11 June 2016

Power-sharing, yes! Devolution, no!

It's an old topic but one which neither goes away nor is marked by reason.  This was published under the same title in the 'Daily News' 5 years ago. 

There are two terms that are used frequently as though they mean the same thing by those who are determined to confuse the people for the vile purpose of pushing agenda that have no legitimacy and do not correspond to any on-the-ground reality: ‘power sharing’ and ‘devolution’. 

There are two kinds of arguments pertaining to ‘power-sharing’. First, there are those who believe that the current configuration of the political space is centralized and centralizing and therefore robs decision-making power from the peripheries.  It is essentially a regionalist argument.  The impetus for proposing a re-configuration is the mistaken or deliberately misleading notion that the current set up is anti-Tamil, the assumption being touted as fact being that two provinces of the above ‘periphery’ are ‘Tamil’, i.e. they (the North and Easy) are exclusive historical and traditional homelands of that community. 

First let’s take history.  On February 14, 1766, Kirthi Sri Rajasinha, the King of the Kandyan Kingdom ceded a stretch of land in the Eastern part of the island, 10 miles in width from the coast to the Dutch East India Company.  The relevant maps are contained in Fr. S.G. Perera’s ‘The History of Ceylon’.  Prof. James Crawford refers to this treaty in his book ‘The creation of states in international law’ as one of the earliest such agreements recorded.  Prof. S Arasaratnam’s work on the Dutch Period refers to the details of this treaty and points to the issues pertaining to sovereignty.

The implication is that the KandyanKingdon had the right to cede that portion of land and that it continued to have sovereignty over the rest of the territory until the British obtained full control of the island in 1815. 

In 1766 therefore there was no question of sovereignty of any other polity and when the relinquished sovereignty was recovered and reasserted in 1948 by the State of Ceylon it naturally reverted to the political geography prior to the signing of that treaty. 

That treaty, moreover, is the genesis of the demographic realities of today’s Eastern Province where the bulk of the Tamil population lives on that 10 mile wide strip of coastal land.  Their ancestors were brought there by the Dutch to grow tobacco. Even today the majority of the GramaNiladhari divisions contain a Sinhala majority population. 

If the issue of homeland requires a longer throw back into the past, we can go to the 10th Century, to the golden period of Chola expansion/invasion and the invasion of the island by Raja RajaChola in the year 993.  Raja RajaChola is also known as a builder of Hindu Temples.  The inscriptions at these places, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, resolve all doubts about traditional homelands and sovereignty.  The inscriptions at the temples in Tanjavur and Ukkal speak in glorifying vein that Raja RajaChola conquered many countries, including one ‘Ila-mandalam’.  The inscription elaborates that this ‘was the country of the warlike Singalas’.  The plunder of wealth, one notes, is not from ‘Singalas’ who lived in ‘Ila-mandalam’ (which is a corruption of ‘Sihala’ or ‘Hela’) but the land of the ‘Singalas’, whether they were warlike or not being irrelevant to the issue. 

The archeological evidence shows that what is today called the Northern and Eastern Provinces were at one time the heartland of Buddhist civilization in the island.  Although there have been claims that these were the work of Tamil Buddhists, the thesis is not supported outside the rhetoric. 

Then there is demography.  More than half the Tamil people in Sri Lanka live outside the North and East.  Some argue that this is due to the conflict.  There is some truth in this claim, but there is absolutely nothing to support the thesis that the current demographical pattern will be reversed in the post-conflict scenario.  Indeed, the ‘exodus’ has benefitted the Tamil community/politicians disproportionately, for it has not resulted in an appropriate alteration in the number of parliamentary members allocated to the Northern Province.  

The ‘influx’ into the Western Province has resulted in at least 2 extra MPs for Tamil parties from Colombo in addition to the 9 from Jaffna.  ‘Exodus’, by the way, include all the Sinhalese and Muslims evicted from these areas by way of ethnic cleansing carried out by the LTTE with not even a whimper of protest or murmur of remorse from people like R. Sambandan. 

The bottom line is that devolution to the current provincial demarcations will leave more than half the Tamils in this country ‘high and dry’ while rabidly racist and chauvinistic politicians like Sambandan and Sumanthiran would benefit.

There is more to ‘geography’.  While the Eastern Province is ‘split’ among the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, in terms of area, the largest slice contain Sinhalese, and not Tamils and Muslims, as mentioned above. 

There is a second school of thought regarding ‘power-sharing’.  The objection is the same: concentration of power. The difference is that territory is not the core concern, but the citizen.  The 1978 Constitution was clearly anti-people.  Whatever insulation that the citizen had vis-à-vis the politician was effectively compromised by J.R. Jayewardene.  The 17th Amendment sought to win back some space for the citizen, but it was terribly flawed. The 18th threw the baby with the bath water, in my opinion. 

There is, then, power at the centre that needs to be shared.  ‘Devolution’ only puts power in the hands of regional politicians and although this might appear to be empowering since politicians are after all representatives, resource anomalies rebel against the idea when the crucial issue of development is brought into the equation.  An ‘empowered’ Uva cannot demand from a devolved ‘Western’ to let it (Uva) have a slice of the surpluses generated.  Only a ‘Centre’ that is subject to checks and balances as well as held accountable in delivering on national development prerogatives can obtain such distribution.  Only a re-demarcation of provincial boundaries where resource imbalances are corrected can buttress the ‘devolutionist’ school of power-sharing.  As things stand, it is communal, anti-intellectual and politically unfeasible.

‘Power sharing’, therefore is not co-terminous with ‘devolution’.  Moreover in Sri Lanka’s context (taking into account history, geography, demography and citizens’ grievances, including those of minorities), power-sharing if it does not address the issue of citizenship anomalies that cut across the communities, would not only preserve current imbalances but also exacerbate inter-communal tensions. 

If these realities are ignored, it shows intellectual laziness, political arrogance and ideological poverty.  Well, all these plus rabid communalism.  We won’t have ‘unitary’ any more. Neither will we have ‘unity’. We will only have an entrenching of the racism and land-theft as per the Chelvanayakam Option, ‘A little now, more later’; the ‘little’ being the BIG ‘getting legitimacy for the boundaries of the Eelam Map’ for Prabhakarans of the mid to late 21st Century to shed more blood over. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene