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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2369

Can We Drop the ‘Federalism vs. Unitary’ Debate and on What Grounds?

Professor Laksiri Fernando - University of Sydney (Visiting)

If anyone wishes to genuinely advocate a durable solution, or find one, to the ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka, acceptable to all communities, going beyond the so-called binary debates on ‘federalism vs. unitary state,’ then the deification and reification of the ‘unitary state’ (or the concept!) should be dropped, or otherwise the pompous claims of ‘impartiality’ amounts to hypocrisy and duplicity. If anyone says that the others should drop the concept of federalism and then tries to carry the unitary flag, the way back to the Kandyan kingdom, then that effort cannot be considered fair, reasonable or constructive. This is not moral high ground, but very simple common sense.

If anyone wishes to write a book review, in an academic manner, on an important research publication, apart from giving a clear reference to the publication, one should not drag the review to express one’s own political opinions particularly on such a controversial political subject as ‘federalism vs. unitary state’ in Sri Lanka, and that can even prejudice the research and views of the author under review. This is again not moral high ground, but very simple academic practice.

This article is in response to Dr. Siri Gamage’s reply (Asian Tribune, 20 February 2007) to me, using my own title “Invoking History’ – an Intellectual Bad Habit” (Asian Tribune, 18 February 2007). I am, however, not accusing him for plagiarism!

Dr. Siri Gamage in his article, dragging even Professor Tissa Vitarana, Chairman of the All Party Conference, into the fray tries to say that he is ‘neutral’ and not ‘dissuaded’ by the binary debates of ‘federalism vs. unitary state.’ He seems to suffer from intellectual amnesia within five days, from his first article (Asian Tribune, 15 February 2007) to the second one, while claiming that ‘Sinhala consciousness’ continued from the Kandyan period to the present day, carrying the unitary flag all the way through the colonial period. Is it not humorous?

My effort in the last response (Asian Tribune, 18 February 2007) - as well as in the present one - has been and is to dispute the above claim and to point out its adverse implications in finding an amicable solution to the ethno-political conflict in the country, acceptable to all communities. I also disputed his linking of violence in Sri Lanka, in 1983 and 1987-89, to the ‘Sinhala psyche’ and the cultural roots thereof, and named such efforts as ‘academic sorcery,’ to mean unscientific.

I did call those who employ this type of academic methodology ‘Academic Kattadiyas (Sorcerers),’ including Dr. Gamage, but that was not a personal attack on anyone, based on one’s physical or medical conditions like the IBS, but a criticism about their mystical methodology. I have no regrets to make. If I mention that I suffered from Myocardial Infraction (MI) ten years back, is Gamage going to ‘poke fun’ at me based on that?

But those are not the main issue but the following.

In his first article he did claim that “it is important to take a step back and examine the origin of these concepts and the contexts which gave meaning to them.” But did he do that? Did he give a balance view on the two concepts or origins of them, or the context which gave meaning to them? He only tried to trace some mythical roots of the unitary concept and practice. Now he is asking me whether I would be happy “if he writes another article tracing the historical roots of federalism in Sri Lanka”! He, nevertheless, seems to still believe that the concept of Chakravarthi or Thrisinhalesvara was the origin of the unitary concept in Sri Lanka. What an academic tragedy!

‘Federalism vs. Unitary’ Debate

Let me trace some of the developments of the debate in the contemporary period.

In fact there was no ‘federalism vs. unitary’ debate as such prior to independence. As I stated in my last article, the state which was created by the British, however, was unitary. The legislature which was there before the 1947 Constitution also was unicameral. It was SWRD Bandaranayke who first advocated federalism to Sri Lanka. He was also the first leader who developed the concept of ‘maximum devolution’ in the form of Rata Sabhas (Provincial or Regional Councils) when he was the Minister for Local Government in the State Council. That was the way he tried to apply his conception of federalism to the concrete situation in Sri Lanka of that time.

Bandaranaike’s advocacy of federalism took several factors or objectives into consideration: (1) democracy for the regions through the establishment of representative assemblies (2) the need to counter uneven development through regional development (3) the assurance of a sense of meaningful political participation to ethnic and other social groups and (4) the reinstatement of traditional political institutions in the country suited for the modern conditions.

There is no need to mention that both the concepts of Rata Sabhas and Gam Sabhas were rooted in Sri Lanka’s history like Panchayat in India and Nepal. But this does not mean that those are the roots or origins of the present conceptions of federalism or there is a particular consciousness attached to those institutions among the Sinhalese, the Tamils or the Muslim. Those are nevertheless part of the common heritage, not of one sections consciousness.

It was the Kandyan Association first asked for federalism to Sri Lanka (that time Ceylon) before the Donoughmore Commission in 1927. How does Gamage, who tries to trace the roots of the unitary concept from the Kandyan period, explain this fact?

The situation obviously became changed after independence. The understanding at the time of independence was mainly power sharing (i.e. representative cabinets) and constitutional safeguards for the minority rights i.e. Article 29. There was no debate on or demand for federalism. Confusion, however, became created when the Federal Party was formed in 1949, not just because of its dual name (i.e. Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi in Tamil), but because of some of the official statements. These are well documented not only by Sri Lankan scholar but also by international ones like Eric Hobsbawm.

I traced some apprehensions that SWRD Bandaranaike himself had about federalism after independence, given the increasing polarization between the communities, when I delivered the Bandaranaike Memorial Lecture in 2004; the present President Mahinda Rajapakse, who was at that time the Prime Minister, as the Chair of the session. If I had ever been a blind federalist, as Gamage tries to paint, I would not have done that.

There cannot be any doubt that Bandaranaike himself was responsible for communal polarization in the country with his erroneous or even outrageous Sinhala Only Act in 1956. I also stated that fact in my presentation and the lecture is published by the Bandaranaike Commemoration Committee in all three languages, irrespective of my critical comments.

My views on federalism have been fairly clear in several of my writings. I have consistently been advocating a federal kind of solution also taking into account possible adverse effects and implications. Federalism is also not a panacea (See Fernando and Wijewardena edited Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict in the International Context,2006). It has to be applied also in combination with other measures such as power sharing (also responsibility), democratization, strengthening of the local government system and human rights, to mention a few.

At present, de-militarization is also of paramount importance before implementing any solution towards federalism or maximum devolution. However, a framework can be worked out and agreed upon before implementing demilitarization. One part of the de-militarization process also can come through the Sri Lankan state establishing its legitimate military authority over the LTTE.

I have consistently maintained the view that the North and the East should be two provinces and ethnicity should not be the sole criteria for provincial demarcation (“Some Parameters for a Political Solution,” Daily News, 2003). I have also argued against the asymmetrical devolution or asymmetrical federalism in recent times (Amal Jayawardena edited, Perspectives on National Integration in Sri Lanka, 2006).

It is my strong feeling, however, that the repeated insistence on the ‘unitary state’ and direct or indirect justification of it as the ‘historical Sinhala consciousness’ are not only factually incorrect but also counter productive in finding a political solution to the present situation. I am not debating on these matters for fun but with a political commitment.

Unitary Conception

It is only since the 1972 Constitution that the concept of unitary state came into legal operation. It was not there in the previous 1947 Constitution. But in many other respects that constitution also was unitary in character however incorporating many other checks and balances akin to a federal constitution, such as a bi-cameral legislature, judicial review etc.

The view that ‘no constitution (or state) is purely federal or unitary’ is common knowledge in Political Science. When the 19th Amendment Bill was placed before the Supreme Court in 1987 to determine whether it was consistent or not with the Constitution, particularly of its unitary clauses, five judges expressed the opinion that it was consistent, while the other four disagreeing. What does it mean? Even our present constitution is a mixture, but at a minimum level. The question is how far we are ready to go from here towards federalism in resolving our problems. It is not an imperative destination, but a practical solution.

The roots of the unitary concept of the 1972 Constitution, in my opinion, should be traced within the legal discourses and not in ‘historical consciousness.’ Irrespective of whatever intentions of the constitutional makers, that constitution was an outright rejection of the popular Tamil demand for federalism. The rigid application of the unitary state in the constitution hindered any possible dialogue and compromise on the vexed issues of the nature of the state and the constitution.

The 1978 Constitution in fact aggravated the situation with the imposition of a presidential system, ‘reincarnating’ a Chakravarti, until it was loosened by the 13th Amendment. But that ‘reincarnation’ was not related to a ‘popular consciousness’ but to an ambitious objective of a crafty politician, named JR Jayewardene.

The constitutional makers of the 1972 Constitution based themselves on the concept of popular sovereignty (all Sri Lankan’s as one people) and the supremacy of the legislative assembly as its sole representation, disregarding some of the basic premises of constitutionalism and plurality of our society. It is on that premises that a unicameral system also was installed. The conception was laudable if that was correct, but it was not so as a reality.

The major error of that conception was the complete disregard for the plural nature of the Sri Lankan people in formulating the unitary premises for the popular sovereignty. There is no question that Sinhala nationalism of that time also influenced to a great extent in rejecting federalism and for embracing unitary concept at that time. However, again there was no apparent connection between that unitary concept and what Dr. Gamage talks about as the historical roots of the unitary concept.

The Main Dangers

The major danger of the attempt to show some unfounded historical roots between the unitary concept and the alleged ‘Sinhala consciousness’ is the creation of an enormous mental barrier among the Sinhala people to accommodate the justified demands of the Tamil people and the Muslim community. This is also a more sophisticated way of saying that federalism in any form would never be accepted by the Sinhalese people, and projecting the unitary state as the fait accompli.

Of course the views expressed by Gamage hopefully would not go to the Sinhala readers immediately. But those will immediately be read by a significant section of the Tamil community. It would fuel the suspicions of the Tamil community towards the Sinhala community and make an opportunity for the LTTE to create a major wedge between the two.

The effort does not picture the Sinhala community in any positive manner among the international community either. It simply says that Sinhala people are dogmatic, uncompromising and even a ‘primitive kind of breed’ still harboring the concepts of a kingdom of the 18th century.

Some Other Arguments

Dr. Gamage says and asks that, “At this time in Sri Lanka, those who argue for a unitary state, especially among the Sinhalese, are more vocal than those who argue for a federalist solution. Isn't this evidence that the unitary concept is widespread among the Sinhalese thought and action?”

All the above are presumptions without any scientific validity or empirical evidence. I don’t know how he came to the conclusion that “those who argue for a unitary state, especially among the Sinhalese are more vocal”? Then what about the Tamils and the Muslims? Is not this thinking typical of the Sinhala supremacists’ viewpoints to disregard the other peoples’ opinion?

Even if his assumption is correct, is it not possible that some of those who believe that a solution should be on federal lines tone down their views, including myself, to work out a practical solution, while the unitary fanatics go on rampage?

Is it not hypocritical for Gamage, on the one hand, to say that the debate should not be on binary lines of ‘federal vs. unitary’ and then take the so-called vocal ‘unitary opinion’ as the criteria for “Sinhala thought and action”?

I don’t think there is a particular kind of ‘though and action’ among the Sinhalese or any other community. People’s views are plural and diverse; not singular or collectivist. They change under circumstances. This does not mean that no valid observations could be made about general trends or aspects; but those are highly relative, contingent and conditional. There is no possibility at all to talk about a ‘continuous consciousness’ over centuries unless one considers ethnic communities or nations as living organisms.

I am completely aware and knowledgeable about the ‘organismic views’ of ethnic communities. The pioneers of these views were the two German thinkers Johann Herder and Johann Fichte (or Emmanuel Kant before) in the early 19th century. I am also aware of the strong existence of these viewpoints among various extreme nationalist movements including the LTTE. These views are erroneous and extremely harmful for harmony between communities. It is the prevalence of ‘organismic views’ among the academics and the analysis based (knowingly or unknowingly) on those assumptions that I consider ‘academic sorcery.’

Of course there are less rigid approaches based on various ‘cultural studies’ yet linking ‘thought and action’ or ‘societal violence’ (decapitation and dismemberment!) to cultural or even religious norms, practices and rituals of various communities. But hardly they talk about ‘continuous consciousnesses of communities throughout centuries. Yet their views are equally metaphysical and deviate from the empirical social scientific analysis.

Why do we employ so much of metaphysical jargon (to me, nonsense) while we can very clearly observe and analyze the present day realities whether it is a question of constitutionalism or a social phenomenon like violence? I have no objection for cultural studies or historical ones, but within realistic empirical premises. Anyway, all have academic freedom to do whatever research they wish to do under whatever methodology they wish to employ. But I retain my freedom to criticize them.

Why Dr. Gamage didn’t answer my questioning of his attempt (based on Roberts of course) to link violence (including decapitation and dismemberment!) in Sri Lanka in 1983 and 1987-89 to ‘Sinhala psyche’ and cultural practices? I propose that he explains his position.

The Bad Habits!

It was not only the superficial invocation of history which was the bad habit of Dr. Gamage, although that was the only one I pointed out last time. He seems to have a fascination for name dropping, pitting one against the other and continuous accusations. Let me quote two of the relevant statements from his last article.

* “This is how Sri Lankanists [Laksiri Fernando] have barricaded themselves into two camps as reflected in the current political and academic discourses-even though some politicians such as Professor Vitharana, chairman of the All Party Conference, is not apparently dissuaded by this kind of binary terminology.”

* “The thrust of Roberts' book, which has been compiled after meticulous analysis of various sources (Unlike Professor Fernando's outburst), seems to suggest that there has been continuity in the Sinhalese consciousness and identity over the centuries.”

He even tried to provoke the readers against me saying, “Readers may want to ask Professor Fernando on what grounds he says that 'To me, there has been no continuous 'Sinhala consciousness' to talk about now or in the past.”

Dr. Gamage has continuously accused me for ‘distorting’ and ‘misinterpreting’ his views and statements. He should understand that in an academic or political debate, the parties are free to interpret the views of ‘the other’ within a permissible limit without abusing each other. What is important is not only what one says but what one implies. Therefore, the interpretation is necessary. There are also other objective implications, as I have pointed out, in the case of the views that Dr. Gamage has expressed. I have criticized him but not accused him of distorting my views, although at times I felt that his interpretations are not accurate.

Under the above circumstances, I am not interested in continuing this debate any further although I understand that he would be delighted to do so. However, he has every right to reply to my present article and I will not reply back. Even he can go on rampage like ‘the bull in the china shop’ - and if so, so be it.

- Asian Tribune -

Also Read:

* 'Invoking History' - an intellectual Bad Habit: A Response to Professor Laksiri Fernando

* ‘Invoking History’ - an Intellectual Bad Habit: A Response to Dr. Siri Gamage

* Concept of Unitary State and its Roots in the Sinhala Consciousness - Historical Hints from Michael Roberts's 2003 book

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