By Aboobacker Rameez –
Universities are a place of intellectual discourse and debates on thoughts and findings. It fosters an environment of critical thinking and skills necessary to build a profound understanding of the discipline and the existing thoughts. It also serves as a touchstone of the community to spur them to engage in crucial issues relevant to the community.
As such, a group of academics gathered at a place in our University-South Eastern University of Sri Lanka yesterday and engaged in a discourse on the proposed new constitution and the contestation of North East merger, a topic that has become a talk of the town in popular discourses of media. Unlike Mahinda era where we found it difficult to organize such a discussion of contemporary issues at the University since our head of the institution at that time did not permit us to do so, because he felt permitting such discourses in the university would compromise his position, we have now full academic autonomy to engage in such discourses in our University, thanks to the Yahapalanaya government that ushered in January 2015 and appointed a learned professor as the Vice Chancellor of University.
Eastern Province is model of pluralism
Interestingly, majority of the members who gathered there felt that the existing set up, that is, the de-merger of North East would be ideal to not only Muslims, but to Tamils too. In fact, the separate provincial councils, as everybody knows, have proved to be a successful episode so far, for it provided opportunity for members from Tamil as well as Muslim community to occupy the post of Chief Minister in both provinces. Most importantly, the Eastern Province which is diverse both ethnically and religiously has had Chief Ministers from both Tamil and Muslim communities previously. Moreover, the Eastern Province representing 37 % Hindus, 35% Muslims, 23 % Buddhists, and 5% Christians respectively has become a living example of multi-religiosity and pluralism that provided a space for diverse communities to exist and live amicably over the years. It is indubitable that education and health resources coupled with employment opportunities in the province are shared equitably in the province over the years. Thus, they felt that the North East will have to remain as a separate province.
Controversy in allocation of resources
Majority of the members contended that allocation of resources such as state lands, forests, wildlife, and water will become a contentious issue, if North East were merged. There is a danger of it being misappropriated by the central government in the event of North East merger. As we all know, Wattamadu land and Wilpattu wildlife sanctuary have been a hot issue in the popular debates in recent times. Under such circumstances, not only Muslims, but Tamils living in the North East will also be seriously affected.
While Tamils and Muslims are currently entangled in a number of issues in terms of administrative set up and educational administrative divisions in various districts in the Eastern province, the proposed attempt of North East merger will exacerbate those issues further, pitting Tamils against Muslims in the NE. For instance, there is a long tussle percolating in the administrative divisions in Kalmunai of Ampara district, where Tamils have been bargaining for a separate Divisional Secretariat in Kalmunai area, as they feel reluctant to work under an administration largely dominated by Muslims in Kalmunai DS division. Interesting question raised by a member in the forum that how can the TNA parliamentarians request for the support of Muslims in the North East for the merger of two provinces, while they themselves are not happy to work with Muslims in Kalmunai administrative division and struggle for a separate DS administrative divisions for Tamils. These are contentious issue that require solutions via a healthy discussion.
In the context of government drafting the new constitution to resolve the ethnic crisis in the country, it is important that it will have to seek consensus of people living in the Eastern Province whether to go for merger or de-merger of NE. Succumbing to the pressure of Western agenda, geo-politics and TNA for merger will not help for the government to consolidate coexistence and harmony among different communities. Moreover, it is believed that the government will not discount the concerns of Sinhalese living in the North East when it comes to the NE merger. I am optimistic that the government will take heed of all these legitimate concerns of various communities when deciding the fate of North East province in the proposed constitution.
Dr. A.Rameez is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Department of Social Sciences, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org