Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
There is a measure of dreadfully coincidental irony in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa determining this week that Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial Antiquities Ordinance must be amended in order to reverse ‘destruction caused to antiquities’ following a meeting held by his Buddhist Advisory Council even as public outrage grew over a 13th century ‘Kings Court’ in Kurunegala being summarily torn down by the town’s ruling party mayor.
Antics in regard to ancient history
The bulldozing of what is touted to be King Buvenekabahu’s ancient assembly hall by a Rajapaksa local authority acolyte had been justified on the basis of road development. We were treated to the unseemly spectacle of the embattled mayor loudly protesting to all and sundry that the site had been used for activities of ‘ill repute.’ His opponents however alleged that its demolition was to unearth buried ‘kings gold.’ As militant Buddhist monks waded into the melee and a committee of officials from the Archaeology Department concluded in interim findings that this was an archaeological site with no permission given to demolish, considerable sound and fury resulted.
Judging from the antics of the Government as well as the Opposition, it was almost as if this was the sole topic afflicting the nation. Indeed, the tactical parry and thrust of ruling ‘pohottuwa’ politicians in responding to a controversy which may otherwise have been only of passing interest, revealed the selective reading of history which has become their distinct political stamp. Its district leader and a former Minister strutted and shouted that he would not allow a ‘hair to be touched’ on the mayor’s head. Almost on cue, a ‘pohottuwa’ political ally disagreed, claiming that this was not the ‘difference’ expected from the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa Presidency and that the law would take its course.
Whether that would actually happen or not is yet to be seen. Assuredly it would be unwise to risk a wager that this would be the case. Witness for example, the astounding impropriety of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s casual remark that ‘some say that this was a royal court, others say that it was not so but this king had many queens, one of whom was a Muslim princess.’ This was only surpassed by his more astoundingly crude dig a few days later at an election rally, impliedly directed at the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa and his wife for not having children.
Fashioning an exclusivist political narrative
Even allowing for the ribaldry of election rallies, these are not remarks that can be just brushed aside at face value, particularly when emanating from the Prime Minister as opposed to some garden path provincial political hooligan on the loose at some village corner. It seems that Sri Lanka’s leaders do reflect its citizens in the casual racism, sexism and general offensiveness practiced in public gatherings and private drawing rooms alike. But to return to the issue at hand, is Sri Lanka’s history to be confined to preservation of antiquities of ‘pure’ Sinhalese disregarding the historical fact that there is no such wondrous thing given the frequent intermarriages of our ancient kings and queens with Tamil and Muslim princesses, princes or commoners as the case may be?
But as ludicrous as this may seem, archaeology seems to be the top item for public consumption on the country’s menu, days away from a general election. That is irrespective of the fact that Sri Lanka’s covid-ravaged economy is plummeting into irredeemable depths of despair with hundreds of daily wage earners loosing their jobs and unable to support their families. Hundreds more are trapped overseas despite steady increase in numbers of the infected dying in those countries. Surely the Presidential focus on the amendment of the Antiquities Ordinance is scarcely a priority in these fraught times?
Regardless, there is an unmistakable parallel with the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the East led by the Defence Secretary and including members of the Buddhist clergy which came into being earlier this year. The amendment of the Antiquities Ordinance is also to be effected through a committee including the Maha Sangha, as we are pointedly told. All this is not to random effect. Whitewashing the ancient history of this land may perchance be amusing by itself given the convolutions made necessary for that purpose but it will serve a more dangerous purpose of fashioning an exclusivist political narrative that further marginalises Sri Lanka’s minorities.
Lessons that our great kings teach us
Thus too, the Prime Minister’s reference to ‘Muslim princesses’, as seemingly casual as this may have been. But as the Kurunegala bulldozing of the ancient Court shows, the contempt displayed by petty political actors for Sri Lanka’s antiquities goes beyond ethnic lines. The difference is the selective treatment meted out to those who demolish ancient sites. If they happen to be of the majority ethnicity and most crucially are part of the political apparatus of the ruling party, impunity reigns. As the bluster of Kurunegala’s ‘pohottuwa’ leaders showed us, laws and official permissions are of no account.
Yet contrary to the dominantly racist political narrative, Sri Lanka’s history teaches us different lessons. The nation’s greatest and most venerated ancient monarchs, including Kings Dhutugemunu, Mahasen, Vijayabahu of Polonnaruwa, Parakaramabahu the Great not only built marvelous tanks as part of the hydraulic system of the Dry Zone that are feats of engineering even today but also elevated themselves and their people through righteous rule and sagacious governance.
They were known for their inclusive policies within the country as well as for cultivation of strategic partnerships overseas, sending representatives and embassies to friendly countries to build bulwarks against hostile forces. Their economic policies were not narrowly exclusivist, rejecting trade and commerce with nationalities. This is indeed how some Sinhalese kings came to have ‘Muslim princesses’ as their consorts, as Prime Minister Rajapaksa saw fit to mock in relation to King Buvenekabahu or indeed, as most Sri Lankan kings did, to have Tamil queens.
Eschewing crudely divisive strategies
But Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic history cannot be that easily whitewashed as some would like it to be. Indeed, attempts to do so would only risk the fear of the inevitable whirlwind that ensues when communal passions are inflamed for political gain as our more recent post-independence history shows. These are cautions that current rulers may do well to keep in mind as they claim dynastic monarchies of their own. Once upon a time, such crude strategies were eschewed by the Sri Lankan citizenry in 2015. Alas, the successors to Rajapaksa rule in the quarrelling Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition that came thereafter proved to be entirely unworthy of the trust placed in them by the electorate.
However that, by itself, does not means that the old racist, chauvinistic and communal games can be played in that same way without repercussions at some point or another. This is despite the haggle of desperately unworthy politicians competing for profit and power with foregone electoral conclusions at the forthcoming August general elections.
Regardless, Sri Lanka will no doubt prove its capacity to rebound, rebuild and rejuvenate as it has done so many times in the past.