Sunday Times of India, June 16, 2013
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Sri Lanka’s diaspora dilemma
By Swapan Dasgupta
Decision-making in any country, particularly a noisy democracy, is a complex and often infuriating process. Yet, which voices should matter most in moulding the collective destiny: those who feel for the country or those who live in it?
Ideally, both categories should be co-terminus and, by and large, they are. However, since the 1960s and particularly since technology and globalisation made the world a much smaller place, almost all the South Asian countries have been confronted with a new reality: the diaspora.
For the Government, India’s “overseas citizens” are no longer a “brain drain” but assets whose generous remittances help in managing the current account deficit. The country has demonstrated its gratitude and enshrined its links by offering exceptional privileges to PIO/OCI cardholders. If, at any point in the future, India is in a position to play a more active global role, the contribution of our Overseas Citizens will be immeasurable.
And yet there are occasions when we see our Overseas Citizens as a nuisance. Maybe the earlier sense of superiority that came with the suitcase of goodies to distribute to the poor, left-behind relatives has waned. But the condescension that comes with a sense of I-know-best-what-is-good-for-India often has many gnashing their teeth.
The social media has actually increased this gap between those who care for India and those who actually experience it on a daily basis. The most extreme and inflammatory messages on twitter, for example, can invariably be traced back to some Indian living in North America, doing a mid-level job who has very limited social interaction with colleagues and neighbours. He may be living in a well-appointed Hicksville suburb but mentally he has transported himself to India via the social media. It is a schizoid existence and invariably generates a perspective of India that is both frozen in time and distorted by the lack of everyday social interaction. Reading Indian newspapers on the net and watching Indian news channels on cable cannot ever compensate for the more rounded view provided by the drudgeries of daily existence.
However, a few crazy interventions on the social media don’t amount to much. Overall, India’s Overseas Citizens are a good, hardworking and supportive lot. India can be proud of them.
Cross the Palk Straits and a very different image of the diaspora emerges. Sri Lanka may be tiny speck on the map and better known these days for the slinging arm of Lasith Malinga and the classical elegance of the well-spoken Kumara Sanghakara. However, this tropical paradise has just emerged from a 30-year civil war that was unbelievably bloody and damaging. Merely reading about the “ethnic conflict” cannot convey the horror and the pain the country endured—and with a very stiff upper lip.
The origins of that war lie in a divisive, chauvinist politics that, thankfully, the country has now repudiated. There is a sense of optimism in Colombo and a great sense of relief in Jaffna that the war which probably left no family in the island unaffected is over.
Tragically, the quiet elation over a new dawn is being soured on a daily basis by a diaspora that wants its own version of Sri Lanka, crafted in Canada, UK and Norway. That may of the 8 lakh-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora left the island under traumatic conditions is undeniable. They nursed that bitterness so strongly that they actually bankrolled the most brutal military machine since Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. It was this easy and unending supply of diaspora funds that gave the LTTE the luxury of never having to bother about public opinion inside Sri Lanka. The diaspora bankrolled murder.
Today, the LTTE has been militarily defeated but the diaspora funds are being used to keep the old Sinhalese-Tamil divide in politics and international relations. There is peace and growing prosperity in the Tamil areas, and only the political loose ends remain. This in itself is a challenge but the reconciliation process isn’t helped if the diaspora is determined that its unchanging historical memory and hateful vision for the future must set the tone for the country they left behind.
Sunday Times of India, June 16, 2013