By P. K. Balachandran
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has threatened to go to court if the Presidential Task Force on Archaeology in the Eastern Province acts contrary to the provisions of the Antiquities Act and usurps the powers of the Director General of Archaeology (DGA).
The Tamils have been dismayed by the fact that the Presidential Task Force has no Tamil or Muslim members, though the Tamils and Muslims together outnumber the Sinhalese Buddhists in the Eastern Province. However, TNA spokesman, M. A. Sumanthiran MP, said a legal issue would occur only when the Antiquities Act is violated or if the Task Force usurps the powers of the Director General of Archaeology as defined in the Antiquities Act.
“Therefore, we will have to wait and see how the Task Force functions,” he said.
As per the Antiquities Ordinance 1940, no excavation can be undertaken except with a licence from the Director-General of Archaeology (DGA). No person shall excavate for the purpose of discovering antiquities, whether on land belonging to him or otherwise, except under the authority of a licence issued by the DGA.
The DGA, may, in his discretion, grant or refuse any application for a licence to excavate. The owner of the land where the proposed excavation is to be made has to consent to the excavation. The proposed excavation will not cause any damage or inconvenience to persons residing in the vicinity of such land, or to any place used for religious purposes, or to any cemetery, school, water source, irrigation work or public road, or that if any such damage is likely to be caused adequate provision has been made by the applicant for the payment of compensation thereof. The applicant should furnish security for the due observance by him of the provisions of this Ordinance or any regulation.
Legal aspect aside, there is also a politico-historical dimension to the issue which could gain public attention and trigger communalism.
The Tamils are deeply concerned about the absence of Tamil and Muslim archaeologists in the Task Force while there is a surfeit of Buddhist monks. . The leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) R. Sampanthan has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to correct the anomaly in ethnic representation in the Task Force.
Archaeologists themselves are grossly under-represented in the Task Force. Only two archaeologists, the Director-General of Archaeology, Dr. Senarath Bandara Dissanayake,and Dr. Raj Somadeva of Kelaniya University are members.
The Tamils fear the Task Force being heavily loaded in favour of the Sinhala-Buddha Sasana, and headed by Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Kamal Gunaratne, would ignore archaeological sites of interest to the Tamils or forcibly prevent research on Tamil history to prove that the Eastern Province is the historical ‘Sinhala-Buddhist” Homeland and not part of a historic ‘Tamil’ Homeland in Sri Lanka.
Prof. S. Pathmanathan, formerly of the History Department of Peradeniya University, has said that funds for research in Tamil history and archaeology are hard to get. In Digamadulla, in the Ampara district, Buddhists and Muslims have clashed over archaeological sites.
Local media on Wednesday (26) reported that the president had, in an extraordinary gazette notification, added four senior members of the Buddhist clergy to the existing Presidential Task Force constituted in June, increasing its size to 15.
The new appointees are: the Asgiriya Chapter Abhidhana Anunayaka, Ven Vendaruwe Dharmakeerthi Sri Rathanapala Upali Thera; Malwathu Chapter General Secretary, Ven. Dr. Pahamune Sumangala NayakaThera; Asgiriya Chapter General Secretary, Dr. Ven. Medagama Dhammananda NayakaThera; and Karaka Sangha Sabha member of the Malwathu Chapter, Ven. Ambanwalle Sri Sumangala Thera.
Explaining the move, the government said “Since many of the archaeological heritages in the Eastern Province are based on the Buddhist religious background and associated with those places of worship, it has been recognized that the guidance and patronage of the Venerable Maha Sangha is still needed in the identification and management of those heritages.”
When it was set up in June, the Task Force had Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera and the Chief Prelate for the Northern and Eastern Provinces Ven. Panamure Thilakawansha Thera.
The other members of the expanded Task Force are: Archaeology Director-General, Dr. Senarath Bandara Dissanayake; Land Commissioner General, Chandra Herath; Surveyor General, A.L.S.C. Perera; University of Kelaniya, Senior Lecturer, Prof. Raj Kumar Somadeva; University of Peradeniya, Medical Faculty Lecturer, Prof. Kapila Gunawardena, Western Province Senior DIG, Deshabandu Tennakoon; Eastern Province Provincial Land Commissioner, H.E.M.W.G. Dissanayake and Derana Media Network Chairman, Dilith Jayaweera. Senior Assistant Secretary to the President Jeevanthie Senanayake was named Secretary of the Task Force.
The members of the Task Force have been tasked with identifying sites of archaeological importance in the Eastern Province and implementing an appropriate program for the management of archaeological heritage by conserving and restoring such identified sites and antiquities.
It has also been tasked with identifying the extent of land that should be allocated for such archaeological sites; taking necessary measures to allocate them properly and legally; preserving the cultural value of sites of archaeological importance; promoting the uniqueness of Sri Lanka, both locally and internationally; and making recommendations for the promotion of such heritages.
The president has issued directives to the Department of Archaeology to respond to requests made by the Maha Sangha to preserve antiquities and historical sites. The possibility of obtaining the services of the Civil Defence Force in the implementation of the program of conserving archaeological sites and antiquities had also been discussed at the session.
President Gotabaya is set to amend the Antiquities Ordinance in order to strengthen the preservation of antiquities and historical national heritage. The Task Force will be expected to suggest amendments. Meanwhile, the President’s Media Unit said measures will be taken to increase the annual fund allocated to the Department of Archaeology and to address the shortage of employees.