A Response to “Is Dr Sudharshan Seneviratne a suitable envoy to India under Narendra Modi”?
Posted on April 12th, 2014

by Bandu de Silva

With reference to Shenali Waduge’s article, I find that my article (two parts) published in 2007 s not accessible on the Internet though the title is present. Therefore, I am repeating it below.

A look at an Insider’s Challenge to History   – Brown Sahibs and Cultural definitions

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.

Jetevana stupa- Impact of Postmodernism

The impact of the debate on Postmodernism has spread to fields of humanities like history, archaeology, not to speak of soft furnishing and bathroom fittings, from its original application to areas like architecture and arts (1960s). It seems to me that the extension of the application of Postmodernism to these other areas is more a fashion than scientific; and depends to a larger extent on the manipulation of the language, greater use of terminology, whose foundations are vague, with greater use of `irony and rhetoric.’ In Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne’s article one can recognize elements of these Postmodern ideas that a galaxy of modern writers on the theory of knowledge have expounded in their own terminology and language. One thing common to all of them is that they seek to `deconstruct’ old structures which were based on genealogy and other factors, which our scholar himself claims he is doing. From this arises other derivations like bringing ` responsibility to the heart of history,’ a responsibility to describe the life of those who were silenced in the past.’ (Edith Wyschogrod): These are the same ideas that are being recycled in Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne’s article. However, he does not claim that he is entering the space of the debate on knowledge, which of course, is never ending, despite the bright sparks that emerge out of it.

However, in presenting his thesis, it is the UNESCO terminology like “cultural pluralism’, `respect for other cultures’, demystifying all forms of parochialisms in a scientific manner’, that our scholar has chosen to wrap up his presentation and as its authority. The manifestations of this jarring common vocabulary of that Organization, have been circulating for over three decades as I remember when I was closely associated with its cultural debate under its cultural studies and cultural heritage programmes. I myself profusely used this jargon in my interventions in the General Conference sessions from Nairobi to Paris and to Belgrade so much so that an offer of professional category post came my way even without my applying for one. That is how the organization sometimes picks up its men and women and I do not see anything wrong in that. One gets into UNESCO’s seminar circuit and it also benefits when such persons are absorbed because they already speak the UNESCO language and the need for in-house orientation is minimized.

This is no way to look at the transcendental thinking presented by Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne who is one of our leading modern interpreters of pre-historic archaeology but I referred to UNESCO because he himself quoted it as his authority in the use of terminology. I have no intention of trying to bring him into a comparative relationship with Dr.Siran Deraniyagala who, as far as I knew, was Sri Lanka’s first professional pre-historic archaeologist, and an expert of international standing, whose exclusively scientific methodology has impressed me as a keen reader on archaeology from the time I was one of the three pioneering students at the University of Ceylon when archaeology was first introduced (1950-51) as a subject though in rudimentary form. The absence of the slightest evidence of rhetoric and introduction of any political ramifications of local or international kind in the works of Dr.Deraniyagala is too significant to go without mention.

In contrast, I find it difficult to discern such clear manifestations in both serious writings as well as the newspaper articles of Prof. Seneviratne’s under discussion. The display by him of the tendency towards a certain mood of impatience in treating any other discourses with the use of terminology such as `anti-Orwillian historians; or lumpent intellectuals (who) belong to dust bin of history.” (The Island, dated 04 / 08 / 2001); quoted by Dr.K.Indrapala, are alien to serious scholarship. It seems to be part of the transcendental mediation of assumed `superiority’ of the scholar’s method which runs through his writing.

It would be rather awkward for a layman like me to make the simple observation that in the academia, controversy is often common. This is a point that Andreas Wegner, Professor of International Security Policy and Director of the Centre of Security at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and his co-researcher Doron Zimaarman, brought out more recently in relation to the study of both international relations and history. They wrote: “Notably, experts do not agree but lack of consensus does not so much denote controversy as it emphasizes a variety of perspectives enriching both academic disciplines”.(Wegner & Zimmerman: International relations, Lynee Ryner, U.S.A, & Viva, New Delhi).

Others have said it before. Even a scholar like S.J.Tambiah, who pleaded for recognition of `multiple discourses’ on any given subject could not be pleased with these remonstrations, (`Betrayal of Buddhism’), but for a scholar like Dr.K.indrapala, it was grist for the mill. For him, even a newspaper article, written by Prof.Seneviratne, obviously meant for non-sophisticated readers, was good enough to be used in his denouncement of other reputed historians, e.g., to have a special section in his book devoted to Dr.Paranavitana, dragging even Prof.Leslie Gunawardana, one of his oft quoted authorities and not sparing Prof.K.M.de Silva and Prof. C.R.De Silva to the murky dialogue.(K.Indrapala: `The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, The Tamils of Sri Lanka’).

Now, returning to UNESCO’s views on the cultural question, one may ask whose primary interests the organization is representing in the present unipolarized and `globalized’ world? Gone are the days when one heard the voice of the developing world more; of such themes as `The International Economic Order’, action to keep Multi-nationals in check. One saw how, even then subjects like media freedom and artistic freedom were manipulated in favour of Western countries. In retrospect, even looking at the cultural question, in the light of views presented on the issue of `orientalism’ ” the `Brown Sahibs’ ” one begins to see a Western tilt in that dialogue, where Western cultural supremacy dominates the cultural space as now advocated by President Bush through his claim of `civilizational clash’ and the undisguised `denouncement of Islam. In short, the Sword of Damocles held by the West which is ever ready to withdraw financial and scientific support weighs heavily on this organization. It is not that Macaulay’s thesis is not relevant today; it works in a far more subtle way.

It is true that the UNESCO’s thinking is inspired by the thoughts which its founding fathers imbued into it, and one can even see something of the oriental philosophical thought in it on its basic conceptions, and that the idea of promoting international harmony through the disciplines of UNESCO’s competence ”education, science and culture, communication later added ” and notably, its cultural programme both cultural studies and cultural heritage, by and large, try to promote that primary goal, but in the real operation, it is the Western ideas which seems to dominate the intellectual stream of thinking.

As such, there is nothing sacrosanct in invoking UNESCO to sustain decades old concepts on multi-culturalism whose effects have been negative in many instances and even counterproductive. The ideas of cultural pluralism and respect for other people’s culture have helped marginalized communities who previously did not think in terms of cultural identity to assert themselves to some degree; but in societies where there are over-active culture conscious communities, the promotion of cultural identity seems to have generated proportionately over-enthusiasm and minority chauvinism on one hand, and the response of majority chauvinism, on the other hand, leading to exacerbation of tension and conflict. Sri Lanka is a case in point where international sanction is used as the very reason for demand of parity by smaller communities.

Reference was made earlier briefly to certain intellectual forces which advocate parity of status to smaller groups (e.g., Wyschogrod) however insignificant their contribution to the `heritage pot’ may be. That could extend from language to territorial demand and even to demand the removal of a historical situation like the honoured place given to a certain religion despite the mention in the constitution does not lead to a discrimination against other religions. On the contrary, UNESCO’s above mentioned outlook and that of a few other intellectuals has not had an effect on Western societies like U.K and Norway where far more special treatment is given to a single religion to the extent of making [them] the status of `state religions.’ The contrast shows how in certain societies, when over-stimulated as it was in the Reich, ideas of cultural pluralism can lead to `parochialism’ working in a reverse direction.

In constructing the idea of `shared culture’  et al, Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne has, like Dr.Indrapala, used what I quoted as `scraps’ of evidence, leaving out evidence of greater bearing. This type of imbalance in appreciation of cultural contributions of one group to the overwhelming advantage of others, though introduced in order to support the overall thesis of parity of contributions irrespective of the degree and volume of respective contributions with the further objective of subscribing to the idea of conflict resolution, is a distortion of historical reality.

3 Responses to “A Response to “Is Dr Sudharshan Seneviratne a suitable envoy to India under Narendra Modi”?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Taking Sudharshan Seneviratne OUT if archaeology top post is GOOD.

    That allows the govt. appoint a MORE patriotic person there. LITTLE OR NOTHING has been done until now to re-establish SINHALA BUDDHIST sites in the north.

    May be govt. should find a different job for him.

  2. nilwala Says:

    It is certainly mind-boggling how some of these appointments that have very serious impact on this country are made. Judging from the facts placed before us by two committed and patriotic writer/analysts of the caliber of both Shenali Waduge and Bandu de Silva, who sense well the international ramifications and impact of the mindset/bias and performance record of this appointee, it would be wise for the GoSL to reconsider Dr, Sudharshan Seneviratne’s appointment as envoy to India, especially in this post-Geneva situation.

    Seems to be the wrong assignment at the wrong time for this appointee.

  3. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    I do not care if the Mahatma or some other Patriotic Indian comes out and claims but the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are NOT in any definision of the term “historical documents”. show me some flying monkeys and I will retrieve that statement.
    Except for a couple of examples of short historical documents, India is bereft of a written history. However India does have an oral history.

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