Many of people knew that the 20th amendment will pass. I was one of them. When the debate on it was taking place in the parliament, I was busy reading in the largest library in the country – the main library of the University of Peradeniya. I was working on something else, and it had very little to do with the 20th amendment. The book I was reading and taking notes about was a collection of speeches and writing by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam. I have been a big fan of his ideas on education, and I really think he was the real father of our university. His famous speech in 1906, making a case for our own university had practically everything needed to conceptualize a university of our own. Local intellectuals such Sir Arunachalam were instrumental in creating university of Peradeniya and, of course, in establishing a department of Sinhala where I teach now. In his initial writing on a university, Arunachalam argued for two departments of Sinhala and Tamil, among others ones.
While reading on these matters, I stumbled upon several essays on a topic being debated today “constitutional reforms.” I kept on reading. While I did so, several academics who left the university to become politicians were preparing themselves to vote in favor of the 20th amendment. In addition to those ex-academics, there were quite a few learned and cosmopolitan people getting ready to vote for it. After a nearly century of representative democracy, they had no hesitation in supporting an amendment that put insane amount of power in the hands of one man. The man has nearly no experience public office. And the constitutional draft had everything that ruined the country for about thirty some years. Under the watch of 1978 constitution and many of its amendments, we in Sri Lanka had so much bloodshed, killing, disappearance, and soaring corruption. And country’s economy did not improve in any meaningful way- certainly not compared to the price we paid;- human cost it incurred.
On reading Arunachalam on constitutional reform, I felt that there was very little Arunachalanian sensibility in our parliament today. Those who have had education similar to Sir Arunachalam’s, at least on paper, were the most distant from Arunachalam’s constitutional morality demonstrated in 1918. A century later of Ponnnambalam Arunachalam gave his president’s address on the topic at the Ceylon National Conference, we find ourselves sending a bunch of morally bankrupt politicians to parliament to vote in a constitution that brings shame on those such as Arunachalam.
The progressive knight
Sir Arunachalam was British educated, knighted, and very much pro-British on many counts. But his conservative ‘radicalism’ or republicanism appears revolutionary when one compares him to our present day parliamentary con artists. He was unparallel in his erudition, urbane in mannerism and elegant in linguistic decorum. Yet, what lies beneath his ornamented language deserves some serious attention, even a hundred years later.
Sir Arunachalam’s speech was not about presidential powers. But ‘constitutional morality’ or ‘ethical spirit’ that undergirds the speech is very much relevant to us today. His entire argument was about the importance of decentralizing power. He even cites the famous saying from Robert Knox that “take a ploughman from the plough, wash off his dirt, and he is fit to rule a kingdom” and argues that Sinhalese people, (“ploughmen” or peasants), who are already qualified to take part in the ruling of their country should be given that opportunity. If the natives, both Sinhala and Tamil, are not educated enough to participate in activities of governing, the colonial rule itself, Arunachalam claims, is responsible for that weakness. He goes onto argue that as traditional Buddhist education system has been destroyed by colonialism, when introducing representative democracy the British rule must invest money to create an educated population in the colony. He states that true democracy cannot exist without an active citizen:
“Under this baneful Crown Colony administration, virile citizens are not bred, but docile clerks and useful wheels in the official machinery. How far does this satisfy the first maxim of British statesmen that British Rule should operate as an elevating force on the character of the governed?”
Sir Arunachalam, in beautifully written prose, was asking the colonial rulers the most important question related to democracy: without empowering the governed and making them active, can there be true democracy? How many are there in the parliament today with moral courage to ask that question? Instead of empowering the multitude our good fellows voted a constitution to power that empowers a single man. So much for all the education and experience we had since Arunachalam made those points!
Native forms of de-centralization
In his speech, Arunachalam describes pre-modern structures of de-centralized power: village council (gama sabha), district councils (rata sabha) and so on. “Above these stood,” continues Arunachalam, “ the Supreme Council of the ministers of State, and the King who was considered the elected Supreme Magistrate. The form of election of the King was gone through, even in the most reactionary times, and down to the last of Ceylon’s kings a hundred years ago.” He claims that inscriptional evidence have shown these systems of devolved power worked smoothly. Though, he tends to idealize our native history a bit, he was making the case that Sri Lankans had a long history of participatory democracy and decentralized power. He was arguing against a privileged few ruling a country: “In Ceylon the British merchant and the British planter exercise too great an influence over public policy and measures. A chat over the dinner table, at the Club or on the golf links, does more than bushels of argument or months of agitation. Is it not every head of a department, every member of the Government, every member of the official majority of the Legislative Council, the kith and kin of the British merchant and planter?”
The British merchant and the planter left some seventy years ago. But the kith and kin of one man still do the ruling. Though it has been a regular feature of our postcolonial history, in recent times, the rule of a family cartel has been a regular feature. When a constitutional reform leads to further fortifying one man’s or one family’s rule, Arunachalams of our times need to rethink before voting drafts into power or acts into law. When voting for constitutions, the basic law of a country, we need all the moral decency we could muster, all the inspiration people like Arunachalam can give us. But for inspiration to come to you, you need to have basic morality within you. ‘If centuries of Buddhist moral imagination, decades of liberal education, or decades of left political experience, cannot provide you with such ethical reasoning, your nation is doomed.’ Arunachalam seems to say so, in his wonderful speech one hundred years before the 20th amendment.