Words, deeds and devolution-fixations
Posted on October 30th, 2016

Malinda Seneviratne

The Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has pleaded that action be taken more seriously than word.  Speaking at a press briefing on the subject of a vote on a UNESCO resolution, Samaraweera referring to controversial remarks made by President Maithripala Siriesna raising questions on the work of agencies investigating corruption allegations, requested that the government be judged on its actions and not on statements made.
Interestingly, Samaraweera also stated ‘the government has not veered from its mandate to create a dynamic and vibrant democracy in Sri Lanka’.  Mandates are words, not deeds, and mandates, Samaraweera once said, are meaningless after elections.
But let’s get to deeds, proper.  Lakshman Kiriella, Leader of the House, in a recent interview with the Daily Mirror has said that equal rights of the people should be ensured through power sharing with the periphery.  This brings us to the vexed issue of constitution-making, the Mother of all Deeds, so to speak.  The Father of that process, if you will, Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne himself has confessed that very little has been done so far by the Committee appointed to handle the subject.  Add to this the other ‘statement’’ by the President where he dismisses provincial boundaries (on which the Eelam map has been traced and which give Kiriella’s ‘peripheries’) as the work of British cartographers (he did not interject ‘arbitrary’, but that’s what they are), and we need not be surprised that the ‘deeds’ are still in the making.
So we are forced to go back to words, because ladies and gentlemen words are all that this Government has gives us so far on the issue of ‘reconciliation through constitution-making’.  And we know that words are dangerous things, they are easily tossed around and are what turn myths into facts and what confuses grievances with aspirations.  Kiriella, now, believes he knows the words.  He says that people don’t know history.  Let’s listen to the erudite historian.
The first people who asked for devolution were the Kandyan Sinhalese. When Lord Soulbury came before Independence to create the new Constitution, Kandyan Sinhalese went before him and said that they had been a separate country for 400 years and that they had a crown and a throne. That was what they said. They asked for a Federal State. What they suggested were three Federal States -Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti. Their basic argument was to seek devolution on the lines of the Indian constitution that was in the making at that time. The strange thing is that Tamil parties did not want devolution at that time. They preferred the status quo. The problems started after Independence. The parties that came to power offended the sentiments of Tamil people. Voting rights of estate Tamils were taken away. The Sinhala Only Act was introduced. The Federal Party was born after Independence.”
Our historian slips in the birth of the Federal Party after mentioning the issue of voting rights and the Sinhala Only Act, when that ill-birthing predates the other and more frequently mentioned ‘Post-independence’ problems. But let’s ignore such mischief.  The problem of drawing from history is the prejudice of selection.  There was context to what could be called a preposterous demand driven by the self-interest of the Kandyan ‘nobility’, the radalas, as preposterous as the similar demands made by spokespersons for certain castes.  They, like the Tamil ‘nobility’ in the North feared democracy because it threatened privileges enjoyed.  There was no ‘history’ buttressing the demands.  The problem of the Kandyan Sinhalese was ‘sorted’ through marriages which took families such as the Ratwattes, Meedeniyas and Dunuwilles out of the political equation.  The caste-based demand died a natural death.  Tamil chauvinism outlived both thanks, interestingly, to a disavowal of history by all relevant parties for a multiplicity of reasons including the existence of a strong anti-Buddhist political elite and a colonial and post-colonial mentality that cut across class, caste, region and even religion.
The historian does not challenge the claim that the Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti were federal states.  They were well defined territories of course and far more logical than the 5 provinces that the British first drew and the 9 they came up with later, but they were not states by any stretch of the imagination and certainly not for any length of time that makes an ‘example’ that can support a wishy-washy devolution proposal.
The truth is that the notions of ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’ were foreign to this island, in name and substance both.  There were times the land was eksesath or under one flag, times of multiple centres of power, times of overloads exacting tithes of one kind or another and other political arrangements.    The logic of ‘unity’ was more defined by specific objectives than by common agreement.  There was more commonality, if you want to argue the point, on the matter of shared notions of cosmology.
The problem is simply a matter of putting the cart before the horse for reasons of ignorance, sloth, convenience and last but not least pernicious intent; in the case of Kiriella I would go with any or all of the first three, and with Wickramaratne and Samaraweera, the last.
A process that is determined by a preferred outcome is no process but a political charade.  A process marked by a refusal to audit grievance and assess aspiration is ill-starred, to put it mildly.  Typically they exacerbate inter-communal tensions and fall apart, and if there’s no bloodshed involved we could say ‘lucky’.  Even if ‘devolution’ was a logical outcome of process (rather than the pre-determined ‘solution’ it is and which robs the process of credence), a refusal to revisit relevant boundaries in a context of chauvinistic myth-mongering on territorial claims amounts to rank irresponsibility.  And what we are seeing it now a political charade that is ill-starred and irresponsible.  And we are being generous here.
Political systems are not cast in stone, sure.  What we were is not what we are and will not be what we will be.  Fixation is a negative.  Fixation coupled to ahistorical balderdash is a double negative.  That’s where we are.  The ABC of a constitution-making process, as we have pointed out many times is about a) obtaining a coherent articulation of grievance, b) assessment of the same to prune out exaggeration, c) review of aspirations to obtain the ‘reasonable’, d) consideration of all relevant factors including demography, geography, economic sense and of course history, and e) an assessment of do-ability.  If and only if all this yields ‘devolution’ as a logical arrangement to resolve grievances (as of now, even with exaggeration, marriage with aspirations and coated with mythology, devolution is a laughable ‘solution’ to the vague utterances of grievances, please note), should such be considered.  Also, if devolution, then and then only should lines be discussed.
The historian is wrong about the federal claims associated with Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti, of course, but if devolution is an outcome of a (far more transparent and ideologically-free) process of deliberation, then such demarcation makes far more sense than the arbitrary lines drawn by a thief who was also a mass murderer operating with the intent to ethnically cleanse vast swathes of the island of Sinhalese, i.e. the British, folks.
As for words and deeds, if you get the former wrong you are not going to get much of the latter.  Indeed you end up talking nonsense.  If nonsense is the talk, need we even debate possible outcomes?
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene

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