By Rajan Philips –
The appointment of a Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, with its ethnically exclusive but otherwise oddly mixed composition, has created political ripples not only in Sri Lanka but also outside the country. Veteran Indian journalist, PK Balachandran, has already written two commentaries on the matter and both have appeared in the Indian and Sri Lankan media. On Friday (June 12), The Island carried a superbly inclusive article by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan on the richly blended Buddhist and Hindu heritages of the Eastern Province. Add to them the Islamic and Muslim cultural additions over nearly a thousand years, and five hundred years of colonial accretions, there is much heritage to cherish and preserve in Lanka’s East. We can only hope that Dr. Chandrahasan’s enlightened appeal to the Task Force to be inclusive in its outreaches and to engage the widely available expert resources in its explorations, will not fall on insensitive or untrained ears.
There are also other nagging questions about the need for a task force on archaeology at this time of all times, and about the cultural appropriateness of a Presidential Task Force mechanism for preserving cultural heritage. It is not the love of heritage and its preservation that appears to be driving the task force agenda. It is the agenda of ultra-nationalism and electoral calculations to use ultra-nationalists as political subcontractors for the election campaign that seems to be at work instead. The composition of the Task Force is indicative of archaeology politics and prejudices. The Task Force excludes not only Tamil and Muslim archaeologists but also renowned Sinhalese archaeologists. The Director-General of Archaeology, Dr. Senarath Bandara Dissanayake, who is on the Task Force, must be finding it rather lonely there – surrounded by men of the cloth and men of the uniform. And for scholarly presence on the Task Force, there is Chairman Dilith Jayaweera of Derana, whose self-confessed qualification is that he has been interested in archaeology from his childhood. By that token, every 20+ year old Sri Lankan should be allowed to play in the national cricket team at least once. Why not a task force to do that?
The apparent purpose of the Task Force is to honour the President’s commitment in his “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” Manifesto, to celebrate Sri Lanka’s “historical heritage” that “depicts its pride and identity,” and to fulfill the “bounden duty to properly conserve them for future generations.” But the language and the message in the manifesto is quite innocuous and inclusive in contrast to the geographical focus, ethnic exclusion, and aggressive approach in the appointment of the Task Force in its name. The relevant section in the manifesto appears in Chapter 9 (A Righteous, Disciplined and Law-Abiding Society), under the heading, “History, Archaeology and National Heritage.” Hardly a sign of priority, and there is no mention of Archaeology or Heritage in the Ten Key Policies listed in Chapter 1.
In Chapter 9, there are four action-items (bullet points) under Archaeology and Heritage: to not allow destruction or vandalism of heritage sites and to protect them by all means including amendments to “legal ordinances”, a co-ordination program, and efficient regulations; establish a “Digital Archeological Encyclopedia,” and restructure the Central Cultural Fund; provide basic tourist amenities without endangering heritage sites; provide proper training to tour guides to “prevent wrong information being disseminated to tourists.”
None of the above action items are of an urgent nature that require a Presidential Task Force to undertake them in the midst of a global pandemic and economic shutdown, not to mention the non-emergency national curfew. And all of them could have been left to the Department of Archaeology, one of the oldest (established in 1890) and well-respected government departments. It has a professional reputation that extends beyond Sri Lanka. It has a well-established Exploration and Documentation Division that mandates Archaeological Impact Assessments to be undertaken for any development project on a parcel of land exceeding 0.25 hectares. If the department is well funded and its independence is not overridden by powerful politicians for politically motivated construction projects, there should not be any danger to Sri Lanka’s heritage resources due to human action.
The new Task Force is mistakenly instructed to take a different, pro-active, even aggressive approach – “to identify sites of archaeological importance in the Eastern Province and implement an appropriate program for the management of archaeological heritage, by conserving and restoring such identified sites and antiquities.” To that end, the Task Force is empowered to “identify the extent of land that should be allocated for such archaeological sites, and take necessary measures to allocate them properly and legally.” This is euphemism for state land grab in the name of heritage. And that is hardly the practice in Anthropology anywhere, now, or ever. One does not preserve heritage by bulldozing away living communities to create new vistas of past glories. That would be no different from clearing slums in Colombo to erect condominium towers, some of which are standing half-built, half-tall and fully empty in the Colombo skyline.
Prof. Jagath Weerasinghe of Kelaniya University, the renowned Archaeologist, who was interviewed by Balachandran for his articles, not only disapproves the bulldozing approach to create archaeological sites while ignoring the living needs of local communities, but he has also recalled how it took the celebrated Archaeologist Shiran Deraniyagala (Director of General of Archaeology, 1992-2001), 30 years to win over Sinhalese farmers who would not part with their land, and to get their consent to carry out the Ibbankatuwa archaeological excavation in Dambulla. The famers “even threatened to kill anyone who dared to touch their land.” Is the new Task Force capable of such professional discipline and patience in dealing with not only Sinhalese farmers and landowners, but also their Tamil and Muslim counterpart brethren in the Eastern Province?
On the contrary, if things go out of hand there is the possibility of Ayodhya-like disputes, like the fiasco in Uttar Pradesh, India, flaring up in the Eastern Province, though not on the same scale as in India. Local communities will be pitted against one another in disputes over whose sacred shrine came first on any particular site. According to Peradeniya academics Tudor Silva and Shahul H. Hasbullah, interviewed by Balachandran, Muslim farmers close to a controversial archaeological site at Digavapi in Oluvil, are already fearful of losing their lands because of the archaeological project. The fusion of ultra-nationalism and unprofessional archaeology is a dangerous process. It breeds intolerance and hatred, and it emanates, as Silva and Hasbullah said to Balachandran, not from “the ethnically heterogeneous periphery, but … some members of the urban elite with a rather superficial and partial understanding of the reality at the ground level.” The ultra-nationalist elites “use their influence over mass media and bureaucratic, political and legal machineries to reconstruct what they perceive as the legitimate past.” And thus, the sixth Task Force under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was born.
A parallel development is the recent media reports about genocidal allegations being raised in the Canadian legislatures by Tamil Canadian parliamentarians. The two developments – archaeological task force and genocidal allegations, are not connected but they have the potential to merge into a common headache for the government, or collide with each other in the public domain, especially the social media, in Sri Lanka and among rival Sinhala and Tamil groups in the diaspora. All of this will bring much delight to pseudo internet scholars, who would not have been able to put pen to paper in the old days of higher standards, but who are now assured of having many a field day in the social media over archaeology and genocide in equal measure.
The general backdrop to these developments includes the government’s withdrawal from the sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution in Geneva, the pardoning of military servicemen found guilty by the courts, the celebration of the 2009 war victory with renewed gusto after the five year yahapalana interregnum, and the silencing of the National Anthem in the Tamil Language, the ‘reasonably’ official language spoken by the Tamils and the Muslims. Add to these the backlashes against innocent Muslims after the Easter Sunday bombings last year, the continued targeting of Muslim professionals, and the insensitive rebuffing of Muslim funeral rites during the current pandemic.
Outside Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan Tamil groups organized counter commemorations of the end of the war with online events and including high-profile participations by former UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Navaneethan Pillai; former US State Department Assistant Secretary and now Congressman, Tom Malinowski; and an Australian Senator in Sydney. The International Crisis Group took direct aim at the government over “its intention to rule without parliamentary oversight for the first time in the country’s modern history, potentially sparking a serious constitutional crisis.” That was before the crisis was averted by the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear about it.
These developments prompted last week’s (June 4) Sunday Times political column to comment on the absence within the government of a “Quick Reaction Team” to deal with external nuisances. There is no shortage of quick-reaction Task Forces within the government, however, and the President was quick on the draw and added two more Task Forces on the morrow of the Supreme Court decision, to bring their total number to six. The Task Force on Archaeological Heritage is the sixth Task Force and, so far, the last one. There might be an urge by ultra-nationalists to appoint yet another Task Force to deal exclusively with external nuisances like Navaneethan Pillai.
Whatever actions the government may choose take to counter the post-diplomatic activities of Navaneethan Pillai and others, it is worth noting that she, or the American Congressman and former State Department Assistant Secretary, may not have participated in last month’s commemorative events if the government had not withdrawn its sponsorship of the Geneva Resolution. I am not suggesting that letting Pillai have the license to speak publicly is too high a price to pay for the withdrawal in Geneva. Rather, the government must be prepared to face the withdrawal effects no matter from where they might come. And they are not going to be limited to speeches by retired diplomats.
Left to themselves, the forces of Sinhala ultra-nationalism and archaeology politics, and the Tamil diaspora groups making genocidal allegations, can keep going at each other. The two cannot stop one another; nor can anybody else. The question for President Rajapaksa and his Administration is whether he should be part of this clash and get caught up in that vortex. So far, he has taken his stand on the side of Sinhala ultra-nationalism and he is not pretending to be a neutral President. Will he continue with this partiality? What will be its effect on his presidency, and his ability to do anything positively good even if it is only for the Sinhalese?
In the short term, it will win for the SLPP the parliamentary election with or without a two-thirds majority. In the medium to long term, it will not be of any use to the President if the economic slump continues and the recovery turns out to be slow as it is now expected to be. The US Federal Reserve (Central Bank) said just that last Wednesday, contradicting the American President and the stock market. Even the US stock market, after rising spectacularly earlier, fell precipitously on Thursday in the wake of increasing Covid-19 cases in hitherto unaffected areas in the US. The OECD and the IMF are predicting the same for the developed and the global economies. Covid-19 is now hitting hard Brazil and, too close for comfort, next door India. The times are still extraordinarily uncertain and people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. Hardly the time for a national adventure in archaeology.