Api Kavuruda? – The Constitutional Gamble & The Idea Of Sri Lanka by Dayan Jayatilleka
Here’s a news flash; the political solution to the Tamil question exists and has been around for a while. Thousands died in two civil wars to proclaim and defend that solution. Vijaya Kumaratunga and K Pathmanabha were martyrs to that cause. And yet, those who should cherish the cause they were martyred for and the survival and entrenchment of that democratic reform act as if it didn’t happen.
While the political solution exists, Sri Lankan politics is increasingly divided into two camps: One camp consists of those, mainly neoliberals and liberal-leftists who ignore the existing solution for which rivers of blood flowed, and try to leap over it to something they regard as more advanced—and in so doing, run the risk of effacing what has been achieved. The other camp consists of neoconservative and ultranationalists who seek to ignore, bypass and bury the existing solution—thereby running the risk of opening the gates to a far looser and more radical restructuring of the state.
There were two civil wars that swirled around the political solution. Northern extremism lost that war but are still trying to fight it by other means, vaulting over the existing reform and making for a loose federalism transitional to separation. Southern ultra-nationalism which lost the civil war is trying to reopen it and paralyze and dismantle the reformist solution that exists.
Why is there so much aversion to the existing reform? The secret lies in two contending ideas of Sri Lanka; of what Sri Lanka is or should be. The definition of Sri Lanka in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 calls in Article 1 for the “strengthening” of the “unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Sri Lanka while saying that Sri Lanka is “a multiethnic, multi-religious and multilingual plural society”. The semi-autonomous Provincial Councils committed to in Article 2, flow from this definition and the need to strengthen unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty while recognizing multiethnic pluralism, presupposing that unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty can be protected only by such recognition and structural reforms i.e. Provincial Councils, which correspond to it. This formulation was not exclusively due to coercive diplomacy because the Accord clearly says that it is based upon “the proposals arrived at between May 1986 and December 1986” (well before the airdrop). A reading of the text makes it amply clear that the power projection enforced the signing of the proposals arrived at in 1986.
The Northern extremists and Southern extremist disagree with this paradigmatic definition and they share an idea of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist country, society and state. The Northern extremists wish therefore to exit the Sri Lankan state or at least liberally federalize it, and can justify such action only on the basis of Sri Lanka being a Sinhala Buddhist state. Similarly the Southern extremists want the state to be explicitly redefined and recognized as “Sinhala Buddhist”.
Indira Gandhi’s special envoy to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of Black July ’83 (as senior Veerakesari journalist Thanabalasingham has recently written, that phrase ‘Black July’ was coined by my father, Mervyn de Silva) the learned and sagacious G. Parthasarathy Sr. (who knew my father and whose cigar-chomping son Ashok I had met at the Pugwash Conference in Sao Paulo in 1985) told me in retirement on the porch of his house in Delhi, that when, at President Jayewardene’s suggestion, he spoke to the senior Buddhist clergy at the main temples in Kandy during his 1984 shuttle diplomacy, he knew that a political settlement of the Tamil Question was going to be almost impossibly tough. Today, this social stratum has achieved unprecedented ideological hegemony over a probable Presidential candidacy which it is propelling. Thus it is capable of reversing those policies they disapprove of while pushing through those that reflect their worldview, including on the character of the State itself.
At the other end of the spectrum is former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who has, on the ethnic issue, the virtue of consistency. She has always been anti-racist as was her late husband Vijaya Kumaratunga who was slain by the JVP for his enlightened stand on building North-South bridges through devolution. CBK has herself been a votary of deep-going structural reform in the cause of political reconciliation with the Tamils which is a sine qua non for true national reunification and nation-building. The problem is however that former President Kumaratunga never thought through the complex relationship between several very important events in the island’s contemporary political history which have quite understandably embedded themselves deep in her consciousness: 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1959.
She is quite rightly committed to her father’s pioneering effort at ethnic reconciliation in the form of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. It is she who introduced Vijaya Kumaratunga, who could have been our Barack Obama but tragically ended up our Bobby Kennedy, to that text which helped shape his stand on the ethnic question. The problem is that she has not quite figured out the relationship between 1956 and 1957. Worse still, she seems ambivalent about 1956 itself.
1956 had two sides—progressive and reactionary. The primary aspect was progressive. That progressive aspect was the anti-comprador capitalist struggle, the strengthening of the national bourgeoisie, nationalization (de-foreignization and building up a strong state sector) and a non-aligned foreign policy. The negative aspect was narrow nationalism i.e. Sinhala Only. The neoliberal Right decries 1956 in totality; the nationalist Opposition celebrates it in totality. The neoliberals try to roll it back; turning the clock back to pre-1956 and throwing out even the positive in ’56. The Opposition’s neoconservatives hope to build upon and extend the most regressive aspects of 1956 i.e. the ethnonationalist hegemonistic aspect.
The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 was wholly positive and progressive. If it had been implemented there would have been no war, or the war would have been a low-intensity insurgency, winnable far more swiftly and with early, unambiguous Indian support.
It is necessary to understand the complex dialectical truth that the B-C pact was possible only because of the Bandaranaike victory of 1956, and that victory would have been possible even without pandering to Sinhala only in 1955-’56. In short the problem with 1956 was not 1956 but 1955-’56, and the surrender to the Sinhala Only slogan, abandoning the enlightened progressive nationalism and social democracy of the SLFP’s founding documents in 1951, its election manifesto of 1952 and its progressive stand right up to and including the Hartal of August 1953.
Imagine a country in which there was a progressive victory in 1956, without Sinhala Only, and followed up with the B-C Pact which made for limited but real autonomy? Imagine a quartet of non-alignment, patriotism and progressive nationalism, an expanding state sector, and autonomy for the Tamil areas? That would have been a populist but not narrow nationalist triumph. It would have been the victory of social democracy. What a country this would have been! That would have been perfectly feasible given the Hartal of 1953 in which even the Federal Party participated!
What was necessary at that time and remains necessary today is the fusion of 1956 and 1957, or more correctly the fusion of the progressive aspects of 1956 with 1957. The rightwing comprador government of the day could have been defeated by the SLFP/MEP without conversion to the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress’ Buddha Jayanthi report’s recommendations, especially the language recommendation. 1956 should have been the political expression and extension of the ideology and cross-ethnic alliances of the Hartal of August 1953 (the kickoff was a massive Galle Face Green meeting presided over by SWRD Bandaranaike), in which even the Federal Party participated. Instead, SWRD succumbed to the Sinhala-Buddhist pressure groups.
SWRD’s great merit was that he was our Nehru. His great demerit was that he wasn’t enough of a Nehru. Nehru was a socialist-oriented anti-fascist and committed secularist. SWRD was not a secularist like his close friend. In fact 1956 contained an improbable fusion of the Nehruvian and the RSS/Shiv Sena “Sangh Parivar”—and the local RSS component assassinated our imperfect approximation of Nehru.
What is happening today is very similar to what is happening then. The dynamics for change, which can ensure victory on a populist basis without any recourse to ultra-nationalism, are being manipulated and hijacked by ultra-nationalism exactly as happened in 1955-’56. Chandrika intuitively understands that the B-C Pact was aborted because of the retrogressive aspects and forces of 1956 itself. Her reflex action has been to dump the 1956 heritage itself or worse still, to switch sides, wittingly or unwittingly, and stand on the wrong side of 1956 and the famous ‘Mara Yuddha’ cartoon depicting the Pancha Maha Balavegaya against the deracinated elite, the precursor of today’s neoliberal globalizers.
SWRD Bandaranaike’s great intellectual merits were two fold; firstly to understand the global Zeitgeist, that there was an irresistible dynamic of transition, of change, flowing through the world, especially Afro-Asia, and Ceylonese society itself. Secondly to adopt a foreign policy position congruent with these changes. His demerit was to vacillate and finally abandon his own enlightened social democratic and populist views, and permit the adoption of an ethno-lingual and ethno-religious program. He strove to reverse it with the B-C pact of 1957 but could not overcome the backward social forces he had himself helped to achieve hegemony. These forces killed him. Their socio-cultural ‘children’ killed Chandrika’s husband Vijaya.
What was and is needed is not a hopeless attempt to hold back the tide of change and shore up the status quo. What was and is needed is to combine SWRD’s understanding of the “Time of Transition”, with an intervention that influences and shapes that transition. The challenge is to cut away from the negative forces of 1956, while fighting against the declining force of the status quo, building upon the positive forces for transformation and injecting a positive program of transformation i.e. an updated reiteration of the B-C pact, into their ideology. The task is to synthesize 1956 and 1957, not to hybridize 1956 with its opponent, the pre-’56 elite and its ideology.
CBK is making an ideological and philosophical error which is a mirror image of the ultranationalists. The ultras of South and North want a populism dominated by narrow ethno-religious nationalism; a populism which is overwhelmed by narrow nationalism. CBK’s formula has dumped every ounce of populism that her father, husband and she herself stood for, and instead seeks to merge reform with neoliberalism.
Liberal reform can be salvaged today only in alliance with the dynamics of populist change. If there is no such alliance, and liberal reform is identified with neoliberal globalism and cosmopolitan elitism, then rising populism will be wide open to hijacking by ethno-religious chauvinism.
The present dispensation, bi-partisan though it be, is nowhere as strong and coherent as hers was when she attempted a new Constitution and failed. One wonders why she thinks the same ‘Package’ project can succeed now, in far less favorable circumstances.
Those pushing for a new Constitution do not have the patriotic/nationalist credentials that would confer public legitimacy on that effort; credentials that were achievable only by winning the war. Conversely, those who did win the war, are opposed to a new Constitution. They cannot be seen by their nationalist-populist constituency to buy, still less sell, any “poisoned fruit” emanating from the TNA, the JVP, and those who are “selling off national assets”.
The B-C Pact has already been revived and exists in our Constitution and institutions—in the form of the Indo-Lanka accord, the 13th amendment and the system of Provincial Councils. To put it differently, the feasible political solution to the Tamil question already exists and has been in place since the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The problem was that the ensuing 13th amendment could not be implemented due to the LTTE’s war, and afterwards, due to the obstructionism of the security ‘hawks’. All that is necessary is to revise, update, and upgrade this system.
What is needed is not to reinvent the wheel, but to excavate, renovate and reinforce what has been achieved by way of a political solution. Constitutional change and reform are not coterminous with a new Constitution or a Constitutional amendment. What is feasible today, and barely so, is a program of Constitutional reform and renovation, not a new Constitution or even a Constitutional amendment. Change is most feasibly achieved today through gradualism and evolution in the form of changed laws and regulations, which renovate and reinforce, streamline and strengthen, build on and broaden which renovate and reinforce the PC system, the already existing successor of the B-C Pact of 1957—all within an explicitly unitary state framework. All that is necessary is to facilitate the working of this structure as its co-authors meant it to.
This article was initially published on Colombo Telegraph.
Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). The article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka.