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Featuring British politician Nirj Deva – he was educated at St. Joseph’s College

Posted on 24 April 2015 by admin

An Old Josephian, Niranjan Joseph De Silva Deva Aditya a.k.a. Nirj Deva is a pride to his alma mater. Please see below an interview conducted by Anusha David with the dynamic British politician! Editor, TSL


Anusha David spotlights the hottest styles and statements in and around Sri Lanka – from political leaders to celebrity CEOs, masters of the game to fashion icons and stars of the silver screen and stage. Here are society’s leaders talking about the determination, vision, smarts, competence and professionalism. Today, she speaks to Niranjan Joseph De Silva Deva Aditya.

Niranjan Joseph De Silva Deva Aditya FRSA DL (born 11 May 1948; commonly known as Nirj Deva) is a politician from the United Kingdom. A member of the Conservative Party, he has been a Member of the European Parliament representing South East England since 1999. He was previously a Member of Parliament (MP) in the British House of Commons from 1992 to 1997, representing the constituency of Brentford and Isleworth.

Deva was born into a politically active Sri Lankan family, and was raised in Britain. He was only the fourth Asian-born person to be elected a Member of the House of Commons,and was the first Asian-born person to be elected as a Conservative member of the European Parliament. He spent his primary and secondary education at St. Joseph's College. He holds Sri Lankan and British citizenship. Deva was educated at Loughborough University, where he completed a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and was subsequently a Postgraduate Research Fellow in Economics.

Deva's family has extensive business interests in Sri Lanka including tea, rubber and coconut plantations as well a distillery and residential property.

Deva is married to Indra – a French-speaking Mauritian. They have one son.

What is the extent of your political involvement in Sri Lanka?

I have basically no political involvement at all in Sri Lanka. What I have done over the past several years is that I have supported and helped whoever has been elected through a proper electoral procedure as Prime Minister or President. I am a member of the European Parliament, a British MP. Had I not been of Sri Lankan extraction but been British that is exactly what I would have done to support a friendly country and to support the legitimately elected government. A lot of Sri Lankans are very divisive in the way they think. It's either your camp or somebody else’s camp and they have been very puzzled by the fact that I can help Presidents Jayawardene, Premadasa, Chandrika, Ranil, President Rajapakse and now Ranil again, but it's my duty to help whoever has been elected and that’s what I have been doing.

After the result of the recent Presidential elections, what are the current perceptions of Sri Lanka within the European Parliament?

A very substantial change in perception that the new government of Sri Lanka is more agreeable to reconciliation, rehabilitation and forgiveness, than the previous government. I have to say that the Rajapakse government went out of its way to rapidly rebuild the destroyed areas of the North and East and resettle people very efficiently.

Do you see Sri Lanka’s relationship with the EU improving over the next decade?

Very much so. Sri Lanka is the EU’s largest trading partner, we have a historic relationship with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has three European countries whose histories are inextricably bound with that of hers; Portugal, Holland and Britain. Those ties can't be undone and there is a huge level of sympathy, sentiment and goodwill between Sri Lanka and the EU.

Do you think Sri Lanka needs to demonstrate substantive progress before its readmission to GSP+?

As a result of the programme that we have started with the new government, I am very confident that the 67 different steps that have to be taken before the EU will look at regranting GSP+ is under way but we will not grant GSP+ to a country that has been red flagged over the fishing business so it is a pre condition to getting GSP+ that we have a good fisheries policy in place and that we get the fishing ban lifted. It is only when the fishing ban is lifted that the application for GSP + can be extended.

With such a large number of interests across Sri Lanka’s business landscape, what do you think of the current government’s approach to the development of the private sector?

I think the private sector was taken aback by the severity of the budget in relation to windfall profits. I don’t think the message was explained properly as to what these taxes were. In Britain we levied taxes on windfall profits because we felt that those profits were made excessively or from a monopolistic point of view and that competition was not in operation, and when that happens both the Labour party and the Conservative party have introduced a one time windfall tax. I presume that is what your Finance Minister was doing when he introduced these taxes on the commercial sector as a one time tax, and that is some sort of recognition that in the previous regime they had an undue advantage.

You are of Rajasthani descent – can you elaborate on this?

Yes, if you read the Mahavamsa, my first ancestor Thakura Artha Adittiya came here at the time when a General called Mitta had seized the Sri Lankan throne during the Polonnaruwa Yapahuwa period and killed Buwanaka Bahu the V. My ancestor whose sister was married to the king – she was from the Udaipur family in Rajasthan; he came and chopped off the head of Mitta (it's all described in the Mahavamsa) and put Buwanaka Bahu the VI back on the throne. After that, members of the family were made Mandalika Rajas of Ratnapura and other places and there is a story of how Addittiya Bandara who wrote a very evocative love poem called Siri Bara Kuda Malaya for Siri Mal Kuda Menike, his wife to be (and this is part of Sri Lankan poetry) was then living in an area called the Four Korales in Ran Kothu Vila, when they got a Maha Sanasa for a big chunk of land between Moratuwa and Panadura to protect the sea coast (they were a military family you see) from pirates.

The family then went on to meet the Portuguese in battle and lost and so the family tree goes through all these very ancient Sanskrit Sri Lankan names and then suddenly you see Pedro, and Ignatius and Deodartus and so on and that is because we had to convert to the Catholic faith and then when the Dutch came, we got persecuted for being Catholics and then we had the British to get rid of the Dutch and I think we prospered quite well thereon. One branch of the family were the De Soysas, Sir Charles de Soysa and Lady De Soysa, Jusey De Silva’s daughter, so I’m really De Silva De Soysa, however when my father was at Oxford – some old lady had asked him if he was a Portuguese coolie, decided he had had enough of this and went through our old baptism certificates and changed our name. He was born Kingsley De Silva and died Kingsley Deva Addittiya.

Have you ever encountered any form of racism in your career? Judging by your performance it would seem not as last year you were re-elected for the fourth consecutive time with an increased share of the vote of 724,560 votes and being placed no. 2 on the list while your party in other regions of the country suffered a massive defeat at the hands of the newly-formed United Kingdom Independent Party which came first with the Conservative Party nationally trailing third behind the Labour Party which came second.

In my political career I must have shaken hands with over 2 million British people. At every election I go from house to house and the only form of racism I have encountered in my entire 30 odd years in British politics was when I was on the streets in Hammersmith, campaigning and an old lady came up to me and said why don’t I go back to the jungle from which I came? So I looked at her and said ‘Madam, 700,000 Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan soldiers died in two world wars so that you could tell me that in English rather than in German’! To which she screeched and ran away!

You have been called one of the greatest Parliamentarians in modern history. You have a very interesting story to tell; spanning a career where you worked with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and now David Cameron in the UK and Presidents Jayewardene, Premadasa, Wijetunga, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, as well as other European and world leaders. Could you tell our readers a few highlights of your very interesting career?

Well I have been in politics for 45 years and in parliament for quite a long time. I was the first non white post colonial Conservative member of British parliament. I was the first Asian to be in government after the Second World War, post colonial in the British government in the Scottish office. Mr Keith Vaz came in after me. He was not in government. And I was then the first Asian born member of the European parliament. All this is a part of being there at the right time. In fact when I sat on the Conservative benches as the only brown face amongst all those white faces it was rather an odd feeling. Now we have eleven brown faces on the Conservative benches and one Cabinet minister! So I feel very proud of being a trail blazer, broke the glass ceiling so to speak. People would tell me ‘You are nuts. You are never going to be elected to the House of Commons’. People in Sri Lanka were laughing at me and saying you are completely mad! But it did happen. It wasn’t easy I had to go to 126 parilamentary meetings in 126 seats before I got my first seat in Hammersmith and then 48 interviews in 48 seats before I got Chiswick in Brentford Islesworth, who elected me to the British parliament. But I enjoyed it. Determination I suppose. The European parliament has been a very exciting development and it's been very satisfying to take money from rich people and give it to poor people.

You were awarded with the honorary title of Vishwa Keerthi Sri Lanka Abimani by Ven. Tallale Meththananda Thero, Chief Incumbent and Chief Adikarana Sanganayaka of the Saddharmakara Vidyaratne Privena, Pinwatta in Panadura. "For the first time this title was presented by a group of Buddhist Bikkus to a non-Buddhist person in Sri Lanka,” said Ven. Meththananda thero after conferring the title on you. What led to this?

I’m not sure but I think it was because of the work I did after the tsunami. We brought in about 400 million. We built homes, resettled people, gave them a livelihood; and I did it because that’s what I had to do and that’s what we do. But very kindly this group of Buddhist clergy recognized the work I had done and gave me this title.

What are your views of the BBS and their ‘performance during the last regime?

I think they tried to divide this country which is not a Buddhist thing to do at all. They are certainly not a part of civilized living. They are certainly not a part of the ancient and proud, tolerant, loving and caring Buddhist culture.

In 1985, you became the first Asian-born person to be appointed by Queen Elizabeth II to the office of Deputy Lieutenant for Greater London – a position which you hold for life. What led to this appointment?

I don’t quite know. I was very young, normally Deputy Lieutenants are very senior 60, 70 year olds, who have retired from whatever they were doing, generally generals from the army, admirals from the navy, or chairmen of banks; generally big shots. I was a mere 34 when I received a letter saying they wanted to appoint me, so I became the youngest ever to represent the Queen.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Knowing that the money that we raise for international development actually goes to the people we want it to go to. We have some very satisfying results from the millennial development goals. We have almost eradicated malaria, polio, tuberculosis in certain parts of the world. We have fed millions and millions of people who would otherwise be dead. It's politics, where I am using the political will or the goodwill of the EU, especially David Cameron who ridfets 0.7 % of GNI for overseas development, even in a time of recession, so that poor people, dispossesed people, starving people are kept alive and fed. It's not enough though, so I’m thinking of new ways and I’m now getting the private sector involved in international development. I had a major conference on this in Brussels to see how private sector funds can be channelled and I have comes across astonishing companies where there’s 6 billion dollars of micro credits out there and their default rate is 1 %. And they are operating out of Switzerland. I have got all of them to agree to give $500 each to a group of women to give them a livelihood. Poultry or sewing, or catering, that way you are not just giving them a hand out but helping them stand on their own feet, create a business, possibly generate employment, it's very fulfilling.

What’s the best compliment you ever received?

That my fish dish was the best ever! The recipe was my invention.

What is your goal as a parent?

Leave one's children to get on with it, not to interfere.

What’s your most cherished family tradition?

Chrismas lunch and New Year's lunch. We all get together. It was started by my grandfather. 36 people sitting together and the Christmas pudding, burning the brandy, falling asleep afterwards; it's still something I do.

Who were your heroes or role models when you were a child?

The adventurers like Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cooke, Livingston, the discoverers. Those who were either perceived to be mad and didn’t count the risks. In that sense I admire the British people. They have done things which most other nations haven’t. On the 15th of June we celebrate the Magna Carta and the MEP, which is the first time in human history that a king agreed to live by the same laws as his subjects. Never before and even today in the European parliament I am immune to arrest because the European model doesn’t have this. A President of a country is immune to arrest. But the Prime Minister of England or the Queen's children are not immune to arrest. Princess Anne for instance has been hauled up for speeding. In Britain no one is above the law.

How do you like to relax?

Reading, used to play tennis, used to go horse riding, used to go swimming. Don’t do any of that now though. I used to be quite fit when I was young. I’m totally unfit now.

Which single book has greatly influenced you, and why?

Gosh I must have read over a 100,000 books! The history of the Second World War by Churchill I guess or the life of Gladstone. He used to cut down 20 trees everyday and would walk 30 / 40 miles everyday. He lived to the age of 96. Ask me for a film, I could answer that better. I saw this film recently and I must have seen it at least 10 times, it's called ‘A 100 Foot Journey’. It's about an Indian family who have a little restaurant in England and they decide to pack up and go off to France. They break journey in this little village and they camp opposite this restaurant and start making their curries and chapattis and end up by getting a Michelin star! How this Indian family who couldn’t speak a word of English managed all this – it's amazing.

Interviewed by Anusha David – Courtesy: LIFEonLINE

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