A Sturdy Voice That We Miss: Rajeewa Jayaweera on India’s Looming Politics

Dr, D. Chandraratna in The Island, 11 June 2021, where the title reads An Appreciation: Rajeewa Jayaweera: A Void Hard to fill” …. with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

On 11 June, 2020, when we heard the distressing news of Rajeewa Jayaweera’s untimely death, I wrote an appreciation from afar that he was a public intellectual who had contributed immensely to public debate, mostly on our relations with India and to a lesser extent with the Western countries. Coming from a fortunate background, and immersed in the diplomatic life of his father he took a scholarly interest in foreign affairs. Few in Sri Lanka has contributed so much to the subject recently as much as Rajeewa, to bring into public discussion our relations with the world community. His accounts were a  ‘learned and incisive appraisal of events’ particularly during the turbulent times of the threat posed by separatism. In this article on the first death anniversary I wish to justify my assertion about Rajeewa by way of an appreciation with a difference.

Rajeewa can be described as a member of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia who contributed to matters of public interest through hundreds of essays to the few available journals over many years. The Sri Lankan intellectuals who form this group are drawn from practically all layers of society and in a democratic society like ours there is great heterogeneity. The universities absorb and reshape the sons and daughters of bourgeoisie and proletarians alike, from towns and villages, drawing members of all communities and religions.

Hence to begin with there is great heterogeneity but this heterogeneity wanes and homogeneity waxes in because education and knowledge of world matters bind them in a striking way. Philosophers such as Karl Mannheim claimed that the intelligentsia are a privileged group who are capable of acquiring a ‘total perspective, with an unattached mind, which can grasp a phenomenon from all sides. The education and upbringing help overcome any blind attachment and one-sidedness; inter stimulation among the intellectuals cultivate the many positives of tolerance, elasticity and universal understanding and in Karl Manheim’s words become capable of the fullest synthesis of the tendencies of that era. A good education is able to remove crude prejudices by widening the values and horizons.

Rajeewa in my estimation was a semi-contemplative, less deeply immersed in the world of action. He has shown to be less clearly identified with those closely active with the economic or political process. As an intellectual he did not choose to remain locked up in a private world but wanted his voice heard outside the narrow circle of his sphere of technical scholarship. He was at the centre of issues of foreign affairs and was no hack writer for any class or interest group. He wrote like an arbiter, or an umpire above the hurly burly of politics. Never sold himself to a party but remained steadfastly to the role of uncommitted observer. To his last day he remained in his own terrain, a tertium quid, a class of its own, the class of intellectuals.

My observations and deductions are clearly seen in the writings of Rajeewa to which I shall now turn. Given the space limitations of the column I shall only present a few of his views on Indian involvement in Sri Lankan affairs.

Apart from his interest in Sri Lankan airlines he also wrote on Sri Lankan relations with the West that I shall hold for another date. Like his own father Stanley Jayaweera who functioned for a short time as an advisor to President Premadasa on India-Sri Lanka relations, Rajeewa too had a solid grasp of Indian involvement in Sri Lankan politics.

Indian Sri Lankan Relations

On the National Question issue, like a true diplomat, conscious of presenting a balanced but objective view he says that, ‘India’s involvement spans over three decades and cannot be wished away. Therefore, they should be co-opted into the process. But he is forthright in condemning ‘the utterly useless Provincial Council system which we must decide either to be retained for the sake of one community. Or else, should it be replaced with another mechanism that will address the issue of power devolution to the satisfaction of all communities’

Regarding the wavering stance of India at the UNHRC deliberations he said, ‘Considering the bleeding-­heart justifications of successive Indian governments and its leaders for their support to Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka, India’s moral bankruptcy stands exposed for the manner in which it treats with its own citizens in Jammu & Kashmir who are armed with stones and petrol bombs and not sophisticated communications equipment, automatic weapons, artillery and a naval squadron as were the LTTE. Kashmiris are yet to start the use of suicide vests and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Kashmir, Delhi or elsewhere, as was the case with LTTE’.

The scholarly interest he had about our truculent relationship with India was sharp. Rajeewa’s knowledge was as good as any state diplomat engaged officially with India. He said on many occasions that ‘It need to be stated, Sri Lanka has only one major foreign policy issue. That is India. The need to maintain close and friendly relations with India is a given fact. The need to act at all times, with due consideration to Indian concerns for the security of its southern seaboard at all times too is a given imperative. This needs to be handled with the utmost care by professionals’. However, it cannot be a one-way street either, he said unequivocally. Reciprocity and mutual respect is the apotheosis and corner stone for close and friendly relations.

Protocol and Conventions

When it was to do with protocol and Vienna Conventions Rajeewa was at his best. His personal life must have given him enough ammunition to go full blast at the failings of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry. About a certain episode in Jaffna Indian Consul General’s office regarding the visit of a military officer, he said, ‘Heads of State, Governments, Ministers and senior officials visiting foreign missions and residences is an absolute breach of protocol. Exceptions should be to attend National Day Receptions or to sign a condolence book. Diplomats are meant to be summoned. If not, they initiate contact that must be necessarily held in the offices of the local official. About the deafening silence of the Foreign Ministry he wrote, ‘What role does the Indian Consul General play in the Civil-Military Coordination and Reconciliation in Jaffna? Has he assumed the role of de-facto Chief Minister?

About the behaviour of the diplomatic corps since the regime change in 2015, Rajeewa pointed out that, ‘we have witnessed over leaders kowtowing before foreigners and conducting themselves in a most servile manner. Not correcting the US Secretary of State John Kerry who welcomed our Foreign Minister “after 30 years of war with the Tamils” was one such instance. The Geneva sell-out was another, with SOFA being the latest. The disease seems to be infectious.

About the skirmishes at Geneva he wrote, ‘Now it would appear to be the turn of our soldiers. Forgotten are the heroes who led the several divisions in the Vanni region between January and May 2009. They are now in retirement unable to travel to many countries on trumped-up ‘war crimes’ allegations.

He articulated the voice of the people. ‘Notwithstanding the cordial relations at the state level, a serious trust deficit prevails among ordinary Sri Lankans, especially among the 70% majority community. Local sentiments are not a phobia, which is irrational, but fear and resentment based on recent Indian interventions and attitudes, considered hegemonistic, is the perspective of ordinary Sri Lankans. It is both rational and understandable. Most have no idea of India’s military adventures or its covert operations in neighbouring countries. But they are conscious of the role played by India in Sri Lanka since the late 1970s. Even assistance given at the tail end of the conflict to combat LTTE terrorism was largely negated by India repeatedly voting against Sri Lanka at UNHRC a few years ago.

I would like to conclude this tribute to Rajeewa by reference to the visit of that eminent scholar, historian diplomat Sashi Tharoor to Colombo. Jayaweera in a previous essay had written how most Indian statesmen, politicians, intellectuals and many others justify Indian involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, based on reasons of kinship between the 1.2 million Tamil community in Sri Lanka and 70 million Tamils in the politically volatile Tamil Nadu. Sashi Tharoor too sang from the same copy book. He justified India’s continued engagement with Sri Lanka. When Tharoor commented “This is not a case of New Delhi interfering gratuitously in the internal affairs of its southern neighbour. India cannot help but be involved, both because it is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour geographically and because its own Tamil population – some 70 million people in the politically important southern state of Tamil Nadu—remains greatly concerned about the wellbeing of their ethnic cousins across the Palk Straits”.

However, Rajeewa wrote back immediately in The Island that ‘India does not apply the same theory to the wellbeing of 4.8 million Indian Muslims in Indian occupied Kashmir and the concern for their wellbeing of 3.6 million Muslims in Assad Kashmir and 181 million Muslims in Pakistan across borders. Suffice to state, India needs to manage its 70 million Tamil population in the same manner Pakistan manage its 181 million Muslims, when Kashmir is in turmoil. His demise has silenced that voice.

Imagining a future

Let us imagine what contribution he would have made in the difficult times that we live today. In the October issue of Foreign Affairs, (the Journal of the U.S.A Council of Foreign Relations) its long time editor Gideon Rose declared forthrightly that after President Trump the world needs a fundamental rebalancing of institutions that underpin a viable global order in 2021 and beyond. There are many who believe that China will displace USA as the number one economic and military power in the world. Given our strategic placement, sandwiched between India and China, we have no longer a realistic choice other than understand and work with this inevitable change. We also need to contend with multiple powers that Sri Lanka has to deal with from Vietnam, Japan Indonesia to India. The region is undergoing immense and roiling transformations and we certainly miss bright intellectuals like Rajeewa Jayaweera who could enrich our minds ‘with cleverness as his creed and smartness as the manner of his mind.’ He has left a void hard to fill.



Rajeewa Jayaweera: An Epitaph from A Friend-in-Arms

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