March 5, 2006AsideForeign Affairs

Setting the clock back, literally

Time and national identity

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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.

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