By Mass L. Usuf –
The ceremonial sitting of the first session of the 9th Parliament was declared open by H.E. The President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 20 August 2020. The President then delivered the government Policy Statement as provided for by Article 33(2) of the Constitution.
Certain announcements made in the policy statement need careful reflection. The spirit and essence of some statements may not have been intended to carry the meaning in its literal sense. I would like to think it that way giving the benefit of the doubt to the President.
The President is not a politician with an extensive political biography of his own like that of his brother, the Honourable Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Nevertheless, the President is surrounded by a coterie of political persons of different hues. Among them are also the ethno-nationalists and ethno-centrists. He has the support of his own kith and kin who are veterans in the field of politics. And, in an unprecedented and peculiar development, this President has also allowed himself to be encircled by an Advisory Council of Monks appointed by him ‘to seek advice on governance’. If the President is keen on good governance, it is something that deserves high commendation. Constituting the Advisory Council with a wider representation than the monks only, will provide greater credibility and facilitate the deliberation of different viewpoints.
Majority Has A New Meaning
Given this setting, it is fair to assume that certain aspects of the Policy statement may be a reflection of the thinking characteristics of the above mentioned. After all, the President is a human being and he has to depend on others as well. As a matter of interest, this column, from the viewpoint of concepts and related interpretation will focus only on the following statement made by him:
“As representatives of the people, we always respect the aspirations of the majority. It is only then that the sovereignty of the people can be safeguarded.”
Here the word, ‘majority’ needs to be clarified. This word has taken an additional political meaning, pre and post, the recent Presidential and Parliamentary elections. The Presidential election campaign was run solely wooing the votes of the Sinhala people who constitute the majority, around 74%. In other words, with the expressly stated position of not relying at all on the minority votes of the Tamils (11%), Muslims (9%) and the rest others.
Hot on the heels of the resounding victory at the Presidential polls, the Parliamentary election was held. The sentiment of Sinhala majoritarianism mobilised to defeat the minorities had not waned by that time and was very much intact. In his book, The Self-fulfilling Prophecy, Professor Robert K. Merton, wrote: “Men respond not only to the objective features of a situation, but also, and at times primarily, to the meaning this situation has for them.” (Professor of Sociology, Columbia University). At the inaugural event of his Presidency, the country heard Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa acknowledging that he was voted to power by the Sinhala majority. The word ‘majority’ in the context of an election has evolved into a new meaning which is unique to Sri Lanka.
Aspirations Are Conditional
Like the President said, ‘respect the aspirations of the majority’ is very good as it symbolises the true spirit of democracy. However, this is not a universal principle that can be taken on face value alone. This is why a clarification is required to such a statement. It has to be said that the manner in which the aspirations of the majority is respected is different in a country which has multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural features. In these circumstances, democratic principles demand that the majority wishes are respected within the broader framework of securing the rights of the minority. In this context, one has to be aware that the majority aspirations are not absolutely unconditional but, necessarily, subject to conditions.
Ethnic And Traditional Majority
One of the essential principles of a constitutional democracy is that of majority rule and minority rights. Here, the powers of government vests with the traditional majority and thus “the majority rules”. This power is subjected and limited to the extent of ensuring that the fundamental rights of individuals in the minority are protected. Remember that Democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people. And, people would mean all the people which obviously include both the ethnic majority and all the other minorities. Those who voted for and against.
Looking at the different status of people in various countries, some people may be called ‘subjects’. This is in an instance where people obey the command of an authoritarian ruler. For example, a King who rules over his subjects. This is a system opposed to democracy and inclined towards monarchical autocracy.
Then there can be a class of people who do not enjoy equality with another class of citizens – a discriminated category. This also cannot happen in a democracy since it violates the basic principle of equality. An illustration of this discrimination was seen from the recent Indian experience.Th Indian Citizenship law which is 64 years old, prohibited illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens. An amendment known as the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was introduced to ease this prohibition. The CAB was justified on the premise that it will give sanctuary to people fleeing religious persecution from other countries. It is a very generous piece of legislation but it grossly discriminated against Muslims. Only six religious communities were identified namely Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian. For example, the Rohingya people in India who fled religious persecution from the Myanmar government will not be given sanctuary under this Bill because they are Muslims.
Delhi-based lawyer Gautam Bhatia says that by dividing alleged migrants into Muslims and non-Muslims, the bill “explicitly and blatantly seeks to enshrine religious discrimination into law, contrary to our long-standing, secular constitutional ethos”. If India was sincere in its efforts to protect persecuted minorities then, Muslims too, should have been included.
In Sri Lanka, we can boast of having the ideal condition of inclusive citizenry, where all enjoy equal status as citizens of one country. This is one component of a fully-fledged democracy. But, for how long? Are we home and dry or a threat is looming? The latter is evidently present with rising ethno-centricism and anti-religious rhetoric. The government must take cognisance of this danger and zealously safeguard and protect its citizens from disintegrating.
The idea of ‘respecting the aspirations of the majority’ becomes a critical issue if the dangers embedded therein are not distinguished properly. A wrong view or flawed understanding may be justified as correct; A misdirected path may seem the correct path; There is the tendency to fall trap to the malicious intents of others; The higher one soars fuelled by the idea of ethnic majoritarianism, the farther he goes from the common touch of the lesser folks on the ground. Floating in the cloud of majoritarianism will cause to lose empathy with the others.
I Can Do Anything
Remember the extraordinary victory by 5/6th majority of JR Jayewardene in the 1977 elections. He never attributed his victory to an ethnic majority because he did not campaign on ethnic lines. Therefore, in this sense, it is grossly different from the nature of majoritarianism that is alluded to at present. However, some unsavoury highlights of his government are the deprivation of the civic rights of former Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the postponement of election by a referendum and masterminding the July 1983 Tamil holocaust humiliating the Tamil minority which plunged this country into a long drawn out conflict killing our own people.
JR is on record saying, “I can do anything except make a man a woman, or a woman a man.” This statement of JR was famously written by Jean-Louis de Lolme, British political theorist in his most famous work, Constitution de l’Angleterre (The Constitution of England, 1771). He was an advocate of a constitutional form of government. Most importantly, in his work he enshrined the principle of balanced government, balancing the one, the few, and the many. A wise formula to accommodate both majority and minority aspirations.
The Late former Vice President of the World Court, Judge C.G. Weeramantry once quoted Arahant Mahinda who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE, who had said to King Devanampiya Tissa at Mihintale:
“Great king thou art not the owner but only the guardian of all this; the birds of the air and the beasts in the forest, all have equal right to it.”
If the environment is said to have equal rights what, then, about humans?