Monday, September 19, 2011

Zachariah Cherian Mampilly's "Rebel Rulers"

Zachariah Cherian Mampilly is Assistant Professor in the Departments of Political Science, International Studies, and Africana Studies at Vassar College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War, and reported the following:
How do past events shape contemporary political realities? In our post-modern age, it can seem that history is just a battleground of interpretations. We’re taught, correctly, to question the source of any historical ‘fact’—that the interpretation of any event reveals more about who is doing the interpreting than an objective reality. As Chuck D explained to me long ago, we all need to learn the difference between history and ‘His Story’.

But history is more than putty for political entrepreneurs. Past events linger unevenly, uncontrollably, despite efforts by those who would twist them to advance particular political agendas.

One thing I learned while researching my book is that predicting the influence of the past on the present can be a fraught task. History is always prone to manipulation. Nationalists around the world selectively highlight events, stringing together disparate moments into narratives of glory or oppression to suit their particular need.

But the past also lives on in the daily actions of individuals. It shapes their reaction to authority, their conception of the enemy, their reaction to a foreigner walking in their midst. It can be read in the furtive stares of Tamil civilians walking past a Sinhala checkpoint in Sri Lanka; in the flash of contempt across the young faces of South Sudanese staring at the equally young aid worker driving through their village in a $50,000 vehicle; or in the blank expressions of eastern Congolese as they realize that as an academic, I come for their stories with nothing to offer in return.

Page 99 of my book is about the origins of the conflict in Sri Lanka. It was a frustrating choice to write about as it reflects little of the original material in the book. I had traveled to rebel controlled areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Sudan since January of 2004 to understand how civilians go about their daily lives in the context of war. In contrast, Page 99 begins in 1948 and ends in the early 70s. (If only Page 126, where I discuss one of many interviews with rebel leaders!)

But page 99 was a perfect choice in its own way. Much of the book is concerned with understanding the continuities and disjunctures produced by an outbreak of political violence. One of the key arguments I make is that there are no truly revolutionary moments, no clean breaks from the past, no tabula rasas. The past always lives on in configurations of social and political order. Not in the pithy and opportunistic manner ascribed to it by nationalists, but in surprising and counter-intuitive ways that have real importance in explaining why certain societies fracture, and just possibly, how they can be healed.
Learn more about Rebel Rulers at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue