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Demonizing Sudharshan Seneviratne- A Narrative on Inclusivity, Coexistence, Shared culture and Demonization

by ratnawalli - January 28, 2016 at 11:24 am

Published in Ceylon Today on 28 January 2016. Read it on the e-page 7 continued on e-page 10 or web-page.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Sudharshan Seneviratne is on the stage. He looks so very dashing standing there behind the podium, a hand thrust insouciantly into a pocket holding his scarlet Don’s robe open. It’s 28 November 2013 and he is delivering the Sujatha Jayawardene Oration to the University of Colombo Alumni Association. He is taking the audience through a heritage odyssey, a visual narration of the multi-faceted personality of our island civilization. He starts with the names Sri Lanka was known by during the ancient period. Despite being spellbound, I notice that he omits a certain conspicuous name from the list. According to him the island was known in antiquity as Tambapanni, Taprobane, Serendib, Ceilo, Ceylon and finally as Sri Lanka, the ‘Resplendent Island’. Borne along the heady current of his narrative, I wonder fleetingly about the omission. Afterwards, making my way to the refreshment area, hoping to catch a few words with my favourite archaeologist, I notice in the audience Bandu De Silva, former diplomat and severe critic of Sudharshan. I decide to ignore him.

The next day, Bandu De Silva sends me an email: “What did you think of the Lecture? I thought like others he does not want to highlight the Sinhalese contribution. That is not placing things in ‘specific context’”. Bandu is being petty, I think. Is it reasonable to expect a man who famously believes in redefining heritage for conflict resolution, to ‘highlight the Sinhalese contribution’? Besides as the invitation to the Oration had promised, it was supposed to focus on Sri Lanka’s inclusive history as an island society. All the same the missing name, which amounts to a factual omission bothers me. So I email my friend Sudharshan: “I have noticed something interesting both in the Oration and in your CHOGM piece which is basically the same thing, in listing the old names for the island you have dropped Siela Deepa.  What exactly is the reason?” He replies:

“Sihala diba was a thing that completely slipped my mind. Thank you and will include it in my future introductory write ups – No reason for dropping it (my, you are the probing journalist!). I in fact prepared the slides mainly along the lines of the article (which I had written sometime back) as it was more practical and easier for a largely lay audience to follow given the maze of in between histories this country has.”


I treasure this email communication from Sudharshan Seneviratne, because it contains evidence of a Freudian slip. Was he trying to sanitize the past so that all stakeholders of Sri Lanka’s present could feel an equal sense of ownership and inclusiveness in that past, unburdened with unnecessary parochial baggage? Did he fear that an audience of laymen will get hung up on the parochial overtones of ‘Sihala Deepa’ and overlook the diversity and the shared culture of the country, which is the living reality? Or did he feel that Sihala Deepa was a singularly unfit name for an island, which due its central location and the confluence of people, cultures, ideas and technologies, evolved as a vivid ethno-cultural mosaic? We might never know. Sudharshan might never know himself without going into deep self-analysis. All we have are sign posts. In one of his earliest emails Sudharshan told me: “With all my academic training I am human after all.. This is where I work on my norm ‘an archaeologists is both a humanist and social activist’” A revealing statement in ‘Educating Jeremy Page’, a rare public response by Sudharshan to a journalist reads: “Humane and socially aware intellectuals must proceed beyond the narrow confines of the mere exercise of the academic.” Another sentence explains: “As much as one respects one’s own heritage inherited from birth, it is an imperative and social responsibility to respect the heritage of one’s neighbour and in the context of Sri Lanka (as well as most countries) appreciate diversity and the shared culture that is historically endowed to us – which is indeed a living reality.”

Sudharshan Seneviratne may be the most demonized mainstream archaeologist-historian in Sri Lanka. In March, 2013, I wrote an article entitled Getting in touch with our inner South Indian. Sudharshan’s identification with South India is such that it is almost impossible to write an article with such a title, without naming or quoting him. Working within his ideological parameters of inclusiveness, shared culture and co-existence, Sudharshan had become the most authoritative affirmer of the idea that Tamil Nadu played a bigger role than hitherto acknowledged, in the process leading up to the dawn of civilization in the island. To appreciate Sudharshan Seneviratne’s role in challenging an age-old belief, it’s necessary to refer to what another historian wrote in an article meant for the general public. Writing to The Island on 16 April 2008, Michael Roberts mentioned “the inferential, yet reasonable, speculation that Tamil-speakers were found within the island at the time of the alleged arrival of the eponymous ancestor of the Sinhala people, namely Vijaya”. He found the claim that “Tamil presence in Sri Lanka pre-dated the purported arrival of the Sinhala forefathers”, “certainly a distinct probability”. It was Sudharshan Seneviratne who made this sort of public affirmation possible. He was a change agent who affixed his stamp of authority on a fringe theory and turned it into a mainstream theory. My article Getting in touch with our inner South Indian in The Nation highlighted Sudharshan’s contribution in more specific terms:

“The majority of scholars hold that the widespread megalithic tradition that precedes the early historic settlement of Lanka is strongly linked to if not actually deriving from south India, which was a hotbed of Dravidian languages at the time.


“The geographical proximity, the similarity between ecological zones, common burial and ceramic traditions, including other grave ware and skeletal remains…indicate a cultural homogeneity between the megalithic monuments of south India and Sri Lanka. It also suggests community movement, the intrusion of techno-cultural elements (iron, ceramic industry, irrigation) and a new subsistence pattern (based on paddy cultivation) from south India, more specifically from Tamilnadu, well before the 3rd century BC period.”- (Sudarshan Seneviratne: 1985).

The spread of the Early Iron Age culture (which is the proper name for the megalithic tradition) into Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu during the first millennium B.C. was almost certainly accompanied by Dravidian languages including Tamil.”

On receiving this article, the editor who was a Peradeniya alumnus, and had as a student very pleasant interactions with Sudharshan, emailed me: “Out of curiosity, who put you on to Sudharshan Seneviratne?” I replied: “Nobody. He is a hero to Indrapala. So Indrapala is a hero to him. Scratching each other’s backs. Also I noticed that he has the habit of writing reams without really saying anything. Also he is fixated on Tamil Nadu connectivity theories. Also he seems to say that when writing history facts are less important, even dangerous, what matters is promoting inclusivity. I noticed these things by myself. Then I noticed that others had noticed them too and written about them… still I don’t know if you could say that I am on to him.”  The editor replied with a smiley icon: “You are spot on about him.” It was a classic example of Sudharshan demonization. I did it because at the time he was an unknown entity, while my editor was simply demonstrating the standard reaction of a Nationalist to Sudharshan Seneviratne. How I stopped demonizing and started admiring him is a story for another day.



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