Educating Jeremy Page

(This article is placed before public knowledge in an effort to rectify erroneous and callous reporting and not for purposes of engaging in a public debate. As much as the reader is free to express his or her views on this subject, the author will not respond to supporting or opposing views any further).

Time and again the ‘Empire Strikes Back’, both, literally and metaphorically! Throughout the Modern Period, the long arm of Colonialism visited and continues to revisit lands distantly located from its metropolis in various forms – as a conquering power, crusading hero, paternal benefactor and even magnanimous peace maker with a bleeding-heart!! Its modus operandi is multi faceted. They range from direct coaxing through their own agencies to the use of multi nationals and the articulation of ideas and ideology through a section of its print and electronic media - which literally functions as the Fifth Column (apologies to General Franco) of the Post Colonial Metropolitan states.

I do not wish to concern myself with innumerable instances of negative reporting carried out by a section of the western media in the past few decades on South Asia in general and Sri Lanka in particular - a body of world literature that is well known and extensively discussed. My concern is about a recent article by Mr. Jeremy Page (JP) titled Archaeology sparks new conflict between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese, published in (London) The Times on April 6 2010.

My response, done in the capacity of an archaeologist-historian, is to place before public knowledge the actual information provided by the present writer to JP, who in turn ‘forgot’ to record it in his article and the ideological justification that subverts information, which negates good reporting.

‘Ideology of misery’

Section of the First World media makes it its business, quite literally, to seek out ‘Information of disaster and misery’. If the said information is not in existence it then becomes their sanctified professional endeavor to create such information or blow a situation out of proportion, especially in the developing countries. It is then peppered it with inherent biases and prejudices compromising all decent standards of reporting and of human values. Such sentiments and activism never respects the long term consequences of sowing disharmony and divisions in society leading to further disasters and misery. This, in fact, is the classic art of creating misery, thriving in that misery and then posing themselves as the redeemer of misery. While one recognizes the service done by a section of the International media disseminating value-added information on humane concerns to the world at large, the track record of a section of the Western media is punctuated with dismal situations perpetuating conflict and dissension. Bad reporting, factual misinterpretation, subversion of information, doctoring of data and the application of double standards tends to negate whatever credibility any media house had crowned itself for good practice over the centuries. One expects a journalist to seek out facts and present them for the public to decide. This is expected to be done without framing such information within the mental rubric of pre conceived notions, biases, prejudices and even ignorance of the reporter.

There is a compulsive effort on the part of JP to psychologically condition the reader, especially his western audience, the Tamil-speaking community in Sri Lanka and the diapora before the media ambush. It essentially perpetuates the notion of communal identities as water-tight compartments and that there is a sustained competing interest between these two. (JP seems to have a memory loss about the vertical division between the North and East and the lost community in the tea plantations.) His argument then follows the logic of presenting a section of the population in Sri Lanka as the oppressed and the other as the oppressor, not based on class but on ethnicity. JP then moves on to tools of oppression and presents archaeological heritage as one such medium. His selection of words and construction of sentences is reminiscent of the Colonial mind-set with a mission to racialise, divide and rule, mythologize and hegemonise. Hegemony here is the authority to ‘order information’ - information that sets the benchmark by a section of the Western media to the world. Finally, he unfolds the underlying message of the ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘persecution psyche’. Implicit in this message is, after the recently concluded war against terrorism in Sri Lanka, the emergence of a new wave of cultural colonialism using archaeology and heritage as a facade.

The ease with which JP quotes the words of individuals in the construction of his story (contextually disjointed though) and his pre conceived biases and prejudices are most evident in the following lines (emphasis mine): "….the army – recruited from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority; …..the area had been populated for centuries by the ethnic Tamil minority, which is mostly Hindu; …. part of plan to "rediscover" Buddhist sites;…others want more Tamil archaeologists involved as well as foreign experts or the UN to ensure that the work is objective; President Rajapaksa, the country’s ethnic Sinhalese leader; …to colonize the area, to show it belongs to the Sinhalese; …Environment Minister and his approval is required to excavate and protect sites;Sinhala chauvinism that ultimately drove the Tigers to launch their armed struggle;… many Tamil archaeologists fled into exile overseas; …declined to be identified for fear of reprisals;… said one Tamil historian overseas, who did not want to be identified for fear of endangering relatives in Sri Lanka. Foreign archaeologists …say that the country …needs to move past the ethnic issue! In addition, JP must also rectify factual errors in his article. For instance; license to excavate or explore archaeological sites is given by the Director General of Archaeology and not by the Minister for Environment; it is Sigiriya and not Polonnaruwa that is famous for its frescoes; the last few kings of Kandy were of South Indian origin. He even identifies the LTTE as ‘rebels’!

For JP his interviews with Tamil speaking scholars and some local overseas individuals (probably from the diaspora) become a definitive bench-mark substantiating his philosophy. He even finds one British archaeologist credible enough to drive home his point. Information provided by the ‘other’, whom JP identifies as ‘Government Archaeologists’ – meaning myself and Dr. Senarath Dissanayake (Director General, Archaeology Department) is of little consequence to his central theory. The information provided by us is wilted down to about 11 sentences in the whole article! Perhaps, it did not fit in to the larger canvass of his persecution psyche and conspiracy cum misery theory! My discussion with JP on two occasions, which lasted for nearly forty five minutes, is reduced to six lines in all, and that too giving the words a different slant on the President of Sri Lanka. Most of the details I outlined about the on going work by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) using Heritage for Conflict Resolution and Peace Education are not featured even in a single line! It is therefore necessary to place before public knowledge some facts that were not printed by JP and in turn question his own parochialisms and the credibility of his reporting as well.

Contextualizing parochialism

If Mr. Page expects a miracle that makes people forget overnight the terrible incidents of the war and factors leading to that war, he is quite obviously on the wrong planet. As much as Sri Lanka will not have a ‘Truth Commission’ in the lines of South Africa (even there, has black or white apartheid ended?) a slow process of reconciliation is on track in Sri Lanka and this must be supported and nurtured in order to counter and dilute parochialisms that were always prevalent and yet prevail within sections of the Tamil speaking as well as Sinhala speaking communities. Please cite any country and community that does not have parochialisms and inherent racisms or sectional ideologies. Try the United Kingdom! One must understand that in contemporary times the archaeologist or historian has to resolve his or her professional status with ‘competing interest’ of parochial individuals and organizations anywhere in the world.

Post war scenario has placed Sri Lanka at cross roads. Whether we venture along the old destructive, parochial and confrontational path or alternatively along a path of trust, understanding and accommodation that are critical to the long term sustenance of the social fabric of this island society. This is precisely why when activities are underway – even in a limited way – to change the inward looking parochial mind set, working together on shared heritage, brining back the next generation to appreciate the wonderful diversity and plurality of this country, one must not undermine this process by appealing again and again to the primordial tribal sentiments to ignite another round of confrontations that will foster untold misery on all communities. I personally experienced the warm reception accorded to us by the teaching staff and students of University of Jaffna recently, which was an emotional experience to all of us. There was the warmth of human beings reaching out to each other devoid of any inhibitions or reservations and above all an expression of mutual respect and cordiality.

JP has not grasped the history of Sri Lanka and the essentials of the past that were read in relation to identities through Colonial and Nationalist historiography. It is easy to pick up the Colonial mind set of the Orientalist in such writings. The ideological justification for the existence of the Colonial regime was inscribed in Colonial historiography nurtured in the traditions of antiquarianism and Orientalism. They romanticized the Mediterranean Classical civilization and juxtaposed it with the barbaric cultures located to the east of its domain. This tunnel view was extended to the colonial empire in categorizing the Orient as static, despotic and backward. The White Mans’ Burden to civilize the uncivilized was carried out with great zeal and conviction. They invented the ‘Martial Races’ and the myth of the Aryan and Dravidian races including a North – South dichotomy equating physical zones with the imagined ‘racial’ habitat and provided archaeological, anthropological and historical ‘evidence’ justifying the existence of their ‘imagined communities’. Some were superior and others inferior races. The proximity to the Colonial Master (having so called ‘Aryan’ physical features) provided a particular ‘race’ and region with superior status vis a vis the other. This Colonial historiographic baggage completed with imagined races, ‘homeland’ theories and the equation of ancient material culture with racial identities was imposed on the Brown Mans’ shoulders in the late Colonial and post Colonial periods in South Asia. This was to be the ideology of radical nationalism and racism particularly in South Asia. It is common sense knowledge that this historical mindset and the baggage of identities bestowed upon us by Colonialism cannot disappear overnight and haunts us yet as the events in India and Sri Lanka unfold even in contemporary times.

Following a near four hundred years of Colonial occupation and a thirty year war, problems of globalization including aggressive evangelical movements’ one must understand issues of identity formation, fears of cultural dilution and even social and class dislocation that is common to any community that has undergone such a traumatic experience and their response to it. The uses and misuses of history by almost every nation and every country in the world, including Sri Lanka, have been discussed in our previous writings and published locally and internationally. We have been working for over two decades towards understanding diversity, shared culture and plurality under very volatile and difficult circumstances facing a barrage of threats and criticisms from racist elements on both sides of the fence. Even under such trying circumstances, young school children and undergraduates of various ethnic and religious origins (a majority of them as Mr. Page would call ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’) participated with absolute conviction and resolution in programs on cultural plurality and shared culture. It is through their discussions, debates, exhibitions, publications and even poetry writing that we were able to evolve the concept known as Heritage for Conflict Resolution. This concept in its definitive form was presented by us in 2007 at Kathmandu under the title People to People Connectivity and Peace Interaction: Redefining Heritage for Conflict Resolution (Published by the Embassy of Sri Lanka. Kathmandu).

In my own writings in the past I have been strongly critical of state sponsored organizations for its parochialism. Two wrongs do not make a right. As much as there are individuals and organizations that subscribe to parochial views in the south Mr. Page seems to forget the subversion of history carried out in the north and east where the LTTE fine tuned that process consolidating parochial identities on the one hand and simultaneously carrying out ethnic cleansing consolidating its ideology of a mono culture or the Dravidian race on the other. JP claims that "many Tamil archaeologists fled into exile overseas". He may wish to be educated that some brilliant historians and archaeologists of Jaffna University fled this country when the LTTE forced them to rewrite the history of the Tamil speaking people from their point of view. In his most valued book (The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity. 2005) Professor K. Indrapala inscribed the following moving dedication "To the innocents who lost their lives as a direct consequence of misinterpretation of history" which is a must read line by all blood-thirsty social fascists in any community. These scholars did not accept parochialism and the falsification of history. One cannot sweep under the carpet the lives of Rajini Tiranagama, Neelan Thiruchelvam and Laksman Kadirgamar (to mention a few) that were permanently lost to the Tamil-speaking community when they were physically eliminated by the LTTE.

In this sense JP’s statement that it is "Sinhala chauvinism that ultimately drove the Tigers to launch their armed struggle" is a simple reduction of a complex historical problem into one line and simultaneously missing out several chapters in the history of Colonialism and post Colonial racist nationalism leading to such an unfortunate mind set in this island.

In our recent studies, we have emphasized the need to de-mythologize such parochial identities (in the south or north Sri Lanka) and the need to have an objective view of historical processes. The ground realities of the sub continental situation also demand that scholarly studies in reading the past must be devoid of parochialism, especially for the purpose educating the next generation of identities and its underlying social ideology. Humane and socially aware intellectuals must proceed beyond the narrow confines of the mere exercise of the academic. It calls for a critical examination of the untold misery caused by ethnic conflict in the former colonies of Britain and post Communist countries of Europe. It is also their social responsibility to provide the society at large with an alternative strategy for social change against a self-destructive path taken by social fascism dislocating historically evolved social systems in South Asia, or for that matter those found elsewhere in the world.

In this connection, there are two fundamental issues that need to be answered. First, at what point of time do individuals, groups or organizations stand up and begin to think of remedial strategies to rectify the wrongs and injustices in reading the past? Second, as much as one respects ones own heritage inherited from birth, it is an imperative and social responsibility to respect the heritage of one’s neighbour and in the context of Sri Lanka (as well as most countries) appreciate diversity and the shared culture that is historically endowed to us - which is indeed a living reality.

Given below is a long list of remedial strategies that have been applied in our individual capacity and through government agencies leading to inclusiveness. Most activities of the Central Cultural Fund in the past two years were carried out with the knowledge and directives of the President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

CCF and inclusiveness

Well before the war ended professional archaeologists were looking at remedial strategies in the application of non-parochial and professional archaeology in Sri Lanka. A team led by Dr. Siran Deraniyagala (former Director General of Archaeology) formulated the National Archaeology Policy under the aegis of the Archaeology Department of Sri Lanka, which was officially enacted in 2006 by an Act of Parliament. Its policy implementation statement notes the following in Section 3.iv (my emphasis):

The programs and related projects for achieving the above-mentioned objectives require to be formulated as a master plan on short-, medium- and long-term bases.  It shall be reviewed, and revised if necessary, once every three years, or as the need arises. In order to eliminate parochial bias, the review panel will consist of Sri Lankan and international professional archaeologists of proven competence. Codes of practice for implementing the master plan shall be formulated.These will be reviewed, and revised if necessary, once every five years or as the need arises.

Following this, the CCF unfolded its year 20/20 work program at an official ceremony known as Heritage Excellence 2007. The mission statement to the next generation of archaeologist announced at that program read:

"The science of archaeology is problem-oriented and issue-related. It is essentially a multi disciplinary study investigating, documenting, interpreting and presenting human expressions, experiences and behavior patterns of the past to its rightful inheritors, the next generation. The archaeologist investigating the past is a scientist who is objective, unbiased and unprejudiced. Above all, an archaeologist is a humanist and social activist who does not fear the past or compromises the future".

At the same program the CCF also redefined heritage and its parameters for related futuristic activities. Heritage was situated beyond culture per se. In this redefinition heritage came to be based on four integral components - Environment, Culture, and Knowledge from the past and the Next Generation. The CCF since then has undertaken a series of activities and has left behind a permanent bench-mark for pockets good practice on heritage management especially disseminating professional standards and information to the next generation devoid of parochialisms.

Enumerated blow is a list of such activities, also mentioned in my conversation with Mr. Page, that were disregarded in his article.

* The CCF was involved in the Galle heritage city conservation program since 2005 with Netherlands funding. It preserved relics of the Colonial culture devoid of parochialism. The CCF was presented with the Asia-Pacific Award for excellence by UNESCO for its high quality conservation of the Dutch Reformed Church in Galle.

* In 2007 the CCF completed the multi religious museum at Kataragama. At the inaugural ceremony the President emphasized the significance of Kataragama as a place of convergence for different cultures and religions. The significance of and the Pilgrims Route or Pada yatra originating from the north reaching Kataragama was remembered as a medium of connectivity and shared culture. (The Pada Yatra is now reviewed to be listed as a World Heritage under Intangible Heritage).

* In 2008 the Cabinet of Ministers passed the mandatory rule of adhering to all three languages in all government notices. Based on that directive, all display panels at Museums managed by the CCF since 2007 are presented in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. (Until then most of the panels were only in the Sinhala language).

* In 2008 the Cabinet of Ministers gave a directive to list all heritage sites important to all religious groups and prioritize their development for the pilgrims and tourists. The CCF initiated cultural mapping and commenced data gathering from the Provincial Councils.

* In 2009 a secular museum was established (with Japanese funding) at the Sigiriya World Heritage site, which was inaugurated by the President.

* In 2010 the Galle Marine Archaeology Museum was inaugurated by the President. This museum is a show piece of the diversity expressed in the culture of this island. Its presentations celebrate all diverse religions, cultures, languages and ethnicities that peopled this island. The introduction to the souvenir presented to the President at that occasion carried the following lines: "Sri Lanka was peopled by periodic community intrusions and interactions since the Stone Age resulting in the introduction of a variety of ideas, technological traditions, dialects, and belief systems into this island. The central location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Rim on the one hand and its centrality between two World systems to the West and the East of the Indian Ocean on the other, provides a unique representation of the world culture blended in the ethos of this island society. As a consequence, the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka also represents a habitat of multicultural and varied biological identities. The Sri Lankan mosaic, coloured by a vivid multi-cultural, multi-ethnic island society and nurtured by a rich cultural legacy inherited from the past, is best represented in an encapsulated version in the Maritime Archaeology Museum at Galle. This museum is the first of its kind in the SAARC region showcasing the oceanic heritage of an island society. The unique display in this museum presents three thousand years of trans-oceanic connectivity and the cultural plurality of Sri Lanka. Archaeological objects, dioramas, beautifully designed tri-lingual panels, electronic and visual presentations unfold the rich multi-cultural inheritance of this island. The narration unfolds itself into different facets of human experiences and expressions associated with religio-cultural aspects and socio-economic interactions highlighting a multitude of impacting factors shaping the personality of this island society from the Pre Historic to the Colonial Period. It is indeed the privilege of the Central Cultural Fund, the Custodian organization of UNESCO declared World Heritage Sites, to present the Maritime Archaeology Museum as another value-added facet of the World Heritage Site of Galle and as a gift to humanity!"

* President’s directive to list Hindu and other religious sites as UNESCO declared World Heritage sites. The UNESCO – Sri Lanka Commission has already chartered a plan to incorporate Munneshwaram (Chilaw), Tiruketishvaram (Mannar), Koneshwaram (Trincomalee) and Nakuleshwaram(Point Pedro) as Ports & Kovil complex to be listed as World Heritage sites. Discussions initiated by the Sri Lanka – UNESCO Commission are already underway, with the participation of several Tamil speaking scholars and academics.

* Board of Management of the CCF (Chaired by the Prime Minister) ratified the proposal naming Polonnaruwa as an Icon site for multi-cultural Presentation. This is the first time a UNESCO World Heritage Site has been named in definite terms for its character representing diversity. (Polonnaruwa has the greatest concentration of Hindu and Buddhist sites in one single complex in the whole of South Asia). The project proposal prepared by the CCF to conserve the Shiva Devale is now ready to be submitted for overseas funding.

* Directive given to incorporate staff and students of the Universities of North and East in archaeological/heritage work. Under this program a. Archaeological Department has already invited the Professor of Archaeology at Jaffna University to be consultant to the Conservation Project at the Jaffna Fort and the participation of students of that Department in the said conservation. b. The Central Cultural Fund (CCF) undertook a capacity building program in Training the Trainers at Jaffna University in March 2010 with UNESCO assistance in order to train heritage managers who will manage the heritage sites in the North and East. c. Heritage books gifted to the Department of Archaeology, University of Jaffna by the CCF.

* Diaspora tourism initiative taken up by the CCF to receive all Sri Lankan origin visitors at the World Heritage Sites and the plan to publish additional books in Sinhala, Tamil and English with children arriving from overseas as the primary target group.

* Completion of the report on North East Coastal Development Project in 2009 which recorded all heritage sitesand multi cultural communities and their cultural practices (both tangible and intangible heritage) for tourism development.

* Nurturing UNESCO School Clubs in Kandy by the CCF for programs on cultural diversity and shared cultures. These school clubs are made up of different denomination and government schools and they join together for programs understanding diversity, heritage conservation and peace education.

* An illustrated catalogue of all Hindu monuments, art and sculpture found at the World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka is under preparation by the CCF.

Mr. Page was informed of most of these aspects carried out by or through the CCF, a government agency, not to mention such work the writer has initiated for over two decades in his personal capacity (as a University academic) towards fostering greater understanding among communities. In this connection, among other such activities, I wish to make a special note of my personal involvement with the Institute of Social Development in Kandy in setting up a Museum depicting the history of Plantation Workers (located near Gampola) and also reviving the Kotthu dance tradition that was fast disappearing. Here is a Tamil-speaking community forgotten by the Western media and the diaspora alike. In 2005, the present writer with the assistance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, coordinated by Ambassador Sumith Nakandala, carried out a study tour for 12 research officers of the CCF in South India as an exposure to the Shared Culture between Sri Lanka and South India, which is considered as the ‘other’ and the ‘enemy region’ in our history books. May I now question where parochial Buddhist archaeology comes into the agenda of all what the CCF has done in the period immediately before the war ended and in the post war period and how and why Mr. Page considered the above information irrelevant to his article?

The TamilNet in its addendum to JP’s article (on April 10) notes that the present writer "…is now put to implement Colombo’s agenda in subtle ways, was the comment heard in the sidewalks". Conversely, a section of the diaspora and its media, who enjoy the comforts of the First World must come to terms with the fact that there are individuals and organizations in the North and South of Sri Lanka who oppose a totalitarian social fascist system of governance and genuinely believe in inclusiveness, shared culture and co existence. If the above activities I have enumerated represent a ‘hidden agenda’, I then rest my case!

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