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Inaugural lecture Nira Wickramasinghe: South Asian political imaginaries

How can historical archive sources by non-elite groups help us understand modern-day politics in South Asia? This is one of the main themes of Prof. Nira Wickramasinghe’s inaugural lecture on 14 March.

Nira Wickramasinghe
Nira Wickramasinghe

Nira Wickramasinghe is Professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies. This new chair has been facilitated in part by the Leiden University Fund (LUF), that will provide a contribution to this field for a period of five years in the form of the LUF Chair. Wickramasinghe is also one of the leading players of the University's Asian Modernities and Traditions research profile area: an inter-faculty research collective concentrating on modern South, East and Southeast Asia, a region of the world where all eyes are currently focused.

Local sources

For most of her 25-year academic career, historian Nira Wickramasinghe has been interested in the politics of non-elite groups. The focus of her work has been South Asia, and in particular Sri Lanka, in the late British Colonial period (late 19th and early 20th century). In the process, she has moved somewhat away from her classical training and concentrated on studying less well-known archival sources: ‘Documents written in local languages, such as petitions to the Colonial Government, reveal the concerns and grievances of ordinary people.’ This provides a counter-balance to the mainstream view of Sri Lankan late-Colonial politics as very peaceful, especially by comparison with the situation in India, for instance. The petitions show that there were tensions, even if these were not so apparent in official state documents. Nira Wickramasinghe: ‘These sources, often less used in mainstream historiography, allow us to consider the nature of identity politics, and the reason why political identity evolves in the way it does.’

The voice of the majority

In her inaugural lecture, spanning the border between history and politics, Prof. Wickramasinghe will discuss what she refers to as the political imaginaries of the people in South Asia. ‘In particular of those groups who often form the majority, but who have not sufficiently been represented in the larger historical narrative, because their contribution to the process of transformation was not made visible enough.’ Once democracy enters the picture, these groups, being the majority, are suddenly given a voice, at which point, understanding the historical context of their issues and concerns becomes an invaluable tool for a deeper insight into current politics.

About Nira Wickramasinghe

Nira Wickramasinghe has held  the chair in Modern South Asian Studies at the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) since 1 January 2010. After completing her history degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, and having defended her PhD on Ethnic Politics and the Minorities in Ceylon (1927-1947) at the University of Oxford, Prof. Wickramasinghe worked at the Department of History and International Relations of the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, first as a lecturer, then as a professor. In addition to her impressive list of academic publications, Prof. Wickramasinghe has also written for openDemocracy, the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review. She is the recipient of fourteen awards, and is a sought-after international speaker.

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