During the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic in early 2020, Sri Lanka witnessed an upsurge in discourses of indigeneity. These ranged from claims by western medical doctors, with vested interests, that pirit pæn (water blessed during Buddhist chanting) has scientifically proven health benefits to endorsements of a divinely-inspired syrup.
These discourses gained wide publicity and received state endorsement with the health minister consuming the syrup on national television. But by early 2021 this movement had lost its luster and the health minister contracted COVID. These ‘alternative’ discourses nearly derailed the country’s vaccination program. By 2021, many who backed these ideas had lost credibility and the state and public began to place faith in vaccination. The sudden public visibility of these discourses of indigeneity and their swift decline speaks to the complex politics of indigeneity.
This paper uses the Sri Lankan case to argue that decoloniality, which has become a global theoretical trend, is insufficiently self-reflexive of how its sharp East-West binary can be politically disabling for on-the-ground struggles in postcolonial societies. The fetishization of indigeneity can have devastating consequences.
Decoloniality positions itself as superseding postcoloniality, but reproduces many of the same assumptions and at times appropriates local discourses. When Sri Lankan western-trained doctors spoke on behalf of a romanticized indigeneity they were appropriating the authority of indigenous medicine, which had historically fashioned itself as a ‘scientifically’ valid alternative. When decoloniality proposes a radically ‘non-modern’ ontology and epistemology, a similar process of appropriation occurs. Harshana Rambukwella concluded with a call for a critical practice that recognizes how categories like East-West are more apparent than real. He also argued for the importance of recognizing the importance of the normative force of discourses of modernity, and the need for an agonistic negotiation between such discourses and the diverse contexts in which they are realized.
Harshana Rambukwella is Professor at the Postgraduate Institute of English, The Open University of Sri Lanka.
IWM Permanent Fellow Ludger Hagedorn opened the colloquium.
Saurabh Dube, Professor of History at the Centre for Asian and African Studies, El Colegio de México, and Guest of the IWM, provided the comment.