By Rajan Philips –
First, the government puts itself in a political quandary over elections to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). To have them, or not to have them, becomes the teasing question. The President goes on record repeatedly promising to have the election in September. The government goes out of its way to make sure that Sri Lanka would host the Commonwealth Summit in November. All of this makes sense. A free and fair election could showcase the government’s claim at the Commonwealth summit that postwar reconciliation is on course in the island’s former battlegrounds. The government could even brag that it has re-enfranchised the Tamil people whom the LTTE had disenfranchised previously (especially in 2005). That is one way of looking at it.
Then there is the crooked way of doing things. A chorus of voices emerge asking the government to postpone the election until after the CHOGM, or not to have an election at all. First, they argue, as the election in September will have to be ‘an election with witnesses’ it will be exploited by enemies at home and abroad (the LTTE rump, NGO parasites, opposition pigmies etc.) to pillory the Sri Lankan government in the Jaffna peninsula in front of foreign election monitors and international media. Second, they admonish, 13A and the PC system are India’s impositions on Sri Lanka and permanent security threats to it, so they should be abolished as soon as possible rather than consolidated by having elections and creating a new Northern Provincial Council.
But the government seems to have made up its mind to go ahead with the NPC election in September under the Constitution as it stands including its Thirteenth Amendment. That much has been stated categorically at last week’s Cabinet press briefing by Anura Priyadhashana Yapa, Petroleum Industries Minister and the celebrated Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee that impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. The Minister did not quite close the door on abolishing 13A for a new system of devolution saying that such a change would have to be first discussed publicly to hear the views of a cross section of people. Mr. Yapa’s main antagonist at the parliamentary committee, UNP’s Lakshman Kiriella quickly claimed victory for his party. According to Mr. Kiriella by agreeing to conduct the NCP election under 13A the government was accepting the “UNP’s position that devolution was the way forward”. Except that the UNPers may know the way forward but their leader knows only to step backward at every juncture.
The genealogy of 13A
There are two sides to the disenchantment with 13A and the Provincial Councils. If 13A and the PC system are considered too much and too dangerous in the extreme South, they are considered too little and too ineffectual in the extreme North. Not long ago a visiting Indian parliamentary delegation was told in Jaffna that India should give up its “obsession with the 13th Amendment”, and move towards a ‘transitional administration’. TNA’s President Suresh Premachandran told the same delegation that what is needed now is “an interim administration, overseen by India or the United Nations, until there is a final political settlement for the Tamils.”
Dayan Jayatilleka took Premachandran to task for giving Gotabhaya Rajapaksa the biggest ammunition against 13A by opening his big mouth about interim administration and UN oversight. To his credit and ambidextrously Jayatilleke has also put the pertinent question to GH Peiris as to which Tamil party of significance will accept anything less than the province as the unit of devolution. One can argue from dawn to dusk for and against 13A and the Provincial Council system, and Dayan Jayatilleka and GH Peiris are worthy opponents and provide great reading. In the end, who is correct? – is a practical question. As well, political changes are brought about by originality and leadership, and not by scholarship and literature.
Pace Prof. Peiris, SWRD Bandaranaike demonstrated extraordinary originality and vision among Sri Lankans of his generation and every generation in articulating the ‘federal idea’ for this island as far back as 1926. He was bold and original and he did not need to see the depth of snow in the Canadian federation, or the level of oppression in the Soviet Union, details that might be of relevance in academic backrooms. Young Bandaranaike’s early articulation was not an isolated flash in the pan; the idea has been continually evolving as a counter-thesis of power-sharing to the dominant trend of power-concentration in Sri Lanka’s state and politics. And to close Jayatilleke’s point, any Tamil politician of today will wager on the insight of Bandaranaike as to the form of government in Sri Lanka and not on even a highly accomplished Peradeniya academic.
At the other end, SJV Chelvanayakam, hardly eloquent or florid, was possessed of a razor-sharp legal mind. He may not have read anything more than KC Wheare on federalism, and he did not need to travel the world like our generation of parliamentarians to attend workshops on power sharing, but Chelvanyakam had an original grasp of what power sharing meant for what he called Sri Lanka’s two ‘deficit provinces’. By some historic coincidence, it fell to the two St. Thomas’s College classmates to formulate a political pact on power sharing. That was the celebrated B-C Pact.
That it took 31 years for the B-C Pact to emerge after the federal idea was first mooted by SWRD in 1926, and another 31 years for the adoption of 13A says not so much about the idea itself as about Sri Lanka’s political class and its self-absorbed muddling and machinations. SWRD’s immediate successors panegyrized the so called Bandaranaike principles but excommunicated the B-C Pact. By the way, when SWRD reluctantly relented to pressure orchestrated by JR Jayewardene and the UNP (with GG Ponnambalam synchronizing in Jaffna, attacking the ‘Christian’ Pact) and tore up the pact, JRJ wrote in his diary (to paraphrase the footnote on JRJ’s diary entry, in James Manor’s biography of Bandaranaike) that the Prime Minister should have stood his ground and stood by the Pact regardless of protests! The Pact was torn up but the idea did not die.
The Federal Party pleaded for recognizing Tamil also as an official language in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and for including the provisions of the B-C Pact in the 1972 Constitution, but those pleas were arrogantly rejected. Much was expected by way of rectification in the 1978 Constitution but expectations were frustrated. It took another ten years before JRJ finally caught up with his diary entry in 1958 and ushered 13A in 1988. There is no denying India’s interference in 1988, but there should be no denying either of the political dialectic within Sri Lanka and the synthesis that manifested itself as the Thirteenth Amendment. Needless to say, if the provisions of the B-C Pact had been included in the 1972 Constitution, or even one half of 13A had been included in the 1978 Constitution, there would have been no pretext or occasion for India to muddle in anyway in Sri Lanka. There is more.
Prof. Peiris is on the mark in saying that it was “post-independence marginalisation of the North and parts of the East from the economic mainstreams of Sri Lanka … that facilitated large-scale mobilisation for the secessionist war waged by the LTTE”, and that “a concerted attempt to bring about a major structural transformation of the northern and eastern regional economy” is now necessary. In a warning that should apply not only to the ‘northern and eastern regional economy’ but also to the economy of the southern region, Peiris rightly says that such economic transformation cannot be brought about by “a scatter of ill-conceived international airports, cricket stadia and film villages.”
Despite the aversion to 13A, the geographer in Peiris could not help conceptualizing the ‘northern and eastern regional economy’, a concept not very different from what a Bandaranaike or a Chelvanyakam would have articulated. It would be farfetched to suggest that the post-independence marginalization of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was an inevitable outcome of the Soulbury Constitution, or that a more inclusive economic development of the country would not have been possible under the Soulbury Constitution. In fact, the Soulbury Constitution started looking much better only after it was replaced in 1972, and again in 1978. It was not the constitution or market forces that led to the marginalization of the North and East but the dynamic of electoral politics fuelled by ethnic expediency. The experience of regional or provincial marginalization invariably provided the matrix for political identification.
There was a parallel development in the Tamil political sphere. Fearing discrimination, or marginalization, the Tamil political leaders focused on representation as their political line of defence and demand. From the modes of ommunal representation and balanced representation, the representation argument took on a federal form predicated on provincial units. The transition from one mode to the other was also driven by the electoral rivalries among the Tamil political parties
History and claims to traditional homelands were rhetorical embellishments which would have withered away if the experience of marginalization had been reversed and the question of representation had been resolved. Neither happened; representation became even more lopsided by land colonization in the east, and disenfranchisement in the central plantations; worse, another toxic ingredient was added to the communal cauldron by the influx of the military into Northern and Eastern Provinces, starting from the 1960s. A country’s armed forces are invariably stationed in different parts of the country. But the government was fomenting trouble by sending into areas where people primarily spoke Tamil, an army of soldiers who only spoke Sinhalese. That was then. Now it is not only the language disconnect, but also dispossession of people’s land for stationing the military and its enterprises, that has become the new existential threat.
Going back to the future
Twenty five years have gone by after 13A was adopted and we are still arguing its genealogical legitimacy and whether or not it poses a threat to national unity. If national unity means being inclusive of the Tamils and the Muslims, and if they both indicate that 13A is a reasonable starting point for their inclusion, how could anybody reject that except by telling the Tamils and the Muslims that inclusion means not getting what they would reasonably like, but being satisfied with what they are given.
The government has no choice but to hold the election in September, if for no other reason than the Commonwealth summit it will be hosting in November. But apart from deciding to go ahead with the election the government does not appear to be having any plan as to what to do either during the election or, more importantly, after the election. Sure it would like to win the election in the North as it has in every other province, but it would be better off not trying too hard to win. Trying Daya Master or any other turncoat, or some ‘independent group’ of nondescripts will simply not cut it for credibility before the Tamil voters.
Instead, the government would be better off by following the prudent advice that CWC leader S Thondaman gave President Jayewardene in 1981, and keeping out of the election altogether. JRJ did not heed the advice and the decision to contest the DDC elections in 1981 ended in a tragic fiasco. The Jaffna Public Library was burnt among other atrocities and everyone knew then and knows now who did it. But thirty two years later a retired police officer is writing imagined memoirs blaming it on the LTTE and the caste differences among the Tamils. This is sociology for idiots. Politically, in the four years after the war the country has travelled thirty years back to the future. Hopefully, the government will not make it worse by mishandling the NPC election and its results.