Representational image: iStock
Representational image: iStock

 It is hard to refute the assertion that the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhala-dominated state and the Tamil people is directly attributable to the unitary constitution under which the island was granted its independence by Britain in 1948. Unitary constitutions crafted on the principle of “one person, one vote” results in political power residing mainly with the majority nation to the detriment of the numerically smaller nations in a multinational state.

Faced with disenfranchisement, discrimination and denial of fundamental rights, the beleaguered Tamil leadership demanded a federal constitution, widely regarded as an antidote to the “tyranny of the majority.” When this was denied and periodic pogroms were unleashed to beat the Tamils into submission, they escalated their demand by calling for independence. The “civil war” that resulted in the wake of this demand lasted well over a quarter of a century. It ended with the defeat of the Tamil rebels in 2009. The brutal war has left the Tamils and Sinhalese even more polarized, but the untrammeled majoritarian rule that was the root cause is yet to be honestly addressed.

The interim report released by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly on September 21 has been criticized for suggesting a form of government calling for “maximum devolution” and avoiding the term unitary in the Tamil and English versions of the interim report. The critics are strong adherents to the existing unitary form of government.

The Sinhalese version of the interim report explicitly states that the constitution will be aekiya rajyaya (unitary in Sinhalese), consistent with all previous constitutions enacted since 1948. Unlike the previous constitutions, the interim report on the new constitution does not explicitly refer to “unitary” in the Tamil and English versions. Instead, the terms used are orumiththa nadu in Tamil, which means united, and “indivisible” in English. The term “federal” has been studiously avoided in all versions of the interim report. In Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s own words, this was because the people in the south (Sinhalese) are fearful of the word “federal” and people in the north (Tamils) are fearful of the word ‘’unitary.”

The devil being in the detail, should the constitution be challenged, it will be the original Sinhala version that will prevail. As such there are good reasons for the Tamil people to question the validity of the proposed constitution. Had the government headed by Wickramasinghe and President Maithiripala Sirisena been serious about finding an enduring resolution of the 70-year-old conflict, efforts should have been directed at allaying Sinhala fears, not in crafting a disingenuous report to deceive the Tamils.

New Delhi’s foreign policy in respect of Sri Lanka is all about ensuring that the entire island stays within its sphere of influence and not breaking up the island

The Sinhala fear of a federal form of government is driven by two distinct notions:
• The belief that a “federal” constitution would pave the way for the Tamil northeast to secede.
• The assumption that the presence of 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu can cause India, the regional power, to intervene in a Cyprus-type partition of the island once a Tamil-speaking federal unit is established.
Both notions have been arduously promoted by fear mongers pursuing their own political agenda.

If the  Sirisena-Wickramasinghe administration was serious about resolving the conflict and since it can only be resolved through a federal constitution, the concept of federalism within the confines of a single country should have been explained long before the interim report was released. No such action was undertaken.

Nor have attempts been made to allay Sinhalese fears about New Delhi’s foreign policy being influenced by Tamil Nadu, causing India, the regional power, to undertake a Cyprus-type partition of the island. New Delhi’s foreign policy in respect of Sri Lanka is all about ensuring that the entire island stays within its sphere of influence and not breaking up the island. Even while arming Tamil rebels who were fighting to establish an independent Tamil state, India was clear in its objective. Jyotindra Nath Dixit, the Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka  (1985-89), made it plain in his book Assignment Colombo that breaking up Sri Lanka would make it difficult for India to maintain its own territorial integrity in the face of separatist demands in Punjab and Kashmir. Then there was MJ Akbar, an influential member of the Indian political establishment and currently the national spokesperson for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, who, in an article titled “Why we are in Sri Lanka” in <em>India Today</em> in February 1988, wrote :

A new flag anywhere in the world is a dangerous thing; it breeds new ideas. One has no doubt that the first requirement for India at this sensitive moment in our history is to be very clear in both our minds and in our policies that we will not support any secession anywhere, not in our country, not in our neighborhood.

It is not that fear mongers in Sri Lanka are unaware of New Delhi’s foreign policy, but it serves their political agenda to engage in these tactics to tap into a mindset that over the years has been groomed to look upon New Delhi with great suspicion.

In July this year, Sirisena emphasized that no change will be made to the clauses of the Constitution regarding the unitary status of the country. The declaration was made to the Buddhist Chief Sanganayaka. Wickramasinghe was equally clear when he declared in September that under the proposed constitution Sri Lanka will remain a unitary state with priority given to Buddhism.

It is clear that the prime minister and the president are determined to continue with the unitary aekiya rajyaya constitution while appearing to promote devolution.

It is a strategy best described as doublespeak.

Ana Pararajasingham

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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