By Neville Jayaweera –
Prime Minister S.W.R.D .Bandaranaike (SWRD) expanded the horizons of the Sinhala people in 1956 but simultaneously drew in the horizons of the Tamils and diminished them as a people.
For nearly 60 years thereafter, amidst bloodshed and tears, Sri Lanka has been trying to restore the balance but has not got it right yet.
Apart from the tentative attempts of SWRD (BC Pact of 1958) of Dudley Senanayake (DC Agreement of 1965) JR’s Accord with India (13th Amendment 1987) and CBK’s valiant efforts in 1995, 1997 and 2000, the first effective initiative at restoring the balance has been President Rajapaksa’s decision to call for elections under the 13th Amendment of 1987 and set up the Northern Provincial Council (NPC).
Almost 50 years ago to the day, when I was Government Agent of Jaffna (1963-1966) at a person to person interview I had with the Prime Minister Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike at Temple Trees (but attended by her formidable Perm. Sec. Mr. N.Q.Dias) I asked her, “Madame, don’t you think that we should start healing the wounds inflicted on the Tamil people”. I was meeting her to sort out one of many crises that kept confronting me from the time I took over as GA in August 1963. The ensuing discussion is fully reproduced in my memoirs, culled from the diaries I was maintaining throughout my tenure as GA of several districts, and it should appear in the book stores early next year.
Contrary to my expectations, Mrs Bandaranaike not only responded fully to my pleas for justice for the Tamil people, but after an hour long discussion, to Mr N.Q.Dias’s absolute dismay, agreed to my suspending the implementation of the Sinhala Only policy throughout the Jaffna district, provided I did not make a fanfare about it, and provided I did not ask for any confirmation in writing. (Mrs B of the 1960s was a very different lady from the Mrs B of the 1970s)
As requested by the PM, without making any public announcement, I simply let the Official Language Act lapse throughout the Jaffna district. In the event, not a single birth certificate, nor a death certificate, nor a marriage certificate, nor an invoice or receipt, nor any letter, was issued to anyone in the Jaffna district from any government office in the district, except in the language of the subject’s choice. Eventually, my unilateral initiative to launch a three-language policy for the administration of the Jaffna district was followed meticulously by all the GA’s who succeeded me until it passed into law for the whole country in 1987 through the 13th Amendment.
Now in my 84th year, I am asking President Mahinda Rajapaksa the same question that I put to Mrs Bandaranaike 50 years ago –
“Excellency! Don’t you think that you should finally heal the wounds inflicted on the Tamil people and effect a total reconciliation? Even seven years into your administration, your support amongst the Sinhala people seems intact and no other head of government is ever likely in the foreseeable future to have the same support among the Sinhala people as you still have. Why don’t you convert that support base into a springboard for putting through painful but long overdue measures and finally raise a new nation?
“Your decision to hold an election to the Northern Province is heroic and path-breaking, but you have yet far to go.
“Just as much as people are in awe of your military victory over separatism and of your many grandiose public works in concrete and asphalt, you must also be aware that there are many charges against your regime. Elevating corruption to the level of an industry, fostering the culture of impunity, the horrendous misuse of official facilities and privileges, human rights violations and the persecution of journalists are just a few of those charges. I am not in a position either to confirm or refute these charges, but I am as aware as you are, that they are being made widely, and increasingly loudly, both at home and abroad.
“All that that notwithstanding, if you will do whatever it takes, even invoking Article 86 of the Constitution, finally to heal the wounds inflicted on the Tamil people and integrate them fully into the nation, your place in history will have been secured”.
Now, let us see to what extent President Rajapaksa’s heroic initiative to set up the NPC has expanded horizons for the Tamil people and restored the balance, and what yet needs to be done.
Does the 13th Amendment expand horizons for the Tamil people?
To expand horizons for the Tamil people must mean, at the least, delegating to them through a constitutional device, power to order their own affairs, consistent with the ultimate sovereignty of the nation.
Clearly, the 13th Amendment does not do that, because that was not its purpose and it was not driven by an ideological commitment to sharing power. Rather, it was drafted primarily as a mechanism to keep the Tamils in line and to that end it reinforces control rather than share power.
The fragmenting of the subjects into three lists – the Provincial Council List (PCL), the Concurrent List (CL) and the Reserved List (RL) makes coherent policy making and cohesive administration a nightmare. In any conflict between the Centre and the PC concerning the scope of any subject within the three Lists, the centre will always have its way by simply going to Parliament and getting it to declare “National Policy” in respect of the subject in dispute. Therefore, under the clauses of the Amendment it will be possible for a strong central bureaucracy in Colombo continuously to frustrate a PC and reduce it to a zombie.
If the absurdity of this mechanism has not been shown up hitherto, it is only because over the past 25 years the other seven Provinces have been merely gravy trains, content to follow in the wake of the ruling government.
When one looks at the background to the 13th Amendment, the subterfuge is entirely understandable. The driving purpose was to persuade the Tamil militants to call off their armed rebellion rather than to provide space for sharing power.
It was natural therefore that for the past 26 years all Tamil groups have remained pessimistic about the adequacy of the Amendment and they have all been vociferous that the Amendment does not meet their aspirations. Therefore I think that there is an urgent need to rethink the scope of the Amendment.
However, as an interim measure the President can at least abolish the Concurrent List of the NPC and transfer all of the subjects in it to the Council. Such an initiative will give the NPC a greater sense of involvement in government and cause the current discontent to subside.
Does 13th Amendment provide an opportunity for development?
However, looking at the issue from another perspective, in truth, the 13th Amendment does ( repeat does ) provide considerable space for the NPC to bring a range of benefits to its people and the TNA should look on the currently elected Council, however restricted in power, as an important first step in an incremental process.
The TNA must be realistic. Emerging from a background of 30 years of attempted separatism, the Sinhala people are still deeply suspicious and are not likely to acquiesce in a full blown autonomy for the Tamil people even within a sovereign Sri Lanka. Therefore agitation will only further aggravate that suspicion. Rather, I think that the TNA should first get on with setting up a viable Provincial Council and showcase it as a model of efficiency and development for the whole of Sri Lanka, and I am sure the Chief Minister Wigneswaran can do that.
The NPC has two enormous resources. Firstly, its people! The Tamils of Sri Lanka can match any community anywhere in the world for intelligence, industry and resilience. (I speak with considerable hands-on experience across the world) Secondly, it has in the Tamil diaspora an untapped resource of enormous magnitude. The diaspora has not only vast reserves of disposable capital but also has highly trained technology skills among its members.
What Chief Minster Wigneswaran can do is to siphon this capital and skills into the Northern Province and within a decade or so the NPC tail will be wagging the SL body. It happened in Scotland after the Scots had been utterly vanquished by the English at Culloden in 1745. The Scots did not retreat into the hills and sulk but simply rolled up their sleeves and got down to work, and within 50 years had taken over the commanding heights of the British economy. The Tamils who share many traits with the Scots can do likewise in Sri Lanka!
Promises given by President Rajapaksa
When one looks at the promises President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) has given to the Tamil people, to India, to the International Community (IC), again and again, that short of jeopardising the country’s sovereignty he will go all the way to devolve power, one feels optimistic that at last we may be on the threshold of expanding the horizons of the Tamil people. The fact that he has been the first among the Sri Lankan Heads of Government to call for elections to the NPC is itself reason to surmise that his commitment to devolution is sincere.
Having appointed two committees, the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) and an Experts Committee, specifically charged with submitting plans for solving the National Question, President Rajapaksa unfolded his vision to them in the following terms.
He assured them that he will explore all attempts to solve the National Question and said that rather than imposing a solution himself, would ask the two committees to come up with a solution.
He said that he was of the view that people in their own localities must take charge of their destiny and control their politico-economic environment. Central decision-making that allocates disproportionate resources has been an issue for a considerable time, he said.
In general terms, he emphasised as a matter of urgency the need to devolve power to the regions and to enable people to take charge of their own destiny. He said he was willing to stretch to the very limit any solution proposed by the two committees, without sacrificing the sovereignty of the country.
Brave and most heart warming words!
The horns of President Rajapaksa’s dilemma
Now however, Rajapaksa is caught on the horns of the same classic dilemma on which SWRD in 1958, Dudley in 1967, JR in 1987, and CBK in 2000, were impaled. Individually they were all liberal minded, forward looking leaders, and had they not been stymied by the Sinhala supremacist Southern consciousness would have solved the National Question with justice towards all.
Rajapaksa’s case is even more difficult. No other leader of Sri Lanka had his roots so deeply embedded in the heroic Ruhuna narrative as he, and it is therefore natural that he feels that he has to keep tryst with that tradition. On the other hand, he must also see that he is no longer a local chieftain but the leader of a nation comprised of different races, different religions and different cultures and his paramount responsibility must be towards the nation than to the local tradition.
How can Rajapaksa make the transition from being a great local chieftain to being a great national leader and statesman? Obviously the transition must first be made in his own consciousness before it can manifest through constitutional structures. I have never known President Rajapaksa personally, but over the years I have seen him trying to make that transition in consciousness, and one can say that seven years into his term as the President he may now be poised to be a statesman rather than continue as a petty local chieftain.
Can Rajapaksa transform the consciousness of his people?
One is tempted to say that either another Constituent Assembly or invoking Article 86 might be the way out of the impasse, but what guarantees will the Tamils have that another Constituent Assembly will not do to them exactly what Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Constituent Assembly did to them in 1972 or that a verdict under Article 86 will go in their favour? After all, every Constituent Assembly will have a Sinhala majority and will merely follow the contours of the Parliament. Likewise Article 86 can only reproduce the majoritarian consciousness. Therefore, what is needed is not more constitutional devices but a complete turnaround of the supremacist Sinhala consciousness which alas, short of the Second Coming, can never happen through the historical process.
However, a charismatic leader gifted with a higher vision can leap frog the consciousness of a whole nation more effectively than a long drawn historical process. Mahatma Gandhi did it in India, Martin Luther King in America and Mandela in South Africa.
Can Mahinda Rajapaksa step up to fill the role of catalyst and change agent in Sri Lanka? Rather than merely articulate the consciousness that gave rise to him, which any third rate politician can do, can President Rajapaksa rise above his conditioning and drawing from a higher set of values, transform the consciousness of his people?
Only President Rajapaksa himself personally can find a way out of this impasse, but he has to lay hold of that higher vision and under Article 86 lead a campaign for a radical change in the consciousness of his people.
Recent elections (2013) have shown that, even after being in power for over seven years, Rajapaksa can still command more than 58% support in the country, outside the NPC. In all my 84 years I have yet to see a political leader either in Sri Lanka or abroad who has mastered the skills of managing individuals as well as the political landscape, as brilliantly as Rajapaksa has. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he has drawn unto himself leading members from the Opposition, plus an assortment of intellectuals, academics, professionals, business magnates, journalists and even religious dignitaries and got them to jump through hoops at his behest. Should he ever be in risk of losing his 2/3rd majority in Parliament he can give portfolios to all the remaining MPs of his government and that will take care of that!
Given such extraordinary skills at political manipulation I feel that given the will and a higher vision, he can navigate his way to a solution to the National Question, using Article 86 as the vehicle.
The long term benefits of JRJ’s Mahaveli Diversion Project probably exceed those of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s roads and ports but not all of his predecessors’ achievements, and not even his own contributions towards infra structure growth, will match the benefits he can bestow on the country if he can finally solve the National Question. Only then will President Mahinda Rajapaksa win for himself the final accolade – a place in the Mahavamsa’s pantheon as “Mahinda Rajapaksa the Great”!!
I like to close this article by quoting from chapter nine of my own memoirs, written in 2008, six months before the collapse of the LTTE.
“More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority community, and endows it with a true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to guarantee to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and dignity equal to its own, and never to let them feel marginalised or disadvantaged because they are fewer in number, or because they are different in race, colour or beliefs.
“Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realise that truth, and are strong enough to translate their understanding into policies, it will continue to be dismembered by conflict, long after the LTTE and Prabhakaran have passed into history”.