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Chandrika’s call for federalism

Sep 19, 2016
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by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
One must thank Chandrika for letting the cat out of the bag. In her recent address to “the national secretariat for national reconciliation” she has called for a federal, semi-secular constitution. I shall bypass the issue of semi-secularism and the role of Buddhism in the Constitution because it has been quite adequately dealt with, not by a Sinhala Buddhist extremist, but precisely by the senior-most member of the Catholic clergy on the island, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. Instead, let’s talk about federalism.
Chandrika’s call for federalism was entirely consistent with her SJV Chelvanayakam memorial lecture in which she identified the political “monopoly” allegedly enjoyed by Sinhalese as the main source of all our conflicts and advocated its dismantling. Obviously federalism is her chosen instrument for such dismantling.
This is also consistent with Chandrika’s political packages of 1995 and 1997 which called for the redefinition of Sri Lanka as a “union of regions”, as well her PTOMS which would have conceded a greater share of power in the North – to the ratio of 3:2–to the Tigers than it would have to the elected Sri Lankan Government (or the Muslims).
Furthermore it is consistent with her agenda disclosed in Washington DC while visiting in the company of Ambassador Dhanapala in support of his UNSG bid, in late 2005 of tilting to Ranil at the upcoming presidential election, tripping up Mahinda, and the proceeding to offer the Tigers “a federal solution”. (I was informed of this the next morning as I was a visiting professor at the School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University, Washington DC that semester. I promptly pulled up stakes, returned to Sri Lanka and appeared on TV in support of Mahinda’s Presidential bid.)
Just as there are “self-hating Jews”, there are self-hating Sinhalese. Chandrika is a self-hating Sinhalese. She he not paused to think why, after a brief flirtation with federalism in the mid-1920s, her father abandoned the idea in favor of ‘progressive nationalism’ (the name of the first party he formed) and regional autonomy (as in the B-C pact).
Nor has she asked herself why, with the benefit of a two thirds and five sixth majority respectively in the legislature, both her mother Sirimavo and her mother’s rival JR Jayewardene, eschewed federalism and the appeasement of/alliance with the Tamil federalists in favor of the constitutional embedding of the explicitly unitary character of the Sri Lankan state.
Chandrika has not paused to think why, even while under coercive pressure from India and when federalism might have appeased the Tigers, two very contrasting presidents, JR Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa refused to consider the federal option.
It was certainly not because all of these leaders were Sinhala Buddhist extremists or were cowed by them. All of them were tough leaders who fought civil wars in the South against Sinhala extremists. No, the aversion to federalism was because they all knew that it was a system utterly unsuited to Sri Lanka, a system that would weaken the state and make it more vulnerable to external interference; a system that would enhance the centrifugal dangers while weakening the centripetal factors.
These leaders were opposed to federalism also because they wanted a strong, semi-centralized unitary state for purposes of development, and equity through structural reform and social welfare delivery. For instance the 1958 Paddy Lands Act, the 1972 and 1975 land reforms, the Mahaweli scheme, mahapola and Swarnabhoomi, the million Houses scheme, Janasaviya, the free midday meal and free school uniforms, the Presidential task force on land redistribution – all these would have been fraught, delayed or downright impossible under federalism.
But this sort of thing never appealed to CBK which is why in her decade long Presidency there isn’t a single piece of landmark social welfare legislation, or progressive structural reform or large scale development. What she did was to allow private foreign companies, including our competitors the Indians, to buy up state plantations—thereby rolling back her mother’s progressive reforms.
If Chandrika thinks that the opposition to federalism springs from Sinhala extremism, then she has to ask herself why the staunchest opponent of federalism and explicit proponent of the imperative of a unitary system from Sri Lanka was the Marxist-Leninist, Dr Colvin R. de Silva. During the 1972 debates on the first Republican Constitution, Dr. de Silva, responding to Mr. SJV Chelvanayakam and the Tamil United Front, drew on his expertise as a historian who had won the first prize in the British Empire for the subject of History.
He pointed out that this island has been subject to more than its fair share of incursions due to its location, that most of those incursions were from southern India and were facilitated by the internal political fragmentation on the island, and therefore, Sri Lankas, in order to safeguard its independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty and unity, mandatorily required a unitary form of state and could not afford a federal system.
In order to get rid of the notion that there are only Sinhala extremist arguments against federalism, Chandrika should also acquaint herself with the determined rejection of federalism by Marx and Engels when the leader of the Anarchists, Mikhail Bakunin, advocated it within the First International, as well as Lenin’s angry rejection of federalism to the point that he preferred a peripheral unit to secede (“go to the devil and secede!”) rather than turn the whole state federal in character.
Given the position of responsibility she currently holds, it would be useful for Chandrika to expand her political literacy and familiarize herself with Lord Soulbury’s sympathetic advice to embittered Tamil nationalist C. Sundaralingam. Lord Soulbury advised the latter to support the UNP in parliament and adopt the strategy of the Irish, but to drop the idea of federalism or an autonomous Tamil state.
“…I now wish that that I had recommended a human rights clause as in the constitution of India – and elsewhere. But I do not believe that other federation or an autonomous Tamil State will work. Federation is cumbersome and difficult to operate – and an autonomous Tamil State would not be viable.” (Soulbury to Sundaralingam, April 1964)
Someone simply must tell Chandrika that it isn’t nice to emit large fibs in public. In her recent speech on federalism she characterizes South Africa as federal and commends it as an example.
However, even an undergraduate knows that not only is South Africa NOT federal, none other than Nelson Mandela, participating in the discussions on the new Constitution, emphatically rejected federalism (as had the legendary head of the South African Communist Party Joe Slovo, since 1988). It was the displaced, privileged white minority and its allies in Kwazulu and the Bantu homelands, who advocated federalism -and Mandela’s ANC which rejected it.
So, if one is to agree with Chandrika’s advocacy of a federal Constitution for Sri Lanka, one would have to believe that she knows and cares more than SWRD and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Lord Soulbury, and is intellectually better endowed than Marx, Engels, Lenin, Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela. It is possible that this is indeed what she sees when she looks in the mirror each morning and asks “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the smartest of them all?” But is this what we think of her? And are we willing to throw out all the collective aversion to federalism of these stellar minds, and go along with CBK instead? I know I’m not.

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