It is said, sometimes with the appearance of uttering a profundity, that we live in an age of transition. This is a truism. All ages are transitory and in a changing world, man moulds and shapes institutional frames in order that such frames may, hopefully, provide a suitable base for his further advancement and development. The
Presidential Commission that has been recently appointed to inquire into and report on, that which I would like to describe as the question of devolution and that which some others may prefers to categorise as decentralisation, affords yet another opportunity to the people of Sri Lanka to fashion a constitutional frame which can assist in resolving the differences that exist between the two major communities that inhabit this country.
Constitutional frames cannot, however be created in vacuo. There is a need to, understand and accept some of the basic facts which relate to the
ethnic question as it exists today. It is sometimes the case that when confronted with the need to ascertain facts in this area, many are driven by an almost irresistible impulse to engage in an
historical study and depending upon the inclination of the particular individual, such a study may extend backwards to the colonial era of the British or to the time of the Portuguese invasion, or to the period
covered by the Mahavamsa or for that matter to Prince Vijaya.
Perhaps a keen student of history may even extend such a study into the stone age and if he was
philosophically or religiously inclined, he may go on to examine the question of first causes or original sin.
One may be left with the impression that the whole ethnic question in this country can be resolved simply by a determination of the question as to which of the two communities was the first to arrive in Sri Lanka. What does it matter who arrived first? Or is it the position that those who arrived later should be dumped into the sea? Or for that matter are the late arrivals to be discriminated against on the ground that they are late arrivals? Does it matter that some are regarded as invaders, and some others as settlers? Are we to visit the sins of the so called invaders on their descendants born centuries later and on generations yet unborn? Or is it that the descendants of these invaders have inherited a certain propensity towards invasive habits and should therefore be kept in a state of semi-subservience? Is that the path to a united Sri Lanka?
There are others who speak of geopolitical realities and assert knowledgeably that the
ethnic question in Sri Lanka must be considered in the context of the existence of the State of Tamil Nadu in Southern India. Admittedly, politics is often a function of geography and if Sri Lanka had been situated, say, in the South Pole, it's
ethnic question may have been viewed in another dimension. But does this mean that we are to await changes in the contours of continents, before learning to live together in this land of ours?
Again there are those who when called upon to look at the facts start from the most recent demand for political reform. They point out to the unreasonableness of the
demand for a separate State
and hearing them one may well be lead to the belief that if the demand was dropped, everything would be alright and there would be no
ethnic question in this country.
There are others who "talk facts" on the basis of emotions that may have arisen in consequence of the most recent instance of communal violence or for that matter the most recent instance of the
abuse of State power. It is this which has been described as the politics of the last atrocity. But let us not be na´ve - matters are not as simplistic as all that. The politics of the last atrocity can only lead to brave, speeches and perhaps to further atrocities.
Is it not time that thinking sections of the people of this country whether they be Sinhala or Tamil, come out and state openly that they have had enough of this nonsense and that such attitudes do not help us to resolve the
ethnic question as it exists today - a problem that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and sweep under the carpet. The
Republican Constitutional of 1978 gave a new Constitutional status to
Tamil as a national language of this country and protected, in so far as constitutional provisions can protect any right or liberty, the fundamental language rights of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. But if man does not live by bread alone, equally he does not live by language alone.
The ethnic question in this country is not merely a matter of language rights. The basic problem remains one of employment and development- a problem which admittedly the Tamil minority shares with the Sinhala majority. It is true that unemployment is something which concerns the Sinhala youth as well - concerned them to the extent that thousands of them were prepared to die and did in fact die in the attempt to change the structure that existed in 1971.
But there is this significant difference. In Sri Lanka, state power has at all times been concentrated in and derived from the centre and during the past several years this has meant that such state power has been effectively in the hands of the majority community and it is not surprising that those who enjoy state power in a parliamentary democracy, should have tended to extend their patronage to their own electoral areas.
At a time when more than 60% of the economy is in State hands, one consequence has been that the public sector has become an almost closed avenue for employment in so far as the Tamils were concerned. It matters not whether such discrimination was justified or whether there was a need to right historical imbalances. The pursuit of historical first causes leads us only to pre historic man.
Again it is not without significance that Tamil youth neither participated nor died in the insurrection of 1971. They continued to live with their feelings of disaffection. They did not participate not because problems of unemployment and development were less acute in the northern province.
They did not participate because national feelings which spring from a common language and culture continue to remain a potent force in the political arena - more potent than that which springs from divisions of class and so on.
It is not surprising that this should be so. After all, why is it that we speak different languages? Why did we not all speak the same language? Was all this an accident or was it that different peoples in different environments, in the early dawn of man's history, found certain sounds in resonance with their being and natural to them?
But language is not only a matter of sounds.
Language communicates the richest thoughts and gives expression to the noblest feelings of man. It is related to the thoughts and feelings of a particular community as that community evolved over a period of hundreds of years.
Language is not a matter of cosmetics and the recurrent claims of the French in Canada, of the Catholics in Northern Ireland, of the Scots and the Welsh in Great Britain show the need to recognise that matters of language and religion are deep-seated in the human consciousness and can neither be ignored nor suppressed.
The Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka just as much as the Sinhalese, are a people with the consciousness of a
common language, a
common culture and a
common tradition. Questions of consciousness are finally questions of perception
At the present stage in our history it cannot be denied that the Tamils of this country have that feeling of togetherness - the feeling of belonging to a distinct nationality - feelings which were heightened by the decision of the Government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to
standardise admission to the University of Sri Lanka.
It was said that rural students should be given the opportunity of entering the University. Whatever may have been the justification for the scheme of standardisation the undoubted result was that many of the most intelligent and able students amongst the Tamil community in the northern province did not find a place in the University. Many of them found their place in the streets of Jaffna and gave cohesion and leadership to what is now sometimes described as the
terrorist movement - a movement which has manifested itself by acts of armed robbery and political violence. The fact is that if you have a system which excludes good students from entering the University and it so happens, shall we say, that most of such students who are excluded belong to the minority community, it should not be surprising that the country has a problem on its hands.
There was another consequence. Those who had the capacity and who were adventurous enough, emigrated abroad and carried with them the scars of discrimination. They lobbied in their host countries and sought press and governmental support and secured the passing of resolutions such as was
recently passed by the State legislature of Massachusetts. When such resolutions are passed, there is sometimes an angry response from sections of the majority community here in Sri Lanka and brave speeches are made and one brave speech leads to another brave speech and a sufficient number of brave speeches leads to a communal disturbance.
So what can we do about all this? Neither the righteous rhetoric of the first cause nor the politics of the last atrocity can give us meaningful answers.
It is the perception of the Tamil community that during the past several years State power has been wielded in a manner
discriminatory to the Tamil community in the area of education, employment and development. The question at the present time is not whether such discrimination was historically inevitable, practically justified or politically wise.
But unless the people of Sri Lanka, even at this point of time, recognise the existence of the problem as perceived by thinking sections of the Tamil community, no institutional frame can ever be established for the effective and peaceful administration of the affairs of this nation.
Let us not fool ourselves about this. People have been killing each other in Northern Ireland for the past 20 years and its
ethnic question remains unsolved. A state exists to protect and serve all its people, irrespective of race, language or religion and it is on this basis alone that the people in turn give their allegiance to the State. It is this allegiance voluntarily given, which cements the constitution of any political State. A State that seeks the continued loyalty of its citizens must be perceived to treat them equally, and any effective constitutional frame must permit and encourage the economic growth of each of the major communities that inhabit this country.
Of course, over the past fifty years or so, there has been no failure to recognise the need to establish a new institutional frame, the need to decentralise administration and the need to devolve a larger measure of power on the districts. It is trite and repetitive wisdom that a centralised administration which served the colonial power in a colonial era and which drew its strength from the agent of that power in Colombo namely the Governor and which linked the Governor with the Government Agent and the Kachcheri system in the districts and further linked the Government Agent with the Village Headman in the villages, had become less and less relevant as more and more power shifted from the imperial master to the people of this country.
As early as 1928, the Donoughmore Commission recommended the establishment of Provincial Councils on the ground that it was desirable that a large part of the administrative work of the centre should come into the hands of persons resident in the districts and thus more directly in contact with the needs of the area. Twelve years later the Executive Committee of Local Administration, chaired by the late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike considered the proposal of the Donoughmore Commission, and in 1940 the State Council approved the establishment of Provincial Councils. The war intervened and nothing was in fact done, but in 1947, on the floor of the House of Representatives, the late Mr. Bandaranaike again declared his support for the establishment of Provincial Councils.
In 1955, the Choksy Commission recommended the establishment of Regional Councils to take over the functions that were exercised by the Kachcheris and in May 1957, the Government of the late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike presented a draft of the proposed Bill for the establishment of Regional Councils.
Subsequently in July 1957,
the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact made provision for direct election to Regional Councils and provided inter alia that the subjects covered by the Regional Councils should include agriculture, co-operatives, lands and land development, colonisation and education. The Pact however did not survive the organised opposition of sections of the Sinhala community. an opposition which included the United National Party of that time and in the event, the late
Mr. Bandaranaike succumbed to the pressures of the Eksath
Bhikku Peramuna which had brought him into power an year earlier.
In July 1963, the Government of Mrs. Bandaranaike declared that "early consideration" would be given to the question of the establishment of District Councils to replace the, Kachcheries and the Government appointed a Committee on District Councils and the report of this Committee contained a draft of the proposed Bill to establish District Councils but again nothing was in fact done.
In 1965, the Government of the late Mr. Dudley Senanayake declared that it would give "earnest consideration" to the establishment of District Councils and in
1968 a draft Bill approved by the Dudley Senanayake Cabinet was presented as a White Paper and this Bill provided for the establishment of District Councils consisting of elected members of Parliament, Mayors of Municipalities and Chairmen of Local Bodies situated within the Districts. There was provision for the establishment of a District Fund and the subjects within the competence of the District Councils included agriculture and food, animal husbandry, cottage industries, rural development, education and social welfare.
The District Councils Bill of 1968
suffered the same fate
as that which befell the Regional Councils Bill and the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957. Ironically enough, this time round the opposition to the Bill was spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which professed to follow the policies of the late Mr. Bandaranaike who himself had in 1940, 1947 and again in 1957 supported the establishment of a decentralised administrative structure.
Today we have the recent statement of His Excellency the President that given the circumstances prevailing in 1968, he himself would not have withdrawn the District Councils Bill. We also have the declaration of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who is once again in the opposition, that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party does not wish to participate in the deliberations of the Presidential Commission.
More than fifty years have passed since 1928 and we have moved from Provincial Councils to Regional Councils and from Regional Councils to District Councils and now we appear to be moving from District Councils to Development Councils. We have had the "early consideration" of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the "earnest consideration" of the late Mr. Dudley Senanayake.
There has been
no shortage of Committees and Commissions, of reports and recommendations, but what appears to have been lacking was the political will to implement that which nobody denies is fair and right. In a Parliamentary Democracy where political parties vie with, one another to bid for the support of the people at the broadest common denominator, the highest bidder no doubt wins but often, the long term losers are the people themselves.
This is a process which has its own dynamics. It is a learning process for the people of Sri Lanka
- effective management and essential fairness are not always the by-products of a public auction.
It is for the people of Sri Lanka to recognise and accept that the
effective management of resources requires a decentralised administration
and that the effective resolution of the ethnic question requires devolution
Decentralisation and devolution are not exercises in mere paper work. The basic freedoms of a
'minority' depend more on education and culture than on laws: more on administrative action and political will than on constitutional enactments. Law are but frames for action. They can educate and guide but they cannot provide a substitute for action. The Presidential Commission provides a forum which can be utilized to bring our peoples together, but in the end, everything depends on what the people of Sri Lanka themselves want to do - and time is running out.