ederalism and devolution of power are bogeys that spook the Sinhala South; yet objectively, they need not. They are effective tools of countering, frustrating and defeating secessionist tendencies and projects, as experiences in many countries indicate, and secondly, a legitimate and veritable form of constitutional governance viz a viz. unitarism. Whether we are ready to seriously consider it in relation to Sri Lanka and if not, what module to be accepted in the eventuality of a new Constitution and a consequent shift in the character of the State, are questions to be decided on a broad consensus.
Or else we can persist with the 1978 Constitution, with all its maladies that have plagued us for over four decades!
With the report of the panel of experts for the Steering Committee, appointed by the Constitutional Assembly, being tabled in Parliament by the Prime Minister, the ‘federal bogey show’ has started in full swing. The accusations of secret pacts, federalism, secessionism, dividing the country and so forth are main items in the bogey parade and they do contain a lot of political currency.
"The 13th Amendment was not something organic to the needs of the citizens of this country but a model imposed on us by India"
I neither propose federalism nor champion the unitary model backed up by a powerful Executive Presidency. For the sake of rhetoric, many who vehemently oppose any far-reaching amendment to the power structure underpinned by the present Constitution on the basis that it should not be done without the consent of the people, the Maha Sangha and so many other stakeholders, simply forget that it was not with any of the said prerequisites that the present Constitution was imposed on our body politic. Neither was the 1st Republican Constitution.
The proposed ‘new Constitution’ -- despite the PM’s denial of the existence of even a draft, let alone a finalised Constitution -- seems to have assumed diabolical attributes for those who insist that the unitary nature as well as the Executive Presidency remain. Among them are people like G.L. Pieris, co-author of the botched proposed ‘package’ presented in the year 2000 during the Chandrika Bandaranaike Government. The proposal went as far as suggesting ‘Regional Councils,’ merging the North and the East and removing the ‘unitary’ tag from the Constitution. Former President Rajapaksa, who now screams himself hoarse about the unitary status, being a key minister of the CBK Government, was a keen proponent of the draft. Then, it was the present PM and the UNP, then in opposition who paraded the bogey show of secessionism ensuring the proposal never made it past the legislature.
SINHALA ROOTS OF FEDERALISM
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the Tamils who first came up with the proposal for separate federations or as we call it now, federalism. It was, in fact, the Kandyan Sinhala nobility that went before the Donoughmore Commission in 1927 and requested for federations as they insisted they were “a separate nation.”
Their request was for three federations: one for the maritime areas which were dominated by Sinhalese before the Portuguese came, the second for the Kandyan Kingdom finally conquered by the British in 1815 and thirdly, the Present North and East with Tamil and Muslim populations. There does not seem to have been any objection to this request from the Sinhala side, as far as recorded history suggests, and it was the rejection by the Donoughmore Committee that defeated the first request for federalism. Had it been accepted by the commission who knows, we would be citizens of the ‘Federal Republic of Sri Lanka’!
The 13th Amendment was not something organic to the needs of the citizens of this country but a model imposed on us by India; yet it was one step towards a meaningful devolution of power in a context where the ethnic issue was metamorphosing in to a full-fledged, extremely bloody and brutal civil war. Yet, the Provincial Councils established under the 13th Amendment has served neither the Tamils nor the Sinhalese, other than creating a Bermuda Triangle that sucks in billions of rupees annually. Interestingly, one would recall that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, promised India to go for a scheme of devolution that went beyond the 13th Amendment, thus coining the term 13+; of course, he is not so keen on those past memories being rekindled and remains silent while his cohorts raise hell over unitary nature of the State. Neither does he remember that it was he, who presented the P-toms (Post Tsunami Operational Mechanism Structure) to Parliament, proposed by the LTTE and seen by many as a blueprint for a separate State. Many others who have for decades, supported substantial power-sharing such as Tissa Vitharana and Vasudeva Nanayakkara as well as ideologues like Dr. Dayan Jayathilake are now in the camp of the bogey-makers.
Terms ‘federal’ and ‘unitary’ could be highly-misleading with unitary States with very wide levels of devolved power, equal or closer to those of a de jure federal State while a federal State with minimum devolution might seem closer to a scheme of devolution in a de jure unitary State. As the Supreme Court noted in the recent case of Chandrasoma Vs Senathirajah (SC Spl 03/2014 -Decided on 04/08/2017),“….labelling States as unitary or federal could be misleading as there could be many hues in the spectrum in terms of devolution.” The insistence on unitary status, at the cost of bloodshed, civil war, racial disharmony and social disintegration, is futile and makes a solution to the ethnic issue unattainable.
JUSTIFICATION FOR A CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCH
When J.R. Jayawardena concentrated fearsome power in one office to become its first occupier, he needed a pretext to justify such atrocious concentration: a bogey to show the masses. The shrewd politician found the remedy; tie it, in the eyes of the public, with the unitary character of the State and national security. He knew that as long as he was able to show that it was through the Executive Presidency that the territorial integrity and unitary character of the State could be maintained, it would be a sure fire recipe to counter demands for the abolition of the former. How far sighted JR was! In reality, the executive seat was to defend an aggressive neoliberal, open market economy drive which was wont to meet with resistance. The pretext did work and still does even after 40 years.
"When J.R. Jayawardena concentrated fearsome power in one office to become its first occupier, he needed a pretext to justify such atrocious concentration"
Now we are stuck with the triple sore points in the present Constitution that make any amendment nigh impossible: the unitary state, priority given to Buddhism and the Executive Presidency. The popular belief that these three are mutually-inseparable, is whipped up by chauvinist and populist elements who benefit from a socio-political structure based on those three premises. The ordinary man had never benefitted from any of the three aforementioned; his lot is still the same as when we were under kings, white masters and a Westminster system.
The unitary tag is just a banner used as a tool, not so much to counter moves to devolve power to the periphery or as a grave concern regarding the territorial integrity of the State, as much as a foolproof formula to spook the Sinhala South and grab or retain political power.
Hence, the long history of the bogey show!