By S. Narapalasingam –
In my previous article, ‘Conundrum: Sinhala Nationalists Against Federalism But Pushing for Separatism’, I explained how the demand for a separate Tamil State in Sri Lanka emerged and emphasised the need to unite the divided nation for the welfare of all ethnic communities in the island. A suitably reformed governing system fostering national unity must be deemed fair by all the communities in the country. Equally important is the change in the attitude from mistrust to confidence in co-existing as equal partners in the multi-ethnic island with regionally diverse dwelling pattern. The governing system must not ignore the inherent demographic features of the country’s 9 provinces.
The fact that the Sinhalese are not the major ethnic community in the Northern and Eastern provinces should not be a cause for concern to the Sinhala patriots. There is no real basis to think empowered Sri Lankan Tamils residing in these two provinces will be a threat to the ethnic majority residing largely in other provinces. In the modern world, there is also no basis for an ethnic majority in a sovereign country to feel unsafe because their language is exclusive to them unlike Tamil language which is also the mother tongue of the people in Tamil Nadu , south India. The real attachment of Sri Lankan Tamils is to their motherland and not India. Alienation of Sri Lankan Tamils is not the way to safeguard the future of the Sinhalese residing in Sri Lanka. In my earlier article, I have emphasised the fact that Sri Lankan Tamils do not consider Tamil Nadu in South India as their homeland. The Tamil Nadu factor is imaginative. It has no basis in the modern world. In fact, the future of Sinhalese will be safe in a united Sri Lanka with the unity arising from the real feeling of sons and daughters of the same motherland. The present governing system ignores the regional difference in the traditional way the two major ethnic communities reside in different parts of the island.
The fact, the Sinhalese and Tamil communities have their roots in the different States in the island that existed before the British captured the entire island is well known. For administrative convenience, British government introduced the unified system, respecting the traditional dwelling pattern of the Sinhalese and Tamils. Kandy was the last territory that came under the British rule. The Kandyan kingdom was different from others not only because of its location in the hill country but several Kandyan kings were Tamils. Even the wife of the last Sinhalese king of Kandy, Narendrasinghe was a Tamil from a royal family in South India. In ancient Kandy, the language of the court was Tamil. Even the high ranking Sinhalese officials in Kandy were fluent in Tamil. It is the social and cultural differences between the Kandyan and low country Sinhalese that prompted S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1925 to suggest a federal system for Ceylon.
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan
During the Sinhalese-Muslim riots in colonial Ceylon (28 May1915 – 5 June 1915), the British Governor declared Martial Law and ordered the Police and the Army to arrest and imprison prominent Sinhalese leaders. Among those imprisoned were D.S. Senanayake, D.R. Wijewardena, Dr. Cassius Pereira, E.T. De Silva, F.R. Dias Bandaranaike, H. Amarasuriya and A.H. Molamure. Some other leaders were shot without trial. On the request of Anagarika Dharmapala , Ponnambalam Ramanathan came to the rescue of the Sinhalese community.
He traveled by ship to England risking his life (as World War I was on) and argued the case there of the imprisoned Sinhalese. He succeeded in having the governor transferred and the head of Military recalled from Ceylon. He eventually managed to get all the leaders released from prison. When he returned to Ceylon, there were thousands to welcome him. The general feeling of the Sinhalese then was they owe Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan a debt that could never be repaid. Some Sinhalese who went to welcome him, insisted that his horse carriage be drawn by them. Accordingly, he was driven through the streets of Colombo to his residence at Ward Place by the admirers. According to reports on this remarkable event, some members of the Sinhalese aristocratic families had no qualms about drawing his carriage through the streets of Colombo. Sinhala leaders took turns to pull the carriage.
As a member of the Legislative Council, he ‘supported the Sinhalese interests and every other interest and treated every subject with the same sympathy and desire to do the best for all communities’(His own words). D. S. Senanayake is reported to have said, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, ‘the greatest Ceylonese of all times’. A. Ratnayake, President of the Senate, is reported to have described him as ‘the father of Ceylonese Renaissance’.
His younger brother, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam recognized as the father of the Ceylon University Movement, and the first Ceylonese to agitate for the elective principle helped to merge all the then principal political organizations under one banner and formed the Ceylon National Congress. This collective approach was to make the British to agree to their program of reforms.
Clearly, the situation then under British rule was conducive for national unity under one banner but divisive after independence in 1948. This degrading shift arose from narrow party and communal politics focussed on grabbing power for some short-term gains. The political culture that evolved soon after independence in 1948 is divisive and obstructive for the steady social and economic advancement of all communities. Majoritarianism also surfaced after independence, which is undemocratic in a multi-ethnic country. This did not surface earlier because the supreme power was with the British and it would have been unhelpful to gain self-rule from them.
The centralised governing system for sovereign Sri Lanka replacing the British rule by Sinhala rule is not only ungrateful to the Tamils but also harming national unity and instigating communal riots that emerged after independence. Clearly, the Sinhala Only Official Language Act was enacted not in the national interest benefitting all communities in Sri Lanka but for narrow political advantage. This was done contravening the Section 29 of the then Constitution of Ceylon.
Another significant feature in the way problems of the Tamil minority are tackled is the direct intervention of India. Sri Lankan Governments because of internal party politics did not act voluntarily as expected from the standpoint of sovereign democratic nation committed to safeguarding national unity. Enacting Tamil also as an official language and the Provincial Council system (despite the limitations) were possible because of India’s intervention. Tamil leaders like Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam would not have dreamt the divisive way the sovereign nation has been governed after independence.
Some Sinhalese think the Tamils had an advantage in the past from the fact many of them were medical doctors, civil engineers, accountants, lawyers, university professors and lecturers, secondary school teachers, railway station masters etc. The fact that they were serving the entire nation and they acquired their qualifications through hard work and not through any preferential method like media-wise standardisation of examination marks has been ignored. In the Tamil culture, education is of high priority and even incomes of poor families are dispensed accordingly. Because of the limited land and water resources for large-scale farming in their traditional homeland, the Tamil youth sought white-collar jobs elsewhere. The point is many Tamils served the entire nation and members of all communities. They deserve equal rights and not less because of their ethnic minority status.
Sensible Advices on Uniting the Divided Nation
Jayampathy Wickramaratne, head of a committee providing technical assistance to the Constitutional Assembly to draft Sri Lanka’s new constitution is reported to have recently told a gathering in London: “It is important to make the most of the opportunity, as it is the first time that Sri Lanka’s two main political parties had come together to form a government …. “It is impossible and is unrealistic to expect all aspirations and demands of everyone are met. There have to be compromises. This is a great opportunity that may not come again, certainly not in the foreseeable future”. The word ‘federal’ is abhorrent to many Sinhalese, although it unifies several diverse states under one central government. Depending on the nature of the federal state, some governing powers are shared and devolved in varying degrees to the constituent states/regions in the entire nation. The compromise needed from the ethnic minority Tamils is not to stick with federalism and from the ethnic majority Sinhalese to give up their adherence to unitary system. The new constitution should be based on a structure that will jointly ensure the unity of the multi-ethnic nation and not unitary that has failed terribly causing huge losses to all communities. From the standpoint of good governance, there are several other changes needed and these do not need any compromise. Politicians must realise constitutions are prepared not for facilitating any narrow needs but to serve the entire nation now and foreseeable future.
Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama in his ‘Deshamanya Dr P.R. Anthonisz Memorial Oration’ on 11th May 2016 (Posted by Colombo Telegraph on 13 May with the heading ‘Healing The Nation – A Question Of Leadership’ has very effectively dealt with the need and the way to mend the broken nation. First, the leaders must have the will to seek this much needed remedy that has been ignored for decades. Civil society leaders can convince the people of the imperative need to seek unity under a real democratic system, which guarantees equal rights of all citizens, regardless of ethnic, religious, caste and other innate differences including the traditional regions of abode of different ethnic communities intrinsic to the multi-ethnic island. The freedom for citizen to live in any region is also a legitimate right but not the government sponsored colonisation schemes designed to change the ethnic composition of regions.
The distinguished orator has also raised questions about the real role of leadership in the noble task of mending the broken nation. “What is expected of a political leader in a democratic society? Should the leader reflect the views, the fears and the prejudices of the electorate to which he has to return for re-election; or should he determine a path according to his own vision, his own values and his own judgment, and endeavour to lead his electorate along that path? President Jayewardene ruminated on this issue some years after he had left office, and wondered how long one could go along with the wishes of the electorate. A military leader or a dictator does not have to worry about that, but a democratic leader has to because the electors are his main and only support. He recognized that it was very difficult to win an election again unless the leader continued to enjoy the continued support of those who had placed him in that position. However, he was willing to make an exception in regard to economic matters where external factors often determined what could or could not be done, however much that might displease the electorate”. This is precisely the case with regard to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The enactment of Tamil also as an official language and the limited devolution of powers would not have happened without India’s intervention. The latter did not intervene in the implementation of the 13th Constitutional Amendment to avoid being viewed as intruding excessively into the domestic affairs of a neighbouring sovereign country.
The current situation
The need for the leaders in the civil society to persuade the fellow members to compromise on the national issue for the well-being of present and future generations is indeed great under the prevailing situation. The post-war reconciliation process is strikingly slow, particularly the long delay in handing over private land taken by the army to the legitimate owners in the North and the release of political prisoners kept in jail for years without trial. The self-seeking politicians will continue to capitalize the uncompromising divisive situation as has been the case since the emergence of the ethnic conflict
The findings of Sri Lanka’s Public Representation Committee (PRC) published in ‘The New Indian Express’ of 9 May 2016 under the heading – ‘Lankan Panel on Constitutional Reform Found Sharp Differences on Ethnic Lines’ (reported by P. K. Balachandran, Express News Service) also point to the need to convince the people that compromise is needed for seeking a peaceful settlement of the conflict through constitutional reforms.
According to this Indian Express report, “the Sinhalese, Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Plantation Tamils of Indian origin held different and conflicting views on the Nature of the State, Devolution of Power and the Unit of Devolution”…. “While the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces want a federal constitution as opposed to the current unitary one, the majority Sinhalese living in South, Central and Western Lanka want the unitary structure to be retained”. At least 20 percent of southerners advocated devolution beyond the existing 13th Constitutional Amendment, though they were opposed to a federal system. A strong federal system was the wish of the Tamils in Jaffna. Residents in the Jaffna district “espoused an extreme form of federalism, while those in the Kandy district were demanding a rigid unitary structure. The Muslims want devolution as they feel that those of them living in the Eastern Province will benefit by it. But they are opposed to the Lankan Tamils’ demand for a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces because that will make them a small minority, dominated by Tamils”.
According to this report, the plantation Tamils of Indian origin want “a constitution which enjoins affirmative action on the part of the State. They also want to be liberated from the clutches of the plantation companies and integrated with the Lankan state structure. But the educated among the Indian Origin Tamils want, in addition, an autonomous unit comprising areas where plantation workers are a substantial part of the population.”
A feasible approach
Dr. Laksiri Fernando fully aware of these diverse views of Sri Lankans on the governing system for their motherland stuck with the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which as mentioned earlier was possible because of India’s direct involvement. He has suggested the following changes to 13th Amendment in his unusual but effective Q & A article titled ‘Going beyond the 13th A & Towards Cooperative Devolution’ posted by Colombo Telegraph on 8 May 2016:
Going beyond the 13th Amendment means: (1) Reducing the concurrent list (2) Eliminating the ambiguities between the national list and the provincial list (3) Reducing the powers of the Governor and (4) Creating a framework for making sufficient fiscal and administrative resources available to the provinces.
On federalism as against devolution, he said: “Devolution is part of federalism. There is no one form of federalism but different forms. As Shakespeare said, ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ It is more appropriate to call the present or future system devolution, given its history and the form. We are evolving from a unitary state towards a more federal structure. Our evolution is devolution”. He also stressed the need to move from “coercive or unilateral devolution to cooperative devolution”.
The following statement of the leader of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the opposition leader in Sri Lanka’s parliament, R. Sampanthan during his recent visit to India also indicates the willingness to settle the vicious national problem within undivided Sri Lanka. According to the ‘Hindu’ newspaper, the moderate Sri Lankan Tamil leader visiting India during the 40th anniversary of the Vaddukoddai Resolution demanding a separate Tamil Eelam state announced, “Tamils have moved away from the 1976 Vadddukkoddai Resolution for Tamil Eelam after the 1987 Indo – Lanka Accord”. India’s support for settling the conflict via devolution of powers is likely provided the pattern is no more than prevailing there. As mentioned earlier, the 13th Amendment would not have been possible, without this vital Indo-Lanka Agreement.
A political system designed to respect fundamental human rights including minority rights in a multi-ethnic nation is also likely to get the support of many other powerful countries. I have discussed this in my article titled ‘Fundamental Human Rights In The New Constitution’ posted by Colombo Telegraph on April 8, 2016. The following remark is also apt for concluding this article:
“A nationally useful Constitution from the standpoint of safeguarding fundamental human rights of all citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, social status or residing area needs a farsighted impartial approach. The exercise must be viewed as a noble one that will ensure the emergence of a new nation advancing swiftly like Singapore. A united and politically stable country is no threat to any community in the modern world.”
The title, “If Sri Lanka Doesn’t Kill Corruption, It Will Kill Sri Lanka” of the article by ‘Vishwamithra1984’in Colombo Telegraph of May 18, 2016 is relevant here. If the next constitution of the Republic of Democratic Socialist Sri Lanka also ignores the essential need to promote amicable co-existence of all ethnic communities, lasting peace and fundamental human rights of all citizens, including minority rights in the conflict-ridden nation, it will deny the prospect for shunning the tragic past and look to the future with high hope.
* The writer: Retd. Addl. Deputy Secretary to the Treasury; UN Advisor – Development Economics/ Planning