By S. Narapalasingam –
The beautiful and harmonious island in the Indian ocean, known as Ceylon at the time of independence in 1948 and renamed ‘Sri Lanka’ in 1972 is to have another constitution soon, the fourth since independence. It is vital to know fully what happened since independence that destroyed the unity of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation depriving peace and significant national development that relegated it below other developing countries like Singapore with regard to average per capita income and living conditions for majority of citizens. During the early years of independence, Ceylon was a model that the past leaders of these countries now relatively more advanced were keen to emulate.
The main aim of this article at the present critical time for all concerned about the future of Sri Lanka, when another constitution for the conflict-ridden State is being considered is to draw attention to the past failures, in constituting a suitable governing system that recognises the ground realities, particularly the diverse dwelling pattern of the different ethnic communities since ancient time. This is vital for ensuring voluntarily the unity of the people in the multi-ethnic island, with some regions having largely Tamil residents although nationwide they are the main ethnic minority. This diverse dwelling pattern was not imposed by foreign invaders. It was only after Britain captured the entire island, all the regions under different rulers were administered centrally from Colombo. This was done for the convenience of the British government without interfering with the traditional dwelling pattern of the Sinhalese and Tamils in the captured island.
By the way, the upcountry Tamils descendants of the manual workers from south India brought in during British rule to work in the plantation sector have contributed immensely to Sri Lanka’s export of tea and rubber which helped to enhance the island’s import capacity. Many commodities vital for meeting the daily needs of the population are not produced locally either in adequate amounts or not at all. It is paradoxical for a section of the ‘socialist’ country’s hardworking population to be considered as second class citizens. The caste system that is blatantly visible, particularly in the North is also unacceptable in the 21st century. Many societies in the developed world got rid of it a long time ago.
Many Sri Lankans (including some Sinhalese) have settled recently in foreign affluent countries, far away from Sri Lanka because of the calamities that occurred in the island nation after independence, dimming hope of bright future for themselves and their children. They expect to live securely with promising future for their children and grandchildren in their new habitats.
The regionally diverse dwelling pattern exists in many other multi-ethnic countries in the developed and developing world. The democratic system there is not branded either unitary or federal. The residents live cordially without racial or religious discrimination. One stable country with ethnically diverse regions is Great Britain. Scotland which is in Britain is the traditional homeland of the Scottish people. Those who live there have not abandoned this attachment. Their ancestors like the English migrated to other countries. For example, the Australians, Americans and Canadians whose ancestors came from Britain do not consider their homeland is England or Scotland. Why should the Tamils living in Sri Lanka for centuries consider their homeland is Tamil Nadu in south India?
In Sri Lanka’s case, although the Sinhalese constitute the major ethnic group, many seem to have a minority complex. This is because of the existence of a large Tamil State (Tamil Nadu) in south India. There is a contradiction here too. Sri Lankan Tamils do not consider themselves as members of the Tamil community in south India. The few desperate Tamils, who fled to Tamil Nadu in the aftermath of the July 1983 communal riots which destroyed many lives and properties of Sri Lankan Tamils with tactical support of the then government have been waiting for Sri Lanka to become a safe country free from the calamities that ousted them. Many are living in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. This is not the kind of life they wished when they were living in their mother country, Sri Lanka.
The homeland concept
The veteran journalist H. L. D. Mahindapala, now settled in Australia, in his article posted by Colombo Telegraph on 17 February 2016 mentioned that “Tamil Nadu is the one and only homeland of all Tamils”. He also mentioned the dissimilarities between the cultures of the Tamils in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu. The reasons given for considering Tamil Nadu as the real homeland of Tamils in Sri Lanka are also valid for the Sinhalese whose heredity is also in India. Their language too emerged as a blend of ancient Indian languages.
In his view: “As the nearest outpost of Tamil Nadu – the motherland of all Tamils wherever they may be — the Sri Lankan Tamils continued to use Tamil Nadu as their spiritual, geographical and historical homeland. That is one advantages that the other Tamils spread out in far-flung domains do not have. To be next door to the motherland instilled in the Sri Lankans an affinity which was missing in, for instance, the Tamils of Malaysia, S. Africa or the Caribbean. Their nearness made accessibility so easy that they did not even feel the need to establish a permanent settlement in Sri Lanka”.
It is a known fact the affluent Sinhalese, particularly the politicians visit Hindu temples in neighbouring India to seek divine assistance or God’s blessing. Buddhism, the major religion of the Sinhalese too emerged from the teachings of Gautama Buddha, an Indian Hindu prince, who sacrificed his royal life to reform Hinduism.
Although Mahindapala admits both Sinhalese and Tamils originally came from neighbouring India, he claims that the island inhabited by these two communities, since ancient time is the homeland of only the Sinhalese. In the same article, he has also mentioned: “The history of the Sinhalese and the Tamils began to diverge from the time the original settlers began to discover Sri Lanka. The critical point in the Sinhala settlers came when they severed the links to their land of origin. The tyranny of distance made sure that there was no going back to their homeland. Historical and geographical circumstances did not give the Sinhalese any option. They had either to make it in their new homeland or perish. Severing of the umbilical cord made all the difference. They had no fallback position like the Tamil settlers. There was no neighbouring motherland to run to. This made all the difference to the two settlers. The Sinhalese were forced to toil on every grain of sand and channel every drop of water not only to survive but to turn it into a glorious civilisation. Above all, they fertilised the soil with their blood. This is why the bonds of the Sinhala people to the land are far more stronger than the latter-day claims to a homeland of the Tamils”.
It is also a well known fact soon after independence when party politics tied to the struggle for power emerged, Sri Lanka’s government leaders failed to cater to the long-term needs of sovereign Ceylon/Sri Lanka for progressing steadfastly as a united, peaceful and prosperous country. The methods used to seek political power were divisive, very damaging to the unity of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious island nation with diverse settlement pattern associated with Sinhalese in low-country and the hilly Kandy and Tamils living for centuries predominantly in the Northern and Eastern regions.
The baseless belief propagated by power greedy Sinhala politicians, if the Tamils become politically powerful this will endanger the future of Sinhalese in their own country, Sri Lanka. Unlike Sri Lankan Tamils, who have Tamil Nadu in south India as another country populated mainly by the same ethnic Tamils, there is no other Sinhala country. Sri Lanka is the only country where a large part of it has been the homeland of Sinhalese since ancient time, when the entire island was not under one Sinhalese ruler. But this cannot deny the right to a homeland for Tamils living discretely in another part of the island since ancient time. A constitution formulated, ignoring the traditional diverse regional pattern of dwelling of Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, envisaging the Sinhala majority prevails in all parts of Sri Lanka is fundamentally flawed. It can never foster unity in a multi-ethnic country and deter demand for separation. The past constitutions were designed to achieve national unity via the might of the Sinhala majority and not by the joint partnership of all communities in Sri Lanka.
The Indian constitution has served to keep the nation united although many regions there are populated by different ethnic people. India is the mother country to all Indians but they have their separate homelands in mother India. Like Tamil Nadu for the Tamils, there are many other states in India considered by the various ethnic communities as their homeland. The vast majority of Indians believe that this kind of attachment in their multi-regional and multi-ethnic mother-country is vital for their security and future well-being in the modern world. Those who consider Tamil Nadu to be the homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils must realise having a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka assures the support of other countries and the conditions needed for national security and steadfast development, hindered during the past several decades. The muddled conditions have also contributed to the shocking rise in corruption, fraud and other unacceptable methods of seizing public funds.
With the existence of the Tamil Nadu state in south India, close to northern Sri Lanka, separated by Pak strait, there is an elusive belief among many Sinhalese with a minority complex, their future as a distinct race depends on having full control over the entire island. The Tamils have been living in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka for many centuries with the limited natural resources available in the wet zone dominated by the Sinhalese.
Many Sinhalese have also been motivated by narrow-minded leaders to believe that the ethnic Sinhala rule throughout the island is vital for the future of their community. The powerless Tamils in Sri Lanka did not deprive the Sinhalese of opportunities to economic advancement. The natural conditions in their homeland compelled them to work hard wherever the opportunities existed.
Some crucial facts have been ignored which has helped to present a distorted view to support the unitary structure, which is divisive in Sri Lanka and not unifying as in other multi-ethnic countries mentioned earlier. In these countries some governing powers have been suitably devolved to different regions within. The contributions of past Tamil leaders to seek independence for all the residents in the entire island from British rule is being ignored. Presumably, this is not to undermine the supremacy of the Sinhalese as the major ethnic community in Sri Lanka having the right to govern centrally the entire nation.
What made the Tamils to seek employment outside their homeland
It is also an undisputable fact since ancient time, the majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka resided in the dry zone where the farmers endured many hardships. In contrast, the Sinhalese in the wet zone did not have to toil so hard in the wet zone where nature provided more resources and favourable living conditions.
In the indigenous Tamil region, located in the dry zone water needed for farming is limited and also no factories to provide employment opportunities to the residents. Water needed by the farming families for growing some essential food crops was drawn manually from deep wells mostly before sunrise. Farmers drew water physically from deep wells to irrigate their small fields having paddy and other food crops. Since the portion of the island where the majority of Sri Lankan Tamils (not the descendants of the Indian workers recruited by the British agents to work in the tea and rubber estates) was in the dry zone, rainwater was available only during the short rainy season. There were also no industries to provide employment opportunities.
Under British colonial rule, there were many opportunities for employment not only in the hone country but also in other British colonies for Ceylonese capable of working in English. The desperate Tamils seized this opportunity and educated their children in the English medium. The many Christian schools set up by foreign missionaries in the 19th century also provided the means to learn English. Many Tamil boys after passing the junior Cambridge examination at around the age of 16 acquired good salaried employment in foreign countries under British rule. My father being the eldest son in the farming family was one of many youngsters who went to Malaysia (then known as Federation of Malay States – FMS that included Singapore). Their student days were also difficult as they have to go to their fields well before sunrise and work there for hours before going to their schools. Many Tamil parents consider spending on educating their children as good investment and sacrificed even their basic needs for achieving this objective.
Given this determination to prosper in the island’s dry zone where living conditions were tougher than in the wet zone, the Tamils were seen as dedicated hardworking people. Besides the ability of the educated Tamils to work in English, their dedicated work style also contributed to their recruitment to the government service during British rule. Recruitment to government service before independence was solely on merit. When English was the medium of instruction, there were many Tamil teachers in schools in the South and also in the sole university. Legislating Sinhala as the only official language in multi-ethnic Sri Lanka was motivated by the desperate parochial need for winning the votes of the Sinhalese.
Sri Lanka’s divisive constitutions
It is useful to remind the readers the demand for a separate state for the Tamils in Sri Lanka arose because of the discordant ways the Tamils were treated under the Sinhala majority rule. Before independence, the Tamils were in the forefront demanding independence for entire Ceylon. The then Tamil leaders rejected even a federal system preferring a united country under an impartial government operating from Colombo. The Jaffna Tamil youth Congress following Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violent way, demanded independence from Britain for the whole island and not just for the North. Sri Lankan Tamil leaders at the time of independence stood steadfastly for united Ceylon under a central government that stood for the unity and well-being of all ethnic communities.
A nationally useful constitution for the present and foreseeable future must safeguard the unity of the diverse ethnic communities, equal rights and opportunities for all citizens to prosper regardless of their diverse ethnic and regional links. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka that escalated into the prolonged nasty war for two separate States happened because of the reluctance of the Sinhala leaders to accept the Sri Lankan Tamils as loyal partners living in the Northern and Eastern provinces, where their ancestors have been living for centuries.
The 1972 and 1978 constitutions of the Republic failed to protect the basic rights of all citizens and their future, regardless of their diverse ethnicity and dwelling region. The regional difference comes from the traditional pattern of residing in different parts of the island. The fundamental defect in the two constitutions is the neglect of the island’s longstanding diverse demographic features. It is not only the distinct language of the Tamil people (many Muslims too converse in Tamil in their homes and with Tamils in their neighbourhood) but also the regions where they are the major community have been ignored. The architects of the two constitutions of the Republic have considered the indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils as a marginal faction living amongst the Sinhalese, the largest ethnic community in tne entire island, ignoring the diverse settlement pattern of the ethnic minorities since ancient time. Thus, the constitutions matched with an imagined Sinhala majority nation and not the real multi-ethnic Sri Lanka with the diverse demographic features linked to the old kingdoms that existed before the invasion by the Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch and British). Surprisingly, even the veteran LSSP politician Dr. Colvin R De Silva, who announced earlier when the Sinhala Only Act was proposed, “two languages one nation; one language two nations,” Later as the Minister of constitutional affairs in the coalition government under Mrs. S. Bandaranaike, he supported the one language policy for avoiding the breakup of the coalition government.
Instead of providing an administrative system that safeguards unity in the diversity of the multi-ethnic nation having different homelands for the Sinhalese and Tamil communities since ancient time, Sri Lanka’s past governments under the obsessed Sinhala leaders committed to Sinhala majority rule expecting the ethnic minorities to accept the slanted form of democracy in which the voters have the right to decide on the political party or parties to govern under the centralised Sinhala majority rule.
Divide and rule
Majoritarianism is intrinsic to the unitary structure of Sri Lanka’s two Republican Constitutions and this inherently deprives equal rights to all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. This must be rectified in the new Constitution, if lasting unity and genuine peace are to be achieved. Denying equal rights to the Tamils living in their traditional homeland via the Sinhala authoritarian rule through the unitary system is undemocratic and nationally divisive. The demand for separation by a section of the Sri Lankan Tamils arose because of this slanted rule under the unitary system which deprived the ethnic Tamil minority of any useful governing rights. Sri Lankan Tamil leaders did not even ask for a federal system when the first constitution for independent Ceylon was prepared in 1947. Although this constitution safeguarded the ethnic and religious minorities from discrimination, the Sinhala only official language Act was passed during its term.
The island having people of different ethnicities living in various regions in the East, North, South and West were brought under one centralised administrative system by the British colonial government after capturing the Kandyan kingdom. This was to facilitate the British rule under one administrative system in the captured small island. As desired by the British government, the system was simple and less costly. This approach has no ground for adoption by a sovereign country with diverse ethnic communities in its different regions.
The divide and rule policy has been used by commanding foreign rulers to achieve their own needs. This will be detrimental to unity and peace in plural societies, if independent national governments follow this divide and rule policy. Fast and balanced development of the entire country will also suffer, if the country is deprived of national unity and peace. In fact, this is the heavy price Sri Lanka has paid since independence.
Even after the disastrous experience since independence, the power hungry politicians are still using the ethnic division to marshal the votes of the Sinhalese. This is very damaging to national unity, peace and development. It is high time the patriotic people discard politicians keen on gaining power at the cost of denying national unity. It must also be realised that in the twenty-first century, national unity in democratic societies cannot be achieved by oppression.
Want united not unitary Sri Lanka
The past unitary constitutions failed to keep Sri Lanka as one united peaceful country. The incompatible unitary structure created the national problem and prevented an effective political solution for decades at great cost to the people and sustained national development. It only helped to sustain majoritarian (Sinhala majority) rule ignoring the ethnic differences of the residents in the different provinces. This heterogeneous feature did not emerge recently but been in existence since ancient days when different parts of the island were ruled by different monarchs. of
The incompatibility of the unitary system in multi-ethnic Sri Lanka with long-standing regional differences in the ethnicity of the residents has also been highlighted by the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) in their proposal submitted to the Public Representation Committee on Constitutional Reforms. The TCSF proposal was posted by Colombo Telegraph on March 2, 2016. The unitary system is unsuitable for national stability which needs peaceful co-existence of all ethnic communities in ‘Democratic and Socialist’ Sri Lanka. It seems to be a hindrance even for deciding on suitable constitutional reforms for meaningful devolution of power necessary for empowering the powerless Tamils. They have been denied power from the standpoint of being insignificant minority in the multi-ethnic island, ignoring the long-standing regional differences in the ethnic composition of the residents. The assumption, all ethnic minorities must accept the superior power of the ethnic majority is undemocratic and divisive, hindering the unity and uninterrupted development of the entire nation. The assumption that the entire Sri Lanka is the traditional land of the ethnic Sinhalese and the non-Sinhalese live in the country under Sinhala hegemony is not the way to foster unity which is lacking in independent Sri Lanka. In fact, this is the root of the so-called ‘national problem’.
Amended or new constitution
Dr. Jayampathy Wickremasratne, speaking in Parliament on 23 Feb. 2016 on the Resolution for setting up a Constitutional Assembly, as a Committee of the whole House said: “…. we have experiences of many years. We cannot go back to a situation of conflict. We need to find a solution to the national question. We must get the acceptance of all political parties and the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Hill-country Tamil and other communities for a long-lasting constitution”.
“…, we need a modern constitution. We may have to amend a constitution. I am not opposed to amending constitutions, as a matter of principle. If a constitution needs amendment, it must be amended. But we must try our best to create a modern constitution that is long-lasting. We do not need a mere document as a new constitution but a Constitution that is forward-looking. We need to make a Constitution, not with a blank stare at the future, but with a futuristic vision. I end my speech expressing hope that we will be fortunate to be able to make a new constitution with a futuristic vision”. (Ref. Colombo Telegraph 3 March 2016)
The many articles in the Colombo Telegraph indicate desire for meaningful changes to the present incompatible constitution. This national task cannot bring about the basic changes needed to avoid the past blunders in governance that destroyed the unity of the multi-ethnic nation and kept many citizens poor without opportunities to live satisfactorily and a promising future for their children in their mother country, if it is to be accomplished mainly by chauvinistic politicians interested more in keeping governing power with the Sinhala majority than on the future of Sri Lanka as a united prosperous nation.
There are far-sighted Sinhalese in the civil society who should be invited to help in the drafting of the new constitution compatible with the ground realities in Sri Lanka. There are number of countries in the developing and developed world having extensive decentralised governing systems with governing powers selectively devolved to various regions there. Not all countries with governing powers devolved to their regions in varying degrees are branded ‘federal’. Some consider the Indian governing system as not fully federal bur ‘pseudo federal’. But no one can say the Indian system is incompatible with the country’s diverse demographic and regional features.
The two words ‘Democratic’ and ‘ Socialist’ appearing in the title of Sri Lanka’s present Constitution should be made truly meaningful in the forthcoming constitution by appropriate changes. The word ‘united’ and not ‘unitary’ should also be given prominence reflecting the emphasis to unity in the conflict-ridden country. The future of all the residents in Sri Lanka, regardless of their ethnicity depends on the strong unity that comes from mutual trust which the present and past constitutions failed to promote. There cannot also be any form of racial discrimination that denies opportunities for members of ethnic minorities to live confidently and prosper in their mother country. Hopefully, the next constitution of ‘Democratic and Socialist’ Republic will be the key to dispel their anxieties.
*The author is Retd. Addl. Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka; and UN Advisor: Development Economics/Planning