The Role of “History” in the ethnic conflict

In our very first session of the Study Circle, Prof. Nirmal Dewasiri and Prof. Nira Wickramasinghe both attached to the University of Colombo tackled the issue of the role of history on the Ethnic Conflict.  

First, briefly, the take of Prof.Nirmal Dewasiri:

  • All collective identities — nations, ethnicity, etc. — have certain notions of the past. A set of beliefs about their pass heritage. 
  • You cannot therefore separate collective identities, which are in the present, from a particular past which can be actual or imaginary.
  • A french thinker once said that “History doesn’t belong to the past, but to the community”. This doesn’t mean that history has nothing to with the past, but it is most relevant and important to the present.
  • The way we perceive ‘other’ communities, therefore is shaped by our understanding and notions of history.
Secondly, again briefly some notes from Prof.Nira Wickramasinghe’s talk:
  • The common understanding is that history is objective. Historian is considered objective and can accurately reconstruct the past.  In fact, complete objectivity is not possible. Even photographic representation is never exact or entirely accurate version of reality. 
  • Historians focuses on a certain story of the past. They can focus on a time frame like say the 18th century, or a particular social group like peasants and they can take a very broad view or a micro-view. What the historian does is a reconstruction of the past, and the history that you read, is basically historian’s history.
  • Even historians which appear objective, in fact are not. 
  • The terms “history” and “nation” have always been coupled together. History as a discipline was born at the beginning of the nation state, because of the need for states to legitimize their existence.
  • Our part of the world is no different.  Given the diversity we have, we should think of our societies of having multiple histories and give space for communities to express their histories and their pasts without giving prominence to one group over the other. 
Some excerpts of their comments are available on youtube here and here. InMutiny welcomes comments.

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