- It’s an innocuous demand
- There is no consensus on proposed electoral system
- Cautiously optimistic about Constitution making process
- Demands separate administrative district for Tamil speaking people in the Ampara district
- There are many a slip between the cup and the lip
- The procedure, adopted in enacting this legislation, is total travesty
- Yet, there must be a separate proviso to ensure that other religions will not be discriminated upon
- Concurrent List should be abolished to clear ambiguity on powers vested with the centre and the periphery
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem in an interview with the spoke about the current political situation in the country and added that he was cautiously optimistic about the status of the constitution making process. Following are excerpts of the interview done with Hakeem, who is also the Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage.
Q Actually, the Government is facing serious allegations over the Central Bank bond scam. How do you analyze the current political situation in that context?
Our Government is committed to transparency. We are prepared to face critiques of the Government and correct ourselves if any wrongdoing is highlighted. Basically, the Presidential Commission has undertaken to conduct a fact finding inquiry. There is no possibility of finding anybody guilty as such. After the report is submitted, the Government will have to examine the needs for any correctional measure. Depending on their recommendations, the Government should consider what steps need to be taken. That is to impose any punitive punishment if anyone is found guilty after a proper trial before a court of law. We have to ensure that institutional arrangements are better supervised.
Q The Government, at the beginning, promised a lot including the introduction of a new Constitution and establishing good governance. As the SLMC Leader, how do you view the progress in terms of deliverance on these promises?
From a reforms perspective, there have been discussions at the Steering Committee of Parliament as a precursor to a Constitutional Assembly. We have finalized draft proposals. The draft proposals contain alternative positions taken regarding various contentious issues. The opposition is making allegations that we are going to drastically alter the structure of the state and to lower the status given to Buddhism in the Constitution. They are creating a phobia of future disintegration of the country. This is history repeating itself. Whenever reforms are to be introduced, these forces try to interpret the proposals in a way to create negative public opinion. It’s up to the parties bent on reforms to educate the public and actively campaign for total overhaul of the Constitution.
The opposition is making allegations that we are going to drastically alter the structure of the state and to lower the status given to Buddhism in the Constitution. They are creating a phobia of future disintegration of the country. This is history repeating itself
Q As the SLMC Leader, what is your stand on the unitary structure of the Constitution and the foremost status accorded to Buddhism?
None of us wants the primary status given to Buddhism diluted. While the primacy of Buddhism is preserved, we wish that the specific proviso be added to say that other religions wont be discriminated against. It’s a very innocuous clause.
Q In the current Constitution, there are safeguards for other religions. You want something extra in this regard?
The Fundamental Rights Chapter has a general provision. When you add a proviso to the very same Article which gives one religion the status of supremacy, others feel that they will not suffer. They will feel that they have some accommodation. Certain xenophobic forces have been attacking mosques and other places of religious worship. They are showing a lot of intolerance. The state must be able to provide basic protection against such elements. I don’t see why such a hue and cry is made. We haven’t even used the word that this must be a secular state. In India, Hinduism has the pride of place, but the Constitution itself says it is a secular state. There is a feeling of insecurity in the people belonging to other faiths here because of what was happening. That has to be kept in mind.
Q As for the structure of the Constitution, what is your opinion on the move to abolish the Concurrent List which outlines the subjects jointly held by the centre and the provincial councils under the present Constitution?
The abolition of the concurrent list is, at least, to make it clear the powers vested with the centre and the periphery. It becomes much more unambiguous otherwise. In many Federal countries, the concurrent list is preserved.
Q The perception is that the subjects outlined in this list will be vested solely with the periphery when abolishing it. What is your argument?
It’s to clear ambiguity. With more than 150 years of centralized rule, bureaucrats are also not willing to part with power. Provincial Governors have been used as a tool to stifle the provincial councils from exercising the devolved powers. Once you clearly define it this way, the room for such manipulations will be reduced.
Certain xenophobic forces have been attacking mosques and other places of religious worship. They are showing a lot of intolerance
Q What is your view on the postponement of the elections to three Provincial Councils?
We aren’t for the postponement of any election. We want the elections to be conducted on time. We have even protested against the procedure in which the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act was brought into being. The procedure, adopted, has created the feeling that it was brought for the collateral purpose of postponing elections. There is a duty on the part of the Government to ensure that there is no inordinate delay in the conducting of elections. I have fought in Parliament, the Parliamentary Business Committee as well in the debate against the Bill itself.
The procedure, adopted to introduce amendments to the Provincial Council Elections Act, is totally unacceptable. It’s a violation of the right of citizens to petition the Supreme Court. Substantive changes were introduced to the original draft in the guise of amendments at the committee stage. It’s a violation of the parliamentary procedure. It’s tantamount to the violation of the Constitution. I have taken serious exceptions to the manner in which this Bill was brought to Parliament. What we voted in the Second Reading was totally different to what was in the Third Reading. This is total travesty. I am fully in agreement with those who challenged this from the outside. They are very correct in raising this objection.
Q But, you voted for it along with others in the Government and some in the opposition. Why is it?
I supported the Bill after the introduction of amendments. The fact is that the procedure is wrong. I stand by that.
Q Earlier you asked for a separate administrative district for Muslims in the East. In the evolution of the new Constitution, how are you going to meet the demands of Muslims?
In creating a new administrative district, we have proposed to consider the needs of Tamil speaking people. Tamil speaking people in the Amapara District have to go to the Ampara town to transact business. That is done in the Sinhala language at the Ampara District Secretariat. In the coastal belt of the district, the majority speaksTamil. Yet, you continue to have businesses transacted using the Sinhala language. Those matters have to be taken into consideration.
Any centre of administration will have to be accessible within a reasonable time frame. All those things will have to be taken into account. We have proposed a separate administrative district.
QWhat is your stand on the merger of the North and the East?
We have said that the number of provinces has to remain as it is. The country will consist of nine provinces. The Tamil speaking members want the merger as an option. That remains an option. We must be able to accommodate the aspirations of different people. This is only a draft proposal. It included different options. When there is no consensus on a particular issue, we decided to add different options. It doesn’t mean the Government has agreed with the merger. There are three different options given. It is up to the Constitutional Assembly to debate on these matters, revise the draft and finally arrive at a consensus.
Even regarding the Executive Presidency, there seems to be differences. The position of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seems to retain it in a modified form. When we started, it was not so. The original proposal to amend the Executive Presidency has suffered some setbacks. One of the main parties, that wanted the abolition, is having second thoughts about it.
The Tamil speaking members want the merger as an option. That remains an option. We must be able to accommodate the aspirations of different people
Q What is your party’s stand?
We can live with the retention of the Executive Presidency. Yet, if there is overall consensus, we won’t oppose it either. The main issue here is a fair election system. Whatever proposal made so far regarding electoral reforms haven’t generated sufficient consensus among the political parties. The minor parties have always been at loggerheads regarding the new system introduced. We want those things addressed. The parliamentary election system can’t be unilaterally changed. We have presented a separate set of proposals.
It has been proposed to create 140 electorates. It’s a question how to accommodate members. We fear the Muslim representation will be reduced by 50 percent or more. It’s totally unacceptable. We have submitted separate alternate proposals.
Q How serious are you about the current constitution making process?
This is my 24th year in Parliament. I have served three Select Committees of Parliament. I have attended three All Party Conferences starting from the time of then President the late R. Premadasa. There has been many a slip between the cup and the lip. We are cautiously optimistic of something happening. We won’t be able to achieve much unless the UNP- SLFP Government devises a collective strategy to educate the public. Before that, we must reach consensus on critical reform areas. There is still so much of divergence in the critical areas of reform. This has to be addressed. There is going to be a parliamentary debate on the matter for three days. Let’s see how things unfold!