New Delhi: Last week, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), formerly known as Radio Ceylon, began airing a Buddhist discourse known as Ratana Sutta to invoke blessings specifically for the people of neighbouring India, who are reeling under a massive Covid-19 surge.
Ratana Sutta is recited by followers who believe in its power to invoke blessings and protection.
In a letter to the Indian High Commission in Colombo, the SLBC, one of the oldest radio stations in South Asia, had said last week that in collaboration with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Culture Affairs, it had started broadcasting the Ratana Sutta in October 2020 to bless people affected by the pandemic, and had chalked up 173 episodes by April 2021.
The SLBC added that as part of the second phase of the programme, it would like to air the chants in collaboration with the Indian High Commission to bless the world and specifically India.
The broadcaster began the airing the programme on 6 May, which will continue for a week. The programme is being aired through medium wave transmitters and online every evening, and on short wave transmitters — which have a longer range — in the mornings.
Chandrapala Liyanage, director general of the SLBC, told ThePrint over phone that the broadcaster wanted to take this initiative to send across wishes for the well-being of Indians.
“India and Sri Lanka’s relations go back around 2,500 years. We have extremely strong ties with India, and Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India. That is specifically the reason why we decided to air the chantings for India,” Liyanage said.
Liyanage added that the SLBC is internally working on a content-sharing agreement with All India Radio, which will allow Buddhist programmes from India to be aired in Sri Lanka.
Diplomatic sources told ThePrint that the Indian community is “overwhelmed” and New Delhi understands that Sri Lanka is doing this as a “natural gesture” with sincere efforts to express solidarity with India. Sources also said these are rare and unprecedented times, and so countries are putting aside their individual priorities and reaching out in whichever way possible.
Former Indian diplomat Anil Trigunayat told ThePrint that the country has gained tremendous goodwill due to the initial support it gave to the neighbourhood and beyond in tackling Covid-19.
“This is all about soft power. India has now created a reservoir of goodwill. So, countries are now reciprocating it in whichever little way they can, now that India is fighting the second wave,” Trigunayat said, adding that Sri Lanka is a small country with small capacity and fewer resources, but it genuinely wants to help India.
AIR’s Sinhala service remains suspended
SLBC’s gesture comes at a time when AIR’s own Sinhala language service has remained suspended since the end of 2019. ThePrint’s attempts to reach Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati through calls and text messages for this report did not elicit a response.
Started in the early 1950s, the Sinhala service was broadcast twice a day, airing Buddhist religious and cultural programmes and content on the ties between India and Sri Lanka. Prasar Bharati ordered its resumption in January, but there’s a lack of qualified staff for it, said government officials.
“We are exploring options from the Ministry of External Affairs and other avenues. The service will be resumed in all modes, but these will not be standalone services. They will be part of neighbourhood or world services (foreign language services which have been bunched into two groups),” a senior AIR official said.
Prasar Bharati had also ordered the suspension of the external Tamil language service, which began in the 1940s and was specifically meant for the Sri Lankan and South-East Asian audiences. The state broadcaster ordered its merger with the domestic Tamil language service, but this is yet to take place.
“There will be no dedicated external service in Tamil henceforth, as our regular Tamil services are already accessible widely both in the neighbourhood and globally. This will be the same for other Indian language services,” the AIR official said.
The official added that the regular language services have been advised to include world news and diaspora-focused magazine programmes, and this is expected to be implemented after the Covid-19 situation normalises.
“Right now, most stations and services are running on bare minimum staff due to the impact of Covid-19. They will be revamped and consolidated,” the official said.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)