25 June, 2022


Decolonising Democracy Practice For Social And Institutional Reform

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Given the recent experience in the US, it is important to critically reflect on the notion of democracy and democratic practice in contemporary societies. During the Trump years, the governance process was used to drive the political discourse and action in a certain way to benefit a popular – right wing- ideology.  His government changed some institutions and policies to fit this overall ideology labelled in the slogan Make America Great Again(MAGA). Fringe groups that were on the margins of society before Trump came into power gained strength from his speeches and actions culminating in the assault on the Capitol (Where the congress and Senate are located), Washington on January 6th. In this backdrop, the inauguration of Biden administration is widely seen as a return to normalcy. It is also seen as the start of a new era where the climate action, racial justice, addressing COVID-19 more effectively will be given a priority. Change of government through the democratic process is thus able to install a more effective government that emphasise policy and action rather than ideology or politics.

In the South Asian context also, we have to ask whether democracy is a liberating project or an oppressive one? Whether our institutions are serving the people better compared to the days of the colonial rule? Whether the mindset of those serving people in public institutions are shaped by human service considerations rather than the display of bureaucratic or political authority in various hierarchies? Particularly this is important because the region has passed about 70 years since gaining independence.

Even though social decay and erosion can be seen in many spheres along with the accompanying challenges to traditional culture capital in the South Asian context, not much attention has been given by academics to this aspect for unexplained reason? In the following sections, some ideas are provided to start a dialogue starting from the colonial period.

There have been many changes in the administration of the country, its institutions simultaneously. However, a stock take is necessary to examine whether the institutions and procedures in place serve the people to meet their numerous needs today? Whether the procedures serve the interests of those in authority more so that the people at the receiving end?

Colonial Construction of Privilege

Colonial structures were put in place by the colonial government in order to control the population and generate wealth in various enterprises, by way of taxes and implant modernist education, religion, culture and a way of life. Import-export based economy emerged as a result.  English educated local middle and upper classes also emerged in time to come. They had control over the levers of power until the 60s and 70s. During the colonial period, privilege was defined and constructed by the official association one had to the colonial administration, ability to emulate English language, customs, lifestyle and expectations. In return those who were privileged received various grants, titles, symbols and material benefits from the colonial administration. 

A Sinhala educated middle and upper class entered the political scene in the ensuing decades with access to privilege and material benefits justified on the basis of their role in them governance of the country. A similar segment of the Tamil and Muslim communities also entered the political and governance process in time to come.

Institutions and procedures that were put in place by the colonial administrators still remain in place in some form and fashion creating hardships for the people who expect better services e.g. justice, education, law enforcement. government services. A fresh look at these is necessary in order to identify the problematic areas and find strategies for reform.  Changing personnel alone is not going to provide long term solutions.

Power Imbalance in Postcolonial Society and its Implication

Power imbalance in contemporary postcolonial societies is a major issue affecting the people.  While power –transferred from the people to the elected representatives-should be a vehicle for human good, in many countries it has become an oppressive force controlling the lives of the powerless in negative ways. It is happening to the extent of even violating the basic human and civil rights of citizens. Power is used to serve the needs of a select group of privileged (politically, economically and socially) and well connected. To a large extent education and higher education (even the lack of it) – though provided in local languages-contribute to this situation. This is one of the main modern dilemmas in postcolonial societies. 

Political Parties with Reformist Visions and Agendas

Some minor parties in post independent Sri Lanka have been attempting to capture the imagination of people for a democratic reformist agenda. Some like the JVP have eve n developed extensive policies for democratic governance in a way that government serves the interests of the disempowered population. While there are merits in such policies and ideas for a better future, such minor parties have not been able to garner much support from the people at national elections. Various explanations have been given by commentators about the bottleneck facing such minor parties. One undergraduate when asked commented that the JVP is all talk no action. It is here that they can develop alternative strategies compared to mainstream parties to win over the public confidence. E.g. voluntary social service.

Democracy and Democratic Practice -Sri Lanka’s Case

As in any society that was subjected to colonisation by imperial powers, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans also need to critically reflect on the weaknesses of democracy practice and how to institute social reform in various sectors in order to further democratise and decolonise? Though Sri Lanka (former Ceylon) gained independence in 1948, the country has been governed by elite rulers. The formation of a ruling or political class has become an obstacle to social reform rather than an aid. Another obstacle is the expanding effects of globalisation and neoliberal economic paradigm that dominates society. 

During the post-independent period, democratic practice(DP) was used to define and construct privilege. It had two elements: 1) legal and formal 2) informal. Both elements had been important in the distribution of privilege but the informal had been detrimental to the public interest than the formal. Democratic practice is used in Sri Lanka for two purposes 1) justify the continuation of political institutions and procedures in legal, financial and formal terms 2) to construct disproportionate privilege for the political class-both in government and opposition. These two, in particular the latter, has become by now a burden on society. Institutions also have become complex, hierarchical and unwieldy. An obstacle to public service with customer service. 

Democracy Practice as found today is confounded by the political practice peculiar to the country. While in theory DP is desirable and generally accepted by the people as a norm for the governance of society, the way it is practiced is subject to various credible criticisms. The distance between electors and elected at the national level is significantly large in symbolic and material terms. Thus, the people who suffer from a range of problems do not seek access to elected members of parliament or other authority figures. The same applies to seeking government services. When they do so, they like to get introductions and support from those who have contacts with government offices or authority figures.  If one operates on generalised service expectations as in developed countries, one has to wait years before some resolution to problems are found.

Promotion of individualism and competition plus the application of market principles to non-market related sectors of society in terms of management practices is increasingly creating tensions within workplaces. Politics is dominated by those who come from middle and upper classes – some by birth – so those who belong to the working and poor classes do not get a fair representation in decision making processes. Technocratic model of policy making demands less consultation with stake holders or those affected by government decisions.  

For social and institutional reforms to serve the interests of least advantage, it is absolutely necessary to further democratise the democratic practice and process. One way to do this is to open up ways and means for participatory democracy i.e. allow people to participate in the decision-making process at various levels in addition to the voting rights. It is important to create awareness about the possibilities and spaces to do so. This is particularly possible at local government and institutional levels. In terms of the latter, worker participation in decision making committees within institutions can be considered.


Knowledge provided by the schools and universities is not strong enough in terms of epistemology, concepts or theories to be able to understand how the power is used or misused today by the ruling classes. Often, we can see a situation where the universities are still teaching translated ‘disciplinary knowledge’ inherited from the European imperial powers some decades ago without much change. At least this is so in the case of social sciences and humanities. A serious disconnect has emerged between such disciplinary knowledge which is fragmented into various self-serving departmental cultures vs the ground realities with numerous problems affecting the people including social inequality, power imbalance, academic dependence, abandonment of indigenous/local knowledge, ignorance about human and civil rights and over-governance. Even the so-called intellectuals who should be articulating the changes that have occurred and their negative consequences have become a reactionary force dependent on various sources of income and a share of power including foreign sources of income and recognition.

Education has been turned into international education which basically means Western education in another name (Sri Lanka’s education and higher education regimes were fashioned along the British model from the time of British colonisation. It continues today with cosmetic changes in the periphery). Furthermore, it has become profit-driven. Social research is either stuck in Western epistemologies, concepts and theories or devoid of indigenous perspectives based on local intellectual traditions. Those with a full grasp of these consequences of decades of socio-economic and cultural change in the name of modernisation, development and progress are far and few in the country. Many of those who are able to critically examine and think or their children have been bought out by the Globalisation, international education and migration project resulting in significant brain drain on one hand and draining of culture capital and identity on the other.

Decolonisation of Education

In terms of decolonisation there is an ongoing discussion and debate as to the nature of what should happen? For example, in the education and knowledge field there are vibrant discussions continuing from a global south perspective (author coordinates several Face Book groups on this subject). How to overcome the academic dependency prevalent in the education and higher education sector? These discussions not only provide philosophical arguments and explanations but also concrete proposals for reform. In Sri Lanka however, there is a tendency to accept what is given in the education field rather than critically engaging with the way education/higher education is organised, curriculum, teaching and learning methods, or the outcomes expected. This has allowed for the acceptance of education with a small E where it is assumed that education should be to provide the child with an employment opportunity. However, what is needed is an education with a big E that encompasses teaching students important values, cultural and historical heritage, reinforcing national identity and citizenship, and providing soft skills necessary to survive and be successful in a globalising economy and society.


In this context, it is somewhat difficult to imagine the sources where the seeds of a social reformist movement can emerge in the future. In this new year, literate people need to focus on how to combine intellectual and organisational energies that are dispersed currently and start a national dialogue about the nature of power, its organisation and implementation, imbalances, and better ways of organising power for the larger good of the people of all ranks. We cannot continue with a system of power and privilege that is underpinned by the Coloniality of Power matrix (see Ubijano, Mignolo etc. in the Latin American Decolonisation tradition of thought). Decolonisation of power, institutions and the mindset is the need of the hour. More can be said about this topic at another time in other forums in 2021.

Further Sources 

(Facebook Discussion Groups)

Postcolonial/Decolonial thought in the global south

Decolonisation of eduction/higher education in the global south

Multicultural Society: myths and realities

Asian Thinkers

Sinhala Puranaya

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Latest comments

  • 1

    One election does not prove anything.

    USA does not recognize the language of Blacks (15% of the population) as an official language. SL does!

    USA does not devolve power to Blacks (15% of the population). SL does!

    USA does not recognize minority religious events as public holidays. SL does!

    So you cannot copy what USA does one to one.

    • 0

      Devolving power on the basis of race is not a good idea. US has 50 states and some governors are black. However language and religion can be accomodated.

      Though one election does. ot prove anything, it has to be assessed on the basis of what the alternative would be?

  • 1

    From Laksiri Fernando,Sydney:

    I wonder whether the formulation ‘decolonizing democratic practice’ could give a wrong impression that you are not much in favour of democracy. It is true that even ‘democratic practices’ are not so democratic or even colonial. But most are not democratic practices but undemocratic or superficially democratic practices. In my case, that is the way I would argue. Democracy is not only a political system but a way of life.

    However, in our political system, there are so many colonial practices/influences/heritages remaining. Those are (1) in the system of bureaucracy (although civil service was renamed as the public service), (2) judiciary and the legal system, and (3) the school system. I am not saying that all those are against democracy or the present needs of the people, but particularly in the legal system at least I can say those are archaic. One example is the way the lawyers write their deeds/legal documents and the way even the constitutional documents are made (except Colvin’s writing of the 1972 constitution). Bureaucracy and bureaucratic practices are another example.

    However, I would not consider all the present defects come from the colonial heritage (1505-1948). Some are our own post-independence or postcolonial creations (1948-2020). Some are precolonial (i.e. caste or kingship mindset). Some are blind imitation of Western practices (i.e. PR or fixed term of the 18A). More importantly, most practices come from neoliberal and capitalist imperatives like trade policies, the tax system and even foreign relations. One may of course argue that capitalism is part of colonial heritage (though not necessarily neoliberalism) but even countries like Japan, Thailand, Nepal etc have gone in the same direction without a colonial heritage.

    To me democracy we should appreciate, in its broadest definition of the term, not only as a (better/best) political system but also as a way of life. The latter part is what we lack not only in Sri Lanka but also in many other countries including Australia.

    • 0

      I tend to agree with Laksiri Fernando on his opinion. (I seldom do.)
      We as a country are a failure. The reason for it is our failure to accept Democracy as a way of life.
      We were privy to be a democratic nation before we had matured enough to be blessed with such a system.
      This bunkum that we were the earliest democracy in our region is laughable.
      Democracy is NOT rule by majority votes! Our franchise was a premature gift and we are paying the price for what we were not worthy of receiving.

      • 0

        where no tolerance or awareness is possible, democracy fails. This is the truth. Media should take the side of the people not being biased to any politicial agendas. Poor countries of our nature, govts are not powerful enough. Go TV channels are not like in 80ties. Pvt TV channels transport any “heay says as breaking news” misleading the easy targets from dawn to dusks. By their entertaining programs such as teledramas series strengthen the boundness to those channels, not allowing the very same GULLIBLE to filter good from the bad. Like for example, today, TV adaderana and TV Hiru are highly abusive so as no separate information would be necessary to make it clear to the viewers. Neverthless, in god punished, dont seem to repsect MEDIA ethics nor would they be punished accordingly.
        I have no idea about you guys whenever I travel back home (ofcourse prior to COVID crisis – with last s been Feb 2020) I am used to collect my own info by talking to various personalities coming from all walks of life down there. That revealed me no matter even if you are professionals to Unis as academics or any other professionals in almost any areas would easily fall down before – myths.

  • 0

    Great article that forces one into the realization of the futility of our Motherland’s current subsistence.
    Lankan Government spends too much money on the free education system that teaches Western education and job creation that can only work if one goes to the West. Lankan mindset in the end is about showcasing to the rest of the world that Lankans too can rub shoulders with the West. Hence also the results of the country elections – fake expectations being more enticing than reality.
    Universities should have subjects like Lankan agriculture, medicine, teaching, law, and commerce pertaining with exactly what the country needs, so the tax-payer is not wasting hard-earned tax rupees . Teaching, law and commerce are abstract and a bit difficult to construct for the local purpose, but there should be an effort to begin the procedure. As for agriculture and medicine, the elements of traditional use are already there and need to be developed and enhanced into full-fledged curriculums. They needn’t be university subjects, but traditional and vocational subjects that don’t suck tax-payer money into their deliverance like for example, the teaching of Westernized medicine.

    • 0

      Much is therefore left to our local politicians to do the needful and create the necessary conditions for a newer paradigm for Lankan interaction. Right now it is seen that Port City courtesy China is giving Lanka the much needed opportunity to uphold her own unique structure. But unfortunately, global money is needed for this kind of venture rather than Lankan enterprise creating Lankan money. And the reason for this is so the rich and powerful (about 10% of the country) can remain in privileged positions, while they benevolently deliver to the local structure. The risk factors are enormous.
      Guess Japan, Thailand, Nepal did not have vast swaths of land taken away for cash crop for the Colonists, thus displacing millions of people to crowd into the cities. Capitalism was only too easy for them. Colonized places like Malaysia and Indonesia have some elements of oil and gas which gives them some of the global wealth. It is a bit more of a difficult deal for Motherland.

  • 0

    A decolonial turn in our thinking about higher eeucation(and other institutions such as judicial system) is absolutely necessary in order to critically look at our university education that are western discipline based and include indigenous/local knowledge traditions of learning,knowing etc.

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