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India’s Neighbourhood Policies and Neighbours

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By Austin Fernando

Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India

It is ‘Neighbourhood Policy, ‘Look East,’ ‘Act East.’ All deal with the Indian neighbours. A recent article motivated me to revisit this issue. The author has conveyed happenings between India, Nepal, and Bangladesh and proposed amending Indian policies and actions towards neighbours. For the sake of inclusivity, I wish to supplement some attributes on the subject.

India and Nepal

The friendly relationship between India and Nepal was affected due to an issue regarding the Kalapani District boundary. A new map produced by India after Article 370 caused it. Nepal objected to this map. The Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded that the Indian map accurately depicted the sovereign territory of India, and it had not revised the Indian boundary with Nepal. Nepal disagreed.

In May 2020, Nepalese PM said that Nepal would “bring back” the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area “at any cost.” However, India responded calmly. Minister MEA Dr. Jaishankar was reported saying that the “sharp positioning” by the leadership would have been “magnified by the media.” (Hindu-20-8-2020).

Recently, the Nepal Cabinet released a political map, which showed the questioned tri-junction as a part of Nepal. Nepal has two tri-junctions with India. The currently disputed is the Lipulekh Pass, at the border of Uttarakhand with Nepal. Nepal contends that the Lipulekh Pass belongs to them, as per the Sugauli Treaty signed between the British East India Company and Nepal in 1816. Nevertheless, India wishes to hold on due to strategic security reasons.

For India, this could be minor. But, the principle of Indian action may be a concern for any neighbour. For us, it arises from the potentiality of possible Indian behaviour on the Palk Bay, which could arise from the operations purportedly discussed by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa on the fishery issue lately. The fishery issue is very sensitive in India. On the pressures from the politically powerful South Indan fishermen lobby, India can demand operational adjustments to the international maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India to ease the Indian fisherfolk. If it happens, hardly anything could be done. Our experience at the aerial food drop in June 1987, blatantly violating our air-space, showed how other powerful countries avoid responding negatively against India.

India -Nepal issue has escalated with Nepal seeking identity cards from visitors from India. Nepal relates this decision to COVID-19. Will Nepal make the identity card requirement permanent? The Nepalese PM Sharma Oli has blamed India for the spread of COVID-19 in Nepal. The ID-cards requirement for Indians is a step to tighten the cross-border movement. It affects the benefits for traders of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Some constructs that Chinese influence and domestic political problems for PM Oli are relevant for the Nepalese attitude. Therefore, there is business, politics, and hence the response from India also could affect economics, business, and politics of landlocked Nepal. Accordingly, Chinese intrusions cannot be discounted. We have seen these issues play around in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Nepal (Sri Lanka is not exempted!) can learn a lesson regarding Indian wrath if past experiences are perused on how India responded to Bhutan in 2012, when then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, at the Rio+20 Summit. India has retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. From that point on, ‘possessiveness and domination began to outweigh respect and trust in public perceptions of the Bhutan-India friendship.’

 

India and Bangladesh

Take the Bangladesh issues with India. The events usually quoted are the continuations of others arisen between India and Bangladesh. Of course, China would have executed its strategies to move Bangladesh willingly. China becoming the biggest trading partner of Bangladesh or large-scale infrastructure projects cannot be overnight developments.

Last October, Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina signed seven bilateral treaties with India. This act disappointed and infuriated Bangladeshis that “they could not expect their leadership to look out for country’s interest and well-being.” (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/). This was almost concurrently timed with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. So much so, when anti-India sentiments were expressed in Bangladesh, India assured that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) would not affect Bangladeshis.

Developments in India overtook these assurances. This created concerns for Bangladeshis, as stated by Sabria Chowdhury Balland, as follows (https://asiatimes.com/2020/01/how-indias-caa-nrc-affect-bangladesh/)

(i) Though Indians state that there will not be any adverse effects from CAA and NRC, Bangladeshis have genuine concerns and apprehensions that they might unleash an exodus of Bengali-speaking people from Assam and the Muslims attempting to escape persecution in India.

(ii) The Bangladeshis are worried whether an issue like Rohingya refugees would repeat.

(iii) They are concerned that denial of Indian citizenship to Muslims anywhere in India will trigger strong reactions from Islamist parties in Bangladesh and even within the Awami League.

(iv) Bangladesh considers the criticism that Hindus in Bangladesh are persecuted and tortured is wrong, baseless, and unwarranted.

(v) India’s attempts to equate Bangladesh to fundamentally theocratic Muslim nations (e.g., Pakistan and Afghanistan) are unacceptable to Bangladeshis.

(vi) The Bangladeshi government has declared that it will allow people to enter from India only upon proof of Bangladeshi citizenship, which is problematic.

(vii) Hence Bangladesh cannot be used as a dumping ground for ‘bigoted regimes’ such as those in Myanmar and India.

These show the neighborhood issues between the two countries are deeprooted and somewhat ugly. Though Pakistan openly criticized the Kashmir issue, Bangladesh was comparatively toned-down. When we ambassadors met Vijay Ghokle, Secretary MEA, to hear the Indian government’s version on Kashmir, the Bangladesh diplomat would have been hiding his country’s natural stance, and bogusly showing that the issue is an “internal affair of India.”

However, the CAA legislation was different from Article 370 on Kashmir and created a bizarre situation in the case of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan called off their visits to India over the situation arising out of the CAA, giving scheduling problems as the reason. But, he cancelled it a day after Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Bangladesh was persecuting its minorities, especially Hindu women, adding that “uncertainty in India is likely to affect its neighbours.” It could even be conceived as a threat. Separately, Momen was a bit harsh, telling the BBC’s Bengali Service, praising communal harmony standards in Bangladesh and adding “If he (Amit Shah) stayed in Bangladesh for a few months, he would see exemplary communal harmony.”

Next was the Bangladesh Deputy Foreign Minister Shahriar Alam, who canceled his participation in high profile Raisina Dialogue. The Bangladesh Foreign Office, however, said that Alam was accompanying PM Sheikh Hasina to the UAE, and his absence had nothing to do with Dhaka’s unhappiness over the CAA.

 

Money as a game-changer

India has shared financial assistance to boost its neighbourhood policy. To wit, I may mention that when the new Bhutanese PM paid the first State Visit to India, PM Modi assured to play an important role in Bhutan’s economic development and announced INR 4,500 crore for Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year Plan. When the new Maldivian President made his first State Visit, PM Modi pledged the Maldives $ 1.4. Billions of financial assistance to relieve the debt with China. We have the same problem, but are unfortunate!

Additionally, Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had made their first State Visits to India earlier, and they were nicely treated by India “with sweet talk,” not in the same fashion with those quoted above. For President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, this attitude changed.

However, I do not discount the strategic value of those countries to India, especially in the northern and north-eastern boundaries and in the Indian Ocean Region. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is of no lesser strategic value for India.

Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman earmarked INR 8,415 crore for neighbourhood countries: INR 1,050 crore to Nepal, INR 2,802 crores to Bhutan, INR 1,100 crore for Mauritius, INR 576 crore to the Maldives, but, to Sri Lanka INR 250 crore. Compare the population statistics of Bhutan (800,000), Maldives (436,000), Mauritius (1.2 million), and Sri Lanka (22 million). If considered on population, the logic of distribution by Madam Sitharaman is unexplainable. Of course, there are “extraneous reasons” for such “favouritism.”

During the last decade, Bhutan has received INR 32,280 crore, Afghanistan 4,855 crore, Nepal 4,166 crore, Mauritius 2,520 crore, Sri Lanka 2,317 crore and Maldives INR 1,787 crore. What Bhutan receives for one year from this Budget is more than what we have received over a decade! This distribution was skewed against us.

India has shown extraordinary empathy to the Maldives, which endorses that Indian neighbourliness depended on their wishes. I may quote a few recent decisions to prove. PM Modi’s good gesture was expanded with a package for the Maldives on August 13th, 2020. It was a $100 million grant and $400 million new line of credit, for the Greater Malé Connectivity Project (GMCP). The request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa purportedly made for $1 billion reported in the media, does not seem to be forthcoming. If China assists us, there will be negative comments, though. The MEA Minister Dr. S Jaishankar also announced the creation of an air bubble with the Maldives to facilitate peoples’ movement from both sides for employment, tourism, and medical emergencies. Further, Minister Jaishankar announced the commencement of the regular cargo ferry service between the two countries.

When we compare with neighbouring Sri Lanka, these happen when we haggle over the Eastern Container Terminal, Trinco Oil Tanks, Mattala, etc., and seeing LTTE threats over resuming of the ferry service and when competitor Maldives is accommodative. Hence, this assistance makes sense for India because the recipient of benefits will be India while turning away China from the Maldives. Anyway, if competitive financing is kept open, it may be another like-minded country organization that may evolve, and power play in the region also may adjust accordingly, as the Indian author insinuates.

 

China factor

As the writer has said, the size of China’s economy gives it a significant advantage over countries. I mention Adarsh Varma, who says that China’s foreign direct investments outside China exceeded 220 billion dollars in 2016, surging 246 percent from 2015. He pointed out that Chinese loans to many IOR littorals in Asia and Africa far outstrip the loans that these countries receive from IMF or other developed countries, and FDIs tend to monopolize resources and favor the investor while supplanting domestic enterprises and creating a balance of payment problem for recipient countries. Political and diplomatic dependence follow shortly if the countries are unable to pay the loans. We faced this.

The challenge for India with the neighbourhood is to counter this status. The Chinese not only intrude into development but strategically deal with politics (e.g., Sheik Hasina and Imran Khan reference). For Sri Lanka, China has throughout stood with us at the UN interventions. She assisted the war effort through. These are registered in our minds. Therefore, anyone posing to compete will have to muster resources and consistently back the assisting countries. This is why China has a foothold even in the BIMSTEC countries, irrespective of the organization being an Indian product.

I am reminded of what Avathar Singh Bhasin wrote about Indian expectations from neighbours. He said that they should not seek to invite outside power(s), and if any assistance is needed, they should look to India. “India’s attitude and relationship with her immediate neighbors depended on their appreciation of India’s regional security concerns; they would serve as buffer states in the event of an extra-regional threat and not proxies of the outside powers…”

China does not show Indo-phobia or Americ-phobia or Jap-phobia when extending support under BRI. They go on a ruthless path. They develop maritime, railway connectivity, not being limited to String of Pearls or the Silk Route. Therefore, the challenges for India are to match this vast machination and to rid of phobias. As the writer emphasized, policies and actions to foster upgraded neighborhood relationships will be a must.



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Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole

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By Gwynne Dyer

I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.

The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.

The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.

Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.

Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.

The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.

Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.

Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].

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Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances

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The river we step in is not the river we stand on

By B Nimal Veerasingham

Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.

Peace memorial

This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.

US Foreign Policy

The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.

Fr Eugene Herbert memorial

Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.

Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.

Multi-talented

Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.

Excellence in Basketball

Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.

The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.

Reaching the stars

I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.

The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.

Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.

Last letter

In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.

‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.

The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.

Breaking down societal imbalances

El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.

The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.

This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.

 

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Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs

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By Uditha Devapriya

Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.

In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.

In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.

There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.

Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.

Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.

In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.

Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.

Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.

Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.

Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.

In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.

He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.

Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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