Midweek Review

A look at an Insider’s Challenge to History
Brown Sahibs and Cultural definitions
by Bandu de Silva

Reading the last part of Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne’s article published in The Island of 8th and 15th August 2007, sub-titled ‘Towards an alternative dialogue -Re-reading Heritage for Conflict Resolution", (an abridged version of his Vesak Commemoration Lecture delivered in Katmandu, on 28th May 2007), which came to my attention a little late, my immediate reaction as a student of history of the old school, was one of astonishment. I asked myself first of all whether it was possible to subvert, in the guise of ‘demystifying all forms of parochialism in a scientific manner, and placing alternative histories before the next generation,’ the tenets which guided the study of the two disciplines of archaeology and history, two disciplines which try to interpret ‘heritage.’ Our scholar was seeking a different paradigm away from what he called ‘Orientalist –Antiquarianism’ to introduce ‘alternate concept of shared cultures representing the actual but somewhat less known Heritage sites situated in multi-cultural societies.’

It seemed to me that the very idea of interpreting these disciplines to meet certain objectives like conflict resolution claimed as a ‘totally novel concept, and state-of-the –art techniques’ [in the presentation of heritage sites], is external to the methods of scientific investigation relating to these disciplines, then or now, and therefore, the proposition opened up with a contradiction. Apart from the use of ‘scrap’ of evidence to give an equal footing to some [ethnic] groups, which had contributed to the ‘heritage pot,’ in a comparatively lesser proportions, thereby placing the greater contributions of other groups in a lesser light, as the learned scholar’s thesis seems to suggest, such deviation could also let lose forces which are quite opposed to the very objective which one seeks to achieve, namely, heritage as a tool for conflict resolution. My fear that the established basic tenets of historiography and archaeological interpretations were being discredited was vindicated, when I found, on careful reading of the article, that the very purpose of it was what they call in ‘postmodernist’ language, the ‘deconstruction ’ of the existing order, which has received various nomenclatures, ranging from ‘exclusionist nationalism’ (Romila Thapar) and others.

In a rather superficial response to this idea emanating from this scholar, my thoughts first went to the book which Tarzie Vittachchi published in 1987, under the title ‘Brown Sahib Revisited.’ (Penguin, New Delhi). Encapsulating his thoughts Tarzie wrote "in all cases, the goal was the same; to rearrange the ‘neutral intellectual circuitry’ of the co-opted individuals in a ‘colonial pattern’ and to ‘replace a clear white colonialism’ with a murky brown colonialism."

Tarzie was not the only person to bring out the nature of the ‘Brown Sahibs’,’ or ‘Orientalised Orientals’, as they were sometimes called. "They are not a very specific Western creation" wrote Zainudden Sardar, visiting Professor of Post-colonial studies at the Department of Art Policy and Management, City University, London who is the author of over half a dozen books, two recent ones of which were ‘Introducing Cultural Studies’ (1997) and ‘Postmodernism and Others’ (1998). He traces the beginning of the Western creation of ‘Brown Sahib’ to Macaulay’s famous Minute of (Indian) Education of 1835, which was compulsory reading for us when we were University students in the Department of History. Macaulay wrote, "We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of person, Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinion, in morals and in intellect."

The Director-General of Census of India, William Hunter, who followed wrote: "The first step towards this goal was to give the educational system of the Musalmans a death blow." These Indian institutions of learning were ‘systematically uprooted and their products, who were among the leaders of those challenging British dominance, were abused, ridiculed, and identified as the prime cause of Muslim backwardness.’ (Sardar).

The patterns were the same all over the colonies, British, French, and others.

There are many more in this galaxy of writers like N. S. Sogul (Reflections on Orientalism), Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last man) and M. R. Singer (The Emerging Elite) and others. The history of the Orient, has for a long time been determined, assessed and described from superior authority by the West. Sardar wrote that it was little surprising that sociological, anthropological studies conducted by scholars of and from non-West on their community provided a seamless contention of the scholarship of the West.

Speaking of India, Western analysts claimed that the country had no tradition of history in the Western sense. This was also repeated more recently by a Sri Lankan writer, Dr. Ananda Guruge in the Prolegamena to the transliteration of the first 37 chapters of Mahavamsa, compiled as he says, with Geiger’s translation of the Pali Mahavamsa in his presence, i.e, without a single manuscript of the original Pali Mahavamsa and its several variations which Geiger compared. He was only trying to place Mahavamsa on a higher pedestal as a work with a historical sense. These old ideas have been challenged by men like Bankin Chandra Chatterjee(19th century) and Dr. D. D.Kosambi, but Mahatma Gandhi (1924) dispelled the assertion made on behalf of Mahabharata when he said: "To me it was not a historical work." The recent Ram Report of the Indian government has debunked the notion of the other Epic, Ramayana as well, as a historical work.

Should one dismiss Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne’s above quoted part of writing superficially in the light of the discourse on ‘Brown Sahibism’? No. It is not fair. So, let us try to understand what he is trying to project. Before articulating his final argument, which in essence is to re-project cultural heritage to achieve the purpose of conflict resolution, he enters into a didactic discourse to prepare the foundation for his argument. It is wrapped up in such mystifying terminology as has invaded the cultural space especially through UNESCO during the last three decades which he has borrowed without hesitation. He seems to think that he is non-pareil in the field of interpretation as the assumption in his transcendental meditation where he indirectly assumes that others are incapable of achieving the heights he proposes for himself. That is when he speaks of ‘demystifying all forms of parochialisms in a scientific manner and placing alternative histories before the next generation for a better rational understanding of the past; and ‘study of heritage in the most scientific manner devoid of biases and prejudices’ as if such task were beyond reach of all others.

In the final thesis of presenting the idea of ‘shared culture,’ another drop-off from the jargon of UNESCO and others, our learned scholar in re-constructing the concept of ‘multi-culturalism’ and ‘cultural pluralism’ has surpassed the space to ‘deconstruct’ history and cultural definition to arrive at what certain intellectual forces like Edith Wyschogroid (An Ethic of Remembrance: History, and the Nameless others) advocated, namely, parity of status to all contributors to the ‘heritage pot’, however big or small that contribution was.

This is even surpassing the space of the concept of ‘multi-culturalism’ and ‘cultural pluralism’ which themselves are so elastic that they could lend themselves to varied interpretation.

So, it is not surprising that in Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne’s ‘deconstruction’ and ‘demystifying’ the study of heritage, he has picked up such ‘scraps’ like the miniature Nestorian Cross (It has been there for long) and the [miniature] Buddha statue with Tamil inscriptions offered by a mercantile community (a more recent discovery) and large quantities of imported ceramics and beads found near Jetavana stupa during excavations as evidence of multiple contribution (not excluding equal contribution) to the ‘shared culture’ with all ethnic groups as ‘equal share-holders’, thereby overlooking the overwhelming evidence on the main centre of attraction which is the Jetevana stupa itself which stands on several acres of ground, complete with adjuncts, as the tallest stupa built in the world, second in height only to the great pyramid in Egypt, which is an architectural wonder both in concept, design and execution, as the greater contribution. The degree of scientific aspects displayed by the builders in the construction of this magnificent monument, including the mastery of the brick industry, receives no special priority in this scheme of presentation. That is the price of interpreting cultural heritage with the objective of achieving the objective of conflict resolution.

The introduction of this type of imbalance in appreciation of the reality of higher cultural contributions by one group to its disadvantage and to the advantage of others, in other words, supporting the overall thesis of parity of contributions irrespective of the quality and volume of respective contributions with the further objective of subscribing to the idea of conflict resolution, is a deliberate in-put in the `deconstruction’ process.

The main issue then is the acceptability or not, of the rhetoric of giving equal weight to both large and small contributions so as to almost erase the historical reality of the predominant presence of one against others. This obliteration of superior contribution of one contained in the line of certain intellectual contributions is proposed in the name of conflict resolution. The spill–over effects of such a position has the potential of moving across to other fields including the political field to include claims of parity of status and even territorial claims. This need not be considered a hypothesis as the situation has become a reality in Sri Lanka.

Now, we could turn around and pose the question again if Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne’s thesis should or should not be considered in the first place as an apposite example of the kind of situation presented by Brown Sahibism, a play-around with a lot of new jargon originating from sources like UNESCO and the postmodernist school.

Part II tomorrow



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