By Arun Kumaresan –
Much has been spoken about a Sri Lankan identity but it has been limited to mere words and to occasional speeches that are few and far between. I have to concede at least it is spoken once a year in a ceremonial setting on February 4th – the day we became independent from the colonial rule and forgotten within hours on the same day.
At least on this day we pay homage to the great leaders of our struggle for independence starting from Keppitipola Dissawe to Puran Appu, the heroic Buddhist clergy led by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Wariyapola Sri Sumangala, Migettuwatte Gunananda, the Tibetan poet monk S. Mahinda, to F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, D.B. Jayatilleke, John Kotelawala Snr., Anagarika Dharmapala, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, P. Ramanathan. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, T.B. Jayah, the left leaders such as S.A. Wickremasinghe, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunawardena and Bernard Soysa, working class leaders like A.E. Gunesinghe, N. Sanmugathasan and Kandasamy, leaders of plantation workers like Natesar Aiyar, women leaders like Mary Rutnam, Daisy Dias Bandaranaike, Doreen Wickremasinghe, Selina Perera, Parameswary Kandiah, Noble Rajasingham, Viviene Gunewardena, Kusuma Gunewardena, Florence Senanayake, working class women leaders such as Agnes de Silva, Ponsinahamy, and foreign leaders like Marie Musaeus Higgins, Clara Motwani, Col. Olcott – and all the other unsung heroes of our freedom struggle against foreign domination. It is clear, as the names suggest that we were united in the struggle to gain independence but we still remain divided after 70 odd years of gaining independence.
We also have failed to live up to the visionary leaders post independence, who clearly were hell bent to create a United Sri Lanka. The first Prime Minister of Independent Sri Lanka, D.S. Senanayake said after unfurling the national flag in February 1948; “our nation comprises many races, each with a culture and a history of its own. It is for us to blend all that is best in us —– in establishing peace, security and justice for all people”.
When presenting the Tamil Language Bill in Parliament in July 1958, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike stated ” so that we can march forward together and achieve that progress ……… under this freedom which we have, freedom for the Sinhalese – yes, remember too, that it is freedom for the Tamils, for the Muslims, for the Malays, for the Burghers ………. and if it is not freedom in that way, for all”.
The other nations that liberated from the colonial rule in the same era have had remarkable success in their act of nation building. They knew failure to be’ inclusive’ and accommodating all segments of the society will lay the foundation for discontent, division and conflict. Hindu majority India opted to have the emblem of “dharmachakra” used as a symbol by the Buddhist King Asoka in their national flag instead of a symbol that depict Hindu signage. They opted for a national anthem written by a Bengali poet Rabithranath Tagore – A language spoken by 7% of the population – instead of ‘Vanthe Matheram’ due to the simple reason as it contains reverence to ‘Durga’ ; the Hindu warrior goddess, which may alienate the believers of the other faiths to sing in unison.
Singapore too was magnanimous after they came out from the Malayan federation; they allowed the star depicting the 13% Malay population to remain in the national flag and entire Singapore sings their national anthem in Basha Malay and NOT in Chinese. Their first President was a Singaporean of Indian ancestry and the present is a Singaporean with Malay ancestry.
Founder President Sukarno of Indonesia too was a visionary and was specific that the constitution for the decolonized Indonesia with 87% followers of Islamic faith will not have any Islamic religious quotes as pre amble for the simple reason it may not be held with reverence by the minority religious practitioners. Indonesian constitution has a quote from ‘Panchaseela’. These symbolic acts laid the foundation in creating UNITED countries.
It is with pride we should note the similar visionary thinking of our President Mr. Maithiripala Sirisena. In his speech on the resolution to set up the Constitutional Assembly he said that whilst people in the South were fearful of the word “Federal”, people in the North were fearful of the word “Unitary.” A Constitution is not a document that people should fear. His inspirational quote amplifies his aspiration to create a Constitution, which all citizens could own and uphold with reverence similar to the status given to the ‘Holy Texts’.
Meaningless Debate Of Unitary Or Federal
For 70 years we have been dabbling and debating on these words that have become poison to each side. The uselessness of the above two terminology could be well seen from the following examples. Unitary Nations that are seeking secession; Scotland is seeking divorce irrespective of the United Kingdom being ‘Unitary’ and they lost by a narrow margin at the referendum. Spain another ‘Unitary’ nation and Catalonia is attempting to secede. Similarly ‘Federal’ Nations too have encountered such challenges. Canada had a similar experience in Quebec and India in Punjab and both countries have now overcome their challenges and remain united. In contrast majority of the nations in both these categories remain UNITED for decades.
The word ‘Unitary’ or ‘Federal’ has no meaning or relevance for those seeking secession. Hence, getting stuck on these words in our Constitution making process is absolutely meaningless. The only way we can overcome these perceived fears is to see each other as SRI LANKANS. This is the great challenge. Sri Lankans of all shades will call Arjuna Ranatunga and Muttaiah Muralidaran as Sri Lankan cricketers and not as a Sinhala or Tamil cricketer. Likewise, we should also be able to see our Army as Sri Lankan Army and not as a Sinhala army and Mr. Sambandan as a Sri Lankan politician and not as a Tamil politician. A true SRI LANKAN identity makes us to stay united and unity is strength.
It is also pertinent to see the terminology that is being contemplated in lieu of ‘Unitary’ and ‘Federal’. Sri Lanka is a United, undivided and an indivisible nation. Even if we wake up Shakespeare from the grave; he will not have anything better in the English Language; a phrase to give the meaning of the superlative form of the word UNITED; the proposed phrase symbolizes the meaning of united both in the present tense and also gives a futuristic dimension – indivisibility
We created a nation 70 years ago but have faltered in the act of attaining ‘nationhood’. 70 years should give us political maturity to learn from our own faults. It is time we forge ahead creating an environment to attain nationhood for meaningful freedom from colonial rule – freedom from fear, from poverty, from ignorance, from disease and most of all freedom to be equal and live with dignity and self-respect.
The challenge of creating a Constitution is no easy task. In the words of Sir P. Arunachalam whilst speaking on Constitutional reforms 1917 said “No scheme can be perfect: or satisfy everybody ……….. we must all give and take, we must sink our differences and present a united front to achieve our object …….. We all feel that racial representation is pernicious and has operated to widen cleavages …. and to obstruct that unity and harmony”. May we take note of this and unite in the act of creating a SRI LANKAN identity through a new Constitution that guarantees Democracy and Social Equality and Justice.
Mr President; you are in the threshold of reshaping the destiny of our nation; may you have the strength and support from all segments of the society in your mission to create a Constitution that will be revered without any fear by the entire SRI LANKANS.