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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 14 - South Asia

When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
Our kaffilas wind through the Khyber Pass,
Lean are the camels but fat are the frails,
Light are the purses, but heavy the bails,
As the snow-bound trade of the
north comes down
To a
market square in Pessawar town.

          Kipling         The Ballad of the King’s Jest


Long before I was able to visit India and Pakistan, my imagination was fired by stories and films of the sub-continent, and its frontier areas to the north, - and particularly by the Khyber Pass, that scene of seemingly endless feuds and wars and conflicts.  The nearest I got to it was a visit to Islamabad, which though not quite there, still gave me something of the atmosphere of that rugged country and its conflict-hardened peoples.  Wandering around the bazaars and back streets of Karachi and Islamabad one could easily imagine what is was like a few centuries ago.  The mountains on the north borders of India and Pakistan are snow-covered, and one needs to be reminded how cold it gets.  The chief of fisheries in Karachi came to a conference FAO held in Newfoundland in themonth of November.  I expressed my sympathy for him as the temperature was minus fifteen degrees.  “Oh, he replied”, nonchalantly, “this is nothing, - where I come from in north-west Pakistan it is regularly thirty degrees below”

Pakistan obtained its independence along with India in 1947, and split from Bangladesh in 1971, both occasions being marked by considerable bloodshed.  The land extends from the northern highlands which include K2, the second highest mountain in the world, the North-West Frontier region bordering Afghanistan, through the central plains of the Punjab and Sindh around the Indus valley, to the coastal plain of Balochistan.  Its economy is mainly agricultural, and its products chiefly textiles and processed foods.  Pakistan, like India, displays great disparities in affluence and poverty.  The fashions and dress of wealthy Pakistani women are most attractive and impressive.  The country has a modern national airline, a rail network, and extensive roads, both paved and gravel.  Its ongoing disputes with India, and its long border with Afghanistan, make it vulnerable to conflicts and the consequences of wars beyond its borders.  Thousands of Afghan refugees currently reside in the country.    

The Khyber Pass

A tourist advertisement I saw in a national newspaper, indicated the contrast between the magnificent upland scenery and the troubled political situation.  It welcomed tourists to a “Shangri-la” type resort in the mountain area of the far north-east.  The advert extolled the resort for its beauty and tranquility, and elaborated on the feelings of peace and one-ness with nature that visitors would experience.  At the foot of the advertisement was a small-print disclaimer that informed those who read it, that the tour operators would take no responsibility for any hurt, injury, loss of life or property that visitors might suffer due to earthquakes, landslides, wars, terrorist attacks, kidnapping or robbery!

map of Pakistan

A severe earthquake hit the region north and east of Islamabad, Pakistan on 8th October, 2005, and also impacted on towns and villages in nearby Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India.  The death toll rose to a horrific 80,000 persons, with tens of thousands more injured and left homeless.  The country had suffered a similar strong earthquake in 1935.  India was struck more recently in January 2001 when over 20,000 persons were killed.  Iran lost 40,000 persons from a powerful quake in 1990.  We have short memories for these tragic events.  The past hundred years have witnessed over 20 major quakes, - an average of one every 5 years.  China alone has lost nearly a million of its people to seismic events and related disasters the past century.

Above : effects of the earthquake of 8 October 2005

Karachi is a thriving seaport city with an industrious people.  It faces the Arabian Sea, 200 miles north-west of the Indian border, and over 300 miles east of Iran on the Baluchistan coast.  There is a thriving fishery for shrimp, mackerel, shark, tuna, and various demersal fishes, operated from the harbour, though the lack of clean water, ice and hygienic handling facilities, greatly reduce the benefits of the seafood produced.  Poor water quality and inadequate hygiene are a national problem and the contamination of vegetables grown in waste water as well as in food handling, results in the occurrence of some wicked forms of bacteria that can cause serious food poisoning.  The Pakistan Medical Research Council recognizes that polluted water is the root cause of a large proportion of diseases, and that gastro-enteritis is a leading cause of death.  So visitors have to be careful.  A considerable amount of smuggling goes on along the Baluchi coast, and the fishing fleet has at times been used to launder money from the narcotic drug business.  A former neighbour of mine, John Crockett, did some excellent pioneering work on the fishery there in the 1980’s when working for a U.N. agency.  He was later awarded an MBE for his work.


The huge country of India, with its one billion inhabitants, now the second largest nation in the world, is an enormous sub-continent of rich culture and creativity.  None who have lived or served there have failed to be impressed or to learn much about life from its lovely people.  It was the jewel in the crown of the British Raj, and a source of much wealth for its merchants from the days of Robert Clive and the East India Company in the mid-18th century.   It has produced men and women of wisdom and insight and influence, from Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in the fifth century BC, to Mahatma Ghandi in the twentieth.  Yet it is a land that, like China, faces enormous tasks in providing food and water and shelter and employment for its teeming millions.

I served with a number of excellent Indian officers including John Kurien from Kerala, who worked all his life to achieve a measure of economic liberation for the poor fishers of India’s south-west coast.  I also knew Davidson Thomas of Madras when he served with FAO.  We tended to get each other’s mail when out paths crossed, due to the similarity of our names.  Once I asked Davidson how he acquired his second name which was not Indian.  He expressed surprise that I did not know the connection between Thomas the disciple of Jesus, and his home town of Madras.  Apparently the apostle, once famous for his doubts, crossed the Indian sub-continent with the gospel, and was martyred in that city.  Later, on my visit to the Bay of Bengal programme headquarters in Madras, I took time to climb up St.Thomas’s Mount outside the city, to the traditional site of the martyr’s death.  It struck me as strangely significant that the follower of Jesus who was the last of the twelve to be convinced of the resurrection, went farther with the message of the risen Christ than any of the others. 

St Thomas’s Mount, Madras

The extreme poverty one sees in much of India, affected me as it does most visitors.  One wonders at the spirit and resilience of people who have so little of this world’s goods.  And yet, to spend time in a village of grass huts and old worn-out dugout canoes, and gain first-hand a glimpse of their feelings and aspirations, is salutary.  I admired the local NGOs who worked with them.  Young university graduates who could have earned a decent salary in the city had decided instead to commit themselves to serving the poor communities.  They taught by means of play, music and drama, with dramatic effect.  I had read of similar powerful results from the Brazilian, Paulo Freire’s radical work in the education field in Latin America.  The people responded to presentations that touched on their situation and the injustices they felt.  One sketch was so realistic, when a uniformed “policeman” appeared at a critical point, blowing his whistle and attempting to arrest an actor, - one local woman screamed and ran to hide from him, - unaware he was part of the act!

Pipe band of St Andrew’s School Madras

A retired wealthy tea planter, Boyd Anderson, settled in our town in the 1930’s, and bought one of the large houses overlooking the golf course.  He was generous to the town and the golf club, and donated the pleasant Milbuies estate south of Elgin, to the people of the district.  His large garden sloped towards the 18th fairway.  He had crocuses planted in the shape of a map of India and Ceylon.  Each spring when the flowers blossomed, there was a resplendent reminder of the land where he made his money.  I often admired the display, never thinking that I would be privileged to see those beautiful lands in later years. 


The rationale behind the British Empire and its assumption of a global authority and the right to invade and possess foreign lands, has been credited to a Scottish military engineer of remarkable learning and ability.  Charles Pasley in his Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire, argued that for Britain, true national security rested on policy and power – especially military power.  He envisaged possession of large overseas colonies that would provide sailors and soldiers to serve Britain’s navy and army.  He did doubt that much war was inevitable in consequence, but reckoned no nation could resist the forces of the British Empire if the country “thought offensively, and acted vigorously”.   Though written 200 years ago, Pasley’s treatise would delight the present U.S. President and his Secretaries of State and of Defence. 

It has been argued that the regimes displaced by the colonial governments, were mostly lacking in justice or genuine concern for their people, and in some cases condoned slavery, subjugation of women, human sacrifice, and cruel forms of punishment.  All that is true to varying degrees in the past, for a number of the territories occupied by Britain.  And despite its ruthlessness in suppressing opposition, colonial rule adhered to a recognised system of justice, and established orderly administrations.  The colonial machine reached its peak in India where a remarkably small cadre of civil servants and soldiers, governed that immense, diverse and populous land. 

But we have to be honest, and remember that Britain for many years condoned and practiced slavery.  And in its efforts to control China, it was only too ready to engage in the illegal opium trade (with the active support of James Matheson and William Jardine who established the Jardine Matheson Company that has prospered on the wealth of Hong Kong).  The treatment of Afrikaaner farmers in a territory they had more right to than Britain, is a blot on our nation’s record.  More recently we have seen a whole population removed from their Indian Ocean islands of Diego Garcia, with scant compensation, to make room for an American military base.  So our record as colonialists, while perhaps better than that of others, is still far from blameless.     

Sri Lanka

And now to Sri Lanka which I first visited in 1983, shortly after one of the worst of the Tamil – Sinhalese conflicts in Colombo.  Travelling through the city on minicabs, I drove past row after row of burnt out shops and houses.  Every day the local press carried jingoistic speeches by Sinhalese politicians, exulting in their new-found aggressiveness, and daring India to respond in kind.  The violence had occurred a few short weeks before my arrival.  Later some Tamil friends and those of mixed marriage, told of the night of mob law when drunken gangs were led by militant Buddhist priests, who urged them to burn Tamils out of house and home.  Distraught relatives told of family members crying to them on the telephone while the crowds outside smashed windows and set fire to the building.  Tamil families who were Christian in their religious affiliation received the same treatment as the Hindu members of their race.

The Tamil – Sinhalese problems go back a thousand years, to when Tamils from India settled in the north and east of the island.  Later, British tea planters were to bring more Indian Tamils to work on their estates since they represented cheaper and more pliable labour.  For a brief while after independence from Britain, Tamil enjoyed equal status with Sinhalese as a national language, but this was to change in a series of measures to placate Sinhalese nationalism.  The measures were introduced by the Bandaranaike family who presented themselves politically as socialists, but who were described to me by Sri Lankans as merely “opportunistic socialists”.  Their real political philosophy, and the source of their political power, lay in their promotion and protection of militant Buddhism (surely a contradiction in terms), and in their intense dislike of the Tamil people. 

Like the troubles of Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka’s conflicts occurred between people of similar religious faiths, - Hindu and Bhuddist.  These two Indian religions come from the same cradle, Bhuddism being a later development of Hindu thought.  But as with Sunni and Shiite Moslems, the differences sometimes bring their followers into conflict.  Ethnically, the peoples are slightly different, but a foreigner could not tell one from the other when passing them on the road.  However, the problem should be seen in perspective.  As in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of both populations live in harmony.  I was delighted to join thousands of Sri Lankans, -  Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Moslem, in November 2001, who linked hands along the city streets in a demonstration of their support for peace and reconciliation.  But it only takes a few troublemakers on either side to stir up strife, and when they are supported overtly or covertly by politicians, the results are tragic. 

anti-Tamil riots in Colombo, July 1983.  Over 1,000 Tamils were murdered and scores of houses and shops destroyed.  My first visit to the country was just days after these events.

map of Sri Lanka

My fourth visit was a week after the destruction of 16 aircraft at Colombo airport on 24th July 2001 by Tamil rebels.

If my first visit took place just after civil strife in Colombo, my fourth one was to occur on the day Colombo airport was attacked with the loss of most of the Air Lanka fleet of passenger aircraft.  I received a call at 3.00 am, just one hour prior to my departure, advising me to await further notice before travelling.  When I eventually got to Sri Lanka a week later, the scene at the airport was still one of devastation.  The country was then hit seriously by an almost complete shut-down of the tourist trade which was the main foreign currency earner for he country.  It took the election of an opposition party to re-activate the peace process and facilitate a return of tourists in large numbers.   However, the party of President Chandrika Bandaranaike regained power in the following election, and the peace process has been at a stalemate since then. On the one hand, militant Buddhist priests seem intent on reviving the conflict.  On the other, those countries that pledged huge amounts of support to relieve the suffering caused by the tsunami disaster, have insisted that the President mend fences with the Tamil community, and permit foreign aid to reach the north and east of the country. 

Colombo city

It is all so tragic since the people of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka have so much to offer the world. They are artistic, industrious, pleasant and hospitable, - and that includes all of the ethnic groups.  The land itself ranges from pristine coral beaches up to the magnificent highland tea-growing areas where it can be distinctly chilly.  The food is rich and ample, if rather dominated by fierce curries that are too hot for most European palates.  Although I witnessed the effects of the violence, I myself was treated kindly by all ethnic groups in all my dealings there, and in my travels through the country.

Sri Lanka, like India, has an ancient history that goes back two or three millenniums.  The port of Galle on the south-west tip of the island was known to Arab and Portuguese traders for centuries.  Some scholars believe that it may have been the biblical “Tarshish”, that is mentioned in the book of Jonah, and to which the recalcitrant prophet Jonah attempted to abscond.  Some Sri Lankans even believe that the country was the site of the original Garden of Eden.  This idea is incorporated in a number of national myths and legends.

Apart from tea and gems, the country has huge resources of forests and its seas are replete with fish of all kinds.  The fishing fleet is unique.  Boats are small by any standards, yet these little 30 and 40 foot vessels fish in every part of the Indian ocean, - off the coast of Somalia at times, and as far south as the Australian EEZ.  They work for shrimp, reef fish, lobster, crab, tuna, shark, and squid.  A favourite midnight meal in Sri Lanka, is curried crab, which I was often invited to share.

Elephants crossing a river just below the site used for the film Bridge over the River Kwai.  That bridge is in Burma, but the film was made in Sri Lanka.

the southern port of Galle

I must relate a tale from the city of Kandy, that amusingly illustrates the silliness of our obsession with race and ethnic origins.  A doctor I came to know on a return visit he made to Sri Lanka, from Oregon USA where he practiced, told of the boarding school he attended in Kandy as a young boy.  Shiva Beckenridge was the product of a mixed marriage, Tamil / Sinhalese.  At the school on occasions, the teacher would make the pupils stand up according to their race.  So, - “would all the Singhalese pupils please stand”, and “now, would all the Tamil pupils stand”, and then, “would all the Burgher pupils stand”.  (Burghers were descendants of mixed Dutch-Ceylonese people).  Because of his origins Shiva was perplexed and did not know what to do.  A nervous wee boy, he decided to side with the majority and so stood up with them.  But by the time he got to high school, he thought, “this is wrong”.  So when the Master asked the same questions one day, he remained seated.  The Master roared, “Shiva – why are you still sitting ?  What race do you belong to ?”   Young Beckenridge looked up and responded, “the human race, sir” !          Below : Kandy town in the tea planting mountain area

During the early days of self-government, the country embarked on a rural development project that for it was as important as the Tennessee Valley development was for the USA in the time of President Roosevelt.  The Mahaweli Project involved huge reservoirs of water and related hydro-power and irrigation schemes in the east-central part of the country.  Heading this enormous project was Lalith Godamunne who was later to be a Director of the World Food Programme.  Some years later he described the Mahaweli undertaking to me in detail, relating what was most successful, what had limited impact, and which aspects involved the most difficulty. 

Godamunne was appointed as my counterpart officer when I served on an Asian Bank project designed to address the problems of coastal conservation and marine fisheries in Sri Lanka.  The conservation aspects related chiefly to severe erosion of beaches on the west coast, and related silting of parts of the south shore, and to the demand for sand and gravel by the national construction industry that led to over extraction of material from the beaches and the sea bed. He was an excellent colleague, judicious, perceptive, and ever ready with a proposed solution to each difficulty that arose.  Like most Sri Lankans he loved his cricket, and would regularly steal an hour when possible, to watch a test match.  The game had been a mystery to me till then.  (There was little cricket played in Scotland.)  But Lalit patiently instructed me in its finer points. 

Mahaweli river system which was the basis of the Mahaweli development plan, based on the successful Tennessee Valley Authority established by Roosevelt to counter the great depression.  I worked with Mahaweli’s first Director, Lalith Godamunne, some years later.

One of the Mahaweli programme dams

On a later project I worked with Ari Kananggara, a successful local businessman who took on direction of a fisheries authority, more out of a sense of obligation, since he had assisted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in his efforts to put together a coalition that eventually won the 2001 election.  Ari was typical of the best of the Sri Lankan private sector, - diligent, attentive to detail, decisive, yet taking time to fully grasp all of the factors in play, and to identify the key issues that had to be resolved.

Above ; Fishermen of Sri Lanka

The previous administration had politicized the civil service to a degree I had not witnessed outside of the few communist or totalitarian states I had worked in.  Each government organization had a political commissar.  I describe them as such, though they went under the title of consultants or advisers to the Director or Chairman.  They were nasty officials, and secure in their positions, they would act in arrogant, brutal and bullying fashion to staff members.  I guess all this was a reflection of the way the Bandaranaike administrations looked up to and tried to emulate, the systems in China and the Soviet Union.  Even drivers of official vehicles were hired to fill a double role.  We were warned in confidence not to speak critically of the government when traveling in an official car.  I heard of one official driver who walked into a reception to help himself to the food and was told by an unsuspecting junior official that the drivers’ food was on another table.  The official was sacked next day.  A huge corporate sigh of relief went up throughout the country when they all lost their jobs after the election of December  2001.  But they were probably put back in place after President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s party regained power in 2004.  Now she has had to retire and her Prime Minister has become President.

Sri Lankans are a cultured people, and one could find excellent musicians performing at numerous locations throughout the city of Colombo.  There are also a number of choirs that would vie with any in Europe.  We loved the Merry Anne singers, - a classic youth choir that would compare with the former Kirkintilloch junior choir in Scotland.  They were led by the talented Mary Anne David, a Sri Lankan woman of Australian descent.  In one of those odd coincidences that happen abroad we discovered that her husband Joseph had been educated many years before in Madras, India under a Scots missionary teacher, Professor MacNicol, whose son became a leading surgeon in Edinburgh.  Dr Malcolm MacNicol had successfully operated on our youngest daughter when she was diagnosed with congenital dislocation of both hips at the age of eighteen months.  One of our older daughters later became manager of the theatre department of Murrayfield hospital where the gifted MacNicol performed many operations.

Damage caused by the tsunami of December 2004

An unprecedented disaster struck Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004 when a tsunami tidal wave wreaked havoc on its coast from the Tamil north-west to the Singhalese south coast and southern east coast.  Over 40,000 persons were killed, and hundreds of thousands were made homeless.  The coastal infrastructure, fishing fleets and countless coastal villages were destroyed.  The tear-shaped island experienced sorrow upon sorrow, its pristine beaches and lagoons turned into graveyards for numberless innocent persons who were going about their normal business that Sunday when the ocean bed earthquake created a 2,000 kilometre long wave of immense proportions.  The work of restoration is now under way, supported by a remarkable global response of generosity and sympathy.  But coastal life in the beautiful island will never be the same again.

The year 2006 saw a resumption of hostilities between the Tamil liberation movement and the Sinhalese dominated government, with both parties becoming increasingly beligerant, polarised and aggressive.  As elsewhere in this troubled world, hard line attitudes produce similar responses and the fragile dove of peace is crushed between the opposing forces, whether they be Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Kurds, Russians and Chechnyans, or Tamils and Sinhalese.  The ‘eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth’ policy leaves everyone blind and toothless in the long run, as Martin Luther King used to affirm.  We need leaders who are big enough and brave enough to break that sad cycle of violence and begin the serious and painful process of reconciliation; - men like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, or like Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, who both paid for their majestic actions by the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.  Such men are human and less than perfect, but in the crucial task of bringing an end to war and bloodshed, they have displayed exceptional vision and courage.   Blessed are the Peacemakers.

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