COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to entrust the survey and preservation of archaeological sites in the ethnically-mixed Eastern Province to a Presidential Task Force headed by the Defense Secretary, appears to have a political objective.

Ostensibly taken at the instance of the Buddhist Advisory Council (including the Mahanayakes) the decision taken at a meeting on May 22, seems to be aimed at ensuring the hold of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) on the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency in the Lankan parliamentary elections to be held in a couple of months.

Giving the task to the Defense Secretary, who is a former Major General, conveys the political message that any decisions taken by the Task Force will be enforced in military style. This gives the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist lobby confidence that the Gotabaya government means business. This lobby believes that a manifest show of toughness is called for because Tamil nationalists (not just the pro-LTTE Eelamists) consider the North and East as their “Traditional Homeland” which had been encroached upon by the Sinhala-Buddhists in the post-independence period through systematic “colonization”.

Tamil militants had fought, albeit unsuccessfully, a 30-year war for a Homeland free of other ethnic groups. The Sinhala-Buddhist majority is apprehensive about a resurgence of the Tamil separatist movement and are anxious to reclaim what they consider to be their historical habitat which, in their view, was taken by force by Tamil speaking invaders from South India.

And it is on the Eastern Province that their eyes are set because it is here that the Sinhala-Buddhists have a foothold, forming as they do, a third of the total population.

Significantly, President Gotabaya said that several parties had voiced concerns regarding the destruction of historical monuments in the Eastern province, thus underscoring the need for tough posturing.

In a report in The Nation of October 7, 2012, Sandun Jayawardana quoted Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera as saying that “99.99 percent” of archaeological sites in the East were Buddhist and that these were under threat from different quarters. He further said that there were over 10,000 such archaeological sites in the Eastern province, but “less than 1,000” had been identified.

Jayasundara quoted Jayalath Kulasinghe of the Department of Archaeology as saying that historical records indicate that a Jaina temple was built at the site of the present Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee, and that in the 5th Century AD, King Mahasen destroyed it and built a Buddhist temple there.

Ellawala Medhananda Thera also maintained that a Buddhist temple named “Gokanna Viharaya”, built by King Mahasen, was located at the site where the Koneswaram temple now stands. “Invading armies from South India destroyed this temple, and built a Hindu kovil on top of it,” he claimed. But the Tamil consider this preposterous. They believe it is of the Ramayana era and has been in concrete from since the 7th Century.

According to Dr.Jagath Weerasinghe, Senior Professor of Archaeology at Kelaniya University, the government’s decision is part of a long-standing Sinhala-Buddhist “nationalistic” project to establish, through archaeological excavations, that the multi-ethnic Eastern province was once a Sinhala-Buddhist habitat which was appropriated by outsiders like Tamils and Muslims, over time.

This Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian project has been around since the 19th.century under British rule, he said. But it was given teeth by Valisinghe Harischandra’s campaign to get Anuradhapura as a “Sacred Site” in the 1930s and 40s. The pioneering Sri Lankan archaeologist Senarath Paranavithana’s efforts to bring nationalism into Sri Lankan archaeology coincided with Harischandra’s campaign.

Sociologists Kalinga Tudor Silva and Shahul.H. Hasbullah of Peradeniya University have said that the idea in enunciating the concept of the ‘Sacred Site’ was to make archaeological sites a mono-ethnic and mono-religious space where minorities and “the ethnic other” are not welcome. They point out that the Anuradhapura Preservation Ordinance (of 1942) which followed Harischandra’s campaign, resulted in the relocation of non-Buddhist religious establishments (churches, mosques and kovils) from the Sacred City of Anuradhapura to a new town.

Silva and Hasbullah observe that: “Religious intolerance and ethnic hatred are not so much processes emanating from the ethnically heterogeneous periphery, but rather a top-down hegemonic process whereby some members of the urban elite with a rather superficial and partial understanding of the reality at the ground level, use their influence over mass media and bureaucratic, political and legal machineries to reconstruct what they perceive as the legitimate past.”

The Tamils charge that ever since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, successive Sinhala-dominated governments have been launching agricultural “colonization” projects to encroach on areas dominated by the minority Tamils and Muslims both to change the population pattern and to claim historical rights to those lands. If the Tamils claim that the North and East of Sri Lanka constitute their “Homeland” or “historical place of habitation”, the Sinhala-Buddhists are hell bent on disproving it and also physically reclaiming these land, using their lawmaking powers, the Archeological Department and also force.

The Department of Archaeology has been used to find evidence of ancient Sinhala-Buddhist settlements in these areas. “Sri Lankan archaeologists are given to drawing political conclusions from their findings. They readily and instantly, from the pit itself, link the articles unearthed to nationalistic concerns of the present day. This is not scientific archeology. Seniors in the professions, who are imbued with such nationalism, pass it on to the younger generation,” said Prof.Weerasinghe.

He said that an ethnic bias is common among Tamil archeologists too. The Kelaniya academic also charged that excavations and studies are funded by organizations and persons with a political agenda which vitiate the approach and findings.

Recently, there was a row between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus over a bid by the Department of Archeology to excavate and erect a Buddhist Stupa at the site of a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha near the Hot Springs in Kanniya in Trincomalee district on the instruction of the then President Maithripala Sirisena.

The move to build the stupa was in utter disregard of a court injunction. The Association of Hindu Priests in Muttur alleged that after the end of war, Saivite temples were being destroyed and encroached on. It cited the Kankuveli Agathiyar Sivan Temple, Kallady Neeliamman Temple, Killiveddy Thirumangala Sivan Temple, and Kooniththeevu Maththalamalai Kundrathu Kumaran Temple in Mutur as examples.

Renowned Tamil historian and archaeologist Dr.S.Pathmanathan told Daily Express that since the British left in 1948, archeology in Sri Lanka is vitiated by rank discrimination against the Tamils. When he was Professor of History in Peradeniya University, Dr. Pathmanathan had complained that archeological projects that could show an ancient Tamil presence in Sri Lanka were not approved.

“What was encouraged by the government were projects that would show early Sinhalese Buddhist presence in what the Tamils say is their homeland. The Kanniya Stupa project is only the latest in the on-going effort at make the North East a Sinhala-Buddhist habitat,” Pathmanathan said.

Referring to the controversial archaeological site at Digavapi in Oluvil, Kalinga Tudor Silva and Shahul H. Hasbullah said that Muslim farmers around the site were afraid of losing their lands because of the project. They also resented the strong arm tactics of the government, which sent police from outside to claim the site instead of using local personnel. The archaeologists, who appeared later, were Sinhalese.

Such methods are against the ethics of archaeology said Prof.Weerasinghe. “Archaeology is a cooperative venture with the local people. Their cooperation is necessary for a successful excavation and study to come to scientifically arrived conclusions,” he said.