By Izeth Hussain –
A plague on both your houses – Shakespeare
There is much glib talk nowadays about the formation of a national Government after the January elections. It is based on the facile assumption that the coming together of the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, together with some minority ethnic parties, would amount to a national Government. But most Tamils don’t accept either of our two major parties as national parties: they see them rather as Sinhalese ethnic parties in all but name. As for the Muslims, they don’t unequivocally accept them as national parties either. The late Mr.Ashraff, the founder of the most important Muslim Party, the SLMC, established its rationale on the ground that all Sri Lankan political parties are in reality ethnic parties. The SLMC could conceivably join a supposed national Government but that would not be because it has swallowed the rhetoric about a national Government. It would really be an instrumental tactic arising out of the fact that the most effective way of securing the legitimate interests of the Muslims is by joining the Government of the day. As for the TNA, joining a national Government seems most unlikely.
Therefore a supposed national Government will really be a Government in which power is decisively exercised by the two major Sinhalese ethnic parties, the UNP and the SLFP. Can such a Government be properly described as a national Government? One problem is that our minorities constitute not a minuscule but a very substantial proportion of the Sri Lankan population. Depending on whether or not the Sinhalese Catholics and other Christians are included in the category “Sinhalese” – there are Sinhalese Buddhists who would not agree with that categorization – the supposed national Government will represent no more that 70% to 75% of the Sri Lankan population. A Government in which one ethnic group, the Sinhalese, is dominant and does not allow a real sharing of power by a quarter or more of the people cannot be called “national”.
It might seem that I am laboring the obvious. If all our parties are ethnic parties – except of course a miniscule one such as the Liberal Party – it might seem to follow that our politics will be dominated by the majority ethnic parties, and there can be no question of an authentic national Government that is inclusive of the minorities. That might seem to be inevitable, but in fact it isn’t so. I have in mind the counter-example of Lebanon. I must confess that I have no expertise on Lebanese politics of the present-day, but I know the salient points about it in the pre-Civil War period of the last century. It was a politics based on a frank avowal of religious and sectarian particularities. As far as I am aware there was no national Party worth the name; instead there were Parties reflecting those particularities. But they came together through a common accommodation of interests, and Lebanon certainly was a nation. It had a fully functioning democracy, its economy prospered, and it was way ahead of all the other Arab countries.
The Lebanese Parties reflecting religious and sectarian particularities were the equivalents of Sri Lanka’s ethnic parties. Yet Lebanon was a success story in stark contrast to Sri Lanka’s political and other failures. What is the explanation for the difference? I believe that the crucial determinant is democracy: Lebanon had a flourishing fully-functioning democracy whereas Sri Lanka’s democracy was deeply flawed over long periods because of an authoritarian and dictatorial drive underlying it. But even worse than that, we have always had, not just over long periods but always since 1948, what might be called majoritarian democracy, a form of democracy under which the will of the majority is supreme over everything else. Actually it is anti-democracy, the very antithesis of democracy. As long ago as the eighteenth century de Tocqueville argued that the “tyranny of the majority” negated democracy, and since then it has been an integral part of the Western tradition of democracy that it requires not just the will of the majority but the scrupulous observance of the sacrosanct principles of democracy, which might be encapsulated in the secular trinity of the French revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, our Governments have for the most part equated democracy with the will of the majority, and too often they have shown contempt for liberty, equality, and fraternity. In Sri Lanka the will of the majority has always meant the will of the Sinhalese ethnic majority, and that has been the source of the Sri Lanka tragedy.
In Sri Lanka we have come to a political crossroads at which we obviously have to seek new directions. The Opposition gives primary importance to doing away with the Presidential system of Government which in Sri Lanka, though not elsewhere, is seen as ineluctably leading to authoritarianism and dictatorship. In other words primacy is given to the restoration of a fully functioning democracy. This is quite understandable considering what has been happening in this country after 1977. In that year a new Government came to power with the brightest of imaginable prospects, but it proceeded to spit on democracy and to spit on the Tamils, and by 1989 the bright promise was belied and the country was facing doom. The present Government had the brightest of imaginable prospects after the LTTE was defeated in 2009, but it spat on democracy through the eighteenth Amendment and the outrageous impeachment of the Chief Justice, and it spat on the Muslims creating yet another major ethnic problem. Will we again have to face doom as in 1989?
So the clamour against the Presidential system and in favour of democracy is easily understandable. What should be done? The text-book prescriptions for a fully functioning democracy are well-known: free and fair elections, an independent Judiciary, a depoliticized Administration, separation of powers, freedom of the press and other media, freedom of information, the rule of law, and so on. However, in terms of the argument developed in this article, we cannot have a fully functioning democracy if it applies only to 75% of the people consisting of the majority ethnic group and not to the 25% consisting of the minority ethnic groups. In concrete terms this means that the Tamil and Muslim ethnic problems have to be seriously addressed in the Presidential and Parliamentary election campaigns.
I cannot possibly deal with the question of what the Opposition should do about those two ethnic problems in the course of the election campaigns. I have written twenty four articles on the Muslim ethnic problem and I will here briefly mention a few points that might be made by the Opposition. A) There cannot be the slightest doubt that the Government has given implicit backing for the anti-Muslim campaign. This has been shown by the refusal to apply the law against the BBS leaders, and to take disciplinary action against police officers who played the role of passive spectators even when the anti-Muslim demonstrations turned violent. B) There are good reasons to suspect that the anti-Muslim campaign has had foreign backing. That must be thoroughly investigated in the national interest. C) It is alleged on two grounds that the Muslims pose an existential threat to the Sinhalese, one of which is Muslim extremism. Not a single jihadist or jihadist group has been uncovered in Sri Lanka. The charge is nonsensical. D) The other charge is that the Muslims will outnumber the Sinhalese before long. The dynamics of population increase have been well established. With literacy birth control comes into operation invariably, unless there are religious sanctions against birth control. There aren’t under Islam. The average Muslim family of today consists of two to three children, just as among the Sinhalese and Tamils. It is impossible to believe that the Muslims who are ten percent of the population can come to outnumber the Sinhalese who are seventy five per cent of the population in the near future or the distant future. Again the existential charge is utterly nonsensical. E) Issues such as cattle slaughter can be dealt with satisfactorily through resolute Government action.
Will the Opposition make those charges against the Government in a telling manner during the election campaigns? It may make those charges in a rather perfunctory manner without making too much of them. The reason is that going further could result in the loss of a substantial proportion of the Sinhala Buddhist votes. People like myself can theorize without counting the costs but the politicians will have to go to the hustings, they will have to make speeches that garner votes not alienate them, and they will have to strictly eschew anything that might be counterproductive to their purpose of gaining power. Therefore speaking up for the rights of the Muslims and the Tamils is out.
If indeed speaking up for the rights of the minorities will alienate Sinhalese votes to a substantial extent, a horrible conclusion has to be drawn: this country will not be fit for a fully functioning democracy for the foreseeable future; it will be fit only for majoritarian anti-democracy. Minority members like myself have the option of telling our two major ethnic parties, the UNP and the SLFP, A plague on both your houses, and then abandoning political action. But that would amount to a counsel of despair. The only sensible option would be to work together with the sane and wholesome elements among the Sinhalese to bring about a fully functioning democracy. That would require the destruction of majoritarian anti-democracy.