A “Brown Sahib” as our new envoy to New Delhi?
Posted on April 18th, 2014

By Bandu de Silva

          If getting a person out of sight is the new criteria in selecting candidates for higher diplomatic postings, as reportedly attributed to the President of the country in respect of a proposed higher appointment to the High Commission Australia, one need not be unduly disturbed to think that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set a new trend. No. The first time the formula was applied was when Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike appointed Dr.Gunapala Malalasekera as the first Sri Lankan Ambassador to Moscow in 1957. The Prime Minister gave Dr.Malalasekera whatever he asked at his new post, whether it was in the form of emoluments, allowances, Frai de Representation, or the staff. He took W.D.Fernando (Veda), former Ayurvedic Commissioner as Counsellor, Pathirana, a former colleague of mine, a teacher from the lower school of Dharmaraja College, Kandy, who was a good Buddhist, who perhaps, made up for the abstinence practiced by Dr.Malalasekera. Other staff provided by the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs included the senior diplomat, Vernon Mendis and G.A. Fernando who too was also a well honed diplomat.

That Mr Bandaranaike wanted to get rid of Dr.Malalasekera was not publicly discussed but many knew of it because the Prime Minister thought his presence could be troublesome to his newly formed government where nationalist forces were over-active. Dr.Malasekera himself knew it. That is how I came to know about it. During a long train journey of several days visiting Chinese Buddhist shrines when he came over from Moscow on a visit to China, when I accompanied him, he discussed with me the internal politics of the country and many other matters. He wanted to share something with his former part time Pali student in the University, that is something that had been festering in his mind, the circumstances about his appointment. “They thought they were getting rid of me”.he suddenly exclaimed. I felt that he had been hurt, but he told me that it did not matter. “There is material benefits I gained since I have been able to save some money for the first time in life”. It was rumoured that he was the highest paid diplomat in Moscow after the US Ambassador. It could be true because the allowances were reduced twice after he left. Then he told me that he would like to invest in a tea property and asked me if I knew any good property.

Dr Malalasekera did not take the appointment negatively. He proved his mettle in diplomacy in Moscow with his intellectual prowess and later earned other high posts like that of High Commissioner in UK, and High Commissioner in Ottawa overseeing UN. He worked with his assistants as a team , and encouraged each one to contribute. He remained the Editor ”in Chief for reports which went out to the Foreign Office. I read his reports from New York. They were precise and stimulating but critical of some of his associates like Ezlyn Deraniyagala, a relative of the Bandaranaike’s whom the Bandaaranaike’s repeatedly sent to the UN as leader of one of the four Committees, who was critical of the Africans and even called them “uneducated and uncivilized” .

Under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, his diplomatic assignment had come to an end. The Sri Lankan academic community in Australia where I was then Deputy High Commissioner when Dr.Malalasekera visited Australia, informed me that the Professor was being side-tracked by Dudley and asked me to arrange a few TV interviews for him at the ABC channels in Sydney and Melbourne, to revive “the spirit of the Professor, and to let the Australians know the caliber of this Sri Lankan academic and intellectual”. I undertook this willingly, being ready to answer any queries from the government, if any were to arise. It was facilitated by the Manager of ABC who was a close friend of mine.          

Whatever the reasons may be, that was an excellent choice of an academic for diplomatic postings. That was because Dr.Malalasekera was a superior intellectual. There has been no repetition of it since though there were several academics appointed as Heads of Mission.

          Prime Minister Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, for whatever reason, sent out during her second term in office, several academics as heads of mission to important missions like Washington (WS Karunaratne), Beijing,(Karannagoda), and Paris/UNESCO (Sarchchandra). They had all supported her Party during elections in some ways, though a person like Sarachchandra was critical of the way the JVP was treated. As Ambassador in Paris, he was counting the number of dead bodies which were floating down in the Kelani river after operations around Kegalla, and Kitulgala.

Representation in Washington had been a flop for long years. Nothing seems to have happened in developing a Sri Lanka friendly diplomatic front. When Mrs Bandaranaike’s domestic policy of nationalization brought about a head- on clash with US interests, there was no diplomatic representation in Washington capable enough to handle the crisis. No Ambassador appointed to Washington warned Mrs. Banadaranaike about the dire consequences which could result from taking over US economic interests in the island without payment of compensation though that might have appeared bravado on the part of her government. In Iran, the popular Prime Miniister Moaasadeq suffered a worse situation after nationalizing US and other foreign owned oil companies. W.S Karunaratne, a reputed Lecturer in Buddhist Philosophy, appointed as Ambassador to Washington at a critical time in US ”Sri Lanka relations when Mrs Bandaranaike’s nationalitsaion of oil companies followed, was not a diplomat to handle crisis situations though he had been an effective public speaker at political gatherings in Sri Lanka and a forceful exponent of Buddhist philosophy at as a University Don.

Sri Lanka suffered the withdrawal of World Bank sponsored economic aid and the economy was in a dire state. As Dayan Jayatillka rightly pointed out in his recent article “The crisis in US-Sri Lanka relations” (Ceylon Today, April 4,2014), it was the US Ambassador, Van Hollen, whom he calls a “master diplomat” who established such an excellent personal equation with the anti-western Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike that he was suspected of being responsible for the ejection of the leftwing partners of the ruling coalition, it was Van Hollen’s initiative which finally brought back the World Bank sponsored economic aid programme to Sri Lanka.

I was a personal witness to know how much this change in relations with US mattered to Mrs.Bandaranaike’s government from the way as I observed, Dr.H A de S Gunasekera, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Planning , who single-handedly, led the Sri Lanka delegation to the resumed World Banka led Aid Consortium meetings in Paris, with me to assist him for two years, handled this very delicate situation. I recall, in the second year after the resumption of aid in a moderate way, the Indian government sent its own representative, an old friend of mine from the IFS, to find out what was happening. I remember asking this representative, Sood, then Counsellor of the Paris Embassy, (later Ambassador), if his government was worried that Sri Lanka was veering away from its earlier strong anti-west policy .

At the Washington end, even our much spoken of diplomat Neville Kanakaratne remained impotent in the face of the crisis which developed ”he was just going round the States delivering impressive lectures and engaging himself in trivialities outside his domain like probing into the way I had, as Minister of the Embassy, like probing into the way I had conducted wheat aid negotiations with EEC through the French Bank for Development. I had to silence him calling his intervention gratuitous but also foolish because he did not know the basis of price-formula agreed internationally.

. .Diplomacy had to be a continuing process not something that could be attempted in fits and starts. Even if someone like Wilmot Perera in Beijng laid the firm foundation for building up a healthy foundation, unless there were others to build on it, the initiative could not have been be sustained. In the case of US, there was no evidence that such an initiative had ever been taken in the long years and sustained. As such any criticism of personae at a time has to be a qualified one.    

The other academics Mrs Bandaranaike sent out to Beijing and Paris/Unesco were found to be non-performers as far as the objects of sending them was concerned. Kaarannagoda in Beijing who was seen unable to manage his personal affairs was seen in the midst of a big diplomatic scandal. In Paris, Sarachachandra was seen spending his energies not on the objects for which he was sent, especially at UNESCO, but on playing ‘Ping-Pong’ for nearly the whole day with his female personal Secretary, or with the minor staff. His record at UNESCO which was one of avoidance, was so dismal that for the next UNESCO General Conference in Nairobi, on recommendations of Dr. Premadasa Udagama, Permanent Secretary of Education, who led the delegation, the Prime Minister sent me to take over from him.

President Chandrika Kamaratunga sent her kinsman, Prof. Senaka Bandraranayake, an academic of high standing in archaeology (not field archaeology) as Ambassador to France /UNESCO   but he was diplomatically so na¯ve to think that UNESCO would be impressed by his standing as an academic who had specialized in writing about Buddhist monastic buildings and did not see the futility of contesting the post of Director General of UNESCO, even before, as I then wrote, he “knew to walk the corridors of Palace Fontanay (UNESCO).” The result which was two votes in his favour in the first round did not commensurate the expenditure incurred by the President on that election in sending special Ministerial delegations to canvass in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, even on a greater scale than President Rajapaksa sent this time for the national cause of defending against the US sponsored Resolution in Geneva. He did not even have the sense to withdraw from the contest before he could see the vote reduced to a single one, as reported, in the second round. He was soon withdrawn from Paris/UNESCO and sent to New Delhi as High Commissioner at a time India had withdrawn IPKF forces from Sri Lanka and Indo-Sri Lanka relations were at a low ebb.

These persons may have had some expertise in their respective academic fields but never found to contribute anything except routinely to promote the diplomatic interests of the country, not to speak of meeting any crisis situations. I have nothing against academics. As I said at the beginning, we have had excellent academics, rather intellectuals, like Dr G.P.Malalasekere who adorned the diplomatic posts which he held in Moscow, London and Ottawa (New York) but haven’t had anyone like that after that. Dr. Stanley Kalpage, as High Commissioner In New Delhi at a critical time and was a good organizer, had a different role to play as President J.R.Jayewardene’s representative.

Lessons

These are a few lessons the government could look back upon when deciding on academics to represent the country as diplomats. That is not to say that successive governments since 1977 have made better choices of other personnel. As many commentators have remarked, some of them   are a shame for the country. If the most recent news of a high diplomatic appointment to the High Commission in Canberra is a case in point, one cannot complain about any appointment. Even the UNP government, later sent an active former JVP cadre as Ambassador to Cuba because his brother had who himself was an active JVPer had become a minister in the UNP government (Later joined the present government). The question is not the political allegiance (or shifting ones) but the qualifications.

“Conflict Resolution” man as new envoy

What has one to say then if the news is correct that Sudarshan Seneviratne is to be appointed as the next head of mission in New Delhi? Does that mean that the Foreign Ministry or the government has now exhausted all talent in the country to project its point of view and wants to try a person who claims to be a “Conflict Resolution ” man in New Delhi, in the hope that his thesis in conflict resolution through mis -interpretation of history and archaeology, and his old connection as a post graduate from New Delhi, could bring about a positive change in Indo-SRI Lanka relations which had reached a low ebb? That may look a better proposition than sending someone out on a diplomatic post in order “to get rid of him”.

Like the idea of Celebrating Portuguese arrival Centenary

          If the External Affairs Ministry is behind this reported choice of Sudarshan Seneviratne, it smacks of the lack of historical and cultural perspective a former government displayed once when making decisions. That is remembering how he once a former government proposed the idea to celebrate the arrival of the Portuguese, a national disaster, in a commemoration ceremony in 2005, (the idea ld to Sri Lanka by the then Portuguese Foreign Minister) perhaps, with a grand show on the Mahapanne (Mapane) beach-head at Galle Face, like what was planned on the beaches of Cochin in South West India where Vasco de Gama arrived with his fleet but which event was aborted by people arching on to the beach.

If the External Affairs Ministry was not the one which made the choice, my remark will apply to such other, whoever it is.

On the positive side, one may say that Sudarshan Seneviratne was highly rated by the late Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadiragamar, who appointed him a Consultant on Foreign Affairs to the Foreign Ministry based on his claimed knowledge on “Conflict Resolution.” Though I considered Lakshman, my former University colleague, as a very judicious man, he seemed to have been carried away by this academic bluff. What a bogus claim Sudarshan Senevitatne was making, I have already exposed in an article published in The Island in 2007 (http://www.island.lk/2007/10/11/features-5html) (now not accessible I suppose) challenging his earlier assertion published in August 2007 in the same newspaper.

South India Sri Lanka Cultural Region (SISL) Concept

          This was the figment ofSudarhan Seneviratne, a post graduate student from the Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi. It is conjecture that people moved freely during the prehistoric Megalithic and Mesolithic period between the seas of the Palk Strait, which has not been proven. It has no support from other scientists but has been grist for the mill for an academic like K.Indrapala, who has quoted him extensively to support his ideas of Tamils and Sinhalese as “two siblings growing up together” and as “joint achievers” in building up the nation before the 12th century CE , partaking even in hydro technology.

Further more, Indrapala has taken Sudarshan Seneviratne’s “demystifying ” the knowledge of the past to the other extreme to ignore the accepted evidence- based rise of a polity formation in the island with a strong cultural foundation as seen from over thousands of Brahmi -Prakrit inscriptions during a short period of three to four centuries before and around the Christian era. In other words, both have attempted to dilute (demystify) the idea of rise of a strong Sri Lankan identity formation by submerging it in his conjectured SISL project .

Seneviratne was no pre-historic archaeologist of standing like Dr Siran Deraniyagala, a scientist with international accreditation and acceptance and Sri Lanka’s first trained archaeologist in pre-history.

The contradiction in Seneviratne’s thesis exposes itself when he picks up what I called “scraps” of evidence found on the precincts of Jetavanaramaya ignoring the significance of the far more imposing evidence staring at his face in the form of the massive Jetavanarama Dagoba itself whose technological features alone, including brick manufacture calls for far greater attention. Such is the imbalance in his interpretation of archaeological data.

This is the type of false evaluation on which our scholar has based his SISL project. That is to say that South India is not foreign but part and parcel of one cultural region. Consequently, Tamil historians have built up the idea that early usurpers were no foreigners as the chronicles ay, but local chieftains. That is how our “Conflict Resolution” man paved the way, as he says, to “demystify” history.  

Can one then ask if he, as Foreign policy advisor, he was applying the SISL formula and advising the government, he could be seen as advising (read demystifying) the government that there need not be an issue over Kachchativu or fishing dispute. Let both sides enjoy the common resource, as natures gift to both, bilateral agreements notwithstanding . What else? Similarly, he might even revive the old latent idea of Sri Lanka federating with India under the Indian Union, of not annexed to Tamil Nadu as part of his pet SISL concept. No wonder K.Indrapala found his arguments grist for the mill for his new book, “Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka c.300 BCE to c.1200 CE”.  

A Brown sahib of Macaulay’s definition

I have already exposed Sudarshan Seneviratne’s thesis as nothing but “Brown Sahaibism” of the Macaulay’s advocacy, this time around, in a new guise: “Brown in Colour but Indian in Thought”. What else can one call a person who picks up “scraps” of archaeological evidence like a stamp-size Nestorian Cross found long ago on the precincts of the Jetavanarama Dagoba at Anuradhapura which had long been forgotten, and a small Buddha figurine with a Tamil writing on it, (a recent find) to build up a “multi culturalism” thesis to interpret Sri Lanka’s past, ignoring the significance of the great monument, Jetavanarama, itself where these scraps were found. Questioning Sudarshan Seneviratne’s thesis of multi-culturaism based on ‘specs’ of evidence I wrote in The Island in2007,:

“So, it is not surprising that in Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne’s ‘deconstruction’ and ‘demystifying’ the study of heritage, (The Island of 8th and 15th August 2007, sub-titled ‘Towards an alternative dialogue -Re-reading Heritage for Conflict Resolution”, (an abridged version of his Vesak Commemoration Lecture delivered in Katmandu, on 28th May 2007),he has picked up such ‘scraps’ like the miniature Nestorian Cross (It has been there for long) and the [miniature] Buddha statue with Tamil inscriptions offered by a mercantile community (a more recent discovery) and large quantities of imported ceramics and beads found near Jetavana stupa during excavations as evidence of multiple contribution (not excluding equal contribution) to the ‘shared culture’ with all ethnic groups as ‘equal share-holders’, thereby overlooking the overwhelming evidence on the main centre of attraction which is the Jetevana stupa itself which stands on several acres of ground, complete with adjuncts, as the tallest stupa built in the world, second in height only to the great pyramid in Egypt, which is an architectural wonder both in concept, design and execution, as the greater contribution. The degree of scientific aspects displayed by the builders in the construction of this magnificent monument, including the mastery of the brick industry, receives no special priority in this scheme of presentation. That is the price of interpreting cultural heritage with the objective of achieving the objective of conflict resolution.

“The introduction of this type of imbalance in appreciation of the reality of higher cultural contributions by one group to its disadvantage and to the advantage of others, in other words, supporting the overall thesis of parity of contributions irrespective of the quality and volume of respective contributions with the further objective of subscribing to the idea of conflict resolution, is a deliberate in-put in the `deconstruction’ process.

The main issue then is the acceptability or not, of the rhetoric of giving equal weight to both large and small contributions so as to almost erase the historical reality of the predominant presence of one against others. This obliteration of superior contribution of one contained in the line of certain intellectual contributions is proposed in the name of conflict resolution. The spill”over effects of such a position has the potential of moving across to other fields including the political field to include claims of parity of status and even territorial claims. This need not be considered a hypothesis as the situation has become a reality in Sri Lanka.

“Now, we could turn around and pose the question again if Prof.Sudharshan Seneviratne’s thesis should or should not be considered in the first place as an apposite example of the kind of situation presented by Brown Sahibism, a play-around with a lot of new jargon originating from sources like UNESCO and the postmodernist school.”

The Big Question

 With the above frame of mind in interpreting archaeological evidence, virtually to deny a Sri Lankan identity/personality ,what else could one expect of Sudarshan Seneviratne except to be hailed as a good High Commissioner to represent India anywhere rather than a Sri Lankan diplomatic representative who could project Sri Lanka’s own identity which is the country’s by right. Even modern countries like the US, Canada and Australia, with nothing old to boast about beyond the colonizing period, try to project their own personality [suppressing] what there was earlier.

 The question then is, if it is a type of person who is not prepared to present even Sri Lanka’s own identity, (self) for whatever it is worth, as it should be, but would not hesitate to “almost erase the historical reality of the predominant presence of one against others” as I have stated, we need as a representative of this country in New Delhi or anywhere else.

 Is that the choice that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government now looking for to begin a new chapter of relations with India? Perhaps, the government should have waited till India’s current General Elections were over to think of the next appointment as the present circumstances seem to indicate that an altered political climate could present itself in India after the elections. Sensible governments do not make changes in diplomatic representation with countries which they have crucial relations on the eve of elections. The issue is not changing one peg for another. Choices made in such situations could prove to be even square pegs in round holes. Granting that the news report is right, doesn’t this show how casually our Foreign Policy perceptions are made?

 If the government thinks that the academic community would be pleased by appointing another academic to a key and sensitive diplomatic post, it is mistaken. With the type of background I have discussed above, there could be much objection even from the academic community. There could be supporters, nonetheless. Ask, for example, K. Indrapala, for whose new book referred to above. Even chief Minister NCP and the TNA might agree that he is the best choice. So there we are, Mr. External Minister!

 Indrapala quoted Seneviratne’s writing in The Island of 4/8/2001,displaying a tendency towards a certain mood of impatience in treating any other discourses with the use of terminology such as `anti-Orwillian historians; or lumpent intellectuals (who) belong to dust bin of history.” This is what Indrapala himself uses to discredit Sri Lanka’s history. Indrapala ‘s book is full of other quotes from Seneviratne.

          Can an academic with such attitudes of intolerance towards even in the academic field fit into a diplomatic profession requiring patience, respect for other’s views and diplomatic finesse?

 My article in The island published in reply to Sudarshan Seneviratne’s article of 8th/15 August 2007, was published in Lanka web earlier

2 Responses to “A “Brown Sahib” as our new envoy to New Delhi?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Muslims DOOMED when Modi becomes PM.

    “Mr. Modi has not visited the camps of the Muslims displaced by the violence or apologized for his government’s failure to protect a minority. Instead, he has described the reprisal killings of Muslims that year as a simple “reaction” to an “action,” namely the deaths of the Hindu train passengers — and has said he felt as sad about them as would a passenger in a car that accidentally ran over a puppy. His only regret, he once told a reporter for this paper, was failing to manage the media fallout.

    Even as candidate for prime minister, Mr. Modi has not given up his sectarian ways. Nor has his party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Of the 449 B.J.P. candidates now running for seats in the lower house of Parliament, all but eight are Hindu. The party’s latest election manifesto reintroduces a proposal to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a medieval mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, even though the destruction of that mosque by Hindu extremists and B.J.P. supporters in 1992 devolved into violence that killed several thousand people.

    Amit Shah, a former Gujarat minister and Mr. Modi’s closest aide, is awaiting trial for the murder of three people the police suspect of plotting to assassinate Mr. Modi. (Mr. Shah calls the charges a political conspiracy.) He has made speeches inciting anti-Muslim sentiment among Hindu voters, including in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, despite an outbreak of sectarian violence there last September.

    Ahmedabad ceases to swagger in Juhapura, a southwestern neighborhood and the city’s largest Muslim ghetto.
    The problem isn’t just about rhetoric. Judging by the evidence in Gujarat, where Mr. Modi has been chief minister since 2001, a B.J.P. victory in the general election would increase marginalization and vulnerability among India’s 165 million Muslims.”

    -nytimes.com

  2. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    To quote the article: “The party’s latest election manifesto reintroduces a proposal to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a medieval mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, even though the destruction of that mosque by Hindu extremists and B.J.P. supporters in 1992 devolved into violence that killed several thousand people.”

    That is but the first step if the Ramaboomi Temple is completed in Ayodhya the place Hindus claim is the birth spot of Rama. The second step is to dismantle another Muslim structure in the city of Mathura to reconstruct the birth spot of Krishna. If those two go through then the massive Mosque in Varanasi the holiest Hindu city will also face destruction.

    When that 16th century unused mosque was dismantled in the Indian city of Ayodhya, Pakistan reacted by destroying a dozen 11th to 12th century Hindu Temples.

    Nationalism is not relegated to the sub continent but is becoming a global phenomena. In Europe dozens of ultra nationalist parties are winning over the once liberal states. It is a direct reaction to the growing Muslim problem embedded in the “multiculturalism” embraced by liberal governments in the past. Even in Rome one of Europe’s biggest Mosques has been constructed under the very shadow of the Vatican.

    In the US nationalist movements has also taken root against the Socialist policies of the Obama government. These movements have become strong enough that a series of secessionist movements from states like Texas to across the Confederate South to even California where a proposal to divide that state into six new states, mainly because of the massive number of both liberal and conservative elements of that state. Even in Alaska a poll done stated that 18% of the Alaskan population would be glad to secede to Russia if that ever happened.

    In the Middle East religion and nationalism has joined forces in an already unstable region. Be it for good or worse Sri Lanka better take stock of the world wide movements and quickly come to some decision whether Secularism and liberalism should be allowed to play their hands in dismantling the traditional Buddhist culture to that of alien faiths and separatist movements.

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