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Sri Lanka's Conflict: An Interview with PACT (part iii)

In the third installment of his PACT interview Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan, discusses the need for constitutional change, including a brief assessment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and examines the relevance of the historical set of ‘grievances of the Tamil people’ today.

In 1972, Sinhala was made the official language of Sri Lanka, constitutionally. Since 1956, 'Sinhala Only' had been a legislative measure, it was leavened to some extent, since 1958, by the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. But even this was not in fact implemented in the North and East in the 1960s; it was blocked by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s 1960-1965 regime. This meant that even the administrative language, the language of the courts, in the North and East was de jure Sinhala, and was so for some time, officially, but de facto English was used, to some extent. This was a horrible policy and led to peaceful civil disobedience movements that were responded to by state violence.

But it's also important to remember that, given the Constitution of the Second Republic, both Tamil and English were made national languages in 1978. And given the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1987, Tamil is an official language of Sri Lanka. I think that we erred gravely as a polity from 1956 through 1978. Since 1987, constitutionally it's been corrected, and that’s enormously important to remember, because it does show, that as a postcolonial polity, we’ve been able set wrongs right. But, very crucially, this constitutional provision has been poorly implemented, in most everyday situations. That’s really inexcusable. But in lots of formal, high level, ceremonial and symbolic occasions, Tamil is used now where it was not before. For example, I am gladdened that the President makes it a point to speak in Tamil, on public occasions. Some say this is superficial, but it means a lot to me, to listen, because I remember a time when it wasn’t even conceived of. That’s good, but hardly good enough, because in so many situations, a Tamil speaking person has to deal with state agencies – including the police and judiciary - in Sinhala. That’s wrong and it should be addressed. Soon.

On the Constitution itself it is also really unfortunate, but again this is a product of a colonial legacy - the Kandyan Convention, that transferred power to the British in 1815, that it allows Buddhism to be referred to as the religion that would have the foremost place in Sri Lanka in our modern republic. It’s not the state religion, but its close. I would much rather live in a secular country, and I disagree with this. However, while India remains a secular country, of course it has got enormous problems with Hindu supremacy. So even that is no guarantee of equality. But what's happened in Sri Lanka, again since 1978, is that there are ministries for the Buddhist Sasana, a ministry for Hindu Affairs, a ministry for Muslim affairs, and I believe one for Christian affairs. Many of these things have now been governmentalised. I don't know whether that is a good thing, but on the other hand they followed that colonial logic of having someone look over everything. So one cannot say that the government only supports Buddhism. But of course Buddhism is supported much more strongly, and senior Buddhist clergy have a much bigger say, or appear to have a much bigger say, in state policy than senior clergy from other denominations; that is certainly true. My view is that the government should be out of the business of religion, period.

When it comes to the whole question of the 13th Amendment, of devolution, of self-determination, I think you need to take a step back and ask what precisely the Tamil people and the Muslim people, of the North and East and the rest of the country also, want. The Federal Party for a long time used to simply have a political category, ‘the Tamil speaking people’. Now, however, Muslims, who speak Tamil, have now clearly indicated that they want to be thought of as a separate group. We had an election in 1977 and we haven't really had a free and fair election in the North and East since. It's very clear that in the 1977 election that there was a resounding mandate for a separate state Tamil state, or at least a federal state. This angered the Sinhala polity greatly and we've been on a spiral downwards ever since. Nevertheless, whether you are angered or not, if there is a population that has given such a mandate in an election, it has to be taken very seriously. The regime at the time did not take it very seriously and produced a military response to this vote, by focusing on a very small number of people who had taken to militancy at the time, and passing a draconian law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which doesn’t serve the needs of justice at all. This exacerbated the situation. I hope that if a period of long, relative peace is returned to the North and East the electoral process can take root again. Certainly elections have already been held in the East under the 13th Amendment, and will held in the Northern province too, soon, and that will be a good first step, but its not one set of elections we need, we need a long term democratic process. But we have to ask the Tamil and Muslim people who live there, and in other provinces, what they want. And they have to have the time to decide and people have to the have the time and resources to campaign for their own platforms. Having done that, hopefully we can come to a democratic arrangement. Honestly, it is unclear to me anymore, having done fieldwork in the East, whether regular people there really want to be a part of a separate state or a federal set up, or a unitary country.

For example, when I've talked to students in the Eastern University at Chenkalady, to sociology students, about what they thought were the grievances of the Tamil speaking people, they didn’t seem clear on them at all. Now these are students that are in many ways sympathetic to a very simplistic, nativistic Tamil nationalism, but they couldn’t articulate their views as a set of political principles.

I mean when I was growing up, I knew the grievances of the Tamil people by heart. There are four. I’ll return to them later, but they were: education, employment, development, and colonisation. But the students said their biggest problem was security. What they meant by that was that they are body checked all the time by the army, and this was terrible. Clearly. But this was the time of the peace accord, so I said to them you might not be any more: the state is tired of fighting with the Tamils, they may just pack up and go. If they do and the Tamils had their own country, what would its constitution look like? But it seemed they’d never had a discussion on that, never even thought about it! That's because the LTTE had completely closed off the vibrant space that existed in Tamil political discussion. So I think you need to return to that. I can't really say what the people want; even if I lived in Jaffna, it's not for me to say, is it? It's for everyone else to decide. And there has to be political space to decide and fashioning that would take some time. Interestingly, it strikes me that students in the Eastern University, don’t really see an ‘issue’ with not having Tamil as a language. They study and live in a campus where their education is entirely in Tamil: everyone speaks it, lectures are held in it, and the government of Sri Lanka pays for it. And if they ‘pass out’, as we say in Sri Lanka, they could get jobs as teachers in Tamil schools in the Eastern Province. So there is a functioning linguistic system there. It may be important to keep that in mind, as a marker of how far we have come since 1956.

Now when it comes to the ‘devolution of power’, the 13th Amendment is part of the constitution so we should implement it because it is the law, whether we like it or not. I think it is an enormous step forward that we've had elections under the amendment in the East - the first time under the amendment. The elections in the north will hopefully follow by the end of the year if relative peace returns, as it seems on the cards. It is inevitable that those councils that are just coming into being are going to be full of administrative snafus and be largely unproductive. This country is going through a financial crisis no doubt because of the global problem, but in any event the Provincial Councils have been underfunded. Their taxation authority is very limited and their scope of powers is in a certain sense also limited. Nevertheless, there are some important powers that the councils can administer that includes local police powers and authority over land, but which none of the 7 councils that I understand to have been already constituted have administered. There are three lists of subjects involved and, I understand from experts, that they are themselves somewhat confused. There is a reserve list, a concurrent list, and a devolved list; the reserve list is what the centre does, the concurrent list is shared and some subjects are on the two lists. It is a matter for the courts to work out, through a series of judgments, how these powers are going to be divided.

An important case, that has already been decided in this vein, is the one pertaining to Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill. This bill proposed a new electoral scheme for local elections in the provinces. Its too complicated to go into here, but the most difficult provision was that the minister of local government would be responsible for the delimitation of electoral boundaries, which could of course have led to political gerrymandering. This was a massive problem with this bill. Upon the presentation of the bill to Parliament, the Supreme Court was petitioned on the bill, and the court has held that it cannot be passed with a simple majority in parliament without the consent of all the Provincial Councils. The Eastern Provincial Council refused to pass it, and the vote was postponed. Now the bill has been withdrawn from Parliament. This is indeed an example of the system working; and an example the power of a province, however limited. So I am more than pleased to see that the judicial branch and the legislative branch have had to work together to formulate new law in relation to the provinces, and I am quite surprised that this landmark event hasn’t been more widely discussed by those concerned with devolution. Perhaps we shall hear from these specialist scholars and activists soon. This is a legal process that should have been going since 1987, since the 13th Amendment brought Provincial Councils into being, but since that time, we've not had been able to have Provincial Councils in the North and East, where the original demand for them actually seemed to exist in 1977; it doesn't exist anywhere else, certainly not in Colombo as far as I know. These matters have not gone before the court because there has not really been an antagonistic relationship - in relation to the sharing of powers - between other (non-North East) provinces and the centre. So as some constitutional case law builds, I think we will understand better the actual contours of what the 13th amendment are. Because you cannot really know them before they are tested before the courts. Once we know that, and there is peaceful democratic political opinion, they can certainly raise their voices and say this is not working for us we need to do something else. And I hope we, as Sri Lankans, can practice a little give and take and work with it. We really must try. The time for tub-thumping is over.

Also, we mustn't get stuck in past issues. Let’s go back to 1977, and ‘the grievances of the Tamil speaking people’. If you look at three of them, education, development and employment, I think the frame has changed so much, that may be non-issues. In the 1970-77 economic regime, and really through the '60s and increasingly through the '70s, the state and only the state, within a policy framework of self-sufficiency, import restrictions, commodity scarcity, was the only provider of these resources. Today, most of the lower middle class and middle class Tamils who would have been affected by the policy of media wise standardisation practised by the United Front government between and 1972 and 1977, (and restricted university admissions to the linguistic proportions of the candidates), would be able to really bypass Sri Lankan universities and take degrees at any one of the international universities that have these locally based programmes in Sri Lanka. That's a fact. Sri Lankan universities are still very important, but they are no longer subject to that kind of media-wise standardisation in the first place, and have not been since the late ‘70s. There is a system of quotas, for educationally under-privileged districts, but they are ethnically neutral. So on education, I think privatisation has really opened up opportunities. Similarly with employment, where the state is no longer the most sought after provider of jobs. Even with medicine and engineering. If the government is racist in not giving you jobs, there are lots of hospitals that will hire you with better salaries. So it doesn't seem to me that it's the kind of issue that it used to be, but it is not to condone anybody's discriminatory hiring practices, and certainly the state sector should be watched on this.

Similarly with the question of development in those days, 1960-1977, the private sector was not expanding. What remained from the colonial period remained, and there were very few light industries. The situation is not the same now. Sri Lanka has a massive light manufacturing sector; it's much larger than the old plantation sector, from garments to biscuits, and none of these are really controlled by the government. Capital flows where it can make the most amount of profit: it’s flexible, it moves in and out, and there is much foreign capital in Sri Lanka. Dialog for example, the mobile phone company, is Malaysian. If there is relative peace in Mullaitivu, I have no doubt that there will be a Dialog signal there and they will employ people as they need to. Again that particular grievance has gone away. Right now, in the East, Cargills, Hayleys and Brandix have large-scale projects, and I understand more of the corporate sector will be going in soon. In fact, the government’s ‘Eastern awakening programme’ encourages this. So ‘development’, ‘education’ and ‘employment’ in the old sense of grievances may well have receded now. There are no doubt questions to be asked about wages and working conditions, and the environment as one always does with any kind of capitalist activity, but these may not be ‘Tamil’ or ‘Muslim’ questions.

The main issue that remains from that old set of grievances is ‘colonisation’. That is the state aided settlements, on state land, in the Eastern and Northern Provinces. This is a real live issue, and it should be worked out between the Provinces and the centre and the courts, through the land provisions of the 13th Amendment. Again though, I think the economics of this has changed. Unlike in the past, where there were large numbers of poor or landless Sinhala peasants, who could be persuaded to move into new, far away, and potentially difficult locations on the promise of 5 acres of land, the present is different. Even if state aided colonisation becomes regime policy, it seems unlikely that significant numbers can be persuaded to move.

PACT, (the Peace and Conflict Timeline project) is an independent initiative of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Colombo, Sri Lanka, that is concerned with, "[t]he events that surround the history of the Sri Lankan conflict, their impact and interaction with other events, [which] are still highly contentious. As a contribution to this ‘live’ debate, [it] was developed as a participatory initiative to help those with an interest in the Sri Lankan conflict gain a deeper understanding of the conflict’s roots, manifestation and trajectory and to promote discussion around events, themes and experiences of peace and conflict related events.

I, Pradeep Jeganathan, do not endorse any other claims, explicit or implicit, on the PACT website.



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Reader Comments (10)

Hi Dr. Pradeep, I just finished reading your three interviews with PACT while skimming through the SL blogosphere to try get a picture of the island at present (also I'm big fan of your photo blog!).

Quick question regarding colonization ,which is an issue which stood out to me: would the Tamil people of the North and the East consider private investment to be colonization?

Similarly these is also some thought that many of the government's planned North/East development projects will require skilled labor which is likely to be in some extent drawn from the South - will economic migration of Sinhalese and Muslims be accepted?
May 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKahled Hakim
Thanks for reading and commenting, Kahled.
Well, I shouldn't think private investment is colonization; at least not in my book. If that's the case, then how can Tamil owned company buy invest in Colombo or Matara? Take Cargills, which owns the super market chain, Food City, and has, I think, a majority of Tamil shareholders. I think its great they are selling strawberries from Nuwara-Elliya in Tissamaharama. Or where ever. Likewise for anyone else, I'd say. Similary with migration, unless it is State sponsored /aided.
May 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Hello Dr Jeganathan
A very interesting interview. I noted with interest your comment that a person denied employment by a government due to their ethnicity should be only mildly concerned as, in the current economic circumstance, they can apply their skills (in the interview it was medicine) in the private sector and be better renumerated at the same time. Doesn't this miss the point somewhat in that that particular individual, through the actions of a racist government, had their choices unfairly limited? What of those that wish to practice in the civil service? Surely the issue is still as valid today as it was in 1977?
May 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVinit Kewal
thank you for your question. Yes, I do think discrimination needs to be found out and opposed. As I said, "but it is not to condone anybody's discriminatory hiring practices, and certainly the state sector should be watched on this." It is of course a matter of rights.
But since other options exist also, in every field, ( in the NGO sector in administration, as opposed to the civil service), I take heart, that people have better, perhaps equal opportunities to contribute.

But that's an issue, no doubt, if it exists -- there is clear data in some sectors, and fuzzy data on others. Historically, its always been suggested, by Sinhala Nationalist that in the upper layers of the civil service, in through out other services, (like railways, clerical) Jaffna Tamils were way over represented. As in medicine and engineering. This is where the 1972-77 University quotas come from. I think its true for a particular period. (But ofcourse Tamils were under-represented in other parts of the economy). In the last good study, that looked at numbers around 1977, there was no real over/under representation in any area.
I am wary of ethnic quotas in governing job allocations, India has taken this route, and its quite messy. So taking a stand on principle is good, understandable, but any practical policy decision based on that, can be very difficult.
But its an issue for reform, after examination, not a issue to blow ourselves up over.
May 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
You have stated in Part iii as follows:
"It's very clear that in the 1977 election that there was a resounding mandate for a separate state Tamil state, or at least a federal state.... The regime at the time did not take it very seriously and produced a military response to this vote".
Whenever the claim is made that there was a "resounding mandate" for a separate state it omits to define the territorial limits of that state. The issue being left out of the discussion is that the "resounding mandate" applies only to the Northern Province, but the claim has been made and continues to be made for both provinces.

The TULF did NOT receive the mandate sought from the Eastern Province. Nor did it receive a mandate for a separate state in the 2 provinces combined. Notwithstanding this, the claim has always been for both Northern and Eastern Provinces. Because there is no moral underpinning to claim the Eastern Province, the two provinces were merged without a referendum under the Indo-Lanka Accord, thereby violating a key tenet of democracy. If the truth of the election results had been accepted, a separate state only for the Northern Province may not have been that attractive in which case other options may have been explored 30 years ago, thereby saving us this tremendous cost in blood and treasure..
Statistics relating to the election results are in my article in The Island of 5/25/09 the URL of which is http://www.island.lk/2009/05/25/features8.html
May 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNeville Ladduwahetty
That's correct, I didn't include a geographical break down of the mandate. Its also correct that while the mandate is clear in the Northern province, its not clear in East. Some electoral districts supported the TULF, some did not. I can't give a break down of the voting here, but I have no reason to doubt yours, as linked. (In the Island article, the date of the election is given at 1976, it should be 1977)
Its also true, in the subsequent proposals to address the question of the devolution of power, this comes up. The Indo-Lanka accord, which you refer to, only advocates a temporarily merged province, with a referendum to be held in within an year. It was not, due to violence, and supreme court demerged the provinces, upon petition. Other proposals, in the interim, like the 1995 proposals, are very clear the units of devolution in East, should be subject to negotiations, and not taken as given by provincial boundaries. So I think this point has been accepted by many reasonable people, but I thank you for bringing it up again.
May 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Thanks for your response. However we need to look at this more closely.
Just as much as it is clear that there was a mandate in the North it is time we conceded that there was NO mandate in the East. Taken by District the percentage vote for the TULF was Trincomolee 27%; Batticaloa 32.5%; Ampara 22%. As a Province only 27% supported the TULF. Besides, going down to the smaller units such as Electoral Districts does not make sense because the mandate sought was for the North and East to be an integrated separate state.

Units of devolution should not be based on negotiations conducted in 1995 on electoral results from 1977. Negotiated arrangements are not a principle. A relevant principle in this case could be the will of the people. Another is the principle of equality before the law which would require consent of today's electorate to be sought before merging parts of the East with the North. This principle was flouted when the Eastern Province was temporarily merged with the North in 1987 against the will of the people. We also know that the required referendum would never have been held. The reason is not violence. It is because both Sinhala and Tamil leaderships could not afford the risk.

Since we are all interested in working out a mutually acceptable arrangement we have to accept the reality that the East would not willingly be a part of the North. This is even more so today than in 1977. Acceptance of this should be the starting point. Since devolution to the Northern Province makes little or no sense, we need to seriously explore a power sharing arrangement at the Center without the complications of territory. This is what I have been advocating since 1994.
May 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNeville Ladduwahetty
wrote that some 'electoral districts' (AKA a seat) vote for separation in 1977. This not amounting to an administrative district is beside the point. For example, if the people of Tissamaharama want a separate administration, and they vote for this, it should be taken seriously, even if its just in the town.
My point about 1995 was that question of different view points in the East, has been acknowledged, by even strong advocates of devolution. There were not any 'negotiations' on this point in 1995, as far as I know.
That having being said, I agree that there does not seem to be clear call for any thing more than a strong provincial council in the Eastern province. It will be easier to tell, all around after several years of peaceful politics.

I really I'm not persuaded that, "devolution to the Northern Province makes little or no sense." Why? If it is a peaceful democratic demand, of course it makes sense.
May 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Continuing our discussion:
Your statement that devolution to the Northern Province makes sense because it was the result of "a peaceful democratic demand" does not hold because the entire premise for devolution was as a power sharing arrangement with the Sri Lankan Tamils, and therefore, devolution to the Northern Province alone makes no sense because the majority of the Sri Lankan Tamil community is in the Eastern and Western Provinces combined. If only the Northern Province wants devolution, should not the rest of the country be polled on this issue as well? In fact, I have advocated a country-wide referendum on the acceptance or not, of devolution as a political arrangement, at the forthcoming elections.

If we are to "devolve" power to smaller units such as Tissamaharama or Pradeshiya Sabhas (260+), it would become an administrative nightmare.

Thank you for this brief exchange which underscores the need to rethink the logic of the course we have been treading for decades. An opportunity for serious change has been presented to us now, and we need to rethink whether devolution as a concept for participatory democracy in Sri Lankan politics is the best way to go. My position is that we need to think anew.
May 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNeville Ladduwahetty
NL: you say: "the entire premise for devolution was as a power sharing arrangement with the Sri Lankan Tamils" that's one premise; its certainly not the only 'premise' of devolution, taken generally, and internationally.
that's my point. I think I've been consistent on that.
June 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan

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