Rulers and people in Sri Lanka should be sensitive, tolerant and respectful of religious, cultural and racial differences, a local guru of advertising, business leader and thinker has said. Irvin Weerackody, asked to speak at a meeting on Thursday at the MBA Alumni Association of the University of Colombo told the Business Times that, “they [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Not only leaders but people too should be sensitive and tolerant


Rulers and people in Sri Lanka should be sensitive, tolerant and respectful of religious, cultural and racial differences, a local guru of advertising, business leader and thinker has said.

Irvin Weerackody, asked to speak at a meeting on Thursday at the MBA Alumni Association of the University of Colombo told the Business Times that, “they would have naturally expected me to speak on advertising, communications or any such subject. Instead, I strayed into a topic which has serious implications to our society. I spoke on Politics, Religion and Wisdom”.

Excerpts of his speech:

“Your request to speak today, came to me at a time, when like all right thinking people in this country, I was disturbed and saddened about the incidents that took place in this country a month ago – in Beruwala and Aluthgama areas. Like many, I too was genuinely perturbed if these incidents could escalate to a replay of July 1983 – incidents which marred the image of the country and the government. Those incidents put us back by decades and our country was reduced to a pariah by the global community. These hesitations that engulfed me – I am sure, shared by many – determined the thrust of my speech today.

A story from India

As you may be aware, India has made vast strides in space research and have recorded many an achievement. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, an eminent space scientist in India, Dr. Abdul Kalam who was later to become President of India and Professor Satish Dhavan were among some of the foremost space scientists of India. They were the people who spearheaded the space programme of India, which has reached great heights today. In 1962, these scientists headed by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai had to make a major break-through in India’s space programme, for which they had to establish the Space Research station in the equatorial region. They had to find the most suitable, the most ideal site for this.

Irvin Weerackody

After a painstaking search, they found the ideal spot – Thumbai, in Kerala, which was, indeed, in the equatorial region and was ideally suited for Ionospheric Research. In this locality, they discovered the ideal site to set up this space research station so vital for India’s space programme. But there was a problem for Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and his fellow scientists.

On this ideal site, stood a beautiful church, called ‘St. Mary Magdalene’ church and the Bishop’s House. This beautiful church was over two 200 years old and was considered a very sacred place by the people in Thumbai. And their lives revolved around this holy place. As such, the requisition of the Church premises was unthinkable sacrilege. This locality was inhabited by thousands of fishermen who were mostly Catholic or Christian. There was no hope for Dr. Sarabhai or Dr. Abdul Kalam.

Hopelessly disappointed, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, as a last resort, met the Bishop of the Church Rev. Peter Bernard Pereira on a Saturday, and told him his predicament with a lot of trepidation, anxiety and hesitations. He asked the Bishop very respectfully, whether he could transfer the church premises and the Bishop House to ISRO, Indian Space Research Organisation to set up a much needed space research centre. Having made this request, Dr. Sarabhai remained motionless with his head bowed.

What did the Bishop do? Bundle him out of the church premises unceremoniously? No. The Bishop smiled and asked him to meet him the next day – Sunday morning – in the Sunday morning service; this is what the Bishop told the congregation.
‘My children, I have a famous scientist Dr. Vikram Sarabhai with me, who wants our church and the place I live, for the work of space science and research in India. Science seeks the truth that enriches human life. The higher level of religion is spirituality. The spiritual preachers seek the help of almighty to bring peace to human mind.

In short, what Vikram is doing and what I am doing are the same. Both science and spirituality seek the almighty’s blessings for human prosperity – in mind and body. After a pause, the emotionally-moved Bishop, with tears in his eyes, asked the congregation’, ‘Children, can we give them God’s abode for a scientific mission?’ There was pin drop silence for a while followed by a hearty Amen from the congregation, which made the whole church reverberate’.

This was a very sensitive moment when wisdom triumphed over faith, knowledge and religious fervour. Instances are many in the long history of mankind when wisdom asserted itself over knowledge leading to progress of a country. By the way, the first of this month, marked yet another achievement of Indian Space Programme when they successfully launched ‘Polar Satellite’ launch vehicle in the presence of jubilant Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made a pitch for space diplomacy asking the scientists to build a SAARC satellite to help India’s neighbours. As far back as 1962, the collective wisdom of people of Thumbai, which prevailed over many socio – religious factors, was in fact, a giant leap, which made this possible.

Role models and their views

In this context of knowledge and wisdom, I recall an incident in the days of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Hot on the heels of launching his ambitious ‘Janasaviya Programme’, there was a discussion about a certain assignment relating to his poverty alleviation programme. A well-known person’s name was put forward for this assignment. He thought for a while, and with a smirk on his face, said, ‘eyata honda denumak thiyenawa, eath pragnawa nehe’ (Oh yes, he is a very knowledgeable person, but he has no wisdom). And, the assignment was given to someone else who fulfilled the task quite admirably. I am reminded of this exhortation whenever knowledgeable people and scholars make foolish decisions much to the detriment of the society and the country.

When we reflect on those unfortunate incidents of religious tensions I referred to earlier, I felt, that, it would be enlightening to ponder how some men of extraordinary wisdom have looked at these issues.

[You] will agree that Nelson Mandela was a man of great extraordinary wisdom and of indomitable courage. Nelson Mandela stands out for his unparalleled wisdom and foresight for his willingness to embrace and reconcile with those who persecuted him relentlessly and put him behind bars for 27 years and the grace with which he stuck to his promise to serve only ‘one term of office’. Considering the immense love and affection people of South Africa had for him, he would have been the President for life. He always advocated South Africa should celebrate diversity. Intolerance of diversity resulting in tension, disharmony and rivalry would take a country down the precipice, he exhorted. (While on this, I cannot help but wonder what Cyril Ramaphosa who worked with Mandela very closely had to say on racial, religious harmony and reconciliation, to the powers that be during his visit to Sri Lanka, last week. In 1996, when Mandela signed into law, the new South African constitution to usher in a new era of peace, harmony and prosperity, Cyril Ramaphosa was the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly. Whatever may have said or left unsaid, Ramaphosa would have enjoyed a cup of coffee with the President.

For great men, religion and language are ways of making friends. For opportunists and political humbugs, religion is a fighting tool for political expediency. I am sure no one will doubt all religions strive to bring out all that is best in man – love, decency, charity, tolerance and understanding.


Mahatma Gandhi, who spearheaded India’s liberation movement, devastated by the idea of partitioning of India, told Mountbatten, then the Viceroy of India, ‘Don’t partition India.’ Then he begged, ‘Don’t divide India’. So desperate was he to avoid partition that he was prepared to give the Muslims the baby, instead of cutting it in half. Place 300 million Hindus under Muslim rule, he told Mountbatten, by asking his rival Jinnah and Muslim league to form a government. This was the extreme Gandhi was prepared to go to prevent the partitioning of India. Mountbatten was dumbfounded. There was much in Gandhi’s proposal that seems unworkable. But Mountbatten was not going to dismiss lightly any idea that might hold India together.

I cited these examples – there are many of course – to drive home the point, that, in addressing some of these contentious issues, wisdom plays a major role, for wisdom entails thinking logically, rationally, impartially, learning from past experience and deriving inspiration and guidance from those role models whose wisdom has been time tested.

But I must emphasise, that, it is not the onus of the rulers or the powers that be only. People at large, every one of us must unerringly act rationally, logically and impartially. Sometimes, I tend to think that if the people of this country thought rationally about issues, we are grappling with now, we would not have come to this impasse. At times, I cannot help but wonder what wisdom people exercise when they go to vote. (In lighter vein, what wisdom people of Gampaha District displayed, when they voted ‘Paba’ and, in the same breath, I wonder what wisdom drove that party to nominate her.)
When everything is said and done, in a multiracial, multicultural society, and in a democracy, differences are often irreconcilable. And, the idea of a fully rational consensus is too tough a goal to reach. In this context, the legitimacy of a democratic society – like ours – is reflected when decisions and actions on the part of the decision makers have an impartial standpoint. Both rulers and people should be sensitive, tolerant and respectful of religious, cultural and racial differences. Then, only, can we realise the values of democracy, the foundation of which is unity in diversity.”

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