By P.K. Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, May 8: During a discussion on the 178th Anniversary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL) in Colombo on April 27, President Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke of his plan to establish an “Institute of History” to coordinate the work of institutions dealing with the history of Sri Lanka.
The Institute of History, he said, would liaise with the RASSL, the museums, archives, the archaeological department, university departments of history and the Cultural Triangle so that history is promoted on rational lines.
The proposal is both laudable and timely because history studies had taken a backseat in Sri Lanka due to sensitivities over historical events in the context of nation-building after independence amidst the prickly ethnic issue.
“A lot of people now don’t study history,” the President observed. “And then you have different versions of history. What is worse, archaeology seems to have gone on a trip on its own. So we have to slowly get them back to work on history (in a proper way),” Wickremesinghe said.
It is a pity that historical studies have suffered in Sri Lanka, in contrast to the work done on Indian history by both Indian and Western scholars. Recorded history in the Indic civilization began, not in India, but in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicle “Mahawamsa”, which covered the period between 6th century BC and early 4th century AD, is not only the world’s first written historical document but had much to say about the history of India. It has been a major source for Indian historians as Indian history has been oral rather than written.
However, useful as it has been, the Mahawamsa had become controversial in the post-independence nationalistic phase. Its contents, which portrayed the Sinhala-Buddhist viewpoint, were used to prop up the theory that Sri Lanka was, and is, a Sinhala Buddhist country and that the Tamils were, and are, the “Other”, an interloper and not indigene. This naturally irked the politically marginalized Tamils who, in turn, accused the Sinhala-Buddhist minority of having a “domineering Mahawamsa mindset”.
Prior to Sri Lanka’s independence, the focus of the history curriculum in the university was on Medieval and Modern European History. The first substantial revision of the undergraduate curriculum was carried out in the 1950s under the guidance of Prof. H.C. Ray, when Sri Lankan History was made compulsory. The Department of History in Peradeniya University was one of the very strong departments in the Faculty of Arts in the 1950s and 60s both in terms of staff strength and student numbers.
But the situation changed for the worse in the 1970s. “Social studies” yielded place to history at the school level to curb the increasing practice of using history for social and political mobilization. The two main antagonistic political communities, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were using history to pop up their competing demands.
As a result, the Department of History at Peradeniya declined considerably. While student numbers declined, qualified scholars like C. R. de Silva, Michael Roberts, Vijaya Samaraweera, and Jayadeva Hettiarachchi, quit. Between 1976 and 1980 the government froze cadre positions of the Department of History. It was not until 1991 that the cadre positions were restored. History had been re-introduced as a separate subject in schools. More students took history as a subject.
But what was, and is, taught in schools and universities has been an issue because both history and archeology have remained politically weaponized. Battles between ancient Sri Lankan kingdoms documented in the Mahavamsa were portrayed as evidence of a long-standing Sinhalese-Tamil conflict. According to an article in “Groundviews” this is reflected in the Sinhala Grade 6 history syllabus. It claims that the Sinhalese King Dutugemunu defeated the Tamil, ‘foreign’ ruler Elara in a war to protect Buddhism, to ‘reunite the country’ and ‘liberate it from foreign rule’.
In contrast, the Tamil Grade 6 history syllabus described Elara as a leader who ruled ‘with justice’. Sinhala chronicles themselves acknowledged that Dutagamunu highly respected Elara as a ruler. According to historian Leslie Gunawardana, Dutugemunu’s campaign against Elara was not a “Sinhala-Tamil confrontation” but one of many battles “against several independent principalities.”
In a post-graduate thesis entitled: “Perpetuating the Divide: History Teaching and Reconciliation in Post-War Trincomalee”, Jacob Hansen-Shearer of the University of Amsterdam says that school teachers in both the Sinhala and Tamil streams considered history to be very important. But the Tamil teachers were angry that the government-approved textbooks did not reflect the Tamil view of their past.
The Tamils’ history is “ignored, misinterpreted, or even changed,” the Tamil teachers said. “They feel there is a concerted effort to marginalize, or erase, the role of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. There is an anger and resentment, directly felt from the teachers, but also reported from parents and others, about this curriculum, with most of the blame being directed at the government and politicians.”
But the Tamil teachers had acquiesced to the fact that they do not have any control. “Some of the teachers had in fact been invited to government workshops, aimed at improving the curriculum. On the face of things, this seems like a positive development, an attempt at representation and recognition of Tamil perspectives, as mentioned in the theoretical framework. But when asked about what actually took place at these workshops, it became clear that the Tamils invited were largely tokenistic, and that their views were generally discounted. Oftentimes these meetings took place after the curriculum had been written, and the teachers were merely invited to comment on it, without having any influence over the content,” Jacob Hansen-Shearer noted.
He further said though the curriculum is rewritten every five years, the majoritarian view has only strengthened its grip on it.
The Tamil teachers said that they teach two versions of history but do not press the students to write the Tamil view because to get marks they will have to write what is written in the textbook. Primarily interested in passing the exam, the students stick to the textbook version, which is the Sinhala-majoritarian view.
Hansen-Shearer also noted that the civil war is not addressed in the classrooms of Trincomalee. “I perhaps naively thought that it was something that would be unavoidable when discussing the post-independence history of Sri Lanka, at the very least. The civil war is not a topic in any of the textbooks. This is a choice of the government,” he says.
As President Wickremesinghe pointed out in his talk at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, archeology has “gone on a trip on its own.” Archeology is a highly contested discipline in Sri Lanka because on it rests the competing claims of the warring communities, the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
The Tamils complain that archeological remains pertaining to them are not being explored and studied. Evidence of relics is erased. There is also an effort to portray Buddhist archeological remains in the Tamil areas as Sinhala-Buddhist in character, and not Tamil, though Buddhism was practiced by the Tamils at one point of time in these areas.
According to Tamil archeologist/historian Professor S.Pathmanathan, the universities and government institutions do not encourage archeological work pertaining to the Tamils.
Writing in “Colombo Telegraph” Rajan Philips says that the Archeological Task Force (ATF) set up by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government was instructed 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.”
Since this task involved land acquisition, the Task Force was 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 a euphemism for state land grab in the name of heritage, remarks Philips. The Tamils have bitterly complained about land grabs of this kind.
The Easter province has an equal proportion of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, and as such is an area of contestation between these groups. The quarrel is over whose land the province is, historically. In this contestation, archeology is being used by the majority Sinhalese Buddhists to buttress their claims over the others.
Given the plethora of controversies, the proposed Institute of History has a challenging task waiting for it.