Vesak & India | Sunday Observer

Vesak & India

It is an annual festival usually marked by Sri Lankans with piety and simple community observances, the most active perhaps being the sightseeing of creations of religious imagery – thoran and lantern art. As post-war stability is succeeded by slow but steady economic growth, the festive ‘Vesak zones’ are proliferating island wide along with increasing religious activity by the faithful.

This year, Vesak in Sri Lanka is especially momentous. Firstly, the United Nations’ official Vesak celebrations are hosted by Sri Lanka, this year, with Government-supported official festivities and religious observances in a special program with diplomatic participation by Buddhist majority countries and by the United Nations.

Secondly, and equally importantly, Sri Lanka hosts Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as chief guest at the UN Vesak celebration and, also, for a bilateral summit meeting between Sri Lanka and India.

Bharath, being the historic font of Sri Lankan spirituality, has always been a source of vitality for our island society even as political rivalries on both sides of the Palk Strait punctuated our mutual history with wars, palace coups and invasions. Our bilateral intimacy, deriving from the reality of geographical proximity, may now be limited mainly to culture and economics. But this solid foundation mutually propels us toward greater political collaboration and shared responsibilities as modernity knits the entire South Asian region together with growing shared interests and common challenges.

Indeed, except perhaps, for the divisive fall-out from colonial legacies, the South Asian Sub-continent is geo-physically, culturally and, economically, more attuned toward integration than most such global sub-regions, even though, ironically, some of those other sub-regions (e.g. ASEAN) are progressing faster towards integration.

Mr. Modi, being the most overtly religious of all recent Indian government leaders, is perhaps better positioned than most of his secular predecessors to respond to the angst of some Sri Lankans over the looming cultural immediacy of our giant neighbour. Recent geo-political tensions between India and Sri Lanka mesh a legacy of violence in our mutual history, including political interventions, together with the overarching, persistent, bilateral socio-economic interdependence and, the dynamic of market competition. Whatever the rivalries and bitter mutual experiences, the socio-cultural intimacies override.

Buddhism came from India, while an even older popular religiosity, including local Shaivism, is indigenous to the original human communities that straddled the Strait. Even the European colonial legacy, including its triage, draws us together with our neighbour. Sri Lanka further benefitted when the pressures of the combined Indian peoples’ freedom struggle prompted a full scale British colonial withdrawal from South Asia. The bilateral relationship has grown, even if interrupted on occasion by geo-political manoeuvres of both sides of the Strait.

Today, Delhi and Colombo are once more exploring friendships after a bout of estrangement during the Rajapaksa regime. And, there is much un-finished business.

Most urgently, a comprehensive economic collaboration agreement is needed to exploit the bilateral relationship’s huge potential in this era of rapid globalization. As the world divides itself into new market regions and new concentrations of global economic power, both countries stand to gain, Sri Lanka more than India, in the greater combining of economic and value chain advantages in competition with other regions.

Markets can be shared for mutual benefit in the global economy, ranging from coordinated manufactures exports, to travel and tourism, to industrial and scientific research, to pooling of energy, and, to sharing of climate change burdens. Even without a comprehensive economic agreement, Sri Lankan business has begun matching Indian business in cross-border direct capital investments. The conclusion of ETCA will only further open up such opportunities and more.

Ever a popular personality, Premier Modi’s high visibility here at celebrations closest to the hearts of Sri Lankans, will complement the already existing popular bonding between the Sri Lankan and Indian peoples inspired by personalities in cinema and sports.

And as Buddhism re-establishes its primacy of the social spirit on this island, the old fears of ethnic submission and spiritual subversion should be allowed to fade away as social confidence overcomes insecurities. This is the spiritual foundation needed for long term harmony between communities and for the healing of the wounds of war. More importantly, the recovery of religious stability and concomitant spiritual strength should enable a more non-competitive attitude between religious communities and ensure a genuine religious and ethnic equality and co-existence that goes far beyond mere constitutional legalities.

Vesak can bring all this and more.

SAITM again

Barely two weeks after major negotiations between the various interested parties had brought some calm to the imbroglio over SAITM, an attempted trade union confrontation with the government reminded the public that certain political interests behind some of the agitation continues to foment that agitation. Clearly, they are only interested in agitation and not resolution.

The one-day token strike, attempted by some trade unions brought together by the GMOA, may not have had the intended impact in terms of disruption of public life. But, the strike served to confuse the issue leaving the general public once again uncertain whether or not this problem of a strictly standardised professional medical training was on the way to being resolved.

Two weeks ago, the multilateral negotiations between the various interested groups were concluded with some broad agreement on a way forward. A statement was made on this in Parliament by the Government.

It is up to the Government to move swiftly along the agreed tracks so as to leave no further room for such manipulation of popular concerns for narrow political interests.