N Sathiya Moorthy
‘Acceptable’ is the operative word. Now as always, the TNA has been talking to the Government with international empathy to back its otherwise legitimate cause, but with little or no acknowledgement of the anxieties that such an approach would trigger in the ordinary Sinhala mind. It goes beyond the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State. It is just as what the TNA leadership often mentions about they having to carry their people with them – rather, reflect the people’s sentiments and expectations at talks with the Government, or the international community. There cannot be two yardsticks in the matter.
In turn, the Government too has been talking as if individual situation mattered much more than a constitutional solution. Pro-Government arguments over restrictions, if not outright denial of Police and Land powers to the Provinces are fraught with such concerns. The latter in turn are a product of a mind-set than any legitimate justification, particularly when the cited hitches and glitches could be overcome through simpler means and strict adherence to precedents and protocol.
Some incidents and events in neighbouring India are often cited as the reason for the Sri Lankan Government wanting to deny Police powers to the Provinces (read: Tamil Provinces). Citing Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa ordering the arrest of DMK predecessor . Lanka, too, if the Provinces were conferred Police powers could arrest any person. Arrested along with Karunanidhi were at least two senior DMK Ministers at the Centre – namely, the late ‘Murasoli’ Maran, his nephew, and T. R. Baalu.
It is also argued that even those holding high constitutional positions at the national-level, like the President and the Prime Minister could be barred from visiting any part of the country, starting with their native towns and districts, if an ‘unfriendly’ party or leader were in power in the said Province. It is a farcical argument bordering on the silly, and needs to be thrown out without thought.
The Indian system has to be seen in perspective. It is not about a Chief Minister ordering the arrest of a predecessor, or about another Chief Minister in Mayawati (Uttar Pradesh) threatening to arrest Sonia Gandhi, who in turn was/is holding a Cabinet rank at the national-level and is also the president of the ruling Congress party, if she came to the State. It is about the Indian scheme providing for the Centre intervening with the State of Tamil Nadu on behalf of the Union Ministers arrested in Chennai – and the Jayalalithaa Government having to act accordingly. The alternative would have been Central intervention, under the very constitutional scheme. The State Government of the day obviously thought better of it.
Be it similar mis-behaviour by Sri Lanka’s Provinces, or the underlying anxieties and apprehensions about a future Tamil-run Province ‘waging war’ on the Sri Lankan State, these issues need to be discussed across the table, and mutual trust needs to be build up,. There may also be need for building constitutional safeguards into the scheme, where unilateral provincial action against the nation should be declared as an exemplary reason for Central intervention. Here again, the Indian experience would suffice – including the internal safeguards of judicial review, as pronounced by the Supreme Court of India in the ‘S. R. Bommai case’ (1994).
Similar arguments are relevant in the case of ‘Land’ powers, too. Considering that the charges of ‘Sinhala colonisation’ pre-dated even the language-centric ‘Sinhala Only’ law, demand for ‘land-alienation’ powers, like Police powers, was at the bottom of the very demand for Provinces and Provincial administration. It’s not the other way round.
JHU leader, Minister Pattali Champika Ranawaka has recently revived opposition to the ‘Desa-vallamai’ law, which is specific in this case to the land-alienation powers of the individuals in the Tamil-majority Jaffna Peninsula. As the title of the law, handed down from the erstwhile Portuguese rulers, reads, it is all about conferring continuity and legitimacy to local customs. Customs and traditions were codified to make laws in the first place.
To throw such customs out without adequate application of mind, particularly when it does not agitate evolving pangs of modernism, would be equal to throwing the baby with the bath-water. What more, the demand is not for asymmetrical powers for the Tamil Province(s), as has been the case with the existing scheme for the State of Jammu and Kashmir under the Indian Constitution. Instead, it is only about continuing with a law that pre-dates the Sri Lankan State and Republic as they are known now. Better still, similar laws are applicable in some Sinhala areas, like Kandy, too.