Seneviratne’s Forays in Ancient History as an Issue Bearing on His Recall

bandu-desilvaBandu de Silva

Apropos the letter published by my former colleague, K.Godage, the short title used by him might convey the impression that he was on the way to discussing a general issue: “the arbitrary recall of diplomats” — including his own recall by the former government which appointed him High Commissioner to Malaysia. However, it is clear that his objective is to take up the issue of recall of Sudarshan Seneviratne and make an appeal to the present Minister of External affairs to rescind the recall order. One would think that he thought he would take up his own recall by the former government — the accusation being that he did not project Sri Lankan government’s interests in Malaysia sufficiently enough. Being the gentleman he is, he did not refer to his own recall. Recalling Heads of Mission who are non-professionals but appointed by a former government because of political connections or because such persons funded the former government’s election campaign, , is a universal phenomenon and especially pronounced in USA. This is very much so when the country concerned is bilaterally important to the sending country.

victory square Delhi -- 1- Victory Square in Delhi

There is no need to elaborate how important India is for Sri Lanka diplomatically. The diplomat sent there has to bear highest credentials if not by way of professionalism, but also in his/her acceptability to the new government. Whoever holds that post must have a demonstrated ability to deal with the multifarious issues which confront Sri Lanka in India.

Nanda Godage believes that Sudarshan Seneviratne was a suitable person for the post of Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi. He wrote a very complimentary article about Seneviratne’s suitability to hold the high post when his name was under consideration for appointment to New Delhi. The problem with my friend Godage is that often he gets carried away emotionally which leads to his pronouncing judgments in ways that fail to examine issues deeply. I differ strongly. The second theme in this memorandum will clarify WHY; but let me refer to the issue of “recall” first.

Recall of Ambassadors: This is a universal practice. It is an understandable policy because these persons should reflect the political ideals of the government which appointed them. As for recalling Ambassadors by new governments in Sri Lanka, this is not the first time it has happened. Practically all successive governments since Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike came to power, have resorted to it. I recall in Australia, Mrs Bandaranaike recalled the incumbent High Commissioner, Neville Jansz, by telegram as soon as her party won the1970 elections.

Neville Jansz was the third High Commissioner I worked with in Canberra. He wrote to me in Tokyo soon after losing his post to say what good friends I had cultivated in Australia. He said one of them, the Director of Aboriginal Affairs, who was one of my frequent guests, offered him a job in his Department the next day.

Neville had a strong background. A science graduate by discipline, he was a former Civil Servant with a record as a very efficient administrator and a leading negotiator. He was the one who drafted the first Overseas Service Minute based on British and Australian models which is still in use with some modifications. He was the one who organized the training of our Foreign Service batch 1956 which was headed by me. He had been a key negotiator under the Sino-Ceylon Trade Agreement of 1952 and subsequent rice agreements. When I was appointed as Third Secretary of the new Embassy in Beijing, he imparted to me all his experience in negotiations and also handed over to me a Memo for discussions with the Chinese.

Earlier, in the Ministry, we had our first experience of facing the first diplomatic crisis under Bandaranaike government, i.e, the Suez Crisis. In Australia, within months, he made big savings to Sri Lanka on wheat negotiations by proving within minutes the Australian Wheat Board’s calculations were erroneous. He used his logarithm table which he carried in his coat pocket to achieve this. The members of the Wheat Board were amazed at his skill, the like of which they had never seen before. The sum total of this summary tale is that when a government decides to change its diplomatic representation, the strong background and proven skills of an individual are not taken into consideration.

How is that Dr. G. P. Malalasekera who had ably served in diplomatic posts in Moscow, London and Ottawa (covering UN) became virtual persona non-grata under the Dudley Senanayake government? Thrown out from high posts, he visited Australia where I was ‘Charge’, at the request of close friends, the academicians Dr. Laksiri Jayasuriya and Dr. Chandra Jayawardane,  I arranged for Dr Malalasekera to appear on ABC television. I could have even been taken to task on this, but I was ready for criticism.

Sudarshan Seneviratne’s Credentials as Scholar: Sudarshan Seneviratne is no academic of the calibre of Dr. Malalasekera. One witnessed his naivety to diplomacy recently when he was summoned to the Indian Foreign Office over an issue under Rajapaksa government. He was unable to respond even by way of a diplomatic crack, as any professional skilled diplomat of the calibre of Shirley Amerasinghe, Bernard Tilakaratne and even Stanley Kalpage would have engaged in at such challenging moments. This shows that diplomacy and claimed academic prowess do not necessarily go together.

We had another case in Paris, i.e., that of Senaka Bandaranayake about whom I wrote several times who thought his academic achievements would carry him through international diplomacy, and dared to contest the high post of Director General of UNESCO even before, as I repeatedly said then, he had learnt to walk the corridors of the UNESCO building. The result: Two votes for him.

Senaka Bandaranayake did not have the diplomatic sense to smell the disaster and withdraw before the vote was reduced to a single one! He should have chosen to play ping-pong with his female personal secretary for three years as another academician sent to Paris did. Within weeks he was sent as Sri Lanka‘s High Commissioner in New Delhi. There is no record of any particular contribution on his part in this post.

UNESCO elected a professional diplomat to the post: namely, Japan’s Ambassador to UNESCO. What that organisation needed was a strong administrator and not an academic versed in book learning. Our man accused Japan of using money, but forgot that his kinsman, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, had lavishly spent taxpayer’s money to an extent never seen before or after, even to defend Sri Lanka’s national prestige at Geneva. Ministerial delegations were sent to the five continents not once, but twice, while new Mercedes Benz vehicles were purchased for the Paris mission.

All this effort and vast expenditure only secured a single vote for Senaka Bandaranayake. With this dismal diplomatic disaster the President felt that she could not keep her kinsman in Paris any longer and had him transferred to New Delhi as High Commissioner.

Here, now, in 2015 our bilateral relations with India continue to be along the same strained paths that have hung over the situation in the past decades: India continues to exert pressure on Sri Lanka and is explicitly wary of the series of trading and other exchanges with China.

Why I objected to the appointment of Sudarshan Seneviratne: Sudarshan Seneviratne’s wrote an article in The Island on 8th and 15th August entitled “Towards an Alternate dialogue: Re-reading Heritage for Conflict Resolution (an abridged version of his Vesak Commemoration Lecture delivered in Katmandu, on 28th May 2007). I wrote an article in The Island in June 2007, repeated in Lankaweb, entitled “An Insider’s look at history: “Brown Sahibs and Cultural Definitions” in response.

I inquired whether it was possible to subvert — in the guise of “demystifying all forms of parochialism in a scientific manner, and placing alternative histories before the next generation,” as the writer claimed, the tenets which guided the disciplines of archaeology and history, two disciplines which try to interpret ‘heritage.’ Seneviratne was seeking a different paradigm away from what he called ‘Orientalist –Antiquarianism’ to introduce “alternate concept of shared cultures representing the actual but somewhat less known Heritage sites situated in multi-cultural societies.”

It seemed to me then that the very idea of interpreting these disciplines to meet certain objectives like conflict resolution, an idea placing itself on a pedestal as a “totally novel concept, and state-of-the –art techniques [in the presentation of heritage sites],” highly problematic. It was problematic because it was external to the methods of scientific investigation relating to these disciplines.

Therefore, the proposition opened up with a contradiction. Apart from the use of a ‘scrap’ of evidence to give an equal footing to some [ethnic] groups, which had contributed to the “heritage pot” in comparatively lesser proportions, thereby placing the greater contributions of other groups in a lesser light, as the learned scholar’s thesis seems to suggest.

I argued that such deviation could also let loose forces which were quite opposed to the very objective which one seeks to achieve, namely, heritage as a tool for conflict resolution. My fear that the established basic tenets of historiography and archaeological interpretations were being discredited was vindicated, when I found, on a careful reading of the article, that the very purpose of it was what they call in ‘postmodernist’ language, the ‘deconstruction ’ of the existing order. This conceptual jargon, I note, has received various nomenclatures, among them the idea of “exclusionist nationalism” (adopting a concept from Romila Thapar).

In my challenge then in the Island debate I asked: “Should one dismiss Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne’s above quoted part of writing superficially in the light of the discourse on ‘Brown Sahibism’? “No. It is not fair” I said and tried to understand what he was trying to project.

Before articulating his final argument, which in essence was to re-position the idea of cultural heritage to achieve the purpose of conflict resolution, he entered into a didactic discourse to prepare the foundation for his argument. It was wrapped up in the mystifying terminology that has invaded the cultural spaces of the world today, especially through UNESCO. He borrowed this language without hesitation. He seemed to think also that he was non-pareil in the field of interpretation (with an assumption that others were incapable of achieving the heights he proposed for himself). That was when he spoke of demystifying all forms of parochialisms in a scientific manner and placing alternative histories before the next generation for a better rational understanding of the past” and promoting “the study of heritage in the most scientific manner devoid of biases and prejudices.”

This emphasis implied that such a task was beyond the reach of all others. Such a frame of mind – the belief in the superiority of one’s own mind — I believe to be a negative quality for a person aspiring to a diplomatic post. Hence my concerns when Professor Seneviratne was appointed to the post of High Commissioner Delhi.

But let us move on to other related contentions in Seneviratne’s article in 2007. In the final thesis he presents the idea of a “shared culture” — another drop-off from the jargon of UNESCO and others. In re-constructing the concept of “multi-culturalism” and “cultural pluralism” Seneviratne expands his argument in order to ‘deconstruct’ history and cultural relationships so to arrive at what certain intellectual forces like Edith Wyschogroid (“An Ethic of Remembrance: History, and the Nameless Others”) advocated, namely, parity of status to all contributors to the ‘heritage pot’, however big or small that contribution was.

So, it was not surprising that in Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne’s ‘deconstruction’ studies and ‘demystifying’ work in the study of heritage, he has focused on the evidence served up by the following ‘scraps:’ (A) the miniature Nestorian Cross (it has been known for many decades in our studies); (B) the [miniature] Buddha statue with Tamil inscriptions offered by a mercantile community (a more recent discovery) and (C) the large quantities of imported ceramics and beads found near Jetavana stupa during excavations as proof of multiple contributions (not excluding equal contribution) to the “shared culture” in which, thereby, all ethnic groups become “equal share-holders.”

This conclusion majestically by-passes and overlooks the overwhelming evidence provided by the main centre of attraction: viz., the Jetevana stupa itself which stands on several acres of ground, complete with adjuncts, as the tallest stupa built in the world, as claimed by Roland Silva, second in height only to the great pyramid in Egypt, thereby standing out as an architectural wonder in concept, design and execution.

Jetavanaramaya-Stupa-www.travelblog.orgb Jetavanaraamaya in modern times —

Surely this is the greater contribution. The scientific skills displayed by its builders in the construction of this magnificent monument, including their mastery of the brick industry, receive no special priority in Seneviratne’s scheme of presentation. That is the price of interpreting cultural heritage in a manner that secures the objective of achieving the objective of conflict resolution.

The introduction of this type of imbalance in evaluating and appreciating the reality of a more weighty cultural contribution by one group to its disadvantage and to the advantage of others, in other words, supporting the overall thesis of a parity of contributions irrespective of the quality and volume of respective contributions with the further objective of subscribing to the idea of conflict resolution, is a deliberate input in the `deconstructionist approach to historical investigation.

The main issue then is this: the acceptability or not of the rhetoric that gives equal weight to both large and small contributions so as to almost erase the historical reality of the predominant presence of one in its relationship with the others. This obliteration of the weightier – and thereby more consequential — contribution of one body of people is an organising principle, that is, an axiom, embedded in the thrusts of certain intellectual contributions proposed in the name of conflict resolution.

The spillover effect of such a position has the potential to move across to other fields including the political field to include claims of parity of status and even territorial claims. This is not merely a hypothesis now. The situation has become a reality in Sri Lanka …. and for Sri Lanka.

Thus, I turn around and pose the question again: if Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne’s thesis should or should not be considered a good example of the attitudes of mind referred to way back in the past asBrown Sahibism”? Has he not been playing around now with a lot of new jargon originating from sources like UNESCO and the postmodernist school, but in effect re-inventing the thrust of British policy in India, viz. seeking to produce brown Englishmen. That is, to modify Thomas Babington Macaulay in analogy: a “Sahib who is Sri Lankan in origin but Indian in thought.”

mACAULEY Macaulay

In my view, diplomacy, which has at its core the securing of a country’s self- interest, has necessarily to centre upon the portrayal of the personality and individualism of Sri Lanka. A man who seeks to negate that personality by diluting the archaeological and historical evidence is not a fit and proper person to represent the country diplomatically.

Appointment as High Commissioner: On the eve of Sudarshan Seneviratne’s appointment to New Delhi, I wrote again tracing the history of the role of academicians appointed to head of mission posts. I wrote: “These are a few lessons the government could look back upon when deciding on academics to represent the country as diplomats. That is not to say that successive governments since 1977 have made better choices of other personnel. As many commentators have remarked, some of them are a shame for the country. If the most recent news of a high diplomatic appointment to the High Commission in Canberra is a case in point, one cannot complain about any appointment. Even the UNP government, later sent an active former JVP cadre as Ambassador to Cuba because his brother himself who was an active JVPer had become a minister in the UNP government (he later joined the Rajapaksa government). The question is not the political allegiance (or shifting ones), but the qualifications.

“Conflict Resolution” man as new envoy in Delhi: What has one to say then if the news is correct that Sudarshan Seneviratne is to be appointed as the next head of mission in New Delhi?, I asked. Did that mean that the Foreign Ministry or the government had then exhausted all talent in the country to project its point of view and wanted to try a person who claims to be a “Conflict Resolution” man in New Delhi, in the hope that his untenable cultural thesis in conflict resolution based on misinterpretation of history and archaeology, and his old connection as a post graduate from New Delhi, could bring about a positive change in Indo-Sri Lanka relations which had reached a low ebb? That may look a better proposition than sending someone out on a diplomatic post in order to get rid of him, I said.

On the positive side, one may say that Sudarshan Seneviratne was highly rated by the late Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadiragamar, who appointed him a Consultant on Foreign Affairs to the Foreign Ministry based on his claimed knowledge on “Conflict Resolution.” Though I considered Lakshman, my former University colleague, as a very judicious man, he seemed to have been carried away by this academic bluff. The sort of bogus claims that Sudarshan Senevitatne was making were challenged in my earlier article published in The Island.

South India Sri Lanka Cultural Region (SISL) Concept: This was the figment in the imagination of Sudarshan Seneviratne, a postgraduate student from the Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi. The conjecture was that people moved freely during the prehistoric Megalithic and Mesolithic period between the seas of the Palk Strait, which has not been proven. It has no support from other scientists but has been grist for the mill for an academic like K. Indrapala, who has quoted him extensively to support his ideas of Tamils and Sinhalese as “two siblings growing up together” and as “joint achievers” in building up the nation before the 12th century CE[AD], partaking even in hydro technology.

Further more, Indrapala has taken Sudarshan Seneviratne’s “demystification” of the knowledge of the past to the other extreme. He ignores the accepted evidence-based conclusion that in the ancient Anuradhpura period one saw the rise of a polity formation in the island with a strong cultural foundation made evident in thousands of Brahmi -Prakrit inscriptions during a short period of three to four centuries before and around the Christian era. In other words, both have attempted to dilute (demystify) the idea of rise of a strong Sri Lankan identity formation by submerging it in Seneviratne’s conjectural SISL project. Seneviratne is no pre-historic archaeologist of standing like Dr Siran Deraniyagala, a scientist with international accreditation and acceptance as Sri Lanka’s first trained archaeologist in pre-history.

The contradiction in Seneviratne’s thesis exposes itself when he picks up what I called “scraps” of evidence found on the precincts of Jetavanaramaya — thereby ignoring the significance of the far more imposing evidence staring at his face in the form of the massive Jetavanarama Dagoba itself whose technological features alone, including brick manufacture, calls for far greater attention. Such is the imbalance in his interpretation of archaeological data.

This is the type of false evaluation on which our scholar has imprinted within his SISL project. Seneviratne’s argument is that South India is not foreign, but part and parcel of one cultural region. Consequently, Tamil historians have built up the idea that early usurpers were no foreigners as the chronicles say, but local chieftains. That is how our “conflict resolution” man paved the way, as he says, to “demystify” history. Such a thesis provides grist to the mill postulating the separate nation of Tamils theory that is advanced by Tamil separatists.

Can one then ask if, as foreign policy advisor, he was applying the SISL formula and advising the government, he could be seen to be advising (read demystifying) the government that there need not be an issue over Kachchativu or any fishing dispute. Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen today thereby become siblings sharing common resources. His response could be expected to read: “Let both sides enjoy the common resource, as nature’s gift to both, bilateral agreements notwithstanding.” That would be the logic Sudarshan would be expected to project through his ‘conflict resolution’ theory. What else?

Similarly, he might even revive the old latent idea of Sri Lanka federating with India under the Indian Union, if not being annexed to Tamil Nadu as part of his pet SISL concept. No wonder K. Indrapala found his arguments serving as grist for the mill for his new book, “Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka c.300 BCE to c.1200 CE.”

The Big Question: With such a perspective in interpreting archaeological evidence, in ways that virtually deny a Sri Lankan identity/personality, what else could one expect of Sudarshan Seneviratne except to be hailed as a good High Commissioner who could represent India anywhere rather than a Sri Lankan diplomatic representative who could project Sri Lanka’s own identity which is the country’s by right? Even modern countries like the US, Canada and Australia, with nothing old to boast about beyond the colonizing period, try to project their own personality [suppressing] what there was earlier.

The question then is this: if it is the type of person who is not prepared to present even Sri Lanka’s own identity, (self) for whatever it is worth, as it should be, but would not hesitate to “almost erase the historical reality of the predominant presence of one against others “ as I have stated, the one we need as diplomatic representative of this country in New Delhi or anywhere else?

If the government thinks that the academic community would be pleased by appointing another academic to a key and sensitive diplomatic post, it is mistaken. With the type of background I have discussed above, there could be much objection even from the academic community. There could be supporters nonetheless. Ask, for example, K. Indrapala: look at his new book where he quotes Seneviratne extensively in order to build up his thesis of Tamils as “joint achievers” with the Sinhalese in the island’s ancient civilisation, side-tracking, in the same manner as Seneviratne, the weightier contribution of the Sinhalese to the island society’s cultural and political form.

Godage’s arguments: I think I have dealt sufficiently with Godage’s evaluation of the academic qualities of Seneviratne and his suitability for the specific post of High Commissioner, Delhi.. As for his assertion that Seneviratne speaks Hindi and is capable of communicating with a wide section in India, how does it work in diplomacy? Indian diplomacy is not conducted in Hindi but in English. That is what really matters. Hindi might give him an audience and cheering crowds captivated by his Indo-centricism. That does not help achieve Sri Lankan diplomatic objectives.

As for having many friends in India, what matters are those facets of one’s work that have a bearing on diplomatic tasks. This is a telling indictment on past Sri Lankan heads of mission and other diplomats sent to India including Godage himself who had a stint there. For that matter how many or was any Indian High Commissioner in Colombo ever known to be a speaker of the major local language? Why think of capacities as a one-way road? As I wrote again on the 20th February 2015, “Why Question Lanka’s India Policy? Why Not the Other Way around”? For these reasons I hold that these other arguments by Godage in support of Seneviratne’s retention are puerile.

***   ***


**   “ Brown Sahibs and Cultural Definitions:Part I,”  <> The Island, Oct 10,2007; 
Part II: 5 html (This is not accessible). Please look under challenge-to-history- ,<…/a-look-at-an-insiders-challenge -to-history-brown-sahibs-and-cultural-definitions > August 24,2013. (Courtesy The Island).
 **A Brown Sahib as our new envoy to New Delhi” < ; Ceylon April18,20014.
**A Response to ‘Is  Dr.Sudarshan Seneviratne a suitable envoy to India under Modi’? <…/a-look-at-an-insiders-challenge -to-history-brown-sahibs-and-cultural-definitions > August 24,2013. (Courtesy The Island). .

** “Why question Lanka’s India policy?: Why not the other way around?” …,91-56491-news-detail-why-questions>February 20, 2014

A COMMENT SENT DIRECTLY BY GERALD PEIRIS:  in the current milieu of strained, extremely delicate and potentially worsening Indo-Lanka relations Sudharshan Seneviatne was an excellent  choice as High Commissioner. I happen to know that Sudharshan has some personal friends at the higher levels of the Indian government, and that he is held in very high esteem by those with whom he interacts there. (I am fully conscious of the fact that personal relations like that cannot be decisive in policy pertaining to foreign relations) Moreover, Sudharshan does have a highly ‘diplomatic’ personality and impressive communication skills which are assets that only a very few in our foreign service have. It was not for nothing that he earned the respect of Lakshman Kadirgamar who made a valiant attempt to introduce quality into our diplomatic services.


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