By C. A. Chandraprema
When looking at the interim report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, the game plan of the yahapalana coalition becomes immediately apparent. For over one and a half years, we have been intermittently receiving various documents from the Steering Committee which made it only too clear what the yahapalana government has in mind in terms of constitutional reform. The most immediate thing that becomes apparent in this interim report is the strategy they seem to have adopted to see that they get the Constitutional reforms they desire. On the first three numbered pages of this interim report, they have proposed various changes to Articles 1 to 9 of the present Constitution. In actual fact, not much damage will be done to the yahapalana purpose even if they drop all the proposals made to change Articles 1 to 9 of the present Constitution. However, the contents of Articles 1 to 9 are such that the mere fact that changes have been proposed to them is enough to spark off controversy.
Yet, these are the very provisions where they can back off without doing any substantial damage to their real objectives. The game plan obviously is that once a controversy is generated, for the yahapalana side to retreat on all reforms proposed to Articles 1 to 9 of the present Constitution and to agree to retain the present provisions as they are so that the real reforms they want can be got through as a compromise measure. This is the same principle used by drug smugglers. When a big shipment is being brought in, the smugglers also ship in dummy consignments which are supposed to get caught to the authorities while the main shipment gets through. Here, too, we have a dummy consignment in the first few pages which they can afford to discard without doing much damage to their ultimate purpose.
The interim report has stated that whilst people in the south were fearful of the word “federal”, people in the north were fearful of the word “unitary.” Therefore they have suggested that the word “unitary” be dropped and articles 1 and 2 of the present be reformulated as follows: “Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is a free, sovereign and independent Republic which is an aekiya rajyaya / orumiththa nadu, consisting of the institutions of the Centre and of the Provinces which shall exercise power as laid down in the Constitution.” In similar fashion, they have proposed changes to Article, 3, 4 and 5, 7 and 9 as well. The proposed changes look substantial – for example, the change made to Article 2 seems to remove the English word ‘unitary’ and to replace it with two Sinhala and Tamil words.
In Article 3, the word ‘Republic’ is to be dropped so that sovereignty is diffused among the people and not through the inhabitants of the Republic – a manoeuvre that seems to smack of an attempt to imbue the populations of parts of the country with the attributes of stand-alone sovereignty. In Article 5, the territory of the Republic is going to be defined in terms of an unspecified number of provinces and not the fixed number of 25 districts as at present. Article 7 is to be changed by adding the Tamil version of the national anthem ‘Sri Lanka thaye’. A change has also been changed to Article 9 of the Constitution which guarantees the foremost place to Buddhism as follows. “Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while treating all religions and beliefs with honour and dignity, and without discrimination, and guaranteeing to all persons the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution”.
The changes proposed to Articles 1 to 9 are such as to arouse controversy and a furious debate about the unitary state, about the place accorded to Buddhism, about the planned removal of the word ‘Republic’ from places where it is vital to indicate the collective identity of the nation, etc. These are the provisions in particular which would immediately capture the attention of the Buddhist monks in particular. It’s very rarely that one hears of a Buddhist monk talking about the powers of the provincial governors, the lawmaking powers of parliament on matters coming under the provincial councils and subjects like that. The Bhikku community is known to take up topics like the place accorded to Buddhism and the preservation of the unitary state.
However, the matters dealt with in Articles 1 to 9 of the present constitution are about outward form, and the substance that the yahapalana camp seeks change in the Constitution will not be affected even if they jettison all the reforms proposed to Articles 1 to 9. TNA parliamentarian M. A. Sumathiran is famously supposed to have said that the Sinhalese are interested in labels and that they should be allowed to have their labels and their nomenclature while they get the substance of what they want. The only reform that the yahapalana camp may be genuinely keen to get through to Articles 1 to 9 may perhaps be the jettisoning of the English phrase ‘unitary’. Even in this case, it has been proposed to drop the word unitary only in English while retaining its Sinhala equivalent ‘ekeeya’ in the Constitution. The Sinhalese are going to have their beloved label in Sinhala but not in English!
Given the long term project that certain people seem to having, they seem to be keen on getting rid of the English term ‘unitary’ if that is possible. Indeed the best case scenario for the yahapalana camp would be to get the proposed changes to Aticles 1 to 9 passed along with everything else. If they fail in that the next best scenario would be for them to get only the English term ‘unitary’ dropped while agreeing to retain everything else in Articles 1 to 9 in the present Constitution as they are. In the worst case scenario, they will effect a headlong retreat and agree to jettison all the proposed changes to Articles 1 to 9 and once the Bhikku community is kept happy by not changing Article 9 and retaining the term ‘unitary’, they hope to be able to push through the other reforms they have in mind.
The real reforms the yahapalana Constitution makers have in mind start only from Part II of the interim report. This is the part they hope to get through by ‘sacrificing’ the reforms they have proposed to articles 1 to 9. They have started off this section by positing what they call the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ as the basis of devolution. What they mean by this term is that whatever could be handled by the lowest tier should be vested in it. One would think the Vadukkodai proclamation of 1972 was based on this principle of ‘subsidiarity’ albeit without the terminology. The contention of the separatist lobby since the Vadukkodai proclamation has been that they could run a sovereign nation in the northern and eastern provinces of this country. In this country, one has to be insane to agree to the kind of proposition posited by this so-called ‘principle of subsidiarity’. Be that as it may, starting with this principle of subsidiarity, the interim report has proposed a series of reforms including restrictions on the legislative powers of Parliament, reducing the powers of the provincial governors and the president (vis- a-vis the PCs), and increasing the powers of the provincial councils.
Even if the yahapalana camp has to retreat on all reforms proposed to Articles 1 to 9, all their purposes will be met if they manage to get the other reforms through. For the time being, their game plan seems to be working – everybody is only talking about the unitary state and the place accorded to Buddhism while the other reforms proposed are hardly discussed at all.