By Dinesh Dodamgoda –
The report of the Sub-Committee on Centre-Periphery Relations of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly has recommended to fill ‘Local Authorities’ and the proposed model of ‘Grama Rajya’ with the poison of ethnicity. Let us, therefore, the nation be warned!
The Sub-Committee on Centre-Periphery Relations submitted its report to the Constitutional Assembly last Saturday. The report endorsed ‘Local Authorities’ as a third tier of governance and recommended that local authorities should receive public consultation and engagement through a model called ‘Grama Rajya’. Although the Local Authorities as a third tier of government and the proposed model of Grama Rajya are encouraging developments, the Sub-Committee’s aim to utilise the said institutions in a manner that would provide opportunities for ethnic majorities and minorities to claim their control on the basis of ethnicity is discouraging.
The report stated that in some of the Local Authorities such as Mussali, Beruwala, and Akurana, the Muslims are the majority; the Malayaha Tamils in Lahugala and Panwila, there is a Sinhala majority in Pradeshiya Sabha in Pottuvil; a Tamil majority Pradeshiya Sabha in Kalmunai and a Sinhala majority Pradeshiya Sabha in Vavuniya. Therefore, the Committee is in the opinion that smaller units of political authorities should provide opportunities for minority communities living in enclaves to administer their own affairs. Hence the committee’s suggestion is to politically recognise and privilege the concept of ethnicity even in smaller units of political authorities.
The conviction to politically recognise and privilege the most divisive issue in Sri Lanka, ethnicity (and religion), is derived from the belief that ‘empowering the chief troublemakers with a piece of government’ would mitigate threats to the constitutional order if not the state. Therefore, proponents of the power-sharing strategy who believe in such presumptions try to convince others that in managing cultural conflict in independent and ethnically divided countries, one has to identify representatives belong to the most divisive issue and privilege and share political powers with them.
A Failed Approach
In order to strengthen their claim, proponents of the power-sharing strategy come up with empirical evidence! For example, in 2002, Arend Lijphart listed 16 consociational (or power-sharing) regimes (Lijphart claimed them as independent and ethnically divided countries) that managed conflict successfully in the 20th century. However, Philip G. Roeder, the main theorist of an alternative strategy, the power-dividing or the multiple-majorities approach, challenged Lijphart’s claim and stated, “Three of these cases listed by Lijphart (Suriname 1958-1973, Netherlands Antilles 1950-1985, and Northern Ireland 1999-1999) were not independent states. Four more countries (Austria 1945-1966, Netherlands 1917-1967, Luxembourg 1917-1967, and Colombia 1958-1974) were not ethnically divided states. Furthermore, six out of the listed 16 cases failed. Czechoslovakia’s power sharing experiment (1989-1993) ended in partition of the country. Cyprus’s (1960-1963) and Lebanon’s (1945-1975) experiments ended in civil wars. Malaysia’s (1955-1969) experiment with power-sharing saw secession (or expulsion) of one ethnically distinct region (Singapore) and only strong-arm tactics prevented secession of the ethnically distinct Sabah state. Malaysia’s consociational government ended in widespread ethnic violence. Fiji’s one-year experiment (1999-2000) ended in a military coup. And South Africa’s (1994-1996) ended in a peaceful slide into Majoritarianism.”
As Philip G. Roeder further argues, the only three consociational regime that survived (Switzerland (1943- ), Belgium (1970- ), and India (1947- ) have been successful to the extent that they have submerged any ethnic power-sharing arrangements within a larger array of power-diving (or multiple-majorities approach) institutions.
India, Switzerland and Belgium
Although the power-sharing proponents’ claims, India did not use the most divisive issue, religion, as the basis for regional states. Jawaharlal Nehru rejected religion as the basis for new states and did not allow to establish a Sikh state as he feared this would lead to “Pakistan-style” fragmentation. Hence, India used a cross-cutting identity, the language, and enacted further provisions to allow the central government to dissolve (and create) states if necessary. As Philip G. Roeder argues, “In short, India’s ethnic stability also appears to be a result of avoiding the concentration of institutional weapons in the hands of ethnic leaders”.
In Switzerland, ethnolinguistic identity is less salient in political actions and even in the country’s bicameral legislature ethnolinguistic identity was not privileged. The Swiss government leaves many decision making rights to individuals and civil society, especially decision making rights related to ethnolinguistic issues. Hence ethnolinguistic identity has a seldom representation in country’s political life.
As Philip G. Roeder claims, “Belgian power sharing was most stable as long as ethnicity was not elevated above other group rights and institutional weapons did not concentrate in ethnic foci.” However, since the adaptation of the 1994 Constitution, instability and threats to Belgium’s unity have grown as the new Constitution provided opportunity for ethnic groups to trump the rights of the other groups through the Regional Councils as they concentrate more institutional weapons in the hands of ethnic leaders.
Avoid Ethnicity (and Religion)!
Therefore, implementing the idea of privileging and politically empowering ethnic leaders in proposed Grama Rajya (and in Local Authorities) would not prevent escalation of ethnonational bargaining into an ethnonational crisis. Furthermore, the strategy will broaden the ethnic division into smaller units of political authority and create instability. It was evident that empowering ethnic (and religious) leaders is a counterproductive strategy and more likely to bring a recurrence of escalating ethnic (and religious) conflict. Hence the Sub-Committee on Centre-Periphery Relations should not have recommended to use ethnicity as the basis for empowering leaders in small political authorities. Instead, the Committee should have recommended to use non-cultural, multiple divides to empower small political authority leaders (even leaders in the centre).
Accordingly, the Grama Rajya can be constituted of leaders that are selected or elected from citizens respected in their villages (in spite of their ethno-religious identity), graduates or highly educated people, representatives from different labour divisions, civil society leaders (not religious leaders), etc. Even in the level of Local Authorities, people can select or elect their leaders on the basis of various representative criteria such as competence, integrity, level of education, and any sort of important non-cultural identities or even less important cultural identities. The most important point to note is that as the constructivists view, “often the politicization of ethnic identities is endogenous to the political process and in the absence of political-institutional constraints identities tend to be more fluid”. Therefore, politicised or politically privileged ethnic or religious groups tend to subsume all other groups and communities and escalate ethnonational bargaining into ethnonational crisis that can result in instability and even civil wars.