Photo: Late Prof. Hasbullah. Source: Colombo Telegraph - Photo: 2022

Being Abroad and Local: Late Prof. Shahul Hasbullah

By A. L A. Azeez

Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva

COLOMBO (IDN) — Most comments that have come out in public since the sad passing away of Prof. Hasbullah in August 2018 appear to give due credit to him for the work he has done to highlight the plight of the displaced community.

That work extends to an exploration of the complexities of the phenomenon of IDPs and other demographic and geographical issues. Empirical facts gathered through that very process have contributed to a global understanding of the multidimensionality of that phenomenon.

Some have lamented his departure from our midst as a great loss to the community in Sri Lanka he belonged to. But is that all?

What I had observed of the Late Dr Hasbullah during many years of my association with him— an essentially touch-and-go interaction with a few exceptions of long chats— provides only a small window to the worldview he represented.

The exceptions, nevertheless, were some instances of detailed discussions, shared discourse and critiquing of current affairs or developments in Sri Lanka and abroad. It is interesting that in two different settings these took place: one, part of a real abroad, and the other, ‘abroad’ as it then almost was.

Four years ago, in the month of July, I received a call from Prof. Hasbullah.  He used to communicate with me every now and then, but the backdrop to this particular call was entirely different.  A mutual friend had previously dispatched to me a pack of documents, which he said Prof. Hasbullah had left with him while in transit to another country.

He had then mentioned to our mutual friend, who had seen him off in transit, that he would require the documents once he returned to Sri Lanka. Our mutual friend wanted me to have it delivered to him ‘somehow’ as soon as Dr. Hasbullah returned to Sri Lanka.

On the phone, now back in Sri Lanka, Prof.  Hasbullah urged me to keep the pack ready since, as he insisted, it contained a part of the history of the region where he was born, bred and chased away from at the height of the now-forgotten ethnic cleansing in the North in the 1990’s Sri Lanka.

I mentioned to him jokingly that I was afraid I had lost the pack due to my having shifted residence only a week before his call. I could feel the tremor:  “Please, please try to trace it, and secure it, Azeez”, he urged, “that contains some of my precious collections gathered through personal search of original sources.” And he went on, “when you find the documents, go through them and see if what I say is not correct.”

That gave me an excuse to have a glimpse at the documents the pack contained, and instantaneous was my admiration for his search for documentary evidence.  After that call, I arranged to hand over the pack to one of his relatives at his request. 

A month or so later I was in Switzerland, having moved out of Sri Lanka on my last diplomatic posting. Prof. Hasbullah had tried to call me, but it was my bad luck that we could not connect even though he stayed in a city not too far from Geneva. What may have brought him to Switzerland, I wondered. There was not a shred of doubt in my mind that he would have come there for some study, some research, or some teaching.

That, for me, was Dr. Hasbullah in essence: a man who was always at it, researching, writing and teaching. Much of it entailed his travelling abroad frequently. He had worked on a number of projects, some finished and published, and a few yet to make the cut, awaiting completion. Most of it, nonetheless, was on a subject that many have not taken sustained interest in.

All of his works, to my knowledge, were invariably based on materials and data collected through a meticulous process of search. For me it redounds itself to the originality of the man that I knew he was. That he has yet to be fully appreciated for the work done locally marks a streak of regret in the wider society. 

He had made it sort of a mission of his life to try to bring clarity to otherwise befuddled or conflated issues on the political or demographic landscape.  That perseverance, that conviction and that intellectual rigour, in my humble view, seems a dying trait nowadays.

This ‘local-abroad’ disconnect in the appreciation of one’s seminal contribution, and not in the assessment of one’s personality per se, is not surprising to me as a person with a foreign service background. On the margins of UN meetings, and especially in the human rights circles, I have heard UN officials, international civil society activists, intellectuals and academicians abroad often referring to Prof. Hasbullah and quoting his works.

In sharp contrast, in the ‘local’ theatre, however, such citings were of a rare occurrence, and any appreciation of his works was only in passing, if not profound. It is, I presume, more of a reflection of the character of the society we are in, than of the nature of the person concerned.

It is a reality, though, that Prof. Hasbullah lived among ‘us’, but his worth was felt more abroad. It was for a cause considered ‘local’ in many regions in the post-Cold War era, namely Internal Displacement, that was then acquiring the character of an international phenomenon with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism.

The triumphant West needed to contain a mass exodus of people across borders. Conferring refugee status to them would, in the view of the West, be problematic since it would entail international protection. Affording millions of international protection would be sensitive, costly and complex.

New norms needed to be evolved, which could acknowledge the specific circumstances of this group of persons and assure them assistance, but still would stop short of making it incumbent upon the countries they have moved across to, or other ‘host’ states, to provide international protection.

Interestingly for the ‘local’ context in Sri Lanka, until the exodus/ expulsion of Muslims from the North, and for quite some time thereafter, the term that was used to refer to any person forced to leave his or her place/ area of residence was ‘refugee’. With the coinage of the term ‘Internal Displacement’ to denote first the situation of exodus or the fleeing of people from and within Eastern Europe, and later across parts of Africa, the new term came to be applied to other situations elsewhere too. The situation of Muslims expelled from the North thus fell within the sweep of Internal Displacement.

Prof. Hasbullah who had done considerable work by then on the question of Muslim Internally Displaced Persons quite naturally was looked up to by the relevant international agencies, research institutions as well as international civil society organizations as a significant source of information and a reliable observer/ analyst who could contribute to international discourses on the phenomenon of Internal Displacement.

Having mentioned the general nature of our touch-and-go interaction at the outset, I stressed, however, that there were a few instances of exception to the norm. I recall two of such instances that pertained to our close encounters in 2002 and another that happened in 2016—almost 14 years apart.

The first of the two instances was at Rose Garden, Thailand.  Prof. Hasbullah had come there to provide consultancy to the ‘Peace Talks’ on issues related to displacement, reconstruction, and development in the North. We stayed in the same hotel, occupying rooms on the same floor. Other than his brief presence at the ‘peace talks’ finding a seat next to me in the second row where we chatted, during the rest of the ‘non-talks time’, we dined, walked around and were on a shopping spree together, discussing a number of things.

The second of the two instances was in Visuvamadu, Kilinochchi where he and I had to stay overnight with a few others, in what was then called an ‘LTTE-controlled area’. This was after attending the first day session of the two days’ meeting of the Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian Needs, established as part of the ‘peace process.’ There was no time, we were told, to go to a ‘government-controlled area’ to spend the night and to come back in time for the next day’s meeting. We, therefore, stayed in the same room in Visuvamadu and had a sleepless night chatting over a number of things.

Prof. Hasbullah was participating at both meetings, essentially as a consultant to a ‘sub-party’ in the ’round of talks.’ Nevertheless, talking with him on some concepts, I found him to be more open-minded and enlightened. It was especially so on issues that appeared to dominate the ‘peace process’ agenda. He was particularly hands-on on internal displacement- related issues in the North.

With a measure of geniality and composure that is distinctly characteristic of him, Dr Hasbullah presented the facts in the tradition he vigorously pursued—proof of documentary evidence. Though a deeply affected person by the activities of the LTTE, he did not appear at all to be manifesting a victim mindset. He demonstrated as near a sense of objectivity as one placed in similar circumstances could conceivably get to of all the challenges that affected ‘all sides’ in the peace process.

These two encounters were of significance for my own understanding of an array of issues that, in the course of time, proved ‘intractable’ in the ‘peace process’ agenda.  The intellectual richness that he had brought to such discussions was one of such rarity that I have since seen only on a very few occasions in similar discourses.

The third of our interactions, in 2016, was in the context of the consultations that took place on human rights as part of the EU GSP + application preparatory process, which I coordinated. The seven core treaties on human rights required either the submission of periodic reports and additional reports/ updates or the active follow-up on the concluding observations of the respective treaty bodies.

We had then set in the process the preparation of the National Human Rights Action Plan (2017-2021). Simultaneously, Sri Lanka was required to submit its report under the Universal Periodic Review procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. Following the policy of the government then in office, a process of consultations followed with the civil society in outstations—in Kalmunai, Jaffna, Kandy and Galle.

Dr Hasbullah made a submission on the process of preparation and came up with comments on some of the challenges that the documents sought to address as concerns the problems of the people far removed from the centres of power.

It is not surprising that he ended his last conversation with me on a mixed note of poignancy and optimism— “We must reach out to all communities, and we must build bridges. We cannot let our country slide down the drain”.

Such words can come from only a true Sri Lankan, the semantics of the word ‘true’ apart. That is a message which resonates well with everyone who has come to know of him. He articulated and worked on the concerns of the displaced community, explored ideas for addressing the challenges of a divided society, and engaged with diverse groups and players in an effort to make inclusive peace-building a reality.

In all that and in many others, Dr Hasbullah faced numerous challenges, including the challenge of balancing the ‘local- abroad’ dimensions in his chosen mission. To my knowledge, he never failed to rise to the occasion in defence of pluralism and inclusive society. Importantly he never allowed his identity to be defined by the grievances for which he strove for solutions. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 August 2022]

Photo: Late Prof. Hasbullah. Source: Colombo Telegraph

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