Deficient realities: expertise and uncertainty among tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka

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In May 2009, nearly three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end with the Government of Sri Lanka’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Often eclipsed within representations of the country’s civil and political conflict, Malaiyaha or Hill Country Tamils, who primarily reside and work on Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, have experienced protracted forms of discrimination that directly result from social and economic matrices of escalating civil violence, legal and affective exclusion, and neoliberal policies of worker dispossession. Based on ethnographic research conducted in the immediate aftermath of war, this article focuses on Malaiyaha Tamils encounters with economic and bodily uncertainty in postwar Sri Lanka and their responses to hegemonic forms of knowledge about their heritage and present marginalization from Sri Lankan society. By presenting an ethnographic narrative of a cāmi pākkiratu (“consulting god”) healing ritual on a tea plantation, I argue that Malaiyaha Tamils, when intimately confronted with deficient realities that emerge from the more subtle effects of sustained dispossession on their community, cultivate modalities of expertise that destabilize the more dominant, subordinating perceptions about their worth and emplacement as minority workers in Sri Lanka. Such modalities suggest that building knowledge and competency within one’s conditions of dispossession cannot be understood as simple resistance or agency. Rather, such modalities of expertise complicate the redacted categories into which Malaiyaha Tamil plantation workers are persistently emplaced by affirming both new possibilities alongside the subtle militarization and persistent dispossession of minority workers in postwar Sri Lanka.