25 November 2021

‘One country, one law’ and forgotten manuscripts



If a priest, to toss in another example, claims that someone is guilty of a crime (for example, an act of terrorism), he/she better substantiate the claim — saying ‘Aney, I am also a victim, it was those in my faith-community who suffered most,’ won’t do. 'Victimhood' does not confer special rights to insult anyone and hiding behind a robe or cassock is a coward’s scheme. 

One country, one law. Now there’s something that has to prompt wild cheers from so-called liberals (including ardent UNPers, SJBers, not-so-red JVPers, funded-voices, rent-a-protest agitators and other Colombians). They are not cheering.

Why not? Let’s get that question out of the way first.  Several answers. The more legitimate would be the composition of the Task Force on the subject appointed by the President, in particular its Chairperson, Rev Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero. In word and deed the Thero has espoused the notion, but with a caveat. The Thero has ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ instead of the word ‘One.’ That said, the Task Force has since appointment strived to broaden the composition and make it more inclusive. Nevertheless the name and history of its head can be disconcerting.

The objectors, however, haven’t called for a re-composition. They don’t seem to be interested in moving beyond sneer and jeer. The real objection, then, could be that it is their political opponents who have moved on matters they swear by. Well, their ‘swearing’ is essentially about trumping Sinhalese and Buddhists while safeguarding the privileges of other religious and ethnic communities. ‘One country, one law’ for them is just that. The many proposals for constitutional amendment stand witness to this state of mind. They want ‘secular’ applied to some but not for others and so we have both celebration and abuse of specificity. What applies in the general should not be trumped by the specific, but they don’t mind that.

That’s politics and not some high minded philosophical predilection. They want a green Sri Lanka, for example, but would cut down all the trees and poison the land, air and water rather than see this government delivering what they are supposedly fighting for.

So there's a lack of trust. That’s understandable. After all, we don't live in a country where anyone can claim the judiciary is absolutely independent, rule of law rules, there’s due process etc. Such things are promised but laws, institutions, officials and cultures make delivery a tough task. We also have unequal application of statute. There’s also very real and highly visible privileging. We could use the term ‘privilege’ when dissecting religious holidays, but even in the everyday we all know that laws are bent and rules ignored. A significant portion of the Police Force, for example, is deployed for VIP security. We see VIP convoys. Part of the pessimism could be explained by such things.

People are cynical about new laws being promulgated and for good reason. In many cases it’s not that the legislation is absent; there’s sloth or even absence when it comes to application. This does not mean that we should abandon the idea. It’s better to have the laws in place than not.

In this case, moreover, the vast majority of people voted for the notion. A total of 12.6 million voted for ‘one country, one law’ (6.9 million for Gotabaya Rajapaksa and 5.7 million for Sajith Premadasa). The other 33 presidential candidates either echoed this vision in their manifestos and rhetoric or were silent. In other words, 94.24% of the total number who cast valid votes (52.25% for Gotabaya and 41.99% for Sajith), picked candidates who believed that Sri Lanka is a SINGLE COUNTRY and therefore should have ONE LAW for all.    Well, the people have spoken, haven’t they? We are talking of 12.6 million (or 94.24% of those who voted).

What Rajapaksa and Premadasa (and other candidates) promised is that there would be a single corpus of laws. In other words, what applies to a Sinhalese would apply to a Tamil, what applies to a Hindu would apply to a Muslim, etc. In other words, the fundamental concept of ‘Equality’ should be applied across the board.  Alternatively, and this seems to be the most logical course of action, all such regional, ethnicity or religion based laws should be repealed. Anyway, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the mandate. And the United National Party (UNP) is honor-bound to support implementation.

Will the Task Force get the job done? That’s left to be seen. In a sense, the logic of setting up this body can be questioned since there’s already a committee tasked to draft a new constitution. That committee would not be ignorant of mandates. It has deliberated for close to two years now.

On the other hand, this is a Task Force. There are ‘tasks’ that can be undertaken. They could, for example, wipe the dust off the report submitted by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Extremism on February 19, 2020, days before Parliament was dissolved. The mandate is clearly evidenced by the lengthy title: ‘Proposal for formulation and implementation of relevant laws required to ensure national security that will eliminate New Terrorism and extremism by strengthening friendship among races and religions.’ It is about national security and combating extremism, but does speak to the one-country-one-law idea.  

The report contained recommendations on the following areas: 1. Education, 2. Banning face coverings which hinder identification, 3. National Defence Policy, 4. Amending the Immigration and Emigration Law in line with new developments, national and international, 5. Electronic, print and social media, 6. Amending the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Law, 7. Empowering Muslim civil society, 8. Empowerment and legalization of the NGO Secretariat, 9. Amendment of the Wakf Act, 10. Suspension of registration of political parties on ethnic and religious basis, 11. Issuing birth certificates with Sri Lankan Identity Number, 12. Establishment of a ministry of religious affairs that combines all religions, 13. Building and maintaining Dhamma schools and religious centers to ensure inter-religious cohabitation, and 14. Halal certification process. The proposals, then, certainly address the vexed issue which we could headline as ‘One country, many laws.’

There are short and medium measures that could be immediately implemented this side of constitutional amendment. There are several important measures which can be implemented by the ministries of education, defence, media, justice, telecommunications, religious affairs etc. The Task Force could strongly endorse the recommendations of the Sectoral Oversight Committee and this would go a long way in putting lots of things right.

As mentioned, we don’t have to wait for constitutional reform for all things. Existing laws can be implemented. Rules can be enforced. And the onus is especially on those who have made careers for themselves by shouting themselves hoarse about such things.

No one is above the law and no one should have extra privileges. He who is libellous, for example, should be duly charged be he/she a politician or a priest. Citing parliamentary privileges, for example, is like shooting an unarmed person in the back. If a priest, to toss in another example, claims that someone is guilty of a crime (for example, an act of terrorism), he/she better substantiate the claim — saying ‘Aney, I am also a victim, it was those in my faith-community who suffered most,’ won’t do. 'Victimhood' does not confer special rights to insult anyone and hiding behind a robe or cassock is a coward’s scheme. It won’t do in a one-country, one-law situation.

So there are lots of interesting things to talk about in this one-country, one-law business. Among them, hidden manuscripts and even hidden agendas. Keep things in the public domain. Facilitate open discussion. Skeletons may fall out of cupboards. Good for the country, all things considered.

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]