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I have been wondering for some time about whether this column should also deal with the problems of university students. Last week, having found myself by far the oldest among the Sri Lankan delegates to a Conference on Indo-Sri Lankan relations held at Osmania University, and older too than most of the Indian participants, I realized I had to accept I was clearly of an age to think of university students, and indeed many lecturers, as children in need of care.

This feeling was exacerbated by the excellence of the presentations by the younger participants at the Conference. Whilst some older lecturers seemed to content themselves with jargon, the session I chaired had two very bright girls from Jawaharlal Nehru University who produced excellent and very practical papers on the Sri Lankan diaspora. They however were postgraduates, and from a place I have long known as a centre of excellence, admission to which is highly competitive. To my surprise they were equaled by two undergraduates from Patna University, who did a precise and well argued presentation on Indo-Sri Lankan trade relations.

I cannot imagine many Sri Lankan students doing as well. This is not because they are not equally capable. The problem is that we hardly stretch them, with many lecturers in many departments thinking that reading out notes to be copied constitutes teaching.

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Recent heated statements about the 13th Amendment confirm the view, heard recently at the Seminar on Indo-Lankan relations held at Osmania University in Hyderabad, that most commentators look on issues through a single prism. They fail to look at the principles that they would like to think they are advancing. Rather they concentrate on slogans, and become emotional, without concentrating on what those slogans are meant to represent.

Perhaps this is a necessary evil in political jousting for, if you looked at the principles, you would have to accept that even people coming from different perspectives have a lot in common. With regard to the question of devolution of power for instance, we find this to be the case, the moment we use the word decentralization instead. Most people don’t understand the distinction between them, understandably so since, for all practical purposes, there is no great distinction.

Thus there is universal agreement that we need decentralization. This is because any administration needs to have clear responsibilities with regard to the people, it needs to consult their wishes as well as be aware of their needs, and it must be accountable to them. This is not possible with regard to day to day matters when you have centralized decision making.

Thus we find that those now opposed to Provincial Councils claim that the best unit for devolution is the District. This rings a bell with me because, in the eighties, the Liberal Party put forward the suggestion that District Councils should be given greater responsibilities. Dudley Senanayake had tried to introduce these in the sixties and failed, because of opposition based on racism, sadly supported in that dark period in their history by the Marxist parties too. What finally made him abandon the plan though was the opposition in his own party, led by Cyril Mathew, supported it should be remembered by D B Wijetunge, but with the shadow of J R Jayewardene lurking in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2019
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