28 June, 2022


The Unitary State, The 13th Amendment & Tamil Civil Society: Rejoinder To Guruparan

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

“Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

– Joni Mitchell, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (1970)

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst system there is except for all the others. My position with regard to the 13th amendment and the Provincial Council system is roughly the same. My answer to all its critics is yes, true, but it may the worst there is– except for all the others which are less feasible and more politically problematic.

I contradicted Mr Guruparan’s criticism that the 13th amendment was drawn up in a hurry, pointing that it was the culmination of a protracted process of several years. Mr Guruparan’s counterargument isn’t really one because all it proves is that the Tamil political leadership found the draft insufficient and also felt that they had been left out of the loop at certain points. Neither of which prove his case that the 13th amendment was drafted in a hurry nor disproves mine that it was not. Perceived insufficiency and lack of participation are not evidence of ‘a hurry’.

Mr Guruparan then says that I have not responded to his detailed criticisms of the 13th amendment. This reminds me of the conversation reproduced by US Col Harry Summers in his book ‘On Strategy’. He says that at an intermission in the negotiations after the Vietnam war on POWs and MIAs, he challenged a North Vietnamese Communist military officer , saying that “you never defeated us in a set-piece battle”, to which the North Vietnamese replied, “that may be so but it is also irrelevant”. I haven’t bothered to respond to Mr Guruparan’s detailed criticisms of the 13th amendment because even if true, they are also irrelevant. One of the reasons is that this is the best deal feasible for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, since it was the result of an overt role by the one of the continent’s most powerful states, and the one with the biggest concentration of Tamils in the world. It was also against the backdrop of a fierce armed struggle by the Sri Lankan Tamils and furthermore, took place when there was a strong pro-devolution Left in the Southern polity. It is because some of those conditions no longer obtain, that many Sinhalese want to abolish the 13th amendment and it is now hanging by a thread.

There may be better solutions in the abstract, but Mr Guruparan obviously hasn’t heard of the phrase that the best should not be the enemy of the good, nor of the simpler one that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Prof Lakshman Marasinghe has long since pointed out a pathway to improve on the 13th amendment without a referendum, while Asanga Welikala has presented a coherent argument and roadmap on the re-engineering of the concurrent list, both of which I commend to Mr Gurparan but neither of which I see the need to repeat in this rejoinder.

Mr Guruparan writes that “I do not know what Dr. Jayatilleka means when he says that I confuse the issue of seeking the democratic consent of the majority of one’s fellow citizens, with the question of the legitimacy of the state. Is Dr. Jayatilleka trying to suggest that the citizenry of the Sri Lankan state is devoid of ethnic affiliation? I also do not understand what point he seeks to make by resorting to hair splitting between ‘state apparatus’ and ‘state’. ”

OK Guru, let’s make it as simple as I can. Of course the citizenry is not devoid of ethnic affiliation, but what is your point? Are you saying that the ethnic diversity of Sri Lankan citizens means that there is no such legitimate category as the citizens of Sri Lanka—as stated in your passport– over and above their ethnic differences, and that the democratic consent of the Sri Lankan citizenry taken as a whole should not be ascertained by constitutionally prescribed means (which also happen to be the universally recognised means) of a referendum? Are you saying that only the consent of the Tamil citizens should be sought in the matter of a drastic restructuring of the Sri Lankan state which goes beyond both the 13th amendment and the unitary state form?

As for the difference between state ‘apparatus’ and state ‘formation’ –i.e. the state as a political unit or community– let’s see if I can explain it to you. When you want the army out, it is the state ‘apparatus’ that you want out. If you want to change the existing borders of Sri Lanka, that’s the state ‘formation’ you want out of. Everything you say about the Sinhala Buddhist character of the state may well be right, but those are not the issues on the table at this time, and no state actor in the world system has raised issues of such dimensions. There is no international political and diplomatic support for those issues to be raised. The acceptance of the 13th amendment in no way precludes placing those issues on the agenda, once trust has been built over a generation, a new social consciousness has evolved and new dynamics have been unleashed.

Mr Guruparan accepts that he is “arguing for a reform which goes beyond the unitary state framework itself”. He contests the analogy with Northern Ireland. Let’s concede that, except for the reminder that the Sinn Fein/IRA was not crushed to a pulp as the Tigers were– which kind of offsets the specific points about officially unitary UK not being quite unitary. What then of the Mindanao Accords and the unitary Philippine state, or Aceh and Indonesia?

More fundamentally, does Mr Guruparan think that the proposal to abandon the unitary framework of the Sri Lankan state has a chance in hell of obtaining the endorsement of a single political formation with a significant mass base in the South, and more basically, anything more than a few percentage points at a countrywide referendum? Does he think such a proposal can carry a democratic majority with it? And if he isn’t referring to a countrywide referendum but a Northern or Northern and Eastern one, is he not then talking about a decision which affects the entire state and citizenry for generations to come, being restricted to the consent of a minority of its citizenry? Does this sound like democracy, or even sanity?

Guruparan admits a comprehension problem when he says “I do not understand Dr. Jayatilleka’s questions about my articulation for a transitional administration”. OK, Guru, transitional means it is in transition from something to something else. You have already said your desired settlement is not only beyond the existing 13th amendment but also beyond the unitary state framework. So, what is the transitional administration in transition to? Where precisely does the transition stop? What is the final status settlement or the ceiling? Please don’t talk only in vague terms of justice, but continue to talk in terms of state form as you have so far, when you object to a unitary state. If you reject the unitary state, what state form beyond the unitary state will your proposed transitional administration take you, the Tamil people and all of us to, in terms of state structure and form?

In his quote-buttressed accusation that I have come round to support the 13th amendment in purely strategic/instrumentalist terms, Mr Guruparan obviously fails to recognise – and here too he shares much with the Sinhala hawks—that a solution which provides an irreducible yet moderate measure of autonomous self government to provincially based ethnic communities, is both intrinsically fair and desirable as well as strategically prudent. This is the school of thought known as Ethical Realism, which (as Kalana Senaratne’s review critically observes) is an important component of my outlook and perspective.

Mr Guruparan’s closing line is a ringing “If questioning the dominant view is considered to be ‘troubling’, the Tamil Civil Society and I will proudly plead guilty”. This further illustrates the problem of comprehension. When someone says ‘the trouble with’ something is such and such, it is combination of a criticism and a figure of speech, none of which means that he/she finds it troubling. It means that there is a problem with that argument, entity or phenomenon. For instance if a doctor were to say ‘the trouble with your lungs according to these tests results is’ or an academic were to remark ‘ the trouble with your tutorial is’, it doesn’t mean that he/she finds it troubling. Indeed he/she may not give a rat’s – or deceased ferociously carnivorous striped animal’s —rear end about it.

Related posts;

For Whom Is The ‘Tamil Civil Society View’ Causing Trouble? A Response To Dayan’s Rejoinder – By Kumaravadivel Guruparan

The Trouble With Mr Guruparan’s ‘Tamil Civil Society’ View – By Dayan Jayatilleka

Much Ado About Nothing – By Kumaravadivel Guruparan

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    Near two hundred thousand youths have been slaughtered by the elected leadership of the Sri Lankan state irrespective of the ethnicity.

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