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The Nation State was Equated with Sinhala Buddhists

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by R. M. B. Senanayake

I refer to Mr. S. Rasalingam’s response to my article on devolution to be based on language. He disagrees with my interpretation of the origin of the conflict. He makes out that the opposition to the Sinhala only policy was not a demand of the Tamil people but a handle used by the Tamil leaders to manipulate the Tamil people. I would say it was used to mobilise Tamil nationalism.

Yes, the democracy which prevailed from 1948 to 1956 was an elitist democracy where the English educated political elite among the Sinhalese and the Tamils, exercised sole political power. The people were passive, being mere voters who voted for the landowning and professional elite. This was so both in the North and the South.

But, 1956 changed all that in the South. For the first time popular democracy entered the scene. The people elected a new class of politicians who were not from the traditional English speaking land owning aristocracy and professionals. It was a change, from the few to the many. This change came as an unexpected shock to those who had always been the shapers of public opinion and those who shape national destinies? Hereafter the destinies of the nation would be guided by moral, social and cultural values of the Sinhala educated Sinhala Buddhists. It also marked the beginning of a broader diffusion of the democratic ideology of rule by the people into the country’s political, social, and cultural life.

But, this was only the ideology of majority rule un tempered by the need to respect the rights of the minorities and to obtain their willing consent. It included a revival of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The nation state was equated with Sinhala Buddhists. Democracy came to mean only rule by the people and the people included only the Sinhala Buddhists. Others were intruders who had entered the country owing to the hospitality of Sinhalese Buddhists and had overstayed.

The Sinhala Buddhists form the overwhelming majority of the population, they are the nation’s primary citizens, members of the minority communities must be respected but they must understand that as a group, as a collective entity, they cannot expect their group or collective rights to be on par with those of the Sinhalese. They cannot have equal status for their religions. They cannot have equal linguistic status or asymmetric powers in governance. One of their members cannot hope to rise to the highest offices of the State. Nor can they have influence within the government unless they vote for the Sinhalese ruling party. Some went further and advocated affirmative action to correct what was thought to be unfair favoritism showed to the Tamils by the colonial ruler.

Faced with this sea change in the political landscape the Tamil leaders sought to mobilise Tamil nationalism and they used the issue of official language as the means to do so. To this extent I agree with Mr. R.

But subsequent events like the regular riots with violence directed against the Tamils settled in the South and the Sinhalese urging those Tamils settled in the South to go to the North and East the situation became polarized.

The stream of events that took place was perhaps inevitable in a popular democracy. It manifested itself first in ancient Athens, Both Aristotle and Plato warned of the perils of entrusting governance to ordinary people who lacked knowledge and wisdom. Plato made the case for a philosopher king. In USA, a hundred years before (1858) a similar situation arose with the election of Andrew Jackson to the US Presidency.

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” — James Madison

But the people will elect to power only those who are like themselves. Politicians who sought power could incite them against minorities and win elections. The Athenians realized this power of demagogues and they “ostracized” such politicians which meant permanent exile for them. So the saga which began in 1956 is still not over. Political leaders mobilized the people against the LTTE. But having defeated the LTTE they revert to the same ideology.

They do not wish to relax the power that was centralised under their rule during the war. But the liberal democratic constitutional state provides for a sharing of power between the three arms of the Sate with checks and balances. But this goes against the monopoly of power acquired during the war. But these institutional checks cannot be allowed to operate where one seeks a monopoly of power. So the institutions of a liberal democracy like a bureaucracy based on merit, the Fundamental Rights, the Rule of Law were eroded. Now it is the independence of the Judiciary that is under siege.

But the ignorant cannot rule a modern state which requires expertise. So where the experts are not allowed to decide on technical matters, the State will blunder and end up becoming a failed state. Then the choice is between anarchy and a military dictatorship. The only saving grace is that the leaders of Buddhist Sangha seem to have accepted the values of liberal democracy at least for the Sinhalese.

Mr. R also refers to the Indian Tamils who did not mobilise behind the language demand. This is because they had other priorities since a large number of them were stateless. Their needs were also centered round the sstate company rather than the governmental authority. But they will sooner or later have to be integrated with the village administration and it remains to be seen whether they will prefer to deal with the government in Sinhala as stated by Mr. R.

All devolution means power will shift to the regional leaders as is happening in India and in Sri Lanka Berty Premalal Dissanayake has asserted himself as a regional leader for the first time, a trend which I think will emerge in the years ahead.COURTESY:THE ISLAND

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