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Lankan diplomat uses shared cultures to promote ties

india Updated: Jul 08, 2006 15:37 IST
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Sumith Nakandala, former Deputy High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Chennai and now Ambassador-designate to Nepal, is an out-of-the-ordinary diplomat.

For this 46 year old career foreign service officer, the aim of diplomacy is not to gain partisan advantage for his country through intrigue, secrecy and glib talk, but to build longstanding bridges across national frontiers using shared interests, shared values and shared cultures as the foundation.

Diplomacy must be a "mission" to knit nations together, and in such diplomacy, shared cultures were ideal tools, Nakandala told Hindustan Times in Colombo on Saturday, en route from Chennai to Kathmandu.

During his five-year stint in Chennai, when he was in charge of all the South Indian states, Nakandala put his passion into practice with remarkable success.

He built a cultural, intellectual and humanitarian bridge across the Palk Strait at a time when Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu were deeply suspicious of each other, if not at daggers drawn.

Nakandala is a Sinhala from the deep south of the island, an area known to produce staunch Sinhala nationalists from the time of the legendary king Duttugamunu who vanquished the Tamil king Elara of Jaffna.

Nakandala: Man with a mission

But in Chennai, Nakandala was anything but a Sinhala chauvinist.

Popularly known as Sumith, he reached out to the Tamils and took upon himself the arduous task of bringing out the commonalities in the cultures of the Tamils and the Sinhalas.

He also showed how Tamil Nadu/South India and Sri Lanka, had had very close and friendly ties in the past.

He formed a team of Sri Lankan and Indian scholars to write and speak on the shared culture. He motivated journalists to write on the shared culture.

He promoted the exchange of South Indian and Sri Lankan archaeologists and historians to study the commonalities and linkages in the past, which could serve as a model for the troubled present and the uncertain future.

Among his collaborators from the Sri Lankan side were eminent scholars like the Peradeniya University Archeologist Prof Sudarshan Seneviratne; Peradeniya University Historian S Pathmanathan; Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia Dr KNO Dharmadasa; and the former Director General of Archeology Dr Siran Deraniyagala.

From the Indian side, among others, he had Dr Ponnampalam Raghupathy, a Sri Lankan Tamil who is serving as Professor of South Asian Studies at Utkal University in Orissa.

Nakandala instituted the annual "Vesak Commemoration Lecture" in Chennai, which had become a meeting place of those interested in the shared cultures of India and Sri Lanka.

The lectures were printed and distributed free.

He had motivated private and public sector institutions in both India and Sri Lanka to sponsor the Vesak lecturers and other "outreach" activities across South India to spread the message of the underlying unity of Sri Lanka and India.

He saw Buddhism and Hinduism as bridges between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, though today, few would believe that Buddhism had bound Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka together till about the 12th century AD.

Tamil was compulsory in the top Buddhist seminaries in Sri Lanka before the Portuguese began persecuting the Buddhists in the island. Tamil monks played a critical role in the promotion of Buddhism here.

Buddhist relics still exist in Tamil Nadu and aspects of Hindu Tamil culture are still part and parcel of Sinhala culture in Sri Lanka.

Passion for India has been a key motivating factor for Nakandala.

"As a young man, I had read Tagore's Gora and that created a love for India and Bengal," he recalled.

The Sri Lankan foreign service, which he joined in 1988, took him to New Delhi in 1996 where he served till 2001 as First Secretary and then as Counsellor.

"I had earlier been offered Paris, but I chose to go to New Delhi instead because I felt that for a serious Sri Lankan foreign service officer, India should be more important than Paris," he said.

"And it was the most interesting and educative assignment," he added.

Nakandala interacted with all the leading academic and research institutes in Delhi such the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for Policy Research, and Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, besides leading journalists and officials.

He thanks the late lamented Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar for preventing him from becoming Deputy High Commissioner in Canberra, Australia, in 2001 and posting him in Chennai instead.

"Kadirgamar requested me to go to Chennai as Deputy High Commissioner and I agreed," Nakandala said.

"I never once regretted having taken that decision," he said.

His conviviality and eagerness to promote activities which would link Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu (and South India generally) won him a wide circle of friends among the academicians and the literati of Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Thiruvanathapuram, cities, which fell under the purview of his mission.

Brought up on a diet of Tolstoy Nakandala has a deep feeling for the down trodden, and not surprisingly, he set about easing the lives of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu.

He provided these people, who had fled to Tamil Nadu with nothing except the clothes they were wearing, birth and marriage certificates in quick time.

He liberally gave travel documents in case they wanted to return to their homes and hearths Sri Lanka.

"For me they were Sri Lankans and not disloyal people who had abandoned Sri Lanka, as some of my compatriots felt," he said.

It goes to Nakandala's credit that he is the only foreign diplomat in South India to have been felicitated by the prestigious Madras Book Club and interviewed by the leading news magazine Frontline prior to his departure in June.

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