THE NATIONALIST PAPERS – Sophomoric devolutionists need to graduate
Posted on June 19th, 2011

by Malinda Seneviratne-Courtesy The IslandƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

Devolution proposals that do not take into account history, demography, geography, political efficacy (i.e. whether or not it leads to ruptures that bleed to violence) and economic rationality are essentially the work of either rabid chauvinists intent on land-theft and self-aggrandizement or the intellectually slothful.

Devolution is stumped by history. The ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”traditional homelandƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ claim remains unsubstantiated. Indeed, the historical record rebels against it. The fact that a ten-mile wide strip on the coast was ceded to the Dutch East India Company on February 14, 1766, Kirthi Sri Rajasinha and that the Dutch thereafter settled Tamils from South India in this area to grow tobacco clearly compromises the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”exclusivityƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ element of traditional homelands thesis of Tamil nationalism. If thatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s not far enough into the past, then the invader Raja CholaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s boast that he had conquered the island home of the warlike ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Sinhala peopleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ suffices to shut-up the shrill whines of Tamil chauvinism on this matter.

Demography trumps the idea that devolution would redress minority grievances because more than half the Tamil population lives outside the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”traditional homelandsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ (so-called). Geography routs devolution because vast swathes of the Eastern Province are inhabited by non-Tamils and this cannot be totally attributed to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”chauvinisticƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ (alleged) settlement schemes, while the Northern Province was ethnically cleansed of Sinhalese and Muslims by the LTTE. The damning fact that the relevant provincial boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by colonial rulers (very much like how the continent of Africa was carved among European powers with straight-line cartography) and that they were not informed by any social, political or geographic reality compromises further the pro-devolution argument.

Pertinent, over and above all this, is the demographic changes orchestrated by the generosity of King Senarath to Muslim traders harassed by Europeans and the massacres of Sinhalese in the Uva-Wellassa by the British.

Those who harp on devolution as mechanism for addressing Tamil grievances (imagined and real) are therefore academically infantile and typically chauvinistic. The smarter devolutionists are those who offer a purported ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”economic logicƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. Although they may or may not have supported the Eelamist posturing that is embedded in the devolution discourse, they implicitly recognize that the homeland claim does not stand scrutiny on the above grounds. R.M.B. Senanayake (RMBS) is one such ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”enlightenedƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ devolution-advocate although he does slip into Eelam-speak now and then. Enlightened, let me hasten to add, only to the extent that the arguments are superior to the infantile ones referred to above.

In what he claims to be a ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”responseƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ to something I had written on devolution, RMBS says that Batty Weerakoon had told him that ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”devolution of power was a settled issue before the 1987 Indo-Lanka AgreementƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. When one starts from false premises which are made further murkier by the prerogatives of political expedience, one can have all kinds of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”done dealsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. The earth being flat, for example, was a ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”done dealƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ in the Christian world (those in the East knew better and millennia before) until Galileo came along, if the point needs support. Devolutionists went into hiding when it became clear that the LTTE was about to be vanquished. TheyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢re now enjoying a second-wind courtesy of moves by malicious and multi-tongued thugs in the international community and this was the point I made. That RMBS wants to close debate on devolution indicates a sad reluctance to respond to objections as such IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ve made above and elsewhere.

He is not an infant, however. This is why in his purported response to me RMBS claims that devolution of power would empower all lives, everywhere in Sri Lanka. He does not, as I have (see ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Why stop at ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”13 PlusƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, letƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s steam ahead to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”19ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢in the Daily Mirror of June 14, 2011), tied devolution to reforms in the overall institutional arrangement to restore balance in favour of the citizen as opposed to politician and centralization of power. Instead he picks on an argument I made regarding resource anomalies.

My position is that devolution (especially to the dimensions that the likes of RMBS prefer) could lead to a situation where the resource-rich can protest surpluses being channeled to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”developƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ the resource-poor parts of the country. ThereƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s no getting around the realities and I explained this thus:

ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”The Western Province contributes more than half of the countryƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s GDP. Wayamba, Central and Southern Provinces hover around 9% each with the rest contributing less than 5%. If it is about people making do with what they have and having their say in the matter of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”doingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, devolutionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s democratic boast becomes pretty hollow. We would have the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”WesternerƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ telling the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”UviteƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ to go fly a poverty-stricken kite. We could have the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”UvitesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ arguing with one another for weeks and months and deciding triumphantly that poverty is a virtue. Reality spits on devolution.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢

RMBS says, that such imbalances have nothing to do with devolution. He says, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Each Province will harness whatever resources are thereƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and thinks that the unrelated issue of resource-discrepancy among nations not requiring some kind of world-government buttresses his argument. His is an argument for sustainable poverty and spits on the Christian notion of loving oneƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s neighbor and all things that champion the collective over the individual in the teachings of Jesus Christ (mentioned here only on account of RMBSƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ much-advertised faith whose articulation often smacks of religious fundamentalism). It is essentially an every-man-for-himself kind of argument and one that implicitly sanctions anarchy.

There is a reason why there is a population shift to urban centres and this is not on account of conflict. The people of this country have in this way too voted with their feet against RMBSƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ devolution-thesis. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Let us be the poor we areƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ is not a slogan that would compel the poor remain in their poverty-ridden enclaves demarcated as they are in the most problematic and unscientific ways. Moreover, it calls for ever smaller units, i.e. smaller than provinces and districts. We can go all the way down to villages and, why not (!), even households! When all devolutionists are ready to pack their bags and go live in their respective mul-gam in poverty-stricken conditions sans modern conveniences, then and only then can one take such arguments seriously.

RMBS says that my arguments are without substance. ThatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s an opinion. The fact is that his responses remain unsubstantiated and logically puerile. He loves confusing apples with oranges and is an expert at dodging questions. ThatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s still not ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”infantileƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢; it is sophomoric, rather. That is, his arguments are only marginally superior to those of rabid chauvinists and ideologically muddled Marxists. He needs to graduate and I fear it is too late in the day. ThatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s a pity.

In the article referred to above, I have argued that ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”devolutionƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ can be meaningful in a power-sharing, economically viable and developmentally logical. This requires, in addition to constitutional amendments that empower the citizen vis-ƒÆ’†’ƒ”š‚ -vis the politician, a re-demarcation of provinces, whereby each new unit has a seaboard and a well-developed port. The Central Province would be an exception of course, but treating it as a special entity sits quite well with current developmentalist and environmentalist positions regarding the need to for proper management of watersheds; knowledge which our ancestors were so acutely acquainted with that they kept forests in the hills in ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”untouchableƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ status.

Given land and population size and the real potential for inter-ethnic harmony post-LTTE, I believe devolution even along the lines I suggest would be redundant, considering that a full two-thirds of monies allocated to the provincial councils as per the 13th Amendment goes to cover overheads. Devolution a la RMBS, on the other hand, would compromise national unity, cause or exacerbate inter-communal suspicions, be politically untenable and eventually terribly and tragically destructive (as the Eelam adventure amply demonstrates).

The last things Sri Lanka needs at this point is to err in favour of the sophomoric. WeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ve done that as a nation for far too long.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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