|Saturday, 14 August 2004|
Nirupam Sen brought Indo-Lanka ties to a state of 'irreversible excellence'
Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Lakshman Kadirgamar at the farewell dinner to Nirupam Sen, High Commissioner of India on August 10.
The landmass of India is 58 times the area of Sri Lanka. Its population is 53 times that of Sri Lanka; notwithstanding the cordon sanitaire, if you like, of 20 miles of water between our two countries, these three simple facts of size, population and proximity, paradoxically, make the task of an Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka difficult, if not daunting.
The posting to Sri Lanka is not an assignment for the faint-hearted. Why - because steering a course between lordly condescension on the one hand and sentimental over indulgence of a small neighbour on the other could create a host of problems for any incumbent of this important position in the Indian Foreign Service.
It is not without significance, to my mind, that India has always sent to Sri Lanka as its High Commissioner, a senior member of the Foreign Service, thus putting a high degree of professionalism in the forefront of requirements for this arduous post.
A professional diplomat is less likely, by dint of training and experience, to lurch from one extreme to the other in his or her dealings with a small country.
However, a professional diplomat could decide to stand passive in the midst of controversy thus avoiding, as a matter of prudence, taking positions on important issues.
It would be technically correct, and all too easy, for any Head of Mission, but especially for Indian High Commissioners in Sri Lanka, given the sensitivity of the issues they have had to deal with, to resort to the device of saying that the capital would have to be consulted on any serious question that might arise, thus averting personal responsibility for making decisions.
There has been a history of ebb and flow in our relations with India. There have been good periods and bad periods as indeed is inevitable in relations between two close neighbours.
Nirupam Sen's first posting in Sri Lanka as Deputy High Commissioner from July 1987 to April 1989 fell within a period that could without any doubt be described as bad for relations between our two countries.
Sri Lanka was in turmoil. It was a period of dissension and insurgence both in the South and in the North and the East. Even as a Deputy High Commissioner he must have gone through a baptism of fire; but he had an unparalleled opportunity to study a multi faceted conflict situation at first hand.
He made numerous contacts across the political chess-board including with some sections of society then considered dubious and beyond the pale who now hold high political office.
It says something for Nirupam Sen's discernment and judgement that at that time he had read accurately the signs of coming events.
The saga of the Indian peacekeeping force, its tragic ending, and the souring of relations between our two countries that ensued must surely have left an indelible impression on Nirupam Sen, while deepening his knowledge and experience of the complex politics of a country ravaged by conflict.
When he returned to Sri Lanka as High Commissioner in 2002 it was to a country at relative peace. But he has had to cope, now at the helm of affairs, with a different set of problems. Conflict management had become internationalized. India was in a mode of detachment.
The question of a durable peace which takes into account the aspirations of all the communities that inhabit our land was uppermost in the minds of our people. An Indian High Commissioner is much sought after by different, indeed warring, factions in our political establishment.
He is called upon to interpret shifting political moods, to advise, to caution, to be constructive, and to an extent even visionary; without in the ultimate analysis jeopardizing the interests of his own country.
For once, on a suitable occasion, and I think a farewell speech is such an occasion, it would I think be appropriate to speak about the qualities that High Commissioner Nirupam Sen displayed during his tenure of office in Sri Lanka.
His intellectual acuity is self-evident. What made it a particular pleasure to work with him was his sound judgement of political situations, his instinctive, even more than studied, understanding of the mind of his capital and his willingness and ability to commit to a position without referral to higher authority.
This latter quality made it possible for our inter-State activities to move swiftly, sometimes with astonishing rapidity, from decision to implementation. Most of these observations belong to the period when I was a member of the Opposition.
Since my commitment to the national interest remained then as clear as it is now I found it deeply reassuring that High Commissioner Sen was right over and over again.
For a diplomat Nirupam Sen has been bold, decisive, imaginative to a degree which I have not come across in many others in his profession. When not drawing on his prodigious photographic memory for apt quotations from Shakespeare, Lenin, Frost, Burns and a host of major and minor poets he speaks plainly and directly - perhaps, at times, not very diplomatically, in the traditional sense.
I have never heard him calling a spade anything other than a spade although it might have been wise, on occasion, for the protection and advancement of legitimate self interest, to call a spade a "tool with a sharp-edged, typically rectangular, metal blade and a long handle used for digging or cutting earth, sand or turf".
He has shown that one can be an excellent diplomat without resort to circumlocution in preference to direct speech.
Let me take a hypothetical example of a situation that might have occurred. It is said, apocryphically, of course, that the late President Idi Amin wanted to rename Uganda Idi. He asked his assembled corps of diplomats for an answer.
There was silence. A Nirupam Sen would surely have said: "Mr President there is a country called Cyprus. Its people are called Cypriots. If we rename Uganda Idi our people will be known as .... Idiots".
One of Nirupam Sen's most attractive qualities is his sense of humour which is a certain antidote to pomposity. Nirupam sees humour, irreverently, on many staid occasions.
That made him a delightful companion. As my acquaintance with him over the past two years grew into friendship we shared many light hearted moments - distractions from affairs of State - for which I thank him sincerely.
High Commissioner Sen's tenure in Sri Lanka was not all politics by any means. He moved, often propelled, our relationship with India forward on many other fronts - social, cultural, economic, literary and artistic. His cumulative accomplishments in these areas would constitute a long tale.
This is not the time to tell it.
From Colombo Nirupam Sen goes to a high post - one of the top posts in any Foreign Service - that of Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.
His linguistic skills will serve him well. In addition to English and Hindi, he speaks French, Polish and Russian. Indeed, what a fortunate circumstance it was that he learnt Polish when he was posted in Poland from 1973 to 1977 - long enough to woo Grazyna. We have had the good fortune, through him, of meeting his delightful companion who, I must say, is a like-minded person.
She too speaks her mind with flashes of irreverent humour that match that particular penchant that Nirupam revels in.
High Commissioner, you have made a notable contribution towards bringing relations between India and Sri Lanka to the state of "irreversible excellence", a phrase I have recently used, that these two ancient neighbours enjoy today. For that I thank you warmly on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka.
It is my sad duty now on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka to say goodbye to High Commissioner Sen and Mrs Sen.
It is my pleasant task to wish them well - to wish them success and satisfaction in their new posting and to express the hope on behalf of all of us present here today that our paths will cross again.
Produced by Lake House