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Kurundi issue and the problem of identity

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s standoffs and encounters with State officials have always been the stuff of legend. He does not mince his words, even if he betrays his hostility to these officials. At a meeting with representatives from the Archaeology Department and Tamil MPs, the latter including the TNA’s M.A. Sumanthiran, he gave a severe tongue-lashing to the Department’s Director General, Professor Anura Manatunga. The incident reveals much about the President, but also the present state of politics in Sri Lanka and where I think it is headed. An appraisal of the meeting is hence called for.

The meeting, which took place on 8 June, in effect pitted the Archaeology Department against the Tamil MPs. It centred on an issue that has long plagued these MPs and their people, that of the Department’s activities in the North and East. Tamil MPs allege that the Department is abetting various interest groups to take over State lands belonging to their people in the guise of protecting and preserving the country’s heritage. These takeovers are seen as encroachments, and more problematically as part of a wider campaign, by Buddhist Monks and Sinhala nationalists, to “Buddhicise” the North and East.

The specific area that formed the subject of the 8 June discussion was the Kurundi Rajamaha Viharaya or the Kurundawashoka Ruins in Mullaitivu. As with nearly every archaeological excavation in the region, this has been fiercely contested by both Tamils and Buddhists. The latter have been particularly insistent on the land being taken over, and until June or July last year, efforts were underway to “restore” the area as a Buddhist Temple. I am not aware of the exact historicity of the site, but I am aware of how claims that such places “belong” to one ethnic group or another tend to reinforce a multiplicity of narratives, each promoted as more valid, and more historically accurate, than the other.

A sidenote on history would be in order here. The Kurundi issue intrudes on two sensitive themes: the presence of a Tamil Buddhist culture in the North and East and the historicity of ethno-religious labels. The first issue has been written on and discussed by the likes of G.P.V. Somaratna, who argue not so much that these places belong to Sinhalese or Tamil people as that they have fuelled narratives and counternarratives which overstep “the boundaries of academic impartiality”. This works both ways: Sinhalese claims of exclusive ownership of these sites are wrong if not misplaced, but so are Tamil ultranationalist denials of a Buddhist presence in them. As for the second issue, the likes of R.A.L.H. Gunawardana have noted that ethnoreligious labels, and nationalist ideologies, are never fixed: meanings change, and there are no eternal categories, especially with regard to identities.

Unfortunately, the polarisation we are witnessing today is not conducive to such readings of history. But there is a wider, more important dimension to the whole issue. As Director General of the Archaeology Department, Professor Anura Manatunga did, admittedly, have a responsibility to defuse these tensions. Yet, bureaucracies are not what they used to be. In that sense, one can validly ask whether the President was correct in laying the blame for the problem on Professor Manatunga’s doorstep. The President’s stance was right, perfectly so: the fact of the matter is that claims and counterclaims will not get us anywhere, especially at a time when the country has to be united. But these issues go beyond, indeed I would say well beyond, one man. In that sense the (mostly Tamil) MPs and activists now advocating an institutional appraisal of the issue are in the right.

Since I am not fully aware of what goes on in the Archaeological Department, I am not at liberty to comment on how it operates and who is to blame. But I do know, from President Wickremesinghe’s recent interventions, that nationalist groups, including Buddhist Monks, have been at the forefront of pushing the Department to take over and excavate certain sites in the North and East. The argument is that these are Buddhist and Sinhalese – the one is, of course, conflated with the other – sites that immediately need to be protected at whatever cost. President Wickremesinghe’s recent critique of the Archaeology Department obtaining funding from Buddhist Monks is telling. It reveals that the issue predates and goes beyond one official. In that sense, how right would it be to censure Professor Manatunga? If the Department has fallen prey to one interest group, would it not be that he has become helpless, his arms tied behind his back, as with so many other Ministries and State institutions?

It is on this basis that I would like to give Professor Manatunga the benefit of the doubt, without in any way discounting the problems that cropped up at the 8 June discussion. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stance on the matter is not wrong. Unlike Opposition MPs critiquing his move as theatrics, I would say that he has taught us all a history lesson we need to learn from, urgently. But to assume that Professor Manatunga has to take the sole blame for these problems is, I think, somewhat amiss. It would be to assume that a public official, even at Director General level, should be censured for the actions and inactions of more powerful interest groups. The latter have to be included in these discussions, and State officials, however, authoritative, cannot be allowed to become scapegoats.

In that sense, I think we should all read, and translate to Sinhala and Tamil, one of the most seminal historical essays ever written in Sri Lanka: Senake Bandaranayake’s ‘The Peopling of Sri Lanka.’ Professor Bandaranayake’s closing lines remain as valid then as it is now: “A study of Sri Lankan history, stripped of its myths and distortions and free of communalist bias on one side or the other, can do much to contribute to the historic process of the formation of an integrated polyethnic modern nation.” As one of Bandaranayake’s students, Manatunga, I think, recognises and affirms this. The Kurundi issue is a pivotal one, and it is incumbent on us all to debate it as much as we can, being mindful that narratives and counternarratives do little to help us understand our past – or forge a road to the future.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].

By Uditha Devapriya

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