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Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Constitutionalism

Federalism is not dividing a Country. On the contrary, it is a way by which unity could be maintained among disparate communities. The Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka are the most qualified people for federalism.

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Grandmother with her Granson in Jaffna [ Photo credit Claudia Willmitzer - claudiawillmitzer.com ]

The Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East have been urging for the recognition of their traditional homelands from almost the time of Independence. During the grant of Independence, the Tamils though occupying their traditional homelands in the North and East were also resident in all parts of the Country for Government jobs,  trade, commerce and what not.

The Tamils felt safe and secure under British rule. Often the Sinhalese leaders would say the Britishers showed partiality to the Tamils and they adopted a policy of divide and rule. That concept was wrong. The British had good opinion of the Tamils, not because the British wanted to divide and rule (in fact they had no reason to divide and rule since most Sinhalese leaders aped the Britishers, converted to their religion and supported the British except the Left Leaders) but because the Ceylon Tamils were hard working, duty conscious, conscientious workers and they preferred them in many of their colonies. After all the Bhagavad Gita had preached disinterested devotion to duty several centuries ago and the idea was implanted among the Hindus, whether Vaishnavites or Saivites. It was the duty consciousness of the Upcountry Tamils that made Ceylon (Sri Lanka) prosper under the British and even thereafter.

The Federal Party was formed in 1949. If we had requested the British to grant us Federalism in the first instance it would have been granted because the Kandyan Sinhalese also wanted Federalism. Maybe because most of his clients were from the South, without disturbing the demography pattern of the time, Mr. G.G.Ponnambalam, the then leader of the Tamils put forward the 50:50 request, where the majority Sinhalese were to hold half the seats in Parliament and all the Opposition Parties together were to hold the balance 50%. This request was rejected by the British.

Mr.SJVChelvanayagam left Mr.Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress Party and formed the Federal Party in 1949. The reason for asking a federal dispensation was because power was soon going to pass on to the hands of the Sinhala majority in the Country. Since the Britishers had unified the Country’s administration in 1833, and they were leaving now, the Tamils justifiably felt unsafe among the Sinhalese majority. They had to preserve their traditional homelands and the best way to preserve their areas was by asking for self-rule in their own areas without dividing the Country.

Federalism is not dividing a Country. On the contrary, it is a way by which unity could be maintained among disparate communities. The Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka are the most qualified people for federalism. They have occupied continuously for over 3000 years their traditional homelands in the North and East, have had a language of their own, culture of their own and in fact kingdoms of their own before the British unified the Country for administrative reasons. Even though Eastern Province had several sub-kingdoms they were all governed by Tamils. They paid tithes sometimes to the Kandyan King. The last King of Kandy was not a Sinhalese. He signed the peace treaty with the British in 1815, in Tamil. Tamil was the language of Royalty.

The reservations among the Tamil leaders, especially Mr. SJV Chelvanayagam, was to soon prove true. First the Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised. Then by the Sinhala Only Act, the Tamil Government servants were driven away from  State Services.Then through pogroms and riots the Tamils who lived in the Provinces outside the North and East were driven away. Ultimately by standardisation, the studious Tamil students found it extremely difficult to enter higher echelons of the Educational ladder. Meanwhile lands falling within the boundaries of the traditional Tamil homelands were soon being expropriated and Sinhalese from the South were made to colonise those areas.Many of them were Island’s Reconvicted Criminals.

In 1956 Mr.SWRD Bandaranaike when he brought the Sinhala Only Act, did not foresee what he was going to do to the Country. He knew he was being unreasonable to the Tamils who occupied a distinct area, had a language of their own, culture of their own and belonged to religions other than that of the majority. For political reasons, to defeat the UNP, he formulated his policy of Sinhala in 24 hours. But he thought he could bring in the Reasonable Use of Tamil Act and assuage the Tamils. But he had released forces by his political short-sightedness which he just could not control. The Buddhist Priests stormed his residence at Rosmead Place and had him tear up the Reasonable Use of Tamil document. The same unleashed forces ultimately murdered him.

Lee Kwan Yew when he met SWRD, the Prime Minister, the latter had boasted, puffing at his pipe, that he had made the language of the majority the State language of Ceylon! Lee had warned him that it was wrong. In fact, he had made four languages, Chinese, Tamil, Malay and English, the State languages of Singapore and Singapore today prospers while Sri Lanka is bankrupt! 

Political, Social and Economic mistakes have been made in this Country. Costly mistakes! Mistakes devoid of common sense.Mistakes merely to get the votes of People at the next election. But the wise would not cry over spilt milk.They would ask how best could we change the situation and improve our lot.

Let me come to your question now. Yes!  I did say that unless the President consents to a Constitution other than a Unitary Constitution for Sri Lanka it would be purposeless having talks with Leaders of Tamil Parties. Under a Unitary Constitution, the majority community rules the roost. They predominate in everything. They decide what is good for minorities. They had the power to obstruct the progress of communities other than theirs, as we have seen in the case of the Northern Provincial Council. Projects beneficial to the People of the North had been sabotaged. We were not allowed to have the Chief Minister’s Fund when other Provinces had. All Provinces have seen modernisation in this Country except the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Only those who would go and cringe and beg the members of the majority community were found worthy of condescension by the powers that be.

We have not been allowed to run our own schools. Our fishermen are unable to fish in their traditional fishing areas. The Military controls everything from land to sea and may be air too! The Military are stationed in the North and East from the time of the end of war continuously. Expropriation of our resources by the South takes place daily. Appropriation of our lands by various Departments and most notably by the Mahaweli Authority takes place continuously. Buddhist places of worship are coming up illegally in places where there are no Buddhists living. Chinese influence is maintained in Tamil areas with ulterior motives. I once heard a Government Official tell some Chinese officials that they were close to the Chinese because of the closeness of their religion and that the Tamils are Hindus, meaning the Tamils are close to India.

I could go on enumerating the woes of the Tamil speaking of the North and East.

But the fact remains that talking reconciliation and making ad hoc changes to the existing Constitution as it is today being a Unitary one, would take us nowhere. The Tamils need to be freed from the yoke of Sinhala dominance. Even though the LTTE had asked for a separate State, our Voters have brought us into Parliament on the basis that we agitate for a Federal / Confederal Constitution so that we could live within our traditional homelands in amity with other communities, still continuing to be Sri Lankans. My Party alone asks for a Confederation because we want to minimise interference by the Central Government in the areas of our residence.

Unless we divide Power amicably among the different communities in consonance with the areas of their residence we cannot live in Peace and Unity. Always the majority Community would want to interfere and sabotage the activities of others if they feel unequal to the others. The Sinhalese though the majority in this Island suffer from an inferiority complex. The fact that a large contingent of Tamils live close by in South India might be one cause. The fact that Tamils are more hardworking and industrious is another reason. After all the Tamils who were driven out from Sri Lanka have proved their mettle in far-off lands. It took over twenty countries to coalesce to destroy Prabhakaran. He kept the North and East under his control for almost thirty years against a Sinhala Government all-powerful!

You would realise why a constitution other than a Unitary Constitution is necessary. We could discuss the difficulties that we may face in bringing about a federal constitution but certainly to continue with a Unitary Constitution will only bring misery to all.

Views expressed are personal

C.V. Wigneswaran

Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, PC is a Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer, judge, politician and Member of Parliament.

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