By Dayan Jayatilleka –
My thanks to Prof GH (‘Gerry’) Peiris, a scholar for whom I have considerable respect, for his critical engagement (‘Should Sri Lanka persist with Province-based Devolution’, The Island Midweek Review, May 15th 2013) with my extended remarks on devolution and the provincial councils made at a seminar of the Liberal party (‘Northern Provincial Council: The Devolution Debate’). This is perhaps the most serious political topic and issue for public –policy debate and decision-making in the current stage of Sri Lanka’s history; a debate that will sharpen over the next few months.
Prof Peiris summarily dismisses two of the points I have critiqued, as non-existent and therefore pretty much misleading and irrelevant. Let me address that opening argument before I deal with the substance of his critique.
If Prof Peiris were to read the papers more often he would find, even recently in the pages of this one, arguments against the 13th amendment and often against provincial devolution as such, and counterproposals for alternative structures and systems to replace it, based entirely on the grounds of economic development, administrative efficacy and empowerment of people irrespective of ethnicity. The case for reversion to district level devolution or the identification of the ‘pradesheeya sabha’ as the optimal unit of devolution rests on this ostensibly non-ethnic perspective. It is such a perspective that I identified and rejected as failing to grasp the nettle.
As for the second point, namely that the 13th amendment and provincial devolution were superfluous since they had arisen as a response to the LTTE insurgency which had now been decisively put down, such views were encountered by me with some degree of consternation, in statements made sporadically by officialdom at the highest levels in the post war years; statements which were also a source of embarrassment when raised by senior officials, diplomats and scholars in the locations in which I spent the past several years. The fact that this dismissal of the need to persist in provincial level devolution has since been replaced, often in the discourse of the same officials, by a warning about the persistence of the LTTE, has to be taken up with them, not me.
This brings us to Prof Peiris’ main contention. Sadly, to make it, he has followed up an accurate quotation of what I said with a convenient avoidance of my main points.
Contrary to those who claim that provincial devolution was exclusively the product of coercive Indian intervention and reject it on that basis, the points I made and continue to make are the following:
(1) The case for, or issue of, provincial level devolution long antedated such intervention or even the eruption of the Indian factor
(2) That case derives from the need for political coexistence and cohabitation between the Sinhalese and Tamils on this island, given domestic geopolitics and those of the external environment
(3) Had existing proposals for and promises of provincial devolution been implemented, there would not have been a coercive Indian intervention in 1987 and
(4) The Indian factor should not be an argument against provincial devolution because it continues to have salience, is enhanced due to the US-Indian strategic condominium and will in fact loom larger still, in the run-up to and the aftermath of next year’s Indian election due to the militant mood in Tamil Nadu.
(5) While there is a danger of implementing the 13th amendment (my critique of Mr Sampathan’s speech at the ITAK convention last year and my debate with Mr Sumanthiran on internal self determination demonstrate that I am hardly unaware of this danger), the far greater danger on balance, i.e. the danger of external coercion/intervention which can roll-back our military victory and yield a Tamil Eelam or greater Tamil Nadu, is posed by the unilateral rollback/non-implementation/gutting of provincial devolution.
Prof Peiris addresses none of these. Instead he traces the role of India in the post July ’83 years, in pushing Provincial devolution. Prof Peiris’ recounting not only does nothing to contradict my arguments; it evades some of them and underscores others.
His perspective would be accurate if the issue of provincial devolution had been limited to the post-July 1983 years of Sri Lankan history, or to put it more unkindly, the ethno-nationalities issue (the Tamil issue) had been restricted to the post-July ’83 years.
Far from this being the case, as I have pointed out, it was young SWRD Bandaranaike who lucidly argued in 1926 (perhaps influenced by the debate on Ireland when he was a student in Britain), that he knows of no country which is as non-homogenous as was Ceylon, to have achieved success under a centralised form of rule.
At least one famous progressive observer and perceptive well wisher of Ceylon had also made the point, with an eye to the problems of coexistence between Sinhalese and Tamils in an independent Ceylon. In his memorandum ‘on the demands for reform of the Ceylon Constitution, presented to the Labour party, in November 1938, Leonard Woolf wrote that “Consideration should also be given to the possibility of ensuring a large measure of devolution or even of introducing a federal system on the Swiss model”.
SWRD’s and Leonard Woolf’s were no eccentric assertions within or about Ceylonese politics. Prof Michael Roberts’ excellent anthologies as well as subsequent research by Prof Kumari Jayawardana have brought into focus the strong case for regional autonomy or federalism made by the country’s communist movement ( the Ceylon Communist Party and its trade union confederation the CTUF), at its conclaves from 1944-1947 and in its representations to the Soulbury Commission.
Most crucially, we have the case of the Bandaranaike–Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957, which with its provision for the amalgamation of the regional councils (a unit closer the district and smaller than the province), made for large unit devolution; actually provincial devolution. Thus it is clear that the project of provincial level devolution far antedated and was therefore hardly derivative of Indian intervention. Prof Peiris has evaded that argument.
My additional point was – and it is hardly original—that if the B-C Pact had been implemented, the Indian intervention 30 years later is exceedingly unlikely to have occurred.
This is also my point with regard to the Political Parties Conference of mid-1986, which Prof Peiris helpfully embeds in the matrix of India’s robust Sri Lanka diplomacy of the post-July ’83 years, most specifically from the Parthasarathy facilitation/mediation and annexure C of 1984. Prof Peiris’ attribution of causation is slightly tendentious however. It is difficult to dismiss that conference as a mere fig-leaf or rubber stamp of the agreement arrived at in Delhi in December 1985 on the province as unit of devolution when those who called for and participated in it, namely the moderate or pluralist democratic Left as led by Vijaya Kumaratunga, belonged to a progressive political tradition in which such devolution had long – if not always consistently—been advocated.
Though Vijaya was of a different generation, his explicit advocacy of provincial devolution in the form of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact, including in the pages of this paper, antedated the December ’85 agreements between HW Jayewardene and the Indian officials. Since the proceedings of the PPC were transparent, recorded and published at the time – with televised interviews of the participants conducted on Rupavahini by Prof Tilak Ratnakara– the evidence of deliberation hardly supports a version of a rubber stamping by puppets, of documents produced by or in India.
Prof Peiris conveniently evades my more central argument, namely, that had the agreements announced at the PPC of mid-1986 or at the APC of 1984, which were primarily domestic processes, been implemented, there would have been no opening for Indian intervention in mid 1987. Put more sharply, had Operation Liberation of 1987 been preceded by the 13th amendment, it would have been far less likely that Indian intervention would have taken place to abort it, and that amendment would not have had to be shoved down our throat as an outcome of a humiliating intervention. The presence of the 13th amendment and the promise to implement it was a crucial factor in securing Indian support for, at least in neutralising Indian objections to—our final thrust against the Tigers in 2009. The abolition or terminal weakening of provincial devolution, which would be an ethnically unilateral process, risks the return of India, this time in strategic alliance with a USA that is increasingly critical and a global civil society increasingly hostile to Sri Lanka, to its dangerously adversarial/interventionist stance of the latter half of the 1980s. If there is external intervention this time around, it may prove ineradicable. To my mind it is hardly a risk worth taking.
For a Realist, the only circumstances in which the unilateral abolition of provincial level devolution would be conceivable would be if the Sinhalese had been alone on this island or this island had been alone on the planet. Neither is the case.