On the Way to Everywhere: The politics of “hub-ness” in contemporary Sri Lanka

Alessandra Radicati

What political futures are made possible by reframing traditional understandings of geographic regions? To what extent do some political projects rely on such reframing, while others actively resist it? Who benefits from scholarly re-imaginings of geography? This paper addresses these questions through an analysis of what I call the politics of “hub-ness” in contemporary Sri Lanka.   

The “oceanic turn” (Green 2014) in anthropological/historical studies has many important implications for Sri Lanka, which is connected to other locales in Asia and the Middle East by links of religion, migration, and capital.  Uncovering and critically analyzing these connections has been crucial to challenging both (Sinhala) nationalist and colonial forms of knowledge that have relied on depictions of Sri Lanka as isolated, unique, and detached.  Recent historical work on Sri Lanka has effectively challenged these representations (eg. Wickremasinghe 2009, Sivasundaram 2013).  

But, while scholars have attended to the historical dimensions of Sri Lanka’s connectedness, people with very different agendas – politicians, bureaucrats, corporate elites– are simultaneously engaged in a project of actively re-imagining Sri Lanka as a contemporary “hub” in the Indian Ocean. Drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork in Colombo, and on analysis of popular media, news articles and other documentary evidence, I analyze how references to the historical connectedness of Sri Lanka are used to justify initiatives, such as the Colombo Port City project, which dispossess and marginalize some of Sri Lanka’s more vulnerable communities.  What, I wonder, are the implications of looking at scholarly work in conjunction with official/corporate discourse about Sri Lanka’s literal and metaphorical place in the world?