Notes To The People: Hegemonic and Competing Knowledge Systems

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Last week thousands of people lined up, not even respecting the one-metre safe distance recommended by the health authorities, to collect a free dose of pani (medicinal syrup) that is claimed and believed to be a cure as well as a preventive medicine for COVID-19. This medicinal syrup was invented and produced by Dhammika Bandara, an indigenous medical practitioner whose credentials are being questioned. Why did people gather in large numbers to obtain this medicine that has not yet been proven a cure for COVID-19? This may be attributed to three reasons. 

First, people tend to try things that are given free since the only opportunity cost incurred was just spending time in the queue that was not substantial as COVID-19 had made many people economically inactive. Secondly, it has often times been believed that indigenous medicine is not dangerous and has no adverse side effects. In this case, people may not worry to try the syrup that includes bees honey and nutmeg as these two are in grand mom’s first aid kit in every house. Thirdly, people might have truly believed that this medicinal tonic works against the COVID-19 virus. To strengthen this belief, Media has given the idea that it has already been proven by tests. Moreover, people have witnessed that it was even tried by the Minister of Health and the Speaker of the house.

The purpose of this column is neither to prove nor to disprove the claimed strength of this or other locally made medicinal syrups since I have no knowledge whatsoever on any of the related fields. I understand that seven learned professors were appointed to work on that aspect of the syrup. And, unlike many social Media medical experts (many of them are understandably with left leanings), I prefer to stay away from making comments on the scientific aspect of it. In this column I intend to discuss the politics of the debate that had been initiated by the invention of this locally produced medicine. 

Protests over Syrup 

Many of the opposition politicians who had made derogatory comments on the syrup and the story behind its invention seem to have no reason to object to this medicinal syrup since they, like the Government politicians, have been continuously visiting religious places seeking some kind of a support system from unseen gods especially before elections. This is true even for most cosmopolitan oppositionists like the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. These politicians are regular visitors to Tirupati Temple in South India. Hence, I do not see that there is any logical reason to take their arguments seriously. 

Nonetheless, the position of the opposition MPs reveals a more important weakness in Sri Lanka politics. The two main parties represented in Parliament are the SLPP and SJB who do not have significant and tangible differences as far as the basic policy paradigms are concerned. Very recently Dr Bandula Gunawardena made a remark that law makers have been now downgraded to the status of tea makers. He also pointed out the speeches at the budget debate were barren and meaningless. What does it signify? Does it show they are really barren and empty people? I don’t buy it. My reading is that there was no rich debate because the two parties have nothing that is substantially different from the other. In such a context, they have argued on minor and unimportant things but may be useful for their petit politics. Compared to the debates until 1980s, as Dr Gunawardena did, the three political formations, the UNP, SLFP and the left parties (Lanka Samasamaja Party and the Communist Party), had substantially varied positions on many issues. So, the debates when it had happened was intense and rich and had educational value. They did not debate on 1958 floods or the change of Election laws. 

Achilles’ heel 

Many left groups and individuals also got into the anti-syrup bandwagon partly because of its potential to advance anti-Government campaign. However, the left’s position may not be completely attributed to it. Since the emergence of Marxism and many left ideologies are coterminous with the European enlightenment period, Marxists including Marx and Engels to some extent had identified with the scientific method deployed in natural science. Hence, the indigenous knowledge systems were seen as a part of the undeveloped social structure without having any scientific foundation. As a result, Sri Lankan Marxists tend to posit that the positivistic experiment-based knowledge as the only knowledge that is scientific. 

In the context that the entire global scientific community with big multinationals and universities are grappling with a cure or vaccine for COVID-19 virus, how could the people with the notion of scientificity discussed above would believe that a medical practitioner in a small hamlet in Kegalle claimed that he had invented a medicine that is both preventive and curative. So, the conjecture that this syrup would be a product of non-science or pseudo-science is what we may expect from the people of the left who were trained and made to believe the positivistic method of validation. However, this outright refusal signifies the failure of the left to recognise the fact that the hegemony of the Western knowledge system is a result of imperialist suppression of other knowledge systems shared by multiple indigenous communities. This is not to deny certain positive features and elements of the Western knowledge system over many indigenous knowledge systems. 

Marx also made the same mistake. In 1853, Léonce de Lavergne published a book titled Rural Economy of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In this book Lavergne argued that indigenous agricultural methods can be a solution to a continuous to perennial issues of degeneration of the fertility of soil. His ideas were at that time not scientifically proved by the works of leading agro-chemists. So, Marx rejected the views of Lavergne as fairy tales and reflection of superstition of backward indigenous communities. Nonetheless, recent agro-ecological research has amply proved that the industrial agricultural mode lead to decrease the forces of production. Moreover, research has shown the ecological agricultural mode is more productive and provides a solution to myriad of issues related to food sovereignty. Hence, the rejection of indigenous knowledge system as kattadi (exorcist) science on the basis of predetermined ideas may really hinder the development of science. 

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.