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Are There Lessons For India From The Sri Lanka Experience?

The quest to find positive stories in Sri Lanka and better understand cultural ties

If you are an Indian, you have grown up with some knowledge of Sri Lanka. Most of us know it as the kingdom of Ravana, the great king & villain of the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’.

But after childhood, at least for me, the connection started getting a little hazy. My understanding grew that it wasn’t a place to be remembered as a villain’s kingdom.

Then what else did Sri Lanka stand for? A cricket team which defeated us in the 1996 world cup? After which I stopped following cricket? A decision I stick by till this date.

Of late, its is spoken of as a wonderful backpacker destination with its beautiful beaches and relaxed vibe.

View from the Plane

A gathering in Colombo for what was called victory day as a celebration of the end of the war.  The new government now wants to call it remembrance day as there was no victory but only end to the war.

But anyone with a passing interest in world affairs knows Sri Lanka for its bloody civil war which went on for almost three decades. This has been the lasting impression of the country – a war ravaged nation where communities (Sinhalese & Tamil) have little love for one another.

Sri Lanka kept making a comeback every once in a while. Working as a publicist for the best known international English news broadcaster, it was my team’s job to publicise documentaries on human rights violations in the island country.

Those documentaries narrated heart breaking stories. And I would not want to repeat them here. Every book I looked up on Sri Lanka was about war and atrocities. That is when I started asking myself a few questions.

Is everything negative about the Sri Lankan society? Are there only human rights violations or stories of hope as well? Will the country dust off these ghosts of the past and move towards becoming a truly inclusive society? And as Indians what do we know of this country?

I was ignorant about Buddhism’s entry into Lanka through King Asoka’s children Mahinda and Sanghamitta. Through millenias both countries have had interactions at every social level. Tamils have been a part of this island for centuries, as opposed to the common perception that the British took them along to work on the tea plantations.

Neither did I know that the beautiful national anthem of Sri Lanka was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry.

So What’s The Challenge?

The challenge is to find stories of hope and positivity from the country. Sri Lankans are a great people – to think that there is a lot of hatred could be a misrepresentation. I will travel to meet organizations and people who are steering Lanka towards integration and a positive future. Not that I am naive to atrocities and problems that came with the war. But like there are stories of tragedy, there are of hope as well(or at least I assume). Narrating them is equally important.

But for someone with no experience in journalism or without any connections plus the barrier of language, this would be nothing less than a challenge. The level of challenge increases a few notches if the media portrayal is actually true. What if people do not come forward to speak positively about one another? What if I am seen as an intruder raising uncomfortable questions?

My trip in Sri Lanka is that of a curious traveler understanding society and culture rather than the one zipping through picturesque landscapes.

What Do I Intend To Specifically Achieve?

  • To write at least ten positive stories of Sri Lankan people, society or organizations which build hope for a more inclusive country
  • To better understand the cultural ties between India and Sri Lanka
  • And of course to visit all the eight world heritage sites in the island nation!!!

Thankfully, I already have some help. Some kind souls from Sri Lanka have come forward to give me more insights about the country.

There is another reason for doing this. The Sri Lankan story might be relevant for India which is increasingly becoming a polarized society. What will be the result of Hindu chauvinism in the long run? May be the Sri Lankan experience of mixing state with religion has some important lessons for us. Who knows?

I hope to narrate to experience and narrate these stories. May be this challenge is as relevant to you as it is to me.

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