The NPC Resolution and Constitutional Changes Irrationality and Dangers of Federalism in Sri Lanka:
Posted on June 22nd, 2016


The Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform in Sri Lanka has published its report. The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) adopted a resolution on constitutional changes. Although presented unconstitutionally NPC proposal  should be studied. It is the responsibility of all Sri Lankan citizens belonging to all ethnic groups and political ideologies to begin discussions on various new Constitutional proposals placed on the Table and voice their opinions as the final version would vitally affect the future of their children and grand children. This short article is a contribution to that public dialogue on the NPC proposals done without rancor and undue emotion based on rational arguments and empirical evidence.

The NPC resolution among many other demands reportedly calls for a fundamental change in the system of governance from unitary to federal; an amalgamation of the north and east; establishment of a North Eastern State Assembly; and an autonomous area for Muslims in the N-E state, and for Tamils in the Hill country; and a substantial reduction of the powers of the Sri Lankan Central Government.

In short what NPC demands is a federal system in which territory is singularly defined and demarcated by ethnicity and language. Federalism has different forms. A researcher on federalism, Henry Hale, of Indiana University, USA, states: An ethnofederal state is a federal state in which at least one constituent territorial governance unit is intentionally associated with a specific ethnic category (Henry E. Hale, Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse,” World Politics, Vol. 56, 2004, p. 167). Hence what NPC desires is a sub-type of federalism and technically named ‘ethnofederalism’ or ethnic federalism.

Research Evidence: High Risk and Low Risk Ethnic Configurations

Research has shown that there are two demographic phenomena that transform ethnofederalism into a high risk operation, at times even encouraging secession. The first is called ‘cumulating ethnic cleavage’ configuration , and the second ‘core ethnic region’ configuration. In applying ethnic conflict concepts to decide  whether federalism is appropriate for Sri Lanka or not, one needs to understand the above  two demographic concepts.

In analyzing the concept of ‘cumulating ethnic cleavage’ it will be easier, first, to understand its opposite concept, i.e. the ‘cross-cutting ethnic cleavage’. In a cross-cutting scenario, the dominant ethnic group gets ‘substantially divided ’ by religion, etc. or by the presence of other multiple smaller linguistic groups. For example when a dominant ethnic group in a specific area gets compartmentalized by two religions in a substantial manner, the dominant ethnic group loses its monolithic nature, as the differing world-view of the two religious groups cross -cuts the common ideology of the dominant ethnic group. This results in the dominant ethnic group experiencing reduced capacity for lobbying on behalf of the ethnic group as well as being mobilized by ethnic politicians for extremist agendas including the mounting of a challenge on the Central Government. Thus a ‘cross-cutting cleavage’ situation has considerably low risks with regard to promoting secession. 

In the ‘cumulating ethnic cleavage’ situation, the regionally dominant ethnic group does not get divided as above in any substantial manner by religion or other socio cultural factors. The division when it happens is low in magnitude, and leaves the monolithic nature of the dominant ethnic group largely intact. This type of cleavage basically increases and reinforces the power of the dominant ethnic group. The extremist ethnic politicians would find a ‘captive audience’ for manipulation and marketing of ethnic separatism against the Central Government. Therefore ‘cumulating ethnic cleavage’ is a high risk ethnic configuration for a Country as it could foster separatist tendencies, especially under an ethnofederal form of government.

The Indian Context :  A Low Risk  Ethnic Configuration and A Powerful Centre

In this regard it may be appropriate to attempt to understand the Indian context. Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University, USA in article titled ‘ How Has Indian Federalism Done? Published in the Journal ‘Studies in Indian Politics’ by Sage Publications in 2013, ( howhasindianfederalismdone.pdf) analyses the effects of both cross-cutting and cumulating cleavages on India and concludes that A major reason for the success of Indian federalism, if not the only one, has to do with the country’s ethnic configuration. Indian identities tend to crosscut, instead of cumulating”.

He explains that in the vast majority of Indian States the existent geographical concentration of language and tribe is cross-cut by  religion (he also mentions the two other cross-cutting factors, existence of a multitude of smaller language groups, and caste) thus substantially reducing the ….. political potential that language (or for that matter, tribe) might theoretically create for brinkmanship on the part of a state”.

Cumulating cleavage is, however, a different kettle of fish and Varshney points out that ‘cumulating cleavages’ has prompted attempts at secession even in India. Fortunately for India the ‘cumulating cleavage’ situation exist only in a small number of States- Punjab, Kashmir, and about four States in the tribal areas in the north-east such as Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram etc. All these states launched campaigns to break away from India and confirmed the theory that- federal units with ‘cumulating ethnic cleavages’ are high risk locations for separatist movements. India battled and won against a projected separatist ‘Khalistan’ at immeasurable cost to the Indian political leadership. Kashmir is still experiencing separatist intensions and tensions. In some of the north-eastern tribal States in India, separatist sentiments still lurk beneath the surface.

However, India was able to meet this limited challenge thanks to the foresight of founding fathers such as Pundit Nehru and Dr. Ambedkhar. When crafting the Constitution they created a strong Central Government with comprehensive powers for dealing with secession including even powers for taking over State Governments when they cross the red line. They also comprehensively strengthened the protection of fundamental human rights protection through the Constitution which is seen as a significant supportive constitutional mechanism for managing perceived or real ethnic bias.

It is primarily the preponderance of the demographic phenomenon of ‘cross-cutting ethnic cleavage’ within the vast majority of States in India, the strong powers of the central Government, and effective constitutional support for protecting fundamental human rights that consolidated the integrity of India and ensured comparative ethno-linguistic harmony. Federalism is a side-show.

Sri Lanka: Two High Risk Ethnic Configurations and the Proposed Ethno-Federalism

Where does Sri Lanka belong in this ethnic cleavage continuum? Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Relations and Social Science at Brown University, USA (in the earlier referred to article) provides an answer to this all important question for us Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka is a classic case of cumulative cleavages. Tamils are not only religiously distinct from the Sinhalese, but also linguistically and racially”.

The second risk factor that researchers on federalism have identified is (called) the ‘core ethnic region’ principle.  Henry Hale in another article titled ‘Ethnofederalism: Lessons for Rebuilding Afghanistan, Preserving Pakistan, and Keeping Russia Stable’ published in 2001, defined core ethnic region as- the uniting of the dominant ethnic group into a single core ethnic region” that possesses clear superiority in population”. A few other internationally accepted definitions added  the second  dimension that need to be met to call a territorial area as ‘a core ethnic region’- that the region proposed as the federal unit  need to be recognized  or perceived to be the ‘ethnic homeland’ of the dominant ethnic group that inhabit that area.

The NPC federal resolution refers to the combined northern and eastern provinces as the proposed future federal unit. The Tamil population is quantitatively superior in the north and the east and the region is perceived to be the ‘traditional homeland’ as reported to be included as a political principle in the Preamble to the NPC resolution (although the ‘Tamil homeland hypothesis’  had been proved wrong by internationally renowned academicians such as Professor Silva and Professor G.H. Peiris). Hence the proposed federal unit of the north and east fits nicely with both dimensions of a ‘core ethnic region’ and is a high risk factor for ethnic harmony, reconciliation and integrity of the Country.

Hale points out that that inclusion of a ‘core ethnic region’ in an ethnofederal Union may lead to failure as shown through research: a preliminary survey of all ethnofederal regimes throughout the world since 1950 reveals that all cases of ethnofederal implosion have involved a core ethnic region”. …….. This is because its very existence as a core ethnic region creates the potential for the rise of the type of dual-power situation”. A dual power centre being born in a State would inevitably begin to compete with the Centre as politicians, especially ethnic based politicians would attempt to gain popularity by deliberately playing the ethnic political card against the Centre.

The eminent Sri Lankan lawyer President’s Counsel late Silva explained this same phenomenon, without referring to any theory of ethnic conflict, but possibly by observing what was happening in Sri Lanka over decades through his legal practice. He pointed out this phenomenon in around 2003 in an article named ‘The Peace Process: Are ill-conceived understandings reached at negotiating table?’He stated that there could be a danger to the integrity of the countrywhere devolution of power is to a territorial unit defined on ethnic lines”.

Thus international experience and local wisdom point out that proposed N-E State would expose the country to separatist tendencies as the two demographic phenomena  (i) cumulating ethnic cleavage and (ii) core ethnic region are stark features in the  federal territorial governance unit proposed by the NPC.


However, by no means is the above statement an argument to say that ‘it is a bad thing to have such cumulating homogeneity in a particular geographic or administrative area’ per se. There is nothing inherently wrong with such homogeneity, when they are naturally formed.

The purpose in presenting the demographic phenomenon of core ethnic region is to illustrate that empirical research had proved that core ethnic regions can catalyze separatist tendencies in ethnofederal systems, and, therefore the Constitutional Framers, have a distinct responsibility to craft a Constitution that would avoid even the smallest risk to maintenance of peace, reconciliation and country’s territorial integrity.

Research indicates that ethnofederalism is a high risk enterprise when associated with either demographic configuration of ‘cumulating ethnic cleavage’ or ‘core ethnic region’. The proposed N-E State has both characteristics. The above discussion on the situation of Sri Lanka in the backdrop of international research findings clearly illustrate that it is irrational and dangerous to change the government structure in Sri Lanka from a unitary form to a federal form either in name or in spirit.

(The writer is an ex-Journalist, Communication Researcher and a Retired Officer of the International Civil Service.) 

7 Responses to “The NPC Resolution and Constitutional Changes Irrationality and Dangers of Federalism in Sri Lanka:”

  1. SA Kumar Says:

    Ethno-Federalism- so Federal is ok but Ethno-Federalism is no good .

    my Sinhala sakodaraya M.L.WICKRAMASINGHE We want TE nothing more or nothing less ( we are trying since Elra (Eela Raj) time BC106 to VP time(to 2009) but not even 1 inch we did not got from you – that is different matter).

    Why this kolaveri ???

  2. plumblossom Says:

    We do not need provincial councils which only promotes separatism. The provincial councils only duplicate the already existing system of ministry, district secretary, divisional secretaries, grama niladhari system which has functioned for decades. In addition, there are the municipal, urban councils and pradeshiya sabhas who elect their officials to ensure that there is local government representation and to ensure that local matters are dealt with. The ministry, district secretary, divisional secretaries, grama niladhari system is how government plans get implemented at the district, divisional and the grama niladhari level. The only thing the provincial councils do is duplicate this already existing system and is totally unnecessary. Since Sri Lanka is a small country. Therefore what is agreed at the parliamentary level in terms of plans can be implemented islandwide via the ministries. If anyone in any province wants to suggest anything innovative, they can do so via their MP at the parliamentary level. A small country such as Sri Lanka needs a strong central government and just one plan for the entire island to move forward. For this the existing ministry, district secretary, divisional secretaries, grama niladhari system is sufficient. At the local level there are the municipal, urban councils and the pradeshiya sabhas to take care of local matters.

  3. Ananda-USA Says:

    My dear Tamil Sakodaraya SA Kumar,

    You may want Tamil Eelam …. but you should try getting it in Tamil Nadu India.

    With those demagogues Vaiko, Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha etc etc ad nauseam shredding each other to pieces it should be easy for you “highly intelligent Sri Lankan Tamils” educated at Sinhala Taxpayers expense in Sri Lanka to divide and rule in Tamil Nadu!

    Please go there with our fervent blessings and launch an Eelam struggle in the original land of the Tamils! There is already a tax and cannon fodder base of about 120,000 Sri Lankan Tamils permanently living in camps in Tamil Nadu. Recruiting prospects are excellent there! But don’t bring the struggle to Sri Lanka …. an early death is our one and only solution for separatists!

    Anyone who tries to get a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka will only earn a restful peace in pieces under the mud along the banks of the Nandikandal lagoon. Since that is all your vaunted Surya Deva could earn with all his exertions, what makes you think any other a Tamil Separatist can do it???

    Why are you advocating SUICIDE to your own people???

    Why this kolaveri machang???

  4. SA Kumar Says:

    Why are you advocating SUICIDE to your own people??? Why this kolaveri machang???

    Must be our Ilankai Thamilar Karma !!! Velu where are you, pulampa vachchdan(VP made me to talk like a mad man )

    live & let’s live in United mother Lanka until Eelam war V.

  5. Dilrook Says:

    The writer has forgotten the biggest separatist tool – Tamil (Nadu) language which was made an official language by the 13A. Most stable democracies have only one official language. One official language, one nation. Two official languages, two nations. That is the democratic position.

    The communist position is (as communist Colvin stated it), two official languages, one nation. One official language, two nations. Please note this is only the communist position and is totally irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Czechoslovakia is a perfect example. During the communist time, it had 2 official language (Czech and Slovak) and it was one country. But the moment it became a democratic country, as two official languages lead to two nations, it split into 2. One is called the Czech Republic and the other Slovakia.

    13A has made Sri Lanka into a full federal country with only a namesake unitary clause. It is much worse than the Indian federal model which has many checks and balances (and most importantly does not recognise minority languages as official languages). Tamil (Nadu) language is only recognised in Tamil Nadu state.

  6. plumblossom Says:

    It is very cruel and despotic of this mad government to detain two extremely patriotic citizens of Sri Lanka, Udaya Gammanpila and Mohammed Muzammil. These two Sri Lankan patriots always stood for a unitary state and are the biggest opponents of the separatists and the federalists and the like. This is why they are detained today. It is particularly harrowing that during this Ramazan period Mohammed Muzammil is detained since he then cannot fast even. The only crime these two extremely patriotic citizens have committed is standing up against any kind of partition of their motherland which all patriotic citizens should do on behalf of future generations. Both these patriotic citizens have two small children each and it must be particularly harrowing for them to go through such a harrowing experience. Let us commence a petition to release these two patriotic citizens as soon as possible. Mad Sirisena and Ranil should apologize to Udaya Gammanpila and Mohammel Muzammil for detaining these two patriotic citizens for no reason whatsoever like this.

  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ananda is right ! Two Official Languages makes two states. It is the ILLEGAL 13-A that has artificially made the Tamil Language an Official Language of Lanka.

    It is pertinent to ask ourselves why it is that INDIA imposed the 13-A forcing the Prov Council on Lanka, together with Tamil Language as an Official Language.

    The 13-A (1987) is an ILLEGAL piece of Legislation, imposed on the JRJ govt by INDIA during the Cold War times (1946-1991).

    Therefore, the 13-A must be removed. Sooner the better for us all.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress