M.A. Sumanthiran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) makes much of caveats in the proposed constitution that makes ‘division impossible’. The call then is for a new constitution where ‘indivisibility’ is scripted in. That’s lovely. On paper. Politics doesn’t happen on paper and neither are constitutional proclamations worth the ink they are written on (if you have doubts, think of the ‘19th Amendment’). Loveliness on paper can be misleading. In this instance it is a clear sign to be cautious simply because it is Sumanthiran who is doing the decorations. Let me elaborate.
A little over a year ago, Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, in an article titled ‘On wise verbal concessions in the art of negotiations’ published in the Colombo Telegraph, salutes Sumanthiran for being clever with words. Hoole, the TNA’s nominee to the Election Commission, noted that Sumanthiran had told him privately that ‘problems of negotiation should be approached judiciously without being hung up on words that can be inflammatory’.
Sumanthiran had pointed to Article 18 of the constitution as an example of this ‘brilliance’: ‘While 18(1) says Sinhalese shall be the official language of Sri Lanka, Article 18(2) brilliantly goes on to subvert it saying that Tamil shall also be an official language. If we had been stuck on objecting to 18(1), Tamils could never have been liberated through 18(2). It is an oxymoron like 18(2) that can make Tamils get powers to take decision on those matters that concern our well-being through participatory governance.’
The problem with Sumanthiran is that he says one thing in one place and something else somewhere else, says something and says something else later. For all his ‘unitary’ posturing, he did state vehemently at the Parliament debate on the interim report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly (as reported in the Daily Mirror on November 2, 2017) that the TNA wants a secular and federal Sri Lanka. He has not pointed out, as he did with respect to Article 18, that the non-secular clause (Article 9) is made meaningless by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).
That’s an aside, by the way. What’s pertinent is that the devolution-voices are dead silent when it comes to the provincial councils
Anyway, it seems a bit confusing. An indivisible federal state doesn’t sound right, especially when the indivisibility is marketed as keeping the unitary nature intact. Sumanthiran is word-playing here and we don’t need Hoole’s congratulatory observation to know it.
Federalism comes from the late Latin word foedus, which means treaty, compact or contract. Interestingly, it comes from an older Latin word, fides, which means ‘trust’. Trust is not something we have here, Sumanthiran as Hoole explains unwittingly is not to be trusted, or rather, his words are oxymoronic and deliberately so.
Politically, a federation refers the coming together (okay, on the basis of an agreement, based again on some degree of trust) of two or more distinct political entities. While we have the problem of Tamil nationalists, wide-eyed liberals (many of whom are rabidly anti-Sinhala or anti-Buddhist) of using demarcation lines that have no basis in history and are not derived from any important geographical factors, there are other issues that rebel against such an arrangement: a) demography (almost half the Tamils live outside the so-called exclusive traditional homelands), b) vast sections of the Eastern Province and considerable territory in the Northern Province are traditional homelands of Sinhalese, c) the archaeological evidence indicates that the North and East constitute the heartland of Buddhism in the island, and d) the alleviation of grievances (shorn of embellishment and exaggeration) does not necessarily require devolution.
Importantly, the ‘coming together’ of it immediately creates the logic for ‘coming apart’, never mind ambiguous caveats about indivisibility. We could have court determining that the ‘indivisible’ clause (stand-alone) is subservient to the ‘divisibility’ encrypted in the very definitions of division of power (context). Yes, like the 19th Amendment, where court determined that the power to dissolve is made meaningless by the removal of the power to devolve in the very same piece of paper!
So we are compelled to suspect that the following are the key components of Sumanthiran’s game plan: 1) ‘Oxymoronize’ the constitution, 2) Get it approved through a referendum, banking on seemingly harmless wording (in isolation), 3) Get the Supreme Court to see it in context and not isolation, 4) a constitutionally federal Sri Lanka, and 5) separation (following the time-tested Chelvanayakam mantra: ‘a little now, more later’). Maybe Sumanthiran will not be around to wave the indivisibility flag by that time or maybe he will be silent and say ‘I simply changed my mind because, as any lawyer would tell you, circumstances alter cases’. Hoole, tellingly observes, ‘words do not matter so long as we get what we need!’ That’s Hoole on Sumanthiran. Need we say more? We do.
Why are Sumanthiran and the TNA silent on provincial council elections not being held? Why is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) silent? Why are the born-again democrats, candlelight ladies and funded-voices silent? Are elections, in their minds, anathema to them? Are they not important elements of democracy? Is it that they are more camouflaged UNPers than anything else and are hell-bent on saving their political masters/heroes the blushes?
That’s an aside, by the way. What’s pertinent is that the devolution-voices are dead silent when it comes to the provincial councils. We’ve gone more than a year since term-expiration in relation to three councils and several months in relation to three more. The country hasn’t collapsed. The people have not protested about the relevant representational-deficit. In short, PCs or no PCs, things are fine. They weren’t needed in the first place (India stuffed them down our throats). They served only politicians and political parties. They were veritable training grounds in crookery for politicians seeking even better pastures.
We can do without them, Sumanthiran, the TNA, the JVP and the UNP have in their silence and their complicity in the non-holding of election, have proven. The President wants them but let’s not fool ourselves that he believes in the virtues of power-devolution. The same goes for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). They are looking for legitimacy and political momentum, nothing else.
What’s clear is that the people are not interested in devolution. As of now, only Sumanthiran is keen on it. All moves for a new constitution, therefore, need to be seen as being key elements of Sumanthiran’s political agenda, and subscription to it by Tamil Nationalists can only be surmised by their silence and tacit agreement. And, in his case, it’s not just any kind of devolution he’s proposing. He’s going for broke. He’s batting for federalism as a necessary precondition for division. It’s easier, compared to armed insurrection, let us not forget.
Let us not forget and let us not be swayed by flowery language and assurances made meaningless by a virtually acknowledged strategy of subterfuge. As for provincial councils, it’s high time that the truth is recognized: they never worked and are not needed. Out with them, and with the pernicious 13th Amendment to the Constitution!