Lassnet 3: Some Random Thoughts
I was really stimulated by the conference and would like to thank first our Sri Lankan hosts Deepika, colleagues and volunteers from Peradeniya; Mala and the Law and Society Trust. For the overall excellent programme we have to thank two young eminences - Stewart from the SL diaspora and Pratiksha from the JNU.
Lassnet is a great network. It brings together people from one of the world’s great regions and its diaspora, provides inter- multi-trans-disciplinary links, brings together academics and activists and promotes the work of young researchers. More significantly, it is rooted in social justice – with social and intellectual concern for gender, subaltern and religious justice issues. Intellectually it is informed by a variety of discourses, subaltern, feminist and gender justice, post-colonial, post-development critique etc. I particularly appreciated papers which were grounded in lived experiences of people. The atmosphere is different from equivalent British conferences such as the Socio-Legal Studies Association or the US Law and Society Association. Perhaps each organisation can learn from the others.
Having the conference in Sri Lanka was great! It came at a time when there is need to articulate social justice issues in the post-war period. I enjoyed the Sri Lankan papers precisely for this. The contrasting tones of Gananath Obeysekere’s anthropo-cultural critique, Stewart Motha’s memories/orials, Sumathy Sivamohan’s poetry, Radhika Coomaraswamy and Deepika Udagama’s human rights, Dinesha Samararatne’s Rule of and By Law, Mario Gomez’s techno-legal right to information and Ahilan Kardigamar’s critique of neo-liberalism and others provided an indication of the richness of discourses. The impromptu plenary discussion on the situation in Sri Lanka proved to be a highlight. A key issue was consideration of the role of the intellectual – and as our Sri Lankan colleagues reminded us outsiders, it is not just about Sri Lankan intellectuals, we outsiders share cosmopolitan responsibilities of solidarity. Yet, I wish we could also have learnt from others such as Mala d’Alwis and Pradeep Jaganathan each exciting in their own way. I was also surprised (perhaps one should not be) that while there was good multi-disciplinary representation from Peradeniya, this was not replicated by many of Deepika’s law colleagues. One substantive issue raised, especially by Radhika was that critique of human rights discourses by people such as Mamdani (one could also add Douzinas) undermines the valuable work done by human rights activists. I agree that there is need to acknowledge the value of human rights work against oppressive regimes and also agree with Santos that it is an error to lump all human rights lawyers and activists into a blanket category of human rights entrepreneurs. Many valuable human rights were achieved as a consequence of struggles by peoples in the Global South – the Right to Self Determination is one example, or by otherwise oppressed groups such as women and indigenous peoples. At the same time, it is necessary for those engaged with social justice activism to acknowledge the tendency of dominant national and global interests to also capture and control human rights discourses and practice. It is for this reason that there is need to mount a critique of human rights discourses. In my opinion each side of the argument needs to appreciate the value of the other.
Wider Conference Themes
Many of the Sri Lankan themes were replicated in the other papers. Thus an over-riding concern was with forms of injustice against oppressed groups, whether in relation to different dimensions of gender, dalits and other ethno and religious minorities. A further dimension was that of global forms of oppression. The analytical perspectives included feminisms, subaltern studies, governance and rule of law, post-colonial, post-development and political economy. The more nuanced studies included forms of representation such as memories and memorials as vividly presented by Motha and Narrain and Grandi, film as presented by Bindal and poetry as presented by Sivamohan. This insightful intermingling of discourses drawn from social sciences and from the arts is to be welcomed. There was also a certain level of questioning of the very discourses of subalternism, post-coloniality and political economy. Was traditional treatment of subalternism too singular, too unifyingly simplistic? Papers by Chandra and Roy raised this issue in different ways especially in the context of struggles in the North East India. It is very important to analyse both the significance of agency and to develop the differences within popular movements. However, I believe that the best subaltern studies literature eg Guha’s study of Chandra’s Death did achieve this. Perhaps there is a difference between subaltern studies as an intellectual discipline and subalternism as an activist project. A related theme was an implicit need to acknowledge in the context of post-colonial discourses that coloniality was not uniform but a very diverse phenomenon in South Asia, therefore leaving different imprints in different parts of the region. This was impressively raised by Osama Siddique in relation to the post-colonial implications of military garrison colonialism in parts of today’s Pakistan.
Governance, Rule of Law and Resistance –
There was a wide array of papers dealing with governance, legality and rule of law. In view of the current Indian developments in relation to rape and sexual assault, the variety of papers dealing with sexual violence especially Pratiksha Baxi on ‘jurispathic governance and mass sexual violence’ point to the need to consider the structural links between governance, violence and social structures including both caste and familial and other forms of impunities for example of the police and military. The underlying question in any discourse on the rule of law is how to distance the rule of law from authoritarian legality (see eg Samararatne). Religious and moral philosophical discourses often identify this as a moral question. However, there is a strong history of discourses which argue that there is a right to resistance against unjust laws. Furthermore a right to resistance and/or rebellion is enshrined in many Constitutions. That is resistance is intrinsic to the Rule of Law. Resistance and its forms was a recurring theme of the conference. We heard of problematic civil society, ‘cunning’ subalterns, memories, struggles for a right to information, anti-authority struggles including subaltern and workers’ struggles and a variety of forms of struggle against sexual violence, struggles of sex workers and those struggling against sexual discrimination. Only tangentially did we address the issue of the limits of struggle. Could a struggle for the rule of law be supported by violence? What was the difference between Gandhian-Martin Luther King forms of Ahimsa and those of Ambedkar and Mandela? I suggested that these were both issues of personal responsibility (following Arendt) and of context. However, following E.P. Thompson, the issue was not one of abstraction but to be resolved in the rolling out of social history.
What did we miss? What could we Do Better?
There is a lot to miss in a conference with many parallel sessions – each individual has their own conference, so my perceptions are necessarily limited. There were many fascinating threads over three days and at the end of the conference one perceives the missing linkages between these threads. Most notable was the strong focus on the Westphalian national and the community local and a lesser focus on the region as a whole or on the link between the local, national and global. For example, while we had a session on neo-liberalism, the overall context was strongly national. Should we be exploring how a farmer suicide in Andhra Pradesh is linked both to national and global factors? Secondly, subaltern discourses are rooted in coloniality. We got some indication of how they translate into the post-colonial period, but how are they linked to contemporary imperialist discourses? Why do the forms of resistance in Pakistan encompass both resistance against the state and imperialism and take the specific form of militant global Islam?
We also missed science – perhaps we should in a conference labelling itself as social-science. But then we are incorporating the Arts. There was one paper on techno-science – which unfortunately I could not attend. Yet, the region is rife with science and techno-science issues as broad as intellectual property, bio-diversity, agro-business, GM, nuclear and nano-technologies and of course climate change. There is another way in which a social scientific engagement with the sciences is relevant. The shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, the development of digitalisation and cognitive science has led to the development of great range of theoretical ideas such as chaos and complexity theories, autopoiesis and network theory. These theoretical insights have had a great influence on the social sciences and need to be integrated (I use the word advisedly) into the Lassnet discourses. More significantly, I have been struck by the intellectual avenues opened up by particle physics. The notion of Schrodinger’s cat that the same particle can be present in two places at once may give us a better purchase on some of the dilemmas about the nature of law and rule of law than traditional approaches which emphasise singularity of truth. My paper uses a Foucaultian framework to illustrate the inter-twining of the rule of law and resistance. But would particle physics better explain Mandela’s adherence to the rule of law and simultaneous support for violent struggle? Would it better explain E.P. Thompson saying ‘the Rule of Law is an unqualified good’ while at the same time supporting struggles against oppressive laws?