by Dayan Jayatilleka
Sri Lanka’s once shattered and broken territory – the boundary of the state — has been fused, but the nation remains fissured. How is it to be unified? This is all the more urgent because the visible absence of an ongoing post-war political process of ethnic reconciliation is either partial motivation or excuse for much of the current external intrusion.
A manifestation of this new intrusiveness is the UNSG’s appointment of an advisory troika on Sri Lanka. One of them, Prof Steven R. Ratner, who commenced his career attached to the US State Dept, has written critically of the ‘talisman of sovereignty’, the G 77 which he describes as states which "attach great — almost exaggerated — importance to the concept of sovereignty" and of China.
Significantly he is an authority on ‘Ethnic Conflict and Territorial Claims’ and ‘New Borders’ and his work has featured in anthologies and colloquia on international law as pertains to ethnic conflict, self determination, the breakup of states and the emergence of new ones.
The international community which tilted against Tamil separatist terrorism during the war is now showing signs of tilting against the Sri Lankan state in a seeming bid to forestall Sinhala domination over the Tamil people/areas. The recent international moves appear to be, at least in part, a bid to contain ‘triumphalist Sinhala hegemonism’ micromanaging the post-war order. These moves will escalate, proliferate and ramify. Thus it would be strategically prudent for the Sri Lankan state to nationally fast-track a mechanism and process for post-conflict political reconciliation of the ethnic communities.
It is a truism that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but how to unify a divided house—by coercion, or consensus based on conciliation, concession and cooptation? National unity cannot be created by shrill propaganda and internal suppression, but only by reaching out, convincing, and broadening the state’s support base by making all communities stakeholders.
In this regard, to the fashionable formula of ‘home grown’ which is taken as a panacea, I would add two others, that of ‘form and content’ and ‘best practices’. In the science of politics as in any other science, the form must be local, but the content must be that which is universally valid and proved to be so through experiment and verification. As Thomas Hobbes wrote "The skill of making and maintaining Commonwealths...consisteth in certain rules, as doth Arithmetique and Geometry".
It would be useful to seek out these ‘certain rules’ and best practices from all over the world, regarding the problems that we face in Sri Lanka – those of nation building, post conflict reconciliation and ethnic/majority-minority relations. These best practices should of course be creatively adopted and adapted in accordance with the country’s history, geography, culture and society.
When the borders of a state correspond to that of an ethnic or linguistic group, it is unproblematic to call it a nation-state. When the borders of a state do not correspond to the ethnic or linguistic distribution of the social formation, it is a ‘nation state’ de jure, but not de facto. That problem can be solved in three ways.
One model is that the diverse ethnic communities combine into or consider themselves a single nation, almost always on the basis of equality or – a very rare variant—on the acceptance of inequality.
The second solution is that of a trade-off in which the majority pretty much controls the state and the minority nationalities are accorded political space in their ancestral areas or ‘areas of historic habitation’.
The third and worst solution is that two or more ethnically or ethno linguistically or ethno religiously homogenous nation states grow out of one, with each community splitting off to join their counterparts in a nearby country (irredentism) or simply seceding to form their independent nation states.
Now why doesn’t everybody exercise the first option? This is because it isn’t that easy, though it has been done with great success in many places, such as the world’s sole superpower, the USA. This solution requires equality of citizenship. It requires that no marker of any of the constituent communities be given Constitutional privilege over any other. It requires that the state be a neutral umpire as between the beliefs of communities.
It is not that Sri Lanka never got close to this model. It did under the Soulbury Constitution, though a closer fit to the model would have required incorporating a cardinal demand of the Left at the time: equality of status for Sinhala and Tamil languages. It is arguably the kind of policy of a meritocratic, multicultural Sri Lanka that would have issued from Ceylon National Congress, with a correctives pushed by the Left on citizenship and language, had DS Senanayake not broken away.
Indeed it would have been the kind of Sri Lanka that would have resulted from an SWRD Bandaranaike administration supported by the Left instead of the MEP, BJB, EPB etc (the Sinhala equivalent of the Hindu fundamentalist ‘Sangh parivar’). It might have been the Ceylon that resulted if in 1957, the Left had supported the Banda –Chelva pact and entered the government at that point.
This model of nation building failed in Sri Lanka because an influential section – perhaps a majority – of the Sinhala Buddhists had such a perception of threat as a minority in relation to the Tamils of South India and felt so disadvantaged by the colonial experience, that equality (or ‘parity’ as it was called in the 1950s) seemed unfair. They demanded and got a preferential status for the distinctive cultural markers that conferred on them uniqueness as a community: Sinhala language and Buddhism.
While the Sinhala majority perceived this as affirmative action, it was perceived or experienced by the Tamil minority as discrimination. Then as now the Tamils, with their five thousand year old language (just defined as ‘classical’ by the Government of India) and large numbers of co-ethnics — many with high levels of achievement and elite integration overseas – were unwilling to accept assimilation or integration into a single Sri Lankan nation on the basis of surrender or subordination to the Sinhalese (manifested at the time in the official language policy of Sinhala Only, reinforced with mandatory ‘proficiency examinations’).
Tamil separatism as a politico-ideological project did not start out as a result of the policies of successive Sri Lankan administrations, but its acceptance by the Tamil people was. As AJ Wilson’s biography of his father in law, SJV Chelvanayagam, the father of Tamil Nationalism, proudly reveals, the latter had raised the idea of an independent country for the Tamils as far back as 1948, and a Tamil university in 1950, long before anyone had asked for a Sinhala university.
As Prof Nira Wickremasingha points out in her book on modern Sri Lankan history and contested identities, this confirms that Tamil nationalism was not purely reactive or defensive but pre-emptive and strategic. I would venture to inquire as to whether Sinhala nationalism was, to some extent, a reaction to this precocious and premature Tamil nationalism. It is no less pertinent however, that the Tamil voters dismissed the platform of separatism as late as 1970 and embraced it only in 1977 and that Chelvanayagam himself had set it aside in favour of federalism, and something lesser, as contained in the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957.
Armed Tamil separatism was utterly defeated in the last war and any kind of Tamil separatism is bound to be resisted by the state. If someday, it is propelled and sought to be imposed from without, there will be a protracted popular resistance which makes its sustainability untenable and unattractive.
With the options of integration on the basis of equality, assimilation on the basis of inequality, and separation, all ruled out as undesirable or unfeasible or both, what is the state left with but a model in which the minority has political space at the periphery? Here again, there are two broad variants, federal and non-federal. The federal model subdivides yet again between one in which certain regional units contain an ethnic majority belonging to the countrywide minority (ethno-federalism) and one in which the units are not constituted so as to provide an ethnic or linguistic majority. Federalism could vary still further as between a full or classically liberal federalism (Canada) and a quasi federalism with a strong centre (India).
First World societies generally find federalism more comfortable than do Third World societies. However, even in the former, there are many (the UK being paradigmatic) which steadfastly refuse to convert to federalism. In Sri Lanka, the proximity of Tamil Nadu fuels apprehensions that an ethnic federal unit would graduate to a separate Tamil country or federate with the larger South Indian landmass. This collective and abiding apprehension has reduced support for a federal option to such an insignificant level that it will not enter any serious political deliberation.
This leaves non-federal options of power-sharing or autonomy. There are two variants, the first being systems that are silent or agnostic on the definition, such as South Africa’s Constitution which makes for considerable regional autonomy but refuses to commit itself explicitly to federalism. The second variant is the explicitly unitary model which also has power sharing, which some societies term ‘the devolution of power’ and others ‘regional autonomy/provincial autonomy’. In these, the strength of the centre acts as a prophylactic on the possibility of internal administrative boundaries hardening into outer ones or internal units breaking free to form independent ones. These are, in actual fact, models of semi-autonomy. The Sri Lankan Constitution as it currently stands provides precisely for such an arrangement.
Sovereignty is fundamental, foundational and non-negotiable. The trite legalese that pits "citizens’ sovereignty" against "state sovereignty" forgets that the very category of a "citizen" exists precisely because of the state; he/she is a citizen of a state. The external encroachment on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty can ultimately be withstood and defeated only by internal solidity and solidarity.
Sovereignty cannot be successfully defended by a state acting as a mono-ethnic straitjacket on the country’s stubbornly diverse, irreducible and colliding collective identities. It is best defended by a Sri Lankan state which represents all its peoples, acts as neutral umpire providing and guaranteeing adequate space for all ethnicities on the island. Sovereignty is secured by a Sri Lankan identity which accommodates all the country’s communities, paving the way for a broadly shared sense of a multiethnic yet single Sri Lankan nationhood.