18 August, 2022


Do Not Fill ‘Grama Rajya’ With The Poison Of Ethnicity

By Dinesh Dodamgoda

Dinesh Dodamgoda

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 Report

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.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    This Grama Rajya concept is only a poisoned sweet as far as Tamils are concerned. Premadasa established pradesiya sabas and brought them under the control of the government to take away the control of them by the provincial councils especially in north and east. This new thing is the same old wine in a new bottle. This is clearly done to bring Sinhala majority pradesiya sabas in north and east independent of provincial council. Though there may be Tamil and Muslim majority pradesiya sabas in other provinces, they will not enjoy the same degree of autonomy as the Sinhala majority pradesiya sabas in north and east. Problem is that Sinhala settlers in north and east do not want to be ruled by Tamils or Muslims and this arrangement is to help them out and not for what the government says of grass root power sharing. Government will directly intervene in them bypassing provincial councils.

    • 1

      So, the Tamils want an autonomy?
      You go and buy a kite, then, wait and see. You all will get an opportunity to fly a kite in an autonomous region.

      • 1

        You are living in a fools paradise. Autonomy to Tamils is a foregone conclusion. It is only the degree and territory are in contention. Mahinda promised to grant autonomy going beyond the 13th amendment to international community particularly to India. He failed to do so and after six years he was thrown out of power. This government has also promised the international community that it will grant autonomy to Tamils. It will probably get more time to deliver it, but if it also fails, international community will intervene directly to grant justice to Tamils. When that happens, Sinhalese racists like you are the ones who will have to fly the kites. By the way you cannot fly any kites in the 20 hectares of land in Galle Face which has been sold outright to China.

        • 1

          Honourable Dr Gnana,

          Do you think that the Sinhalese would wait until the international community grant autonomy to the Tamils in Sri Lanka? You are the one who lives in a fools paradise. Do you think that India will allow an autonomous region in Sri Lanka?

          Sri Lanka is a sovereign country. Tamils want to destroy Sri Lanka’s sovereignty as they want to have international interference always. Please remember this, the Sti Lanka eradicated blood thirsty LTTE Terrorism. And will do the same again, if Tamils try to destroy country’s sovereignty. So, wake up. Try to co-exist in a true paradise with the Sinhalese and the Muslims.

          • 1

            You do not understand between different levels of autonomy. 13th Amendment was initiated by India which gives some degree of autonomy to Tamils. India wants it enlarged to a level similar to what the states in India enjoy. Therefore your statement that India will not allow any autonomy shows what a fool you are. India is against the creation of Ealam for better reasons known to themselves, and will not allow even if the Sinhalese are willing to grant. India is not against devolving power to Tamils to rule themselves in their lands of historic habitation. Please remember it was India that was the first country to recognize that northern and eastern provinces are Tamil homeland through the Indo-Lanka accord which is recognized internationally which Sinhala racist like you or the Srilanka government cannot unilaterally change.

    • 0

      Dr Gnana,

      “Government will directly intervene in them bypassing provincial councils.”

      My understanding is that the idea is to give power to the villagers in a cluster of some GS divisions not the PSs that are controlled by politicians.

      Who will represent the villagers in the clusters is one of the major problems. In the worst case we will have a system of PC,PS and GS level politicians who continue with their own agendas neglecting the real needs of the people.

      At the moment a large amount of people in the NP is excluded because of caste and poverty. For them life might get better with a new system. They are a minority in the province and the PSs but the majority in many GS divisions.

  • 2

    The best option is to divide Sri lanka into six regions. so Tamil hindus, Tamil christians, Indian Tamils get one region each. Muslims and Sinhala Catholics and Christians get one region and Sinhala buddhists get one region ?

    Later allow the each region to settle their problems; for example if christians want to make the whole region Evengelical and not catholics, it si upto them.

    The same way, if Sunni muslims want to get rid all the other muslims sects, it is upto them.

    • 1

      dividing sri lanka is hard wired into terrorists’ head. only upon eradication of terrorism, we all can live in peace and in union.

  • 1

    In appears there’s only elements of mischief in the report of the Sub-Committee on Centre-Periphery Relations of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, and people must reject it. Constitution must not be based on discrimination of any sort, especially religion and race.

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