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Tamils Have no Choice But to Accept Incremental Gains and Continuing to Engage With Sinhala Community

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By
M.Sooriasegaran

The Constitution of Sri Lanka must fulfil the aspirations and needs of the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, the Burghers and the Plantation Tamils in order to unify them.Unity in diversity should be the guiding principle. It needs to be inclusive, guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities to all Sri Lankans without any form or shape of discrimination. Only under these conditions Sri Lanka as country can prosper without conflicts and wars. Sinhala, Tamil and English must be made national and official languages.All religions i.e. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity must be equally recognized. Children in all schools in Sri Lanka must be taught all 4 religions and all three languages.

That is the best way that Sri Lanka can and should prepare our children to live harmoniously in a multi-cultural and multi-religious country. Gender discriminations and caste discriminations must be legally and constitutionally abolished. Minimum representation for women and marginalized communities must be ensured.

Tri-lingual administration and cultural, religious and political plurality must prevail throughout Sri Lanka. In other words the constitution must be non-discriminatory, democratic and secular.

Such a constitution is a pre-requisite for uninterrupted and sustainable social, political and economic advancement and for a peaceful, stable, conflict free and war free Sri Lanka.Only then the creative energies and skills of all Sri Lankans can be mobilized for nation building and the Sri Lankan identity will become meaningful and cherishable by every citizen.

Our post independent period of 69 years has been nothing but a history of internal conflicts, armed uprising and wars i.e. we have wasted 69 valuable years of nation building.

The founding principles of the Indian Union are very inspirational and provide us valuable historical lessons and possible ways forward. Let us look at the ground breaking Indian experience.

The Indian Union, barring the unfortunate partition of Pakistan from India at the time of its independence from 450 years of colonial subjugation, was created as a secular, democratic, multi-linguistic and pluralistic country by visionaries like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Ambakar and many others precisely on the above basis. India is undoubtedly the most complex country in the world. India is 50 times the size of Sri Lanka and 63 times the population of Sri Lanka. They have 29 major languages while we have only 2 languages and therefore they created 29 states with substantial devolution of powers to each state, which permitted each state to effectively and democratically govern and deliver services to its citizens.They had 6 religions in India but it is interesting to note that they did not create 6 states.

They gave full religious freedom to all Indians no matter which part of India they lived. Any religion can be practiced by anyone in any state. While such a far sighted and potentially conflict free constitution was brought into being in India in 1956, Sri Lanka unwisely and unnecessarily introduced Sinhala only policy in the same year, sawing the seeds for conflicts and wars till today in spite of opposition by leaders of minority communities and the left parties. The communist Party and the Lanka SamaSamaja Party (Equal Society Party) are the only national parties of Sri Lanka, who opposed the Sinhala only policy. Dr.ColvinR.De Silva from Lanka Sama Samaja Party made his famous speech in the parliamentary debate pleading against the Sinhala only Bill,prophetically predicting “One language two states and two languages one state” which came to truism. This matter is still remaining unresolved till today.

The Indian constitution drafted by Ambakar is a daring and ambitious experiment, never before done in the history of the world. Many western pandits argued against it and predicted doom and gloom stating that it was a wreckless, irresponsible and unworkable experiment doomed to fail and were later astonished to see it miraculously succeeding.A country emerging from centuries of colonial subjugation with rampant poverty, illiteracy and unemployment and underdevelopment to undertake such a bold experiment and to succeed and sustain itself decade after decade to this day when all other systems in the rest of the world are crumbling or struggling for survival vindicates the audacity and foresightedness of the founders of the Indian Union.In many ways it was a unique and ambitious experiment never before undertaken in the history of the world. If not for the policy of secularism and the creation of language based states India would have been broken up into many independent failing and ailing states.

India is now recognized as the largest democracy on this planet. In this sense it is like no other country in the world. India is the only country in the world national leaders including prime ministers and presidents emerge from any religious faith.It faced many separatist threats but because of its secularism and accommodation of all major languages it has prevented its break up.Under democratic rule India has already become one of the fastest growing and biggest economies in the world. India has a long way to go still to fulfil the basic needs of its people but with its strong and visionary foundation it will definitely go from strength to strength unlike for example the fragile nature of the European Union and its survival issues we are witnessing today. If India can achieve this, there is no reason why we cannot achieve this in our country. The problems in Sri Lanka are miniscule in comparison with what India had to grapple with.

The fallacy of Pakistan leaving the Indian Union with the narrow religious fundamentalist philosophy of creating a separate country for Muslim people only, can now be seen clearly. After 70 years of establishing Pakistan, it is still remaining as a poor and backward country, largely ruled dictatorially as opposed to democratically but armed to its teeth, so much so that while in India the state has an army where as in Pakistan the army has a state. People do not come into the equation at all under such a rule.The women’s position under the Islamic fundamentalism and dictatorial rule in Pakistan is also diabolical. At the time of partition almost as many Muslims as in Pakistan chose to remain with India.

Today 178 million Muslims are living in Pakistan under military rule in poor conditions where as 138 million Muslims are happily living in India. The worst part is that Pakistan has also become a puppet of the United States of America and the headquarters of world terrorism.Out of 70 years of its existence, 33 years were under direct military rule and the rest of the 37 years by indirect military rule.

Let this be a warning shot for those who are still clamouring for establishing a separate Tamil state of Eelam in Sri Lanka, even after the debacles of the last 30 years in Sri Lanka including that of Mullivaikal in 2009, which is well known to everyone and therefore I do not need to repeat that horrific and sad history here.

The Indian experiment gives us a lot of food for thought for constitution makers. In spite of the perpetual misrule, misuse of power, unprecedented corruption and scandals including misuse of police powers leading to the present fiasco in Tamil Nadu, the central government in India did not rush to take over the running of Tamil Nadu affairs bypassing the duly elected Tamil Nadu government. This shows the astuteness and maturity of governance in India irrespective of who is in power at the centre.

It took 69 years of post-independence and a horrific 30 year long war for Sri Lankan politicians to realize the need to forge a new inclusive constitution. Unlike ever before, now widespread public consultation has already taken place and the Consultation Committee’s recommendations will now be debated in parliament. This is to the credit of the present government.

This is a golden opportunity to correct the past errors such as unitary state, Sinhala only, discriminatory Standardisation of University Entrance Examinations, Sinhala only but Tamil also, Sri Lanka is a Buddhist state, Buddhism should be given the foremost place in the constitution etc. While congratulating the present government for this fresh effort in consulting people widely, I fear that again an opportunity to forge a just and fair constitution may be missed.

Why do we need a unitary state? I cannot see any logic other than to appease the Sinhala extremists, especially when the Tamils are now willing to abandon their demand for a separate state of Eelam. Eelamists like Kagendrakumar suffered a crushing defeat at all the recent elections. Tamils have rejected them outright. Therefore why should the Sinhala extremists have the last word on everything instead of the government doing what is just and right for the country as a whole?

The same applies in relation to recognizing in the constitution the foremost place for Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

I am not a religious person but I respect all religions because they are rightly or wrongly believed and practiced by people, who I respect.Buddha was against power and privileges. He renounced everything including the power game and took to contemplation.

Buddhism’s power does not come from Sri Lanka’s constitutional recognition or its paternalistic patronage. To me it is a religion of contemplation (meditation), peace, love and harmony with everything in this world. In many ways it is a modern religion.Even though I am not religious, I do keep a statue of Buddha in my bedroom because it is a work of art beautifully sculptured and more so because he radiates love, peace, harmony and provides me an environment for contemplation and creative work.Such a beautiful religion must not be institutionalized, politicized and used to divide communities.

Buddhism does not require state sponsorship and constitutional protection. It is not a weak religion.It can stand on its own strength and merit without favours and patronage by the government or the Sri Lankan Army.It is a pity Buddha is not alive today to intervene and prevent the wrong doings by people in the name of Buddha.

Furthermore nearly 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Buddhists. They are capable of protecting Buddhism without state intervention. State intervention, and discriminatory favours and financial incentives to any one chosen religion such as Buddhism will only corrupt its clergy and tarnish and harm its image and its practices.The essence of Buddhism will be lost. I have already observed this phenomenon taking place widely in Sri Lanka. The army’s involvement in religion and politics and the clergy’s intervention in politics are not healthy for any country. The glaring example of this comes from Pakistan. It will be sad to see that happening in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with beautiful and compassionate people with very high levels of literacy, culture and civilisation. When we are blessed with all these why saw the seeds of discord and conflict. That is why I am convinced that we should adopt a simple secular constitution based on equality of all citizens without any form of religious, linguistic, gender, caste and any other forms of social and political discriminations. Then only we will have no impediments to continuously develop and progress like no other country in the world. This is my vision for Sri Lanka and an expression of what kind of Sri Lanka I dream to leave behind for future generations.

In a democratic country like ours the majority community (Sinhala Buddhists) hold the key to political power. They can do anything. They can be fair and just and do good things. Alternatively they can also be unfair and unjust and do bad things. In relation to the Tamils and Muslims of North and East and the Plantation Tamils the latter is the case historically. The paradoxical thing is that the Sinhala political parties who held total power since 1948 have also failed miserably to provide the basic needs of the Sinhala people – there is still dire poverty, malnutrition, serious unemployment and under employment, poor education, poor housing and sanitation, violence, drug abuse and gender inequalities among Sinhalese.

A recent research survey done by a University of Colombo Medical Professor confirmed that 1, 000, 000 children are going to school in the morning with empty stomach i.e without breakfast, the child is starting school already hungry.This is roughly 25% of school children in Sri Lanka! Furthermore Sri Lanka is now deeply falling into the neo-liberal economic trap, opening the way for market economy, free trade (meaning of course unfair trade), privatisation of health, education and other services and new ways of economic exploitation and political domination by the multi-national companies and the western powers. So it is going to be the west dominated markets which will rule Sri Lanka. This will have disastrous consequences to the lives of our people. For name sake only we will be independent, hoisting a Sri Lankan flag.

I notice that more and more Sinhala Buddhists are now recognizing the injustices done to the minority communities through the above mentioned morally and intellectually unacceptable political practices, legacies and modes of governance. They are now determined to correct these historical mistakes.It is they who have this formidable task to convince the case for a non-discriminatory secular constitution. In the pre-independent and early post independent periods the left effectively carried out this task but sadly they are now virtually extinct or in political wilderness.

The British High Commission marked the International Day of Peace on 21 September 2011 by hosting an Art Festival in Colombo, involving over 50 school children-pic courtesy: UK In Sri Lanka

Having said this I know that Sinhala politicians in Sri Lanka are not yet ready for secularism because of greed for power, vested interests and political insincerity. Sri Lankan politicians are largely not truthful to the people they govern. Sinhala Buddhist people, given proper and honest explanations will, I am sure, accept the logic and long term advantages of secularism but not the Sinhala politicians. The politicians and the constitution makers are not considering what is in the long term interest of the country and its people.

They have failed to engage honestly with the people on this issue. They lack the conviction, farsightedness, political astuteness and confidence which the founders of India had.This is the real tragedy. Therefore it appears that we can only reach the targets envisaged above on an incremental basis through honest and endless engagements with people at the grass root level, in particular with the Sinhala people, although as a country we will pay a heavy price for this slow learning process. I have unshakable faith in people. So we may have no choice but to accept incremental gains such as 13+ and keep engaging with the Sinhala community until we reach the end target consensually in stages.

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