Making of a new constitution for Sri Lanka: Let wiser counsel prevail

By Tassie Seneviratne

Banda-Chelva“Constitution making in Sri Lanka has become a highly contentious issue.  The problem lies in the challenge to democracy, arising from the polarization of the two main ethnic groups – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – and the mistrust that has been simmering since Independence culminating in the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution’ in 1976”.

The talking point throughout the country these days is about the making of a new constitution for Sri Lanka.

Principles of democracy as enunciated by the USA and accepted in most democracies and relevant to constitution making, are as follows:

On the surface, the principles of majority rule and the protection of individual and minority rights would seem contradictory.  In fact, however, these principles are twin pillars holding up the very foundation of what is meant by democratic government.

  • Majority rule is a means for organizing government and deciding public issues; it is not another road to oppression.  Just as no self-appointed group has the right to oppress others, so no majority, even in a democracy, should take away the basic rights and freedoms of a minority group or individual.
  • Minorities – whether as a result of ethnic background, religious belief, geographic location, income level, or simply as the losers in elections or political debate –enjoy guaranteed basic human right that no government, and no majority, elected or not, should remove.
  • Minorities need to trust that the government will protect their rights and self-identity.  Once this is accomplished, such groups can participate in, and contribute to their country’s democratic institutions.
  • Among the basic human rights that any democratic government must protect are freedom of speech and expression; freedom of religion and belief; due process and equal protection under the law;  and freedom to organize, speak out, dissent, and participate fully in the public life of their society.
  • Democracies understand that protecting the rights of minorities to uphold cultural identity, social practices, individual consciences, and religious activities is one of their primary tasks.
  • Acceptance of ethnic and cultural groups that seem strange if not alien to the majority can represent one of the greatest challenges that any democratic government can face.  But democracies recognize that diversity can be an enormous asset.  They treat these differences identity, culture, and values as a challenge that can strengthen and enrich them, not as a threat.
  • There can be no single answer to how minority-group differences in views and values are resolved – only the sure knowledge that only through the democratic process of tolerance, debate, and willingness to compromise can free societies reach agreements that embrace the twin pillars of majority rule and minority rights.

Constitution making in Sri Lanka has become a highly contentious issue.  The problem lies in the challenge to democracy, arising from the polarization of the two main ethnic groups – the Sinhalese and the Tamils – and the mistrust that has been simmering since Independence culminating in the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution’ in 1976.

Looking for causes of this polarization, one has to examine the Tamil claim of discrimination and denial of their rights, especially in regard to devolution of power,vis-a-vis the Sinhala apprehension of Tamil plans for secession and that the devolution package as demanded by the Tamils is only a spring-board to secession.  This apprehension has been aggravated by the experience of the Tamil Eelam war.  Whose mistrust came first is like the question, “which came first – the chicken or the egg”? In the case of the chicken and the egg, it is a circle of nature’s beauty.  In the case of mistrust between the two ethnic groups it is an ugly and vicious circle given motion by unscrupulous politicians driven by political expediency.  The motion of this circle has to be put on reverse mode until we get back to the days when there was ethnic and religious harmony and humanity prevailed.

This reversal can be achieved by adhering to the principles of democracy as laid out above.  It is for the majority to be magnanimous enough and start the process of tolerance, debate, compromise and trust for mutual good.

In this matter of constitution making in Sri Lanka the majority too is divided.  There is a racial minded group on the one hand raising alarms causing mistrust and on the other hand a group working towards harmony among all ethnic and religious groups, with  a view to bring back the good old days when we enjoyed the fruits of diversity.

What we all must bear in mind is that direct democracy has an inherent weakness in majority rule.  That is why the ‘principles of democracy’ as laid down above have to be adhered to, in order to avoid “tyranny of the majority” where the majority places its own interests above, and at the expense and to the detriment of, those in minority, whereby that detriment constitutes active oppression comparable to that of a tyrant or despot.  Through tyranny of the majority, a disliked or unfavoured ethnic, religious, political or racial group may be deliberately targeted for oppression by the majority acting through the democratic process and the minority driven to revolt violently against such tyranny.

Let us examine the sequence of major events that precipitated the “Vaddukoddai Resolution” in 1976 and the Eelam war that followed.

After gaining independence in 1948, English continued to be the official language of Sri Lanka. With passage of time sections within the Sinhalese community began to campaign to make Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka. At the parliamentary elections in 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader SWRD Bandaranaike (SWRD) formed the coalition Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and campaigned to make Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka. With the support of extremist Sinhalese figures,SWRD won the election and became Prime Minister (PM). He made it his priority to follow up on his promises related to the language issue, and introduced the Official Language Act (commonly known as the Sinhala Only  Act) in June1956.Tamil people vehemently opposed this and staged hartals in parts of the country. The Federal Party (FP) led by SJV Chelvanayakam demandedthe establishment of a new constitution on Federal principles, with the creation of one or more Tamil states enjoying autonomous powers along with several other demands. The Federal Party vowed that if their demands were not met, they would engage ‘in direct action’ to achieve these objectives.  At the same time Sinhalese extremists complained about the delays in enforcing the Official Language Act.

Fearing that violence would break out if an agreement between the leaders of the two communities was not reached, PM SWRD  reached out to the Federal Party leadership, and after several meetings and discussions reached a successful agreement which came to be known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact.

For the first time a political agreement was reached between the two leaders of the two main ethnic groups.  Both sides made concessions – Chelvanayakam accepting less than Federalism, and SWRD agreeing to give Regional Councils substantial powers.  With this agreement the Government was able to prevent the campaign threatened by the Federal Party across the country.

The Pact however, was opposed by Sinhalese nationalist leaders.  The main opposition came from the opposition United National Party, headed by J R Jayewardene.  Following their defeat in the 1956 elections, the UNP used the communal bogey to re-enter active politics.

With the opposition to the Pact growing in intensity, there were other factors that caused increased tensions between the two communities.  In 1957, with a view to appease the Sinhalese chauvinists, the Government introduced the Sinhalese “Sri” character on number plates of vehicles.  This was strongly opposed by Tamil People, and the FP organized an “anti-Sri” campaign.  Participants of the campaign in the North went around applying tar on the “Sri” character of vehicles.  This was met with anger among the Sinhalese community, who painted tar over Tamil characters on Bill Boards around the rest of the country.

Amid the growing opposition to the pact, PM SWRD made genuine efforts to convince the people of the country that the pact was the best solution to the communal problems of the country.  He even equated the Pact to the Middle Way doctrine of Buddhism.  However the opposition to the pact continued and came to a head on April 9th 1958 when approximately 100 Buddhist monks and 300 Sinhalese nationalists staged a protest on the lawn of the PM’s Rosmead Place residence.  They demanded that the PM abrogate the agreement he signed with Chelvanayakam.  The PM was pressurized by the mob to publicly tear the agreement into pieces and upon their insistence he also gave them a written pledge that the pact would be abrogated.  Thus what prevailed was “Rule of the Mob”.

Try as much as he did,ultra nationalist Sinhalese leaders refused to be convinced,and the Government faced anti-government strikes organized by the Leftist parties.  In May 1959, the Leftist members of SWRD’s administration quit the Government and joined the opposition.  Riots broke out across the country and SWRD was struggling to keep his party in power when on 25th September 1959 he was shot by a Buddhist priest in his residence at Rosmead Place at point blank range with a pistol he had concealed in his robes as the PM was paying obeisance to the priest. SWRD succumbed to his injuries the next day.  Investigations revealed that the Buddhist priest had been manipulated by the rabid forces SWRD had unleashed to come to power.

After the breakup of the MEP coalition the SLFP went it alone.  The SLFP reached out to the FP and promised to revive the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact if the FP helped the SLFP to form a Government.  At the July 1960 General Elections, the SLFP headed by SWRD’s widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike achieved a convincing victory with the help of the FP.  This enabled the SLFP to form a Government on its own, and it cast aside the agreement with the FP and later introduced legislation to make Sinhala the Official language of the Courts of the Country.   Felix Dias Bandaranaike, a nephew of SWRD, was the strong man in Sirimavo’s Government who called the tune.  The reason given for letting down the FP was that it would have given the UNP an opportunity to incite the Sinhalese extremists as they had done in 1957.

At the General Elections on 22nd March 1965, the UNP led by Dudley Senanayake, failed to obtain a majority but was able to form a Government with the help of the FP,entering a pact known as the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam pact, which was signed on 24th March 1965, with a view to ensuring a stable Government.  The terms of the agreement were:

(1)  Action will be taken early under the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act to make provision of the Tamil Language to be the language of Administration and of Record in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Mr Senanayake explained that it as the policy of his party that a Tamil-speaking person should be entitled to transactbusiness in Tamil throughout the island.

(2) Mr Senanayake stated that it was the policy of his party to amend the Language of Courts Act to provide for legal proceedings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to be conducted and recorded in Tamil.

(3) Action will betaken to establish DistrictCouncils in Ceylon vested with powers oversubjects to bemutually agreedupon between two leaders.  It was agreed, however, that the governmentshould have power under the law to give directions to such councils under the national interest.

(4) The Land Development Ordinance will be amended to provide that citizens of Ceylon be entitled to the allotment of land under the Ordinance.

Mr Senanayake further agreed that in the granting of land under colonization schemes the following priorities be observed in the Northern and Eastern province

(a)   Land in the Northern andEastern provinces should in the first instance be granted to landless persons in the district.

(b)   Secondly, to Tamil-speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern provinces

(c)    Thirdly, to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to Tamil residents in the rest of the island.

Sgd.Dudley-Chelvanayakam  24.3.65

FP member M Thiruchelvam was appointed Local Government Minister to steer the District Councils through.  The SLFP and a “ginger group” of 16 UNP MPs opposed the pact.  Dudley Senanayake lost the nerve to go through with the District Councils Bill and the same fate as what happened in 1957 came upon the country.

At the General Elections in 1970, Sirimavo B came back to power and in1972 adopted a new constitution known as the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka.

Many features of the new Constitution were seen as being discriminatory, especially by the Tamils. The FP, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, and other Tamil organizations reacted collectively and in May 1972 formed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and agitated for reforms.  The Government carried on regardless using emergency regulations.

The broken promises of respective Governments led to the watershed in the history of Sri Lanka’s major communal problem – the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution.’ Among the reasons given for this resolution is: “Whereas, all attempts by the various Tamil political parties to win their rights, by co-operating with governments, by parliamentary as well as extra-parliamentary agitations, by entering into pacts and understandings with successive Prime Ministers, and in order to achieve the bare minimum of political rights consistent with self-respect of the Tamil people have proved to be futile;”

We can now take a look at the “Vaddukoddai Resolution” of 1976 in the light of above developments.  The resolution speaks for itself.

At the Vaddukoddai Convention of 14th May 1976, the TULF unanimously endorsed the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution’ that articulated inter-alia, theviewthat theminority Sri Lankan Tamils needed separation from the rest of Sri Lankato resolve their political problems, and resolved to, “restore and reconstitute the State of Eelam in order to safeguard the existenceofthe Tamil Nation in this country”.  The Resolution also went on to state.  “This convention directs the Action Committee of the Tamil United Liberation Front to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil nation: and

“This convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in General and the Tamil Youth in particular to come forward and throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of Eelam is reached”.

With that, the hitherto moderate leadership that was campaigning for the Tamil cause lost control and militant youth who took over the leadership resorted to terrorism as a means to obtain their goal. Several militant groups espoused violence but rifts and skirmishes took place between them till Velupillai Prabhakaran eliminated not only all rival militants but also moderates who did not toe his line, and eventually appointed himself as the sole representative of the Tamil people.

The country thus moved steadily to the “Eelam War” that we have experienced over three decades.

It is a fact that the ultimate goal of some Tamil nationalist leaders has been a separate state. There is nothing wrong in ambition. It is human to be ambitious. We all have ambitions.

“Ah! But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?”  -Robert Browning.

However, in the circumstances prevailing in Sri Lanka, the Tamils in general have been prepared to accept autonomy within a unitary state.

Respective Sinhalese leaders have been missing this opportunity and playing into the hands of Tamil nationalist leaders, giving them cause by not honouring the pacts.They have been hoodwinking the people, and their intransigence and greed for power at the expense of communal harmony, is showing.

In the making of a new constitution, the above mentioned factors have to be taken into consideration, with a view to cure the causesthat led to war.

In regard to the bogey of secession,- “A good intelligence service is a cheap substitute for war.” It is not only the Northern secessionists that have to be watched. We have seen several JVP insurrections too, and therefore Sinhalese nationalist extremists too have to be watched.

United we can fulfill our aspirations and become the Paradise as immortalized by W.S. Senior:

“But most shall he sing of Lanka

In the brave new days to come

When the races all have blended

And the will of strife be dumb.”

(Tassie Seneviratne is a Retired Senior Superintendent of Police)

This article was first published in Sunday Times, Sri Lanka.