Can we really expect that success story to be replicated in Sri Lanka? Here the relations between the two major language groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, so far from being equable and cooperative have been agonistic – with constant rivalry for scarce resources – and antagonistic to a horrifying extent, resulting in a quarter century civil war which left a hundred thousand dead.
by Izeth Hussain
( February 24, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many Sinhalese, possibly even a majority, seem favorable to the idea of solving the Tamil ethnic problem through devolution on the basis of 13 A, though in a truncated form without land and police powers. Many Tamils, possibly even a majority, could be favorable to 13 A with some modifications of land and police powers. So a Sinhalese- Tamil consensus on a modified form of 13 A seems feasible. The consensus among the experts seems to be that appropriate Constitutional modifications to 13 A can be made with a two-thirds Parliamentary majority without recourse to a referendum. So there does seem to be a prospect of our reaching a definitive solution to the ethnic problem at long last.
There are several factors that can favor a national consensus on a modified form of 13 A as the solution. There is a widespread notion – not only in Sri Lanka – that devolution could be the best specific for ethnic problems that are peculiarly recalcitrant to solution. The idea of federalism as a solution has been with us over a long period, even from pre-Independence times: the advocacy of Leonard Woolf and S.W.R.D Bandaranaike and the demand for it by the Kandyans. Federalism became the main demand of the Tamils since the late ‘forties. 13 A, modeled on Indian devolution, has been entrenched in our Constitution for well over a quarter century, and the Indian model is now seen officially in India as amounting to “cooperative federalism”. It is arguable that 13 A was imposed on us by Indian diktat and that there never has been anything like a national consensus behind it. It remains however that 13 A has been put into practice in a truncated form without much public demur for over a quarter century, which might be taken as amounting, in practical terms, to a national consensus on a truncated 13 A.
The preceding paragraph does not include the most powerful argument – ostensibly the most powerful argument – in favor of 13 A. It is that 13 A is modeled on the Indian practice of devolution that has proved to be a resounding success since 1947 in holding together multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic India, making “unity in diversity” far more than a rhetorical slogan. What is the Indian practice of devolution? It is devolution on the basis of language, and 13 A amounts to the same thing because the predominantly Tamil-speaking people in the North and East will have their own Provincial Councils. Why should not the Indian success story be replicated in Sri Lanka as well?
We must bear in mind that the late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, who had far and away the most astute political intelligence of his time and who furthermore had a rather special interest in Sri Lanka, instantly and outspokenly welcomed the 1987 Peace Accords. But the LTTE chose to fight a war rather than negotiate a political solution. There was possibly another factor also that stood in the way of a political solution. The writer distinctly remembers reading in the Hindu a report that Rajiv Gandhi had declared at an election rally on Marina Beach in Chennai that he could not make headway towards a political solution because President JR kept on relentlessly reneging on his commitments. Anyway the LTTE and President JR are no more, and both the Sinhalese and the Tamil sides now have moderate and pragmatic leaders who are in earnest about reaching a political solution.
At the people’s level, both the Sinhalese and the Tamils are well aware that a hundred thousand died in the war, and the Sinhalese in particular should be made aware that according to what appear to be Indian assessments the deaths of LTTE cadres were only slightly more than among our troops. Would the Sinhalese people go along with the Sinhalese racist hardliners and oppose any and every proposed political solution, risking yet another bout of war? It is furthermore arguable that 13 A has never been tried out properly for various reasons. For the reasons given above, the conditions now seem propitious to attempt a definitive solution through a modified 13 A.
The argument developed in the preceding paragraphs seems quite plausible but in fact it is deeply flawed by a fallacy in its premise itself. The fallacy is that all ethnic groups are essentially the same, relations between them are essentially the same, and therefore a solution to ethnic problems that succeeds in India should succeed in Sri Lanka as well. It follows – according to that argument – that devolution on a linguistic basis that has succeeded in India should also succeed in Sri Lanka. However, that argument ignores the fact that inter-ethnic relations can vary greatly from country to country: they can be equable and cooperative or they can be agonistic and antagonistic. By “agonistic” is meant competitiveness that is not essentially of a hostile order, a notion that is derived from the ancient Greek notion of sport.
In India where states have been set up on a linguistic basis, inter-ethnic relations – that is, relations between language groups – have for the most part been equable and cooperative. There have never been really serious problems between the states. There have been problems between the states and the center over the use of Hindi as the official language, particularly between Tamil Nadu and Delhi, but they have been sorted out through an admirable pragmatic accommodativeness. There has been nothing like a quarter century civil war with a hundred thousand dead. So, on the whole, inter-ethnic relations in India, in so far as the determinant of ethnicity has been language, have been equable and cooperative, not antagonistic to any serious extent. Consequently, it is not surprising that devolution on a linguistic basis has worked smoothly in India.
Can we really expect that success story to be replicated in Sri Lanka? Here the relations between the two major language groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, so far from being equable and cooperative have been agonistic – with constant rivalry for scarce resources – and antagonistic to a horrifying extent, resulting in a quarter century civil war which left a hundred thousand dead. There are also other factors which would make a devolved Tamil unit here very different from the typical states of the Indian union. Unlike them our Tamils insist on a supposed right of self-determination, which means that however much devolution they are allowed, they can find that inadequate and still claim the right to strike out for a separate state. The present writer has debunked that supposed right, provoking not reasoned refutation but abuse. The problem posed by the claim to self-determination has to be contextualized to be properly understood, taking account of the Tamil Nadu factor, the power of Delhi, and the ability of the Tamil diaspora to stir up anti-Sinhalese sentiment in powerful Western and other countries. In addition, there is a new geopolitical configuration with the increasing presence of China in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries, which could make India want to get a grip on Sri Lanka more than ever before. These factors are being merely mentioned here because they have already been covered in detail in articles by the present writer.
It is hardly necessary to labor the point that the replication of the Indian linguistic model of devolution in Sri Lanka will very probably aggravate the ethnic problem instead of solving it, and could eventually bring disaster for Sri Lanka. We must certainly recognize that the preservation of Indian unity in so much diversity is an admirable achievement. Western and other ill-wishers of India were hoping until the ‘seventies for the implosion of India into several particles, and the Indians themselves were fearful of that prospect to the extent of regarding federalism as an f word. Today Prime Minister Modi feels confident enough about Indian unity to extol the virtues of cooperative federalism. It is an admirable achievement, but it is a serious mistake to imagine that it can be replicated successfully in Sri Lanka. Indeed, there is a strong case for arguing – as the writer will do in the next and concluding part of this article – that India’s unity owes far more to a fully functioning democracy than to devolution. That is the model that should guide us.
(To be concluded)