What is happening here is that the political class is following a template that was bequeathed to them by those who preceded them – the colonial masters. Upon being granted ‘independence’ the political classes of the newly independent states ‘had to’ be positioned at a place of inferiority. For the Eurocentric world order to thrive, it was necessary to show that the global South was full of demagogic policy-less, self-serving nonleaders. Whenever leaders with independent and visionary policy agendas emerged, some colonial powers would go to great lengths to eliminate them. The case of the late Captain Thomas Sankara is a revealing example.
The queer politics
As this article was being written while the 2019 Mumbai Pride was in full swing. It happened to be a very important SOGIESC Pride event, especially in the aftermath of the landmark Indian Supreme Court decision of September 2018, decriminalising non-heteronormative sexualities. The joy and unmistakable sense of hope in the faces of people walking the Mumbai Pride parade and similar events held across India provide a much-needed precedent to other countries and SOGIESC communities in the South Asian region.
Affirming SOGIESC rights is deeply interconnected to processes of decolonising mindsets, politics and societies. It is a powerful way of recognising, and taking stock of the destructive effects of colonial rule, which imposed social conservatisms on our ancestors at so many levels. Accepting the humanity of non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative citizens involves a process of strongly challenging many aspects of colonial missionary education, binary perspectives on gender/s, and the phallocentric nature of our political machinery. It is also a process that enables citizens to think critically about the gender and sexual politics of governance in relation to the Sri Lankan context. This is where a range of issues of intersectional relevance can be addressed.
In other words, the objectives of non-cis and non-het Sri Lankans ought to stretch a lot wider than a mere focus on repealing Article 365 of our Penal Code, or of following templates of ‘LGBT+ activism’ coming straight from the West. In the neoliberal political and economic climate we live in, it is indeed organisations that follow a strictly NGO-industrial framework that receive the highest amounts of financial support from donors. In the Sri Lankan context, one can also notice in this sphere of NGO-ised LGBT+ activism a tendency to be pathetically ‘apolitical’. One prominent member of the LGBT+ community, a successful scholar from a Tamil background, was once kicked out of an LGBT+ focused Sri Lankan group on Facebook, because they wrote a post about an issue related to the continuing oppressions experienced by the Tamil peoples of northern Sri Lanka. This is indicative of how some people understand LGBT+ rights activism, as separate from wider socio-political, cultural, economic and other challenges we face as a people.
However, today’s SOGIESC advocacy in Sri Lanka is marked by the emergence of a critical queer leadership of the left and centre-left, which constructively challenges neoliberal forms of NGO-industrial LGBT+ activism. This critical queer focus is inherently decolonial and intersectional feminist in its orientation. The focus here stretches way beyond the Penal Code or any other legislative provision. While repealing oppressive British laws and campaigning to include a SOGIESC equality clause in our Constitution are priorities, those of us who pursue a critical decolonial and intersectional feminist approach to SOGIESC advocacy have a much bigger, long-term goal – that of inclusive queer liberation, and that of ‘queering’ highly heteronormative [and by definition oppressive] spheres of political power and ‘systems’ in place – i.e. making them inclusive spaces respectful of difference and non-normativities. The problems in the political class mentioned above are best addressed through a locally grounded brand of Sri Lankan queer politics of this nature.
In sum, what we can be proud of in this 71th anniversary year of dominion status is that new social movements are in the process of changing the face of Sri Lankan political life, one step at a time. Results maybe slow, but we are headed towards progress. Some of these movements are from left and centre/left persuasions, where some of us are involved in grounding a well and truly Sri Lankan understanding of decolonial and intersectional feminist priorities raised above, and this progressive body of work is beginning to have a tangible impact [albeit at a slow pace] on the more ‘dogmatic’, cis-het and elusive Lankan left.
Other movements that call for change notably include one that stems from a lot more cis-hetero-normative, socially conservative and somewhat “islanded” place, with a marketable smokescreen of inclusivity and plurality, and rooted in a large-scale NGO/shramadana movement. The latter appears to primarily cater to a Sinhalese upper middle class audience, a space where there’s an increased and not insincere emphasis of ‘do-good-ing’, but where any form of progressive movement-building is marred by majoritarian-nationalist, classist, and heavily cis-hetero-normative inclinations, which risk throwing many minorities under the bus or at best, subjecting them to [non]politics of tokenisation. Pulls [and not movements] for constructive change are also not absent in the right/centre-right.
To conclude, suffice to note that when we think of transforming our political culture/s, institutions, and strengthening good governance, rights, and the rule of law, we cannot address those issues without a critical-decolonial and intersectional feminist focus on shaking, un-settling and dismantling existing ‘systems’. The time will surely come, when we will be able to shape our politics, public policy and diplomacy based on intersectional feminist priorities, in the spirit of those freedoms of ours that were taken away from us when we were subjected to forced colonial occupation. We may no longer be very familiar with those freedoms, due to the violent ways in which our ancestors were ripped off them. Questioning, un-learning, claiming inclusive space across the board, we will get there, sooner or later. The more we progress on such a path, wielding her varadamudrā, Tara will eventually be ours again.