Let the Buddha smile again
It was a usual morning at Chennai International airport last Sunday. Almost all counters were operating smoothly and there was no long queue at any counter, but the one that was issuing boarding passes for Colombo. When I reached the waiting lounge on the first floor, I found many women in skirts and blouses in light shades of blue, cream and white occupying rows of a column in the waiting area. There were a few men also accompanying them. They were all carrying shoulder canvas bags. All bags were identical and were labeled Budda Bhumi Pilgrimage [Pilgrimage to the Land of Buddha]. They all had come for pilgrimage to India, but were returning home without the pilgrimage following the fatwa issued against them by some political parties and ‘cultural’ groups of Tamil Nadu. Thier movement at the airport was not carefree. When I tried to get closer to them, they were not spontaneous. It was a new experience for me. I have had very close interaction with Sri Lankans for long and I have always been humbled by their warmth and their affection for India. It was a disturbing quietness and I opted not to offend their privacy.
I wondered what had happened to the Land of Buddha. Leave aside the diplomacy aspect; we had touched a new low of intolerance. Not only Buddhists; Some Christian pilgrims from Sri Lanka were also humiliated and attacked in Tamil Nadu and forced to leave India. Fatwas did not spare even school football teams and cultural troops from Sri Lanka. They all have been forced to leave India in the last couple of weeks.
Sri Lanka has been a natural ally for India for centuries. Political diplomacy has no role to play in it. There is an interesting account of the Sinhalese origin in the Sri Lankan Buddhist chronicle Mahavansa. The Sinhalese trace their origin from one Prince Vijaya. He was prince regent of a state ‘Sinhapura’ in Magadh [present Bihar]. But because of his evil conduct his father, the just king of Sinhapura, asked him to leave the country. Vijaya and seven hundred followers, with their families, were put on various ships near the coast of current Odisha to look for a new habitat. Vijaya landed in Sri Lanka with some of his friends. He is said to have married a Tamil bride and then was consecrated as the first king of Sri Lankan history. Sinhala history starts from Vijaya and this legacy is inseparably intermingled with the Tamil inheritance as well. This happened in 5th century BC. It was much before Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s expeditions to Sri Lanka. Vijaya also kept contacts with his native place in Magadh, since he had no son to succeed him. Then his nephew Panduvasudeva from Magadh came and succeeded him after his death.
Very few of us know that Mahendra and Sanghmitra, son and daughter of Ashoka, devoted all their life to Sri Lanka and died there. They not only propagated Buddhism in Sri Lanka, but are credited to have given Sinhalese their script, literature, art, architecture and an identity of their own.
These little references from chronicles and history force us to think how we Indians have undermined our relationship with Sri Lanka. It was surprising to see India voting against Sri Lanka on a resolution proposed by the US for ‘War Crimes’ in the UN. On the other hand, India abstained from voting in the UN on a Saudi-drafted resolution on Syria. This was not a part of diplomacy, but the dirty game of vote banks. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by the same terrorist outfit that was crushed by Sri Lanka. It was made out to be like Sinhalese killing Tamils. We all know how many people were killed from both the communities in the decades of terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. We failed to act, we failed to decide.
India did a fairly good job post the LTTE rout. For the rehabilitation of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, we spent a good amount of money. When musicians like T M Krishna performed in Sri Lanka, we all felt at ease that we were taking steps in right direction.
India is expected to act with utmost care and maturity with reference to the ethnic problems growing in neighbouring countries. Political outfits and self-styled ‘cultural troops’ should not be allowed to propel ethnic conflicts, as is happening all around. Apart from the issues of Tamils; Hindu migrants of Pakistan, Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are all symbols of rising intolerance in this region. These problems should not be politicised to polarise vote banks. India needs to take up this issue with all the neighbouring countries, not only to take their citizens back, but to create an environment where the dignity of mankind is respected more than the attention given to the God they follow and language they speak. Let musicians, artists, authors, tourists cross the borders and initiate people to people contact. I am sure they will make up for the damages done by the prevailing diplomacies and governments in the region. Meanwhile, we can also ask our DTH operators to provide channels of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar so that we know these countries directly, not through channels like Discovery from other parts of the world.
Akhilesh Jha is a civil servant. The views expressed are personal