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Imagining Minister Basil Rajapaksa in India

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By Austin Fernando

Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India

When Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi was announced, my imagination ran riot. What I imagine here is based on the behaviour of Sri Lankan governments and how they have related to Indian leaders. I imagine the following scenes and conversations between Minister Rajapaksa and the Indian leaders:

“Namaskar, Good Morning Your Excellency” is the friendly greeting from Minister Basil Rajapaksa to Madam Nirmala Sitharaman, Indian Minister of Finance.

“Ayu-bo-wan! Good morning Your Excellency” is the reciprocation from Minister Sitharaman. High Commissioner Gopal Baglay has briefed her on Sri Lankan traditions. (Minister Rajapaksa thinks that hailing from Karnataka she knows our traditions.)

The purpose of the ministerial meeting is predictable. HC Baglay’s brief to the South Block on the Sri Lankan economic crisis has reached Minister Sitharaman. It is not confidential since, in the Parliament, the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and economist turned parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratna have let the cat out of the bag.

HC Baglay’s messages are easily understood, both politically and technically, by Minister Sitharaman. Her capacity to understand such has developed over time by representing India at international economic fora, pushing agreements on trade, commerce between India and other nations, attending World Trade Organization meetings, inter-country business conclaves, participating in India-EU summits and bilateral meetings in African, Asian, European countries, meetings of G-20, BRICS Summit, etc. Knowing her wide international exposure, Minister Basil Rajapaksa, with less exposure on these areas, attempts to match them with his strategising prowess.

“Excellency, we understand you are facing a grave crisis at present?” The discussion commences after the exchange of pleasantries. She can be informal, and tough, too, as I have personally observed previously, in her office, and at Lok Sabha.

Minister Rajapaksa replies: “Madam Minister, you will understand the difficulties caused by COVID-19 and its impact on our economy.”

“Yes, true. But our situation was far worse. We had about 467,000 deaths due to the pandemic.” (This is straight-nosed Minister Sitharaman’s equally straight-nosed response, diplomatic but sternly brushing away the Covid argument.)

“Covid hit us severely and our exports were affected, tourists did not arrive, foreign remittances shrunk, creating an extremely serious foreign exchange crisis,” says Minister Rajapaksa, getting to the point.

“Yes, I hear of it. My information is that former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has said in Parliament that foreign reserves have dwindled to 1.5 billion dollars and the net is 1.2 billion when gold reserve value is deducted. It is precarious and dangerous, I presume.”

(A bell rings in Minister Rajapaksa about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s utterance, and the further capacity reduction quoted by Eran Wickramaratna, i.e., “to less than one month’s worth of imports, which is the “lowest in history.”) “Madam Minister, it is true, and the forex crisis may worsen the shortage of essential food items, medicines, aside from being expensive. It will create a shortage of fuel and may lead to power cuts. Industry and businesses will face difficulties. Our foreign debt burden is exceedingly high. In that light, we have to request India’s assistance.” (He downplays the resultant political crisis.)

Assuming a confrontational mood, Minister Sitharaman says: “Chinese debt? (Laughs!) Or international sovereign bond debt? We were lucky because we managed the economy efficiently, and thus our foreign exchange reserves position is comfortable in terms of import cover of more than 18 months and provides a cushion against unforeseen external shocks. Yours is only a one-month import cover? Our foreign exchange reserves have been increasing from 370 billion dollars in 2016-2017 to 478 billion in 2019-2020 and this year to 577 amidst the pandemic.”

Minister Rajapaksa wonders, “Why cannot India help us with a billion dollars to purchase fuel, on a long-term credit basis? Indian reserve performance is a one hundred billion dollars increase in one year with Covid ravaging the whole country. India can well afford to assist.” (He is happy that credit ratings are not mentioned.)

“We sought relief from several donors. In January we must pay USD 500 mn as debt repayment. Another installment will have to be paid towards mid-2022, amounting to one billion dollars. My government has advised me to seek India’s help and initiate negotiations on terms for an immediate response. It is not financial assistance alone we need; we require trade and investment for which we offer incentives.”

Madam Sitharaman inquires about such repayments without naming countries:

“I think when you meet Prime Minister Modi, please discuss with him this request formally. I will discuss with my officials and colleagues, especially with Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar, and brief the PM. You can request Minister Jaishankar, too.”

And, she continues, “Incidentally, I remember meeting Minister Malik Samarawickrama as a representative of President Sirisena’s government in 2019. He promised positive actions but did not follow up. He discussed the Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA). Minister Piyush Goyal told me that he promised to follow up on ETCA with him, too. Nothing has happened. He mentioned the LNG project, and now It has gone to an American company. No consistency. Delays. The PM may express his concerns over and above financial and economic matters. By the way, I would like to know your stance on approaching the International Monetary Fund, which most countries turn to in such eventualities.”

“Excellency, the IMF solution is being considered by us. Yet, we have not finally decided on it. We have differing views on the subject. I am aware that accessing the IMF eases the problem.”

Minister Rajapaksa retreats thanking her for all courtesies and support extended (though nothing concrete has emerged from their discussion!) with a passing comment regarding his kinship with Indians through the marriage of a sibling.

Madam Sitharaman grasps the point on the ‘extended family connection’ and says, “Yes, I heard about it. Now, we are not only friends, neighbours, and relations, as your brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa said earlier, but moreover true relations!” A hearty loud laugh from both sides.

Minister Rajapaksa retreats, thinking of Minister Sitharaman’s camouflaged advice and issues that may be raised by PM Modi. He knows that PM Modi could be blunt at times. The Minister discusses details with his officials and the new High Commissioner of Sri Lanka, Milinda Moragoda, who has prepared a roadmap, which concentrates on benefits to Sri Lanka, as it ought to be, but the Minister knows what PM Modi will want to know how it will serve India’s interests.

Minister Basil Rajapaksa meets PM Modi with High Commissioner Moragoda and Secretary SR Attygalle.

Prime Minister Modi in his usual friendly manner greets the delegation. Making the meeting informal PM Modi inquires, “I heard that you met Minister Sitharaman already?”

“Yes, Your Excellency, it was a fruitful meeting,” says Minister Rajapaksa, though she did not offer to help sort out Sri Lanka’s foreign reserve crisis. However, knowing the toughness of PM Modi’s approaches he waits to hear his “demands.” He knows that there is no such thing as free lunch diplomacy or international relations. He has learned it even from the Chinese.

The PM gets to the point straight away:

“Minister Sitharaman indicated to me that you have a serious foreign exchange crisis, and you face an extremely serious economic and political crises as well, and you expect our assistance, too. Of course, we have accommodated your requests earlier, too, by way of assistance, swaps and investments.”

Though Minister Rajapaksa did not explicitly mention a political fallout, Minister Sitharaman has understood it and briefed Prime Minister thereon. “Yes, we are faced with economic and political crises” replies Minister Rajapaksa. (He does not say it is ‘grave,’ though it is so.) As a strategist, he knows that if he shows weakness, Indians will take the upper hand, as happened to President JR Jayewardene during PM Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure in 1986-1987.

“I understand it well. We were faced with extensive problems with a larger pandemic impact on our society. Still, we have enhanced our foreign reserves irrespectively. Even Bangladesh has achieved success in it. I know you had issues with trade unions and farmers. It is common to us, too. We had farmers on the roads for months. Still, we have propped up our foreign reserves. Of course, you have just taken over the finance portfolio. But you are a seasoned politician, I know. Still, you must look at bilateral, multilateral, and regional policies and issues as a continuum.”

“Yes, Your Excellency. We should.”

“I am happy that you endorse continuing with already followed policies and issues. I need not mention to you about the LNG Project at Kera-wala-piti-ya. It was to be taken along with Japanese participation and now that is gone to a US firm, I am told. It may be a new development after you became the Minister of Finance.”

Minister Rajapaksa worries: “Was it a reference to the Minister’s dual citizenship, as alleged in Colombo?”

“Future projects I believe are on the cards. For instance, gas exploration in the Mannar Basin. One of your Tamil MPs – I think Mr. Adaikkalanathan has told Parliament that the project to collect natural gas in Mannar should be granted to India. It is not we who say it.”

“I will make note of Your Excellency’s concern” replied Minister Rajapaksa.

PM Modi goes on: “The former government agreed with us in 2003, I presume, to settle the Trincomalee petroleum tanks issue. Later in 2017, a project was considered for Mattala Airport, which I understand the government wishes to develop now. In 2017, Foreign Minister Madam Sushma Swaraj signed an MOU with Sri Lanka. The progress was extremely slow. Eastern Container Terminal agreement was scrapped. However, I am aware the West Container Terminal matter is progressing, and happy, although some trade unions are opposed to it. I sense there is some dialogue on the Trincomalee oil tank project with slow movement. I think you can solve your foreign exchange and oil supply issues if Sri Lanka correctly plans out the Trincomalee- oil tanks, port, industries in the hinterland, beaches, Ramayana Yatra tourism, fisheries, agriculture, etc. Don’t you think so?”

“Your Excellency, all these are negotiable. To negotiate this government should be in office sans financial and economic problems” responds Minister Rajapaksa. The foundation for financial assistance is slowly ‘pushed in.’

“Since you were willing to follow through earlier bi-lateral relationships I may mention economic and political issues that have been carried over for decades. One is the ETCA which was also mentioned by Minister Sitharaman. How many rounds of talks were held? More than ten? No finalisation.

The second economic issue is the fishing in Palk Bay, which is a humanitarian issue too. There too there is a Joint Working Group, which has met about three or four rounds but without solving problems.

“There are two political issues. One is the repatriation of refugees for which our foreign affairs officials should work together. The second is more important. It is the devolution of power. You will recall President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ready to go even to the 13th Amendment plus. He told this to former Minister of External Affairs SM Krishna. Your present Foreign Minister repeated in support of devolution, I remember.

“When I was following through, I found in a statement, even you have said that the Indian side called for the implementation of the 13A and greater devolution of powers to the provinces and that you emphasised that the President of Sri Lanka and his government were committed to a political process that should lead to a sustainable solution. Don’t you think that it is time to carry out that pledge?

“Minister, please keep in mind that this request had been made by all Indian governments, irrespective of Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party. It is meant for the Tamil people to feel that they are equal citizens of Sri Lanka, and they could lead a life of dignity and self-respect. Your brother Mahinda Rajapaksa said in 2009 that he was willing to do so. President Sirisena’s government promised it in 2015 at the UNHRC. A domestic issue that became bilateral with us was internationalised by them. These go along with human and fundamental rights. We had to deviate from your stances at the UNHRC twice and abstain once in recent times. We did so with a heavy heart. Sri Lanka should act to make its friends stay forever. With the promulgation of the new Constitution, isn’t it fair to emphasise devolution?”

Minister Rajapaksa says, “I agree with you on power-sharing and qualitative upliftment of minorities. I will bring this to the notice of our government.”

“Finally, I have to say something about the Indian Ocean’s security, peace, and free movement. As you are aware the Asian seas are affected by the intrusion of some nations. I believe you too would appreciate that the Indian Ocean should remain as the Indian Ocean and not by some other name!”

“I understand what Your Excellency explains. Of course, bi-laterally we have already taken some economic measures. We are misunderstood due to such relationships. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in Delhi during his maiden state visit that Sri Lanka would not do anything detrimental to India’s interests; he has repeatedly said India should put behind them the misunderstandings and move ahead. He told this to Foreign Secretary Shringla when he met him in Colombo. Excellency, please note that the President’s commitment will stand firm and solid. Hence, your assistance at this difficult juncture will reinforce that firm, solid, longstanding unwavering friendship. We will not forget it.”

The dialogue seems extremely productive.

“Thank you, Minister. I made note of your statement. I will advise my Ministers External Affairs and Finance to look at your request very positively, and further influence the private and state sector agencies to promote and encourage investment and trading opportunities in Sri Lanka. I wish that your government will speedily ease systems and approaches to support such investors. I think the Minister of Finance will keep you happy. I wish you well in the new portfolio”

The Minister bids adieu with a sigh of relief. The results will be known soon. (I think it will be positive. If negative, we will be done for. Best wishes Mr. Minister!)



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Integrity of Public Service

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Consultant physician, Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva and TISL Executive Director, Attorney-at-Law Nadishani Perera with winners of integrity awards

Speech delivered
by Dr. Sarath Gamini
De Silva

as the Chief Guest at the award ceremony of the “Integrity Icon 2021, Transparency International Sri Lanka”, at the BMICH on 11 January, 2022.

I have known about the Transparency International Sri Lanka as the watchdog for ensuring transparency, accountability, integrity, dignity and honesty of the public service. I have heard them resorting to seeking legal remedies when these qualities have been found to be wanting in various matters of public importance. The current sorry state of the nation on the verge of bankruptcy is due in large part to the lack of these essential qualities, resulting in corruption among the rulers and the public officials. To quote from their policy document, Integrity Icon programme, going on since 2018, is supposed to name and fame honest public officials while inspiring a new generation to build a more effective public service with transparency in all their dealings.

I salute you for your efforts to recognise public servants who have been showing great resilience in the course of their duties with integrity, dignity and a great sense of humanity amidst many obstacles. These qualities are especially important at a time when mankind is facing the biggest challenge of our lifetime with the COVID pandemic ravaging every country in the world. One cannot think of any other calamity, natural or man-made, that affected every individual nation in the world with long term repercussions on the very survival of some. No other emergency has demanded honest, selfless efforts of the public service to this extent. I note with appreciation your timely focus on the pandemic this year.

Despite the growing participation of the private sector, in many spheres, in the past several decades, it is the public sector that serves the vital function of providing the basic needs for the vast majority of the population. Ranging from provision of daily requirements of basic living, education, healthcare and transport services, one cannot think of any service solely provided by the private sector.

With an overburdened public service, which the authorities now claim is too heavy to be maintained economically, due to their own fault of poor planning, the public servants are often a neglected and distressed lot, with no one to care for them, apart from a few active trade unions. When they are underpaid, with salaries not in keeping with the ever-rising cost of living, denied progress with promotions, and having to cope with many personal and domestic issues, they are necessarily a frustrated lot. To aggravate matters, unscrupulous politicians, with no transparency in their policies or actions, have been interfering with every aspect of their service, with political patronage being the main criterion for promotions, transfers and the like. Under such circumstances, it may be considered unreasonable to expect an honest service from such an aggrieved group, when honesty, efficiency or integrity are not recognised or rewarded by the authorities.

The governments concentrates on building highways, used mainly by the affluent, with private vehicles for quick transit often for pleasure activities, it is sad to note that due to the very nature of such highway systems, the common man’s modes of transport ,like the three wheelers, and motor cycles, are denied access. Urban transport for the public servants to get to their places of work remains rudimentary. Overcrowded buses and trains with people precariously hanging on to footboards is a common sight still as it was several decades ago. During rush hours in the morning and evening, people waste much time on the roads awaiting buses or trains that do not ply on time, to get to their places of work and to return home in the evening.

While much is spent on laying walking paths in the urban areas, it is depressing to see daily on television screens, how villagers walk miles on footpaths to fetch clean water for daily consumption, to take their sick to the hospital short of essential supplies, and how the children cross risky make-shift bridges to get to a school with not even the basic facilities for a decent education.

These are areas not served by the private sector. The teachers, postal workers, public health inspectors, public health midwives and other healthcare workers and the Grama Niladharis are undergoing all the hardship in serving these people, generally neglected by others. Whenever these villagers are interviewed, they never complain about the services provided while lamenting on the poor quality of the infrastructure. They blame the local politicians who are seen only during the election campaigns, and regularly fail to attend to their needs once in power, leaving the villagers at the mercy of the public servants.

The private sector, naturally interested in profit-making mainly, has been uninterested in providing relief to see that these basic services are provided to the masses. While some large organisations have been doing some service as a part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR), these are few and far between. The government has not focused on harnessing the private sector to any significant extent in organising such activity. Large private sector business groups are diversified into many different areas including healthcare. However, they treat healthcare services also as yet another business activity with no consideration for the humanitarian aspect involved. Every opportunity is made use of to make a profit, exploiting misery.

It should be noted that healthcare is perhaps the only industry where the salesman (hospital or the doctor) decides what the customer (patient) should buy. Thus, there is a heavy moral responsibility on those involved, from doctors to other service providers, to see that those who seek their services are not exploited. The companies do not seem to be worried about or ashamed in declaring huge profits annually and please the shareholders with fat returns. Well we cannot change human nature.

I know a friend of mine who has invested in a hospital chain. He gets substantial discounts on the services provided by the company for himself and his family. Every year he gets a hefty dividend from his investment. Feeling guilty about how that money was made perhaps unethically he spends the proceeds only for meritorious activity.

How the public servants rose to the occasion in the face of unprecedented challenges due to the COVID pandemic shows the innate goodness of man. Their integrity, honesty guided by strong moral principles by many, especially in the state health services, is worthy of admiration.

COVID is a disease hitherto unknown to mankind and continues to plague the whole world. Although the fact that it spreads by inhaling the virus was evident from the very outset, the ways of its prevention apart from hygienic measures, wearing masks and physical distancing was not known. As it took about a year to produce an effective vaccine and make it available to all, those who cared for the sick in the hospitals and the community took much risk in exposing themselves to the infection. Protective personal equipment (PPE) was in short supply at the beginning.

As hospitals were getting overcrowded, the doctors, nurses and all categories of health staff at times did 24-hour continuous shifts. Hardly any deaths occurred due to lack of commitment of the staff. Inadequate ICU facilities were quickly corrected often by the staff themselves with the hospital directors and other administrative staff playing a leading role with the help of the health department as well as personally garnering the support of voluntary organisations, private sector and individuals. The public health service, including the Public Health Inspectors (PHI) did a yeoman service in attending to the needs of the people at home, often using a bicycle or a motorbike as the only form of transport to reach them. The ambulance services kept running though there was a high risk of the staff getting the infection from the patients within the confines of a small space inside the vehicle. All this was done with lack of basic facilities, like personal transport or extra remuneration. While the authorities were preaching to avoid congestion, keeping a safe physical distance, the healthcare workers were provided only with overcrowded public transport with no precautions to travel to their place of work.

When caring for COVID patients with only mild illness at their own homes was introduced, the Sri Lanka Medical Association, SLMA, rose to the occasion providing free advisory service on line called the SLMA 247 service. Hundreds of volunteer doctors from all sectors working round the clock answered nearly a 65,000 such calls over a five month period, amounting to nearly 450 calls per day. The numbers thus served was much more as each call often represented several affected individuals in the same household. General medical advice, simple drug prescriptions and words of reassurance were given. This was the only medical consultation service available to those large numbers quarantined at home. The Suvaseriya ambulance service cooperated with the SLMA to provide a quick and easy way of transferring patients identified as needing further care in a hospital.

The teachers continued to serve the children locked up at home online. They did so at their own expense getting necessary computers and other equipment and buying data. There was no provision of these or planning for such by the government. This unfortunately could serve only a limited number of students due to lack of resources. It is saddening to note that even now the authorities do not seem to be planning a way of providing the infrastructure to meet any future challenges of this nature.

The role played by the armed forces and the police, in various aspects of pandemic control should be appreciated by all.

I detailed all this to illustrate how an unprecedented health crisis, with wide ranging implications, could be managed satisfactorily with a dedicated public service rising up to the occasion, at great odds. Such was the dedication, integrity and the commitment of our public servants that Sri Lanka is credited as one of the few countries that has controlled the pandemic successfully despite its lack of resources due to the poor economic situation.

Their sense of service with no chance of personal gain is all the more creditable and noteworthy when one sees how so many individuals and groups were exploiting the misery of the people to make a personal fortune in quick time. Both here and abroad news reports have shown how people became millionaires and millionaires became billionaires since the beginning of the pandemic. How some vaccine manufacturers have made profit-making their primary objective is disgraceful.

Locally, many companies were seen to be openly profiting allegedly with the blessings of the authorities. Without resorting to usual time-consuming tender procedures, in view of the urgency of the situation, selected groups were allowed to import supplies of material. Personal protection equipment (PPE), PCR test kits, and the like thus imported were made available at exorbitant prices, probably keeping a big margin of profit. There are many allegations to say that companies and even those affiliated to the administration profited tremendously from lifesaving vaccine imports as well. How even the expatriates returning from the Middle East were compelled to pay heavily inflated prices for air travel, PCR tests and compulsory hotel quarantine at great cost with no other option is common knowledge. All the above allegations, perhaps unfounded in some instances, are the result of a lack of transparency in the dealings.

I presented all these facts to show the importance of the public sector in meeting the basic needs of the populace on a daily basis and during an emergency. With corruption rampant at all levels, with no transparency at all, and when high-ranking wrongdoers are not punished when detected, it is extremely difficult to maintain an honest service by the public servants. Such culture of corruption trickles down to the lower tiers of the public service who get punished for offences like taking bribe of a few thousands of rupees. Generally, good honourable service is not rewarded to encourage them. Thus, this initiative of the local chapter of the Transparency International and the Integrity Icon programme to name and fame those public servants who went the extra mile in the service of humanity is praiseworthy.

I perused the records of the public officials named and famed by you since 2018. They come from all sectors in society and from all walks of life, some of them not even noticed by others in the course of their duties. This year,, too, I have no doubt the awardees deserve all the recognition they are given. I am happy that they were selected solely by an eminent panel of judges this year too.

I congratulate today’s awardees and wish them many more years of exemplary service. You are a beacon of light to the public service.

Let me conclude by congratulating all those involved in this noble task of recognizing the yeoman services rendered by the public servants. This will certainly encourage them to continue with their good work as well as influencing others to do likewise. I wish the Transparency International Sri Lanka and the Integrity Icon programme every success in the future.

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Decolonising education and critical thinking

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IN BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS (1952), FRANTZ FANON, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination.

By Darshi Thoradeniya

I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.

Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.

As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.

Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.

This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.

History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.

When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.

In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.

Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.

The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.

If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.

(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!

Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.

In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.

Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.

It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.

Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!

The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!

Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.

The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.

There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”

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