I was privileged last week to attend a Conference at the Osmania University Centre for Indian Ocean Studies on ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Relations: Strengthening SAARC’. The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies had nominated me, along with scholars from Colombo University and the Kotelawala Defence University, as well as an army officer with diplomatic experience, who delivered an excellent paper on Security Concerns, and dealt ably with questions that arose.
I was pleased to attend, for I have always believed that one of the keys to good relations with India is interaction with its lively academics. Last year, the then Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, a Tamil diplomat who had very good connections with the media and the intellectual community there, arranged a series of meetings for me, during which my interlocutors indicated I was the first person to have discussed such issues in depth.
In turn I found them balanced and willing to listen, and the concerns they raised were understandable. It was more our fault than theirs that we had not engaged in disseminating information about the conflict and its aftermath, and indeed I found that responses I had prepared to the Darusman Report, which had been sent to Delhi, had not found their way down to Chennai.
I have long known, having made several presentations in the course of the last few years at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, of the keen and generally positive approach of Indian academics to Sri Lanka, but I was astonished in Hyderabad last week at the range of scholars who participated. I was fortunate to chair a session in which some young students presented very clear and scholarly papers, including two bright young ladies from JNU who spoke about the Diaspora and, with slightly different emphases, noted the disjunct between Diaspora aims and the much less aggressive objectives of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Even more impressive, given their age, were two undergraduates from Patna who presented a precise and positive account of Indo-Sri Lankan Trade Relations, in which they predicted a bright future. They, along with the dynamic Colombo University academic, provided a healthy corrective to a couple of scholars who seemed to subscribe to the myth that Sri Lanka was turning more to China and this perhaps explained Indian security concerns.
The more senior Indian scholars laid these myths to rest. I have long been aware of the interest of the Observatory Foundation Director Sathiyamoorthy, who spoke in Sri Lanka on Governance in the same session at the recent BCIS Seminar, and I found him even more quick to respond to criticism of Sri Lanka based on misinformation than the Sri Lankans present. But I was also impressed by the knowledged and the attitudes of others, in particular academics at the Osmania University CIOS, some of whom had been in Sri Lanka earlier this year, on a visit arranged by Sunimal Fernando, who has done much to develop contacts.
Most remarkable of such efforts to promote interaction was what a scholar who had been at the Centre earlier told me. In 2005, he had made some observations at a Seminar which the ‘Hindu’ had highlighted. Our able envoy in Chennai at the time had sent these to Lakshman Kadirgamar, who had asked the scholar to come to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately he had been assassinated before the meeting took place, but his positive approach to Sri Lanka made me understand how much we have lost in Kadirgamar’s death and the collapse of the new ethos he tried to introduce into the Foreign Ministry.