Setting the clock back, literally

Time and national identity

Officially it was to save daylight. But the standardisation of time is just another way in which the countries of the subcontinent seek to assert their distinct national identities. Start with India, which in a style befitting the character of its polity, centralises its reference meridien by splitting the differences, ending up five and a half-hours ahead of UTC. That makes it inconvenient for many people, not least the makers and users of traditional world-time clocks and watches: Karachi and Dhaka are marked out as they are conveniently a whole number of hours ahead of UTC. That’s changing now with the proliferation of palmtop computers and mobile phones that can put up with Indian idiosyncracies much better.

Given its position almost bisecting India’s east-west expanse, it was natural for Sri Lanka and India to adopt the same standard time. But in 1986, Sri Lanka decided to move the clock forward one hour ahead and then, on second thoughts, back half-an-hour to, well, save daylight. But the Tamil Tigers cried foul, and refused to tweak their watches. The politics of standard time kicked in, as the difference no doubt helped set their own ‘nation’ apart. The Sri Lankan government finally gave in and has decided to set the clock back again, to five and half-hours ahead of UTC. Astrologers, airlines and Microsoft Windows users are among those who need to make necessary adjustments.

But it is Nepal that wins the prize for asserting a distinct national identity. It is five hours and forty-five minutes ahead of UTC, or 15 minutes ahead of Indian Standard Time.

7 thoughts on “Setting the clock back, literally”

  1. Hey Nitin,

    Quick correction. Sri Lankan standard time is 6 hours ahead of GMT. The Government stuck its guns over the protests of the astrologers. However, LTTE standard time remains 5 and a half hours head of GMT because it refuses to accept the Government’s prerogative to change the time in areas that it controls 🙂

    India, Nepal and the LTTE remain the odd men out. Excellent company.

  2. Jaffna,

    Rediff and others are carrying reports (sourced to a Sri Lankan radio broadcast) that President Rajapakse has ordered the clocks to be set back. The whole of Sri Lanka has joined the company 😉

  3. Nitin

    We have not been informed of this as yet. This would be a major move. Why would he want to move back when the current deal is perfect?

    This said, Mahinda Percy Rajapakse is very astrology conscious. So perhaps his advisors had urged him to set the clock back to undo the “damage” of the Chandrika era when the armed forces suffered several setbacks at the hands of the LTTE in the battle field.

    This said, there is no intimation to this effect in the local press. So I would take the Rediff article with a pinch of salt.


  4. Nitin,

    You are indeed correct 🙂 The President’s office informed the public today that the clocks in Sri Lanka would revert back to the old time i.e. Indian standard time from April 14, 2006 onwards. April 14 is the traditional Tamil/Sinhalese New Year (known in India as Baisakhi), a major public holiday in the island.

    The shift back to old time is intended to accommodate the political powerful Buddhist monks and astrologers who never accepted day light savings time in 1996. Parents had also complained that school children had to leave for school when it was still dark. The decision in Colombo also puts the clocks in the island in line with the LTTE which never adopted the original time change in its territory.

    My support for the idea however has little to do with any of these factors. The move firmly puts us in India’s orbit which is welcome 🙂


  5. Jaffna,

    Harmonising of time zones has a lot of attendent economic advantages; some countries of Southeast and East Asia realigned their clocks in the 80s and 90s with economic reasons in mind.

    I guess a good decision albeit with dubious motivations is still a good decision 🙂

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