Colombo Telegraph

Whither The Republic In South Asia?

By Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon

South Asia has been facing a crisis of waning republican values for long. An invigorated discourse on the idea of the state as a Republic is an imperative need requiring immediate attention. It seems these states have confronted with an impasse beyond which the life of the Republic cannot be prolonged, as the social contract has lost its original meanings.  Unless an otherwise the social contract finds new interpretations through restoring and redefining republican values, the possibility of more chaos in the region cannot be ignored. As we see, the available stories of state failure keep increasing at an alarming rate across the region. In this context, at least in the case of most established democracies in South Asia, we have to focus on this major issue of decimating of values in the public sphere, as we believe that democracies could still be open to right changes.

India and Sri Lanka are the foremost democratic countries in the region. Both of them have unbroken records of elected governments since their independence in the late 1940s.  Nevertheless, the legacy of long held democracy of these countries has not saved them from being failed in several spheres of governance and social organization. Today, several countries in the region have become failed due to internal crisis and external interventions of diverse nature. Pakistan and Afghanistan have faced acute problem of fundamentalism. The recent reports of election violence in Bangladesh frustrate our hopes even of electoral politics in the absence of sound institutions.  The situation of political life in Maldives and Nepal could not be better as their polities have deep ruptures in their democratic processes. When most of the other states in the region still struggle to establish democracies, particularly Sri Lanka and India as the longest democracies have to redraw their attention on the idea of Republic and values entailing the concept. Because, people of these countries have shown greater distrust on the existing system of governance; this is true, mostly in the case of Sri Lanka, where there is a clear monarchical tendency and highly fragmented social system.  Democracies, unlike tyrannies, should have belonged to the people, however, paradoxically, here in South Asia, the case has been different.

One major problematic the system of democratic government faces lies in the restricted way the democracy is defined in practice as a mere electoral process. The idea that democracy entails a set of liberal values which the people require to live a free and just life is often forgotten. Sri Lanka has turned into a majoritarian democracy which is solely controlled by an executive, disregard of the existence of a legislature. Most of the indices of democracy – media freedom, human rights- have left only a negative impression of the state of democratic state process in Sri Lanka.

Unlike Sri Lanka, India’s public sphere has been quite fortunate to enjoy more freedom of media and public debate; and discussion on issues like state failure, corruption etc. could be quite more active there. Also Indian civil society seems to be quite grappling with the issue of restoring the idea of the Republic. The recently passed Lok Pal Bill which was a result of huge anti-corruption struggles is a case in point. India’s civil society, in comparison to Sri Lanka takes more into activism and diverts the attention of the government on important issues.

Sri Lanka’s political and civil activism has faced a huge debacle as the political system is reoriented in an authoritarian way.  In India, with the recent electoral success of a new political party called Aam Aadmi (common man) in the state of Delhi, intellectuals and civil society have begun to rethink of the ways to restore the republic taking it beyond mere electoral politics. As Professor Bhiku Parekh argues restoring the idea of republic is more than an endeavor of winning elections. It is not a majority’s or minority’s issue. It is an issue of the fate of the people and the foremost social institution, the State.

Sri Lanka is officially a Democratic and Socialist Republic whereas India is only a Democratic Republic. However, what these adjectives ‘democratic’ or ‘socialist’ have added to the meaning of the noun ‘republic’? As we observe of an acute plight of the common man in our country, it seems that we are neither a democratic nor a socialist country. Whom does this Republic belong to then? Democracy cannot answer that question as it has only helped the system of capitalist exploitation flourishes in the hands of selfish politicians, while the spheres of liberty, equality and fraternity have not been a concern of a liberalized economy.  Liberalization of economy also has greatly contributed for the current state of decline in the idea of republic.

Parekh shows us that ‘the Republic is a property of the people’ and we need to reclaim it. When we built the republican constitution in 1972, the authors wanted that it was the elected Head of State who would be in control and not an elected monarch. But, ironically, what happened was that the institution of the Executive has become more powerful in the case of Sri Lanka, at least after 1978. The legislature has increasingly become a symbolic organ of the government, while the real Government has been the control by the Executive President. Since, people have been misguided of a strong government in the hands of Executive President; they have kept electing monstrous leaders as Head of the State in Sri Lanka. Starting from JR and up to MR all the Heads of States have attempted to strengthen the executive powers and weaken the legislature, the Parliament.  The abolition of the independent public commissions adopted by the 17th Amendment, by arbitrarily bringing the 18th Amendment, has done a greater service to strengthen an elected monarchy here.

The idea of the Republic historically grew as the people kept fighting for their rights against monarchs and aristocrats in Europe. Ancient Athens was the birthplace of democracy and Rome became a Republic. The French, American and English revolutions exemplify how people struggled to reorient the State as a public institution. Even in ancient India we have an example of a Republic during the Buddha’s period, which was a Gana Rajjaya, people’s state. So, the idea of republic came to us not just an imposition of a system of European values, but our own regional experience and traditions of governance could contribute for broadening its conceptual contours. Tragically, what we experience today is a backward journey of a democratic republic towards an elected monarchy.

Republic is the opposite of monarchy. Parekh suggests that by means of Republic fought the arrogance or ‘institutionalized arrogance of the monarch’ and restored people’s power. It was built on the ideas of liberty and fraternity. The people in the Republic are fellow men and women having equal access to the State institutions, barring their caste or creed. The institutions of the State are under the obligation of serving its people’s needs. Republic is thus ‘a public good, a public way’. Citizens are ‘public spirited’ in a Republic. A major feature of the Government should be separation of powers. Not that one institution becomes supreme over the other organs of the State, but a system of checks and balances continually work to avoid and suppress the tendencies of authoritarianism at any level of governance.

Citizenship in Republic should be available for all its traditional inhabitants. In the Roman Republic the citizenship was limited only ‘free men’, while the Afro-Americans had a legacy of denial of citizenship rights in the United States. The idea of citizenship, therefore, has more implications for the Republic. The question before us today is not that the Governments used to deny our rights, but whether people are really knowledgeable of their rights or not. The role of public education, universities and intellectuals become more important in taking the idea of Republic back to the people; since, people could still think that politicians are the real saviors in this part of the world, and not that they are the public servants.

South Asia, particularly India and Sri Lanka, learnt the art of holding elections fast. But, as Parekh points out even the largest democracy in the world, India has not been able to become ‘the largest Republic in the World’. The best examples for Republican States are still found in Europe. As Nandy shows United Kingdom, while still keeping the relics of monarchy, has strongly upheld its republican values. Therefore, the need is for a democracy with an ‘orientation of republican values, democratic and republican identity and republican guidance of a social order’.

What are the values that really a republic should uphold or the term republic is associated with thus far? Mainly, the ideas of fraternity and equality are important in this regard. Without restoring the dignity of human life of all those who occupy the boundaries of a state, the fellowship cannot be extended for all the citizens. Living in ethnicised polities with brewing religious and fundamentalist conflicts, today, more than ever the idea of fraternity becomes a challenge for us. Since Sri Lankan polity has been made to swallow an overdose of a corrupt idea of majoritarian democracy, a partisan majority feels that we are a democracy like any other democratic country in the world, but the reality is far from the illusions. The fact that a particular section of people in this country have kept clamoring for political rights and dignity of life for long – including UP country Tamils, indigenous Tamils and Muslims- and the entire working class has lost their right even to protest, it is hardly possible for us to have a homogenous idea of fraternity today.

More than fraternity, what we have created is a system of political patronage and partisan politics. The quality of our democracies remains an ever low today. Often, orchestrated ethnic, communal and religious tensions have provided the required grounds for the politicians to ignore the idea that republic belongs to the people and create a false consciousness of a requirement  of highly securitized state. Instead of the republican values the bogus politics of national security has caused for the decline of public sphere and public morality today. When the rulers does anything and justifies anything they do in the name of national security, an unenlightened majority has always gone to support them in a so-called democracy in Sri Lanka.

Equality entails the rights of the people in every social sphere. Economic equality is reportedly very less in South Asia. The gulf between the rich and the poor are alarmingly increasing. Also under the threatening attack of neo-liberalism as the only savior of the corrupt political elite, social welfare system has begun to decline very fast. In Sri Lanka the public expenditure on free social welfare has continuously gone down during the last two decades. The state has failed to regulate the market capitalism and the idea of citizenship is transformed into an idea of a passive consumer and a partisan voter.

Equality in the spheres of gender, race, ethnicity and religion has not recorded drastic developments either. Gender violence is on the increase in the whole region. In Sri Lanka, a recent trend has been that the local and provincial level politicians have involved more in the cases of sexual briberies, rapes, raping minors etc. In the ethnic and cultural spheres, South Asia in general and Sri Lanka in particular, have not offered much hope for social and religious harmony. Sri Lanka’s Tamil-Sinhala conflict has kept raging even after the end of a brutal war, but the political elite of both sides of the game have kept playing their politics without focusing on the real issue of power sharing as a political solution to the problem.

At moment we need to rethink of the meaning of the interrelations between the citizenship, State and Government. In a legitimate Republic, the citizens are aware of their community’s their rights. Citizen gets an upper hand in deciding the state agenda. Citizens should not lose trust on the state. The loss of public trust on the state and its institutions has been costly, so that, as Ashis Nandy puts it, today, neither the public nor the institutions trust each other. The impartiality dimension is lost in the state. Infidelity of the government is often heard without much public outrage. The lack of trust among the citizens, citizens and their leaders, and within the institutions of the State has caused for the destruction of the democratic life of the republic. Without the trust among these institutions the life of any legitimate state process cannot be sustained, according to Parekh.

The public, on the other hand, need to come out of the syndrome of being mere recipients of political promises. Simply, the politicians cannot give us anything from their pockets. The state belong to people, its resources belong to them. The politicians are there only to ensure those rights to the people within an accepted democratic mechanism.   Therefore, today, the state, the government and citizens have to rethink of their roles within the democratic boundaries, and each have to execute their duties impartially, and fair-mindedly.

Examples for the lack of public trust in government and state institutions are in abundance in South Asia. Here, corruption is said to have replaced several other norms of fairness, equal opportunity etc. Democratic norms are being reinterpreted by politicians, administrators and state servants opportunistically. Caste, ethnicity, political party, status and wealth have become major deciding factors of opportunities and allocations of resources. The democratic or socialist values are hardly respected in our decadent democratic cultures. The problem is that the language we use to talk about corruption or violence or injustice is not the exact opposite, but the mirror reflections of the same practices. Therefore, the challenge on the public is to rebuild the Republic and redefine the democracy in a qualitatively just from. In Derridean sense, the republic is yet to come.

*Note: The writer derived much of the ideas of expressed on republican values from a speech delivered by Bhiku Parekh and the conversation he had with Ashis Nandy at Jawaharlal Nehru University recently

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