Sri Lanka: `We need to change the mindset'

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Aug 30 12:53:14 UTC 2006

`We need to change the mindset'


Interview with Sumith Nakandala, former Deputy High Commissioner of Sri

 Vol:23 Iss:17 URL:

AMARALAL SUMITH NAKANDALA, former Deputy High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in
Chennai, is a man committed to pluralism in society. He swears by the
multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious character of the
island-nation. This world outlook was evident when he went beyond his
brief and helped the Tamil refugees who wanted to return to Sri Lanka.
After the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE) signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2002, he took the
initiative to speed up the issuing of birth certificates, marriage
certificates, travel documents and so on. This made him hugely popular
among the refugees. Nakandala, who was posted as Deputy High Commissioner
in November 2001, gave a new orientation to consular work by organising
lectures by eminent Sri Lankans in archaeology, a subject in which he has
a keen interest, besides film festivals, dance programmes and music
concerts. In fact, his four-and-a-half-year stay in Chennai was a period
of busy cultural activity at the High Commission.

Nakandala, 46, is now Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Nepal. He has a
post-graduate diploma in International Relations and Development from the
Institute of Social Studies in The Hague in The Netherlands and is a
graduate in agriculture from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
Nakandala spoke to Frontline on June 30, on the eve of his departure to
Kathmandu. Excerpts: The Sri Lankan government decided yesterday to make
knowledge of Tamil and Sinhala compulsory for new recruits to public
service at all levels.  According to D.E.W. Gunasekara, Minister for
Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, faithful implementation
of the dual language policy could resolve 50 per cent of the problems Sri
Lanka is facing. Do you think this is a late realisation by Colombo?

This is an important question. This should have been done long ago. It is
unfortunate that we are implementing this dual language policy 50 years
after bringing in the Sinhala Only Act in 1956. The Minister is 100 per
cent right. I appreciate his courageous move because Sri Lanka is a
multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious entity. The language
policy should start from the school level up. We can still rectify the
damage already done. We should provide opportunities to students to learn
not only Sinhala, Tamil and English but also another language, such as
Hindi or Malayalam. In the last few weeks, there have been several
incidents of the Sri Lanka Navy firing on Indian fishermen. This issue has
festered for long.

I am perturbed by these shooting incidents and it is an unfortunate
situation because fishermen are doing only fishing. The fact is that
Indian fishermen cross the international boundary, enter Sri Lankan waters
and fish there. You never saw this kind of incident happening during the
ceasefire agreement, during peace talks. Why are they happening now? There
are prohibition zones. No-go zones? The LTTE has been masquerading as
innocent fishermen and a number of incidents have taken place. The Sri
Lanka Navy is a responsible Navy and it exercises maximum restraint. We
know that firing on unarmed innocent fishermen is not acceptable. What is
important here is to understand the security environment in which the Sri
Lanka Navy is called upon to perform its legitimate duties for
[protecting] the territory and people of Sri Lanka. We need to find a
practicable solution to the problems faced by Indian fishermen, especially
in the Palk Bay area.

>>From January this year, refugees from Sri Lanka have started coming back
to Tamil Nadu. After the ceasefire agreement in February 2002, a number of
refugees returned to Sri Lanka. You also helped them - by issuing them
birth certificates, wedding certificates and visas. You gave a new
orientation to consular work. What made you do this? It is simple. They
are part of Sri Lankan society. I am not worried about the reasons why
they took refuge here. As the representative of the Government of Sri
Lanka in south India, it is my duty to look after every Sri Lankan citizen
trading, staying, studying and visiting this part of India. It is an
inalienable responsibility of a Foreign Service Officer.

In fact, the refugees were facing a lot of problems. Those who were born
in Tamil Nadu after 1983 did not have birth certificates. I started this
consular work [of issuing birth certificates]. All this consular work has
a financial component. You have to pay some money to get your birth
certificate. You have to pay money to register your birth under the
Citizenship Act. But refugees do not have money to pay for these
certificates. That is what I am saying... . If refugee-parents apply for
the birth certificate of their child born here after 1983, they have to
pay Rs.6,000. That is a huge amount. If you don't register the birth
within a year, you have to pay a penalty for every succeeding year. I made
a representation to the Sri Lankan government and it responded
magnanimously. I raised this question with the then Prime Minister, Ranil
Wickremesinghe. I told him to make a special waiver for the refugees in
Tamil Nadu. He took it up immediately. There were two people who were
involved in this whole exercise - Ranil Wickremesinghe and Milinda
Moraguda, then Minister for Science and Technology who was part of the
negotiating team of the Sri Lankan government.

I considered doing the consular facilities for refugees as part of the
peace-building process. I was proved right because I was able to
re-establish the confidence of the Sri Lankan refugees [in the state].
That is why they came here [to my office]. I also went to their camps, met
them, registered their births and accepted their travel document forms.
They saw a big difference in this - the state coming to their doorstep.
What I did here was making peace and simultaneously creating a
constituency for peace. Here, I must acknowledge the excellent support
given by the then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, her officials, the
Government of India, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Home
Ministry. All these agencies were helpful in facilitating all consular
work. In parallel, I was making another internal adjustment. I had to
change the mindset in the Mission here. I said every refugee should be
facilitated. They should not be questioned. The big problem was that the
refugees did not have birth certificates.

What the Tamil Nadu government did was to issue identity cards to
refugees. That made a great difference. Whether they had birth
certificates or not, their names and dates of birth were included in the
refugee-identity cards. In parallel with the Tamil Nadu government, the
OFERR [Organisation for Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation] headed by S.C.
Chandrahasan did a lot of work. I started working with them as far as the
refugees were concerned. I knew there would be obstacles. I overcame these
difficulties, thanks to the stakeholders in the process.

You organised several cultural programmes during your tenure as Deputy
High Commissioner for south India. You organised the Vesak commemoration
lectures, which featured top archaeologists and academics from Sri Lanka.
(Vesak is the day on which the Buddha attained enlightenment.) What
motivated you? A career foreign service officer should carry out his
duties with a passion, a passion for humanity. We are not here merely to
carry out instructions from our home country/headquarters. Consular work
is in the book. I gave a new life [to consular work]...

I realised during my previous tenure in New Delhi and from my own reading
on India that India is a phenomenon. It is a huge civilisational process.
That made me think seriously about the shared culture between Sri Lanka
and India, not only with Tamil Nadu, but with the whole of India. After
all, Buddhism, the majority religion in Sri Lanka, came from India. The
culture, music, dance, language and the way of life are shared between Sri
Lanka and the rest of Indian subcontinent. As [eminent Sri Lankan
archaeologist] Sriran Deraniyagala aptly put it, 7,000 years before the
present, a landmass existed between southern India and northern Sri Lanka.
It [the landmass] is now called Adam's Bridge. It was a visible landmark.
That was how people went up and down. We have Asian elephants. The flora
and fauna found in the Western Ghats of India are found in the central
highlands of Sri Lanka. It [India and Sri Lanka] was one entity.

When I talk of shared cultures, it is my duty, as the representative of
the Sri Lankan government here, to bring some of these salient features of
such a culture to the doorstep of our friends in Tamil Nadu. The Vesak
commemoration lectures were different. I gave a new intellectual
orientation to the lecture series. I realised it was important to keep
pluralism in mind. Political pluralism, cultural pluralism and religious
pluralism are important elements in the Buddha's central philosophical
thesis. Pluralism is a very important yardstick in measuring today's world
and society. A country may have all the resources, but if it does not
abide by pluralism the international community will not respect it. The
most important element is pluralism. So I wanted these lectures to be held
on Vesak day, in May, as our own homage to the Buddha.

I have heard that as a student during the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots, you
protected Tamil students. It [protecting other human beings] is not a
surprise because this quality is embedded in every human being. This
[pluralism] concept has been articulated by all religions. The Gita does
not say anywhere that you can persecute human beings. Buddhism,
Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all religions advocate this. In my case,
the concept of peace was articulated by my father and teachers. I had
wonderful teachers from grade one to 12, in the university and during my
graduation at The Hague. I am eternally grateful to them. I will certainly
uphold my commitment to pluralism, to a society where human beings are
allowed to live in harmony, without fear and without persecution.

What happened in the university?

In the University of Peradeniya 50 per cent of the students were Sinhalese
and the rest were Tamils. We shared our meals and had a wonderful stay.
Then came the 1983 riots and for the first time, there were riots within
the university. We were there to protect these people [Tamils]. There were
excellent professors from the Tamil community. They had transcended all
these petty boundaries. They too were harassed during this period; some of
them left Sri Lanka. Members of the departments of Agriculture,
Engineering, Arts and Medicine got together and constituted peace
committees. I was also part of that set-up to prevent anti-Tamil riots in
the university. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse swears by the
unitary set-up. A perceptive political analyst observed that no state
could survive in the 21st century without a federal set-up. Do you think
Rajapakse is treading the right path?

The question is not whether it is unitary, federal or whatever. President
Rajapakse has clearly said that he would go for maximum devolution of
power. Federal is not the word. It is sharing of power, devolution. To
that extent, the Government of Sri Lanka is absolutely clear that this
question will be solved. I have no doubt about that. The unfortunate thing
here is that people are trying to put tags - federal, unitary, undivided
and so on. The question today is to approach the problem in a balanced
way. President Rajapakse has appointed a constitutional advisory committee
comprising eminent lawyers from Sri Lanka. They will take cognisance of
all proposals presented so far by the government and other parties and
make recommendations to the government with a view to solving the problem.

The late J.N. Dixit, who was India's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, once
told me that unless the mindset of the Sinhalese towards the Tamils
changed, the Tamil problem could not be solved. We need to change the
mindset. It should be a conscious effort by the people. That is why I
started talking about shared cultures.  Archaeological and anthropological
findings can be certainly used to resolve conflicts... When you go down
history, the early Iron Age, the Pre-historic Age and so on, [you will
find] that these differences have been made by the people. The differences
between the Sinhalese and the Tamils were made. We, therefore, need to
change that mindset. The mindset for a progressive discourse should be
cultivated by the people.

I am sure, we in Sri Lanka need to make conscious efforts to change the
mindset. I also relate this issue to the first question you asked me -
Gunasekara's new approach to the language policy. I am not for
bilingualism. I am for multi-lingualism because Sri Lanka is a
multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious entity. The mindset of the
Sinhalese will change towards the Tamils and that of the Tamils towards
the Sinhalese. In fact, the Sinhalese are a sophisticated lot, like the
Tamils in Sri Lanka. If you read the history of the past 100 years, you
will find enough examples of these two communities living in harmony. I am
sure the mindset will change.


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