17 November 2011

Grievance first, devolution later (if at all)

Kalana Senaratne, in an article titled ‘Will there be peace before death?’ published in www.groundviews.org, begins an interesting essay on the 13th Amendment with the obvious preamble that the end of a war is followed by the resurfacing of problems that could not be resolved through the use of force.

Kalana offers that the answer to political problems rests in our own attitudes and perceptions, and in our ability to compromise.  He singles out two issues; that of ‘devolution of power’ and ‘promotion and protection of human rights and equality’; as challenges that confront us and ones on which people hold strong and uncompromising views.  He is correct.  These have been talked-to-death issues over at least two decades and the two have often been conflated for reasons of political convenience.  They can be but are not necessarily related.  Kalana makes this distinction. 

He dwells at length on the issue of devolution, picking the debate over the 13th Amendment as an illustrative case of the condition he laments over; i.e. perceptions and (in)ability to compromise.  I am yet to come across as clear and accurate a delineation of the contending positions, pointing to the fault lines that have time and again caused fissures in discussion and crumbled compromise when it comes to devolution.  Being an opponent of the 13th Amendment and devolution along the lines proposed by both Eelamists and their academic and other apologists, I will focus on the issues that Kalana raises regarding objections to the 13th.

He observes that some of the arguments against the 13th Amendment are presented mischievously. For example, the on-the-ground failure of the 13th is not a sufficient argument against devolution, Kalana points out, because ‘failure’ can be attributed to ‘the inability and/or unwillingness to implement,’ and ‘waste of resources less a problem of the document that a problem regarding those who were supposed to implement it’.  He is absolutely correct here.  Just because some Christian or Buddhist fundamentalist does something horrendously uncivilized in the name of Jesus of Lord Buddha, respectively, it does not mean that the respective faiths or their founders are uncivilized and/or erroneous.  The 13th can be rubbished on other grounds that have nothing to do with identity-issues and which indeed are foregrounded by issues of democracy, human rights etc. 
I find Kalana’s observation regarding myth and reality to be spot on. This is what he says:
‘One would not believe in the concept of a ‘traditional homeland’ or in a merged North-East, and would dismiss these ideas as political myths. But the fact that the majority of the North and the East consist of Tamil speaking people is not a myth, along with the fact that this demand for power-sharing had always been the predominant demand of the Tamil minority, or its representatives, elite or otherwise.’
Yes, ‘Tamil-speaking’ and this, let us not forget, was political sleight of hand on the part of Prabhakaran and a little game that Ashroff, the founder of the SLMC was happy to play.  The two communities, Tamil and Muslim, in terms of linguistic commonality do make the majority.  It doesn’t mean that the total land area of the North and East is mostly ‘Tamil-speaking’ though.  The linguistic issue can have a language-related ‘solution’ and the legislation for this already exists. Political will has been slow off the blocks, but it is not standing still either.  Citing ‘language’ when convenient and leaving it out when it is not is bad, insincere and ‘rubbishable’ politics. That kind of conflation is good for Eelamists, not for any sensible person who genuinely wants resolution or is agreeable to deferring to superior logic. 
Yes, the demand for power-sharing has always been a biggie as far as the Tamil minority is concerned.  So?  All kudukaarayas (drug addicts) consistently want heroin.  When they run out of money they rob.  It is quite ok to demand, but for demand to be reasonable, it must flow from grievance.  Having said this, I do agree that ‘devolution’ cannot be rubbished off the political stage easily, but for different reasons from what Kalana offers.  Devolution has been politically accorded a kind of currency that is not congruent with the grievances that it seeks to redress. Furthermore, the grievances have been so frilled that their true dimensions need to be re-obtained.  This is why I say that we are putting the card before the horse when we talk about devolution and grievances. 
My contention, as the title indicates, is that ‘Devolution’ is not a necessary town that the nation-train has to pass on the way to a conflict-free, peaceful and harmonious future.  I am not saying that we must not take a route that takes us through Devolution, but that the issue of devolution has been poorly framed. 
The question of whether or not the 13th Amendment makes Sri Lanka a federal entity or not is academic at a certain level.  Kalana believes that the 13th is harmless.  One doesn’t write into law and implement all harmless things.  That makes constitutional enactment a joke.

The bottom line here is that we have to work up from minority grievances.  ‘Devolution’ cannot only be about efficiencies (the 13th is inefficient for reasons other than those that Kalana states), it has to allude to the grievances.  We are not talking about aspirations here because that’s an as-high-as-the-sky kind of thing.  We are talking instead of real grievances of a community that is clearly aggrieved.  We are talking of redressing these grievances and doing without disregarding demographic realities, political doability and in ways that make economic sense. 

It is important to understand, as Kalana argues, that resolution of grievances (through devolution or in some other manner, as made ‘appropriate’ by grievance-dimension) must go hand-in-hand with ‘constitutionalism, the rule of law, the establishment of independent institutions and a firm resolve to promote and protect human rights and equality’, not just to placate minority anxiety but in creating the conditions conducive to a wholesome citizenry.
It all begins from the beginning that time was made to forget by a politics that I suspect did not necessarily like it: GRIEVANCE.  Forget it and all ‘solutioning’ is easily reducible to crass politicking. 
Kalana is absolutely right: an opportunity, a tremendous opportunity, has arrived, now that there is an absence of violent conflict; but success depends on how well that opportunity is used, or utilized.’  I would add, it depends on how honest we want to be about what we gripe about. 

[This article was first published in the 'Sunday Island' in May 2010]