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FeaturesDemocracy, Not Devolution, The Only Solution For The Ethnic Problem – Izeth Hussain

Democracy, Not Devolution, The Only Solution For The Ethnic Problem – Izeth Hussain


I want to establish in this article that in the contemporary world of multi-ethnic nation states democracy has to be regarded as incomplete and flawed unless it includes measures for the safeguarding of ethnic minority interests, measures regarded not as supplementary but as integral to the democratic order. This applies to the vast majority of nation states today as there are only four, according to other reckonings not more than twelve, states that are mono-ethnic. The reason why a new conceptualization of democracy is called for is that the aspirations of ethnic minorities towards a better life have been growing all over the world, and hence the growing salience of identity politics. Unless those aspirations, to the extent that they are recognized as legitimate aspirations, are reasonably accommodated, it can be held that there is no democracy or that it is deeply flawed. The reason is that democracy upholds as its secular trinity Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, the ideal of fair and equal treatment for all. By that criterion Sri Lankan democracy has certainly been deeply flawed.

It has been deeply flawed in other ways as well. Obviously the mistaken notion is still widespread that democracy is the expression of the will of the majority, just that and no more than that. Actually there is no democracy unless democratic values are respected and its norms are put into practice. The “tyranny of the majority” was exposed as anti-democratic by de Tocqueville at the very inception of modern democracy in the eighteenth century. I would add another factor as a requisite for democracy, without which it will be deeply flawed, and possibly collapse altogether: a vigorous civil society. Western theorists of democracy don’t seem to recognize that as a requisite for democracy possibly because they assume that it always exists in modern societies. That assumption does not hold for countries such as Sri Lanka.

I will go into a few more details to show what I have in mind. Rousseau wrote that the British people were free on the day they voted at the General Elections but in the years in between they were slaves. He was showing the prejudice against representative democracy of a Genevan, who had direct experience of the participatory democracy of the Swiss cantons. He had not understood that British democracy, with its rotten boroughs and all its other faults, was an organic growth firmly rooted in British soil over many centuries, and that the potential tyranny of the elected Government was kept in check by the Opposition politicians and also by a vigorous civil society. In Sri Lanka there was no such thing in 1977, and democracy quickly collapsed. In India, by contrast, there was a vigorous civil society and that was why Indira Gandhi’s Emergency lasted only a couple of years, while for the rest of the period since independence democracy flourished unlike in Sri Lanka. One of the main reasons why I have written of the elections of January 8 last year as a Revolution was that it was preceded by a vigorous civil society campaign against the previous Government. That civil society still remains vigorously active. It is one of the reasons why I think that we can establish a fully functioning democracy under which we can find a lasting political solution for the ethnic problem. By a “fully functioning democracy” I mean – for reasons given in my first paragraph above – one in which there are adequate safeguards for legitimate ethnic minority interests, without which there is no democracy worth speaking about.

Whatever might be the fate of 13 A our way forward towards a political solution and the establishment of ethnic harmony can only be through a fully functioning democracy and safeguards for ethnic minority interests as in the West, not through devolution alone. It is understood that the Government is engaged in negotiations with the political parties on a political solution as part of the discussions on a new Constitution; the consensus reached will be put up for public discussion from December onwards; and finally a Referendum will be held. But why should a political solution be made part of protracted discussions on the Constitution when the only matters to be sorted out have been land and police powers under 13 A? Obviously the question of a political solution is being put into abeyance as during the period from 2009 to 2015 – for reasons that are quite understandable. The outcome could be a modified version of 13 A or its jettisoning altogether after the Referendum.

Either way, I hold, the way forward can only be through a fully functioning democracy. It is well-established that a system of devolution can work satisfactorily only if there is a spirit of accommodation between the center and the periphery. That, I hold, will be extremely difficult or may be even impossible, if both sides are racist. It has long been an assumption that the essential desideratum for a political solution is that the Sinhalese side surmount its racism. It has not been understood that the Tamils are also an intensely racist people, very probably much more so than the Sinhalese. I don’t believe therefore that devolution on an ethnic basis can lead to eventual ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. We can learn by the contrast between the functioning of the Provincial Councils in the East and the North: the former functions smoothly enough with good relations with the center; the latter had to return eighty per cent of its unutilized budget at the end of its first year of functioning, and the Chief Minister – it is said – is not even on speaking terms with the Prime Minister. The explanation for the contrast might be found in the following stark dichotomy: the East is multi-ethnic with a Muslim Chief Minister; the North is mono-ethnic.

Devolution on an ethnic basis can work smoothly only if there is a democratic political culture, one in which democratic values are internalized and democratic norms are put into practice as a matter of course. That is far from being the case in Sri Lanka, and it will take some time before such a political culture gets firmly rooted. A democratic political culture is particularly important for the Northern Provincial Council as without it there can be no fair and equal treatment for the non-Vellala castes and the up-country Tamils who have settled in the North, not at any rate on an assured and permanent basis. A further reason why a fully functioning democracy is essential for the Tamils is the oft-repeated point that most of them are living outside the North, and consequently their legitimate interests cannot be secured through devolution.

We can learn a lot from India about the limitations of what can be achieved through devolution. The basis of devolution in India is linguistic not ethnic. All the states have Hindu majorities and the linguistic divisions don’t negate the sense of a Hindu commonality. In Sri Lanka there is no religious commonality between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, except that there are Christian minorities in both ethnic groups. I cannot understand how it came to be thought that the Indian model of devolution should be practiced in Sri Lanka. Furthermore the basic division in India is between Hindus and Muslims, not between Hindus and Hindus on the basis of different languages. But there has been no devolution for the Indian Muslims, except in Kashmir for historic reasons. How has the hundred million and more Muslim minority been faring in India? True there were the Gujarat riots of 2002, but by and large they have been faring well enough, and they have been doing so not on the basis of devolution but of democracy. Why, then, insist on devolution in Sri Lanka? I suspect that there has been some amount of mental confusion among our Indian friends.

A separate article is required to deal with the practical measures necessary to promote a fully functioning democracy with adequate safeguards for ethnic minority interests, safeguards that should be regarded as integral for democracy in the contemporary world for reasons spelt out in the first paragraph of this article. In conclusion I will mention just three practical measures. One is legislation against hate speech, which can do much for minority interests. Another is an Equal Opportunities Bill which was mooted in the late ‘nineties but aborted because of blatant Sinhalese racism. The most important is the setting up of the equivalent of the race relations boards that flourish in Britain, Canada, and elsewhere. Just those three measures can transform Sri Lanka.
The Island

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