The Sunday Leader

Making of a Constitution

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement last week that land and police powers would not be devolved under the 13th Amendment brings back all the political hip-hopping and waltzing on the political firmament in recent weeks back to square one where all the problems began. Land and police powers were issues that resulted in the Big Bang of Sri Lankan politics in 1958, which resulted in the two communities drifting apart as it is still drifting.

The announcement should have caused no surprises because it was expected. In the Sinhala dominated south there are still memories of Vartharaja Permual’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence and the Tamil National Alliance’s solid backing for the LTTE whose clear objective was a separate state.

On the other hand the refusal to devolve land and police powers to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) brings the situation back to status quo: The Sinhala dominated central government to handle the two functions in the clumsy way that successive governments have done since 1958. Tamils rightly question why only the Sinhalese at the centre can be given these devolutionary power and not Tamils in the provincial councils.

The question now is: Where do we proceed to from this point? The 13th Amendment which has a clear stamp of ‘Made in New Delhi’, however much the Sri Lankan protagonists of the proposal may say.  That does not matter because it has been clearly unimplementable for the past 26 years. The problem won’t go away if we forget about it and if the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims are to live as a united Sri Lankan community it has to be resolved. Other solutions have to be thought of.

The JVP has been opposed to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement from the day it was signed and claims it took to arms to oppose ‘Indian Hegemony’ and the Indo-Lanka Agreement.

The JVP still opposes the agreement and with it the 13th Amendment. The JVP has fresh proposals. Instead of what it calls ‘autocratic centralisation’ (as promoted by Southern parties) and ‘autocratic decentralisation’ (as promoted by Tamil parties) – both of which promote separation. It proposes ‘democratic centralisation’ which it claims would unite the country. It makes many radical proposals and lofty ideas that include:

* Abolition of the present constitution and adoption of a new constitution

* Equal rights for all nationalities and groups that should be guaranteed in the constitution

* Abolition of the Executive Presidential system and the upholding of other basic democratic rights.

A key proposal is the establishment of Peoples’ Councils in areas where people with different cultural identities reside and in areas where intensive ‘national oppression’ was experienced and in areas with special requirements.

Undoubtedly this is a novel approach away from the beaten track. But working out the concept of Peoples’ Councils and making it acceptable to concretised diverse political opinion will be quite a formidable task.

The success of a constitution will depend on the political will to implement its basic objectives and not go behind the usual shadows such as national security. The constitutions of Sirima Bandaranaike and J. R. Jayewardene espoused many lofty democratic ideals but behind the provisos of national security and national sovereignty those ideals became mere ciphers.
The JVP proposals have some merit in that it does not traverse the beaten track where the two paths cross and progress thereafter is not possible.

Most constitutional proposals made so far in mainstream politics are based on devolutionary lines which have found to be unacceptable. Even the Tissa Vitharana All Party Conference report has been unacceptable to President Rajapaksa and has not seen the light of day since it was submitted.

Racial problems and differences cannot be resolved by legal formulations alone. There must be the political will on both sides to resolve the problem and leaders of all participant parties should have the political stature to be trusted and acceptable to all. They do not come out of the blues but emerge through evolutionary processes.

In Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) there was one such leader that emerged through constitutional evolution: D. S. Senanayake. He had many rivals and competitors even on his own side. The Opposition too was formidable and most of the time intractable like the redoubtable G. G. Ponnambalam with his ‘fifty-fifty’ demand but Senanayake’s personality, sincerity and commitment to the cause of the country’s independence enabled him to hold the diverse factions together and forge a constitution that lasted for 24 years after Independence.

Constitutions that last can only be made with the sincere desire of the leaders to treat all citizens of the country fairly, equally and squarely and not have the eye focussed on the next election.

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