Democratic society is instituted as a society without a body. . . . the people, the nation and the state take on the status of universal entities. . . . But neither the state, the people nor the nation represent substantial entities. Their representation is itself, in its dependence on a political discourse and upon a sociological and historical elaboration, always bound up with ideological debate.

Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory

This essay is about fear, menace, violence, and the question of “the people.” Our theorizing about popular politics and populism has ineluctably led us to the complex and heterogenous nature of the popular as an inevitably contested, heterogenous, historical terrain, pace Stuart Hall, rather than a pregiven category, group, or domain. Thus, I speak to these topics from Sri Lanka, the country I am from, and the country and a thirty-year civil war I have spent nearly two decades writing about. Even if it may seem that Sri Lanka slots into place as the latest local instantiation of a global populist desire for authoritarianism, when I write about “the people” in Sri Lanka, I am drawn again and again to how such categories are substantialized through the elaboration of amorphous fears.

Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are afraid because of the enormous amount of violence in our political and social life. Our fear is also what gives shape and energy to this violence, which itself is always mobilized against menace—whatever form that may take. This essay is thus about the ubiquity of fear that is always in search of an object. The other subject of this essay is that which returns. Sri Lankans relive a script with endless returns and loops; our memories are never allowed to settle into something we have survived already. Many Sri Lankans ask ourselves why, after the endof thirty years of civil war, alongside violence and faultlines that continue to endure, even seemingly new violence against new actors also takes such predictable forms.

For the last three years, the same Sri Lankan friend and I, both living in California, have called each other when something happens in Sri Lanka. We called every time there were ethnic-majority Sinhalese riots against ethnic minority Muslim neighborhoods and businesses. We discussed the Sinhala Buddhist monks in the public media aiding and abetting the riots, along with their calls to the public to punish “terrorists” and “anti-nationals.” We talked each time of how the targets of riots and calls for violence used to be Sri Lankan Tamil minorities and now were Muslim minorities. We called each other in jubilation in 2015 when Sri Lankan voters ousted President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a victory made possible by the minority Tamil and Muslim vote emerging as kingmakers. We called each other when the Rajapaksas attempted a constitutional coup at the end of 2018 that failed. She called me to tell me in April 2019, that there had been a series of bomb blasts across Colombo, what later became known as the Easter bombings allegedly committed by local adherents of ISIS (this one was a new figure in our history) after significant intelligence failures by the state. More violence against local Muslims erupted. We talked and texted through those.

In November 2019, we texted, too depressed to talk, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as president. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is an army man, and the former defense secretary who presided over the bloody end of the civil war in 2009 and bore command responsibility for thousands of deaths and disappearances. He was the brother of then-president, now (appointed under him) prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. While the Rajapaksas were looking likely to return, given that the government that ousted them had disappointed so many with its enormous corruption and foot-dragging pace of reform, the Easter Bombings sealed the deal—Gotabaya Rajapaksa argued that he had a proven record of defeating terrorism and only he, and his brother, could adequately deal with national security.

National security always works to win elections in Sri Lanka, even when the civil war is over, even when the Sri Lankan army is at peak numbers. While this may be a statement that holds true globally in its most reductive sense, in Sri Lanka, this is a truth that builds upon decades of government around figures of generalized menace and fear.

We—majority Sinhalese and Tamils, Muslims, and other minorities—are afraid in Sri Lanka. In 2019, the Sinhalese majority elected those who promised to protect them from the world and their own minorities. But we are always afraid in Sri Lanka. For thirty to forty years we have undergone military rule by the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who have told us the reason we needed them is because we should always be afraid, of them and the “other, ” and, that to be a state is to perform acts of violence. We have experienced unimaginably immense losses. That “we” is never a natural “we,” either. It has been a “we” constituted as majority/minority, and that is intensely differentiated by ethnicity.

Militarization and violence as law

Sri Lanka has a basic bipartite divide between majority Sinhalese and multiple minority Tamil-speaking communities: Sri Lankan Tamils central to the ethnic conflict, Sri Lankan Muslims,1 and Malaiyaha (hill-country) Tamils, descendants of South Indian indentured labor.2 Largescale Sri Lankan Tamil militancy emerged in response to state discrimination and largescale anti-Tamil riots, culminating in three decades of civil war fought primarily between the Sri Lankan state and the Sri Lankan separatist guerilla group, the LTTE. The primary battlefields were in Tamil areas in northern, eastern, and north-central Sri Lanka. After three failed peace process in 1990, 1995, and 2002, this war ended in brutal fashion, with the complete elimination of the LTTE senior leadership and more than 40,000 Tamil civilians. War crimes were committed by both the state and the LTTE.3

The civil war saw the complete militarization of government. The Sri Lankan army had always been subordinate to the president. But now, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as a former army man and as the president, symptomizes a collapse that has been a long time coming. Since the 1970s, because of the state’s brutal repression of southern Sinhalese insurrections, its conventional war against the LTTE, and a counter insurgency against Tamils at-large, Sri Lanka has seen an expansion and transformation of the army, navy and police, including the creation of the paramilitary police, the Special Task Force (STF). State forces have been given license to detain, torture, and kill those it suspects of being terrorists, often outside of the judicial system of formal prisons. The difficult task of substantializing the nation, “the people,” in any clear fashion was resolved in wartime by militarizing it. In addition, minorities living under the LTTE’s military state found themselves caught between LTTE forced recruitment, taxation, torture, and assassination on one side, and the security force violence on the other. The ongoing ideological legitimation for the privations of the LTTE state depended upon the ongoing violence of the Sri Lankan state and thus the necessity to be ruled by one’s “own.” Without that fear of the state violence, incarceration, and discrimination, Tamils would not have felt the LTTE as the better of two devils.

Those living in minority northern and eastern areas have been fully exposed to the ways in which violence has been the founding and instantiation of authority. The use of violence and highly militarized administration has been the primary way by which the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state have manifested their sovereignty and “stateness” in minority areas. The extra-judicial state expanded its reach – for example the para-military Special Task Force was brought into criminal policing—encounter killings of “criminals” within Colombo’s criminal underground rose in the years immediately before and after the end of the war. Throughout the latter part of the war years, Mahinda Rajapaksa along with Gotabaya as Defense secretary, portrayed himself and a highly militarized outcome as the only salvation that Sri Lankans had. As the president who ended a thirty-year war, he roared to a landslide reelection after the end of the war. The costs of such an ending were cast aside.

After the end of the war, the Sri Lankan state did not demilitarize but in fact expanded its security forces. They are firmly embedded in everyday life in minority areas. The army now runs businesses, restaurants, tourist resorts, beaches, and airlines. The army occupies and sometimes commercially develops formerly civilian areas taken initially to be “high security zones,” as well as more recent land grabs. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan state mobilized their expansions, their welfare, and their immense violence around an ever-active enemy to be combated and to be protected from.

The return of the riot and popular violence

Until the mid-1980s, anti-minority violence was in the form of regular riots. Anti-Tamil riots took place in 1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, and 1983. Anti-Tamil riots posed the attacks against Tamils as one of popular feeling, of Sinhalese anger against Tamils. Indeed, statements made after 1977 and 1983 by J. R. Jayewardene, the president, only reinforced this idea that riots were the result of spontaneous popular anger, despite the well-organized nature of the 1983 riot. In fact, riots were enabled by politicians, and the determined action and inaction of state authorities and the police. This violence was, however, constructed around the logic of majoritarian popular violence.

From the mid-1980s and the active scaling up of the war in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and the rise of the insurrectionary JVP in the south, violence moved away from “popular forms” and took the form of the state security forces, the police, the navy, the army, the CID, and the STF. The state moved into a new phase of securitization. Tamils were no longer the target of popular “sovereignty.” Instead, they became the targets of state sovereignty of overwhelming police and army powers within Colombo. There has not been an anti-Tamil riot since 1983. The mob, in its anti-Tamil anger, turned into the police, army, navy, and STF officers. In LTTE areas, the LTTE’s own intelligence, as well as its armed brigades, also turned violence into organized forms.

After the end of the war, one has seen the return of the logic of majoritarian popular violence and riots in southern and central Sri Lanka, this time against Muslim minorities. Since 2011, there have been aggressive campaigns launched by Buddhist monks and politicians, which mobilize deep anti-Muslim prejudices in everyday life into targeted violence against Muslim communities and business. We see a return, with a different minority this time, to officially sanctioned popular violence. While anti-Muslim riots have drawn upon specific longstanding histories of anti-Muslim prejudice in Sri Lanka, these have been combined with the architecture of anti-Muslim rumors and stories that come from a surprisingly stable and familiar history of prejudice and violence in India (stories about fertility for example), and a generalized sense of anxiety that has been searching for an object.

This anti-Muslim hatred is mobilized by both Tamils and Sinhalese. But anti-Muslim riots have been predominantly carried out by Sinhalese. Tamil violence raises uncomfortable specters of the war; it is unlikely to be licensed as a popular force even against Muslims. Sinhalese Buddhist violence, however, is understood as righteous popular sentiment that speaks for as it speaks against. The return to popular violence mobilizes the inheritance of securitization in the context of war, heightened national sentiments around fear, insecurity, and ongoing violence.

In writing about pervasive violence against suspected criminals, and (in a later book) on killings of suspected witches in Indonesia during and after the Suharto New Order regime, the anthropologist James Siegel argues, “there is more than one figure of the menace inherent in Indonesia that could indicate different sources for different menaces. Or it could indicate that whatever the source of national menace, no figure adequately represents it” (my emphasis). What did he mean by this?

Siegel argues that the Suharto’s state had constructed its own power around its capacity to identify and punish figures of menace. The New Order regime had embarked on large scale killings first of communists and then later of criminals. The state as an agent of violence acted (by elimination) to “identify” who was a menace. When the Suharto regime ended, the sense of generalized menace did not. Without the regime, ordinary people were uncertain as to who would then protect them from the subterranean menaces the New Order had allegedly constantly threatened Indonesia and that they had come to internalize as necessary violence. In examining the 1999 killing of suspected witches after the end of the Suharto regime, Siegel suggests, that the menace felt at the time of the witch killings was so fearful precisely because it was amorphous and general; these were “national phantoms” contained within the history of Indonesian nationalism rather than its spirit world. The witch killings showed the tension between the problems of such violence unleashed by the state, as well as the uncertainty created by the disappearances of the state’s ordering of such violence. These killings were highly specific and situated experiences shaped around historical forms of menace and violence, an attempt to understand the uncertainties of the present and future in a period of massive political transformation. Such understandings took the form of violence, which produced both a stability and eventual instability of interpretation. As Appadurai reminds us, dead certainty is no certainty at all.

In Sri Lanka, the state and the LTTE built up forms of state craft so centrally concerned with figurations and performances of violence against a perpetual menace, that fear has become ubiquitous and amorphous, and its object always shifting. Fear will continue to be the commonsense grammar of certainty unless we can go through a profound accounting and reckoning with militarization and violence. There were practical and political reasons for the electoral defeat of Sri Lanka’s 2015 government, including profound corruption, incompetence, and its own history of violence. But that the safe option at a time of fear was an army officer from a political family, no less plagued by corruption but conceptualized as safe in the face of violence, shows how Sri Lanka is still governed around the fear of an amorphous national menace that requires constant figuration.


  1. Muslims, though overwhelmingly Tamil speaking, are classified as an ethnoreligious minority around the categories of religion and ethnicity, while Sri Lankan Tamils, Christian and Hindu, are classed as an ethnic minority around language and ethnicity.

  2. There are many other minorities who speak Sinhalese, Tamil, or English, such as the Portuguese and Dutch Burgers, the Veddas (aboriginal peoples), and so on, but they were not involved in the ethnic conflict on grounds of language or ethnicity.

  3. In addition, from 2009 to 2010, the state kept 285,000 Tamils in squalid and under-resourced internment-style camps for “security clearance,” not allowing them to meet family, only releasing them in slow batches to return to destroyed homes. Not all returned; many disappeared in the camps, arrested for being LTTE. What happened to those taken out of camps for further questioning under suspicion of being LTTE still remains a mystery.