“In any case the purpose is not really to indict the past, but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic present.”
Wole Soyinka (Nobel Lecture – 1986)
Soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Nationalist leader Francisco Franco declared October 12th as the ‘Day of Race’. At the inaugural ceremony held in the University of Salamanca, General Franco’s mentor, General José Milán Astray, cried, “Down with intelligence! Long live Death!” That cry was no mere slogan, as indicated by the murder of poet/playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca by extremist nationalists, a few days previously; it presaged the long night which was to descend on Spain.
Sri Lanka too had known such times, many times; times when intelligence was banished and death reigned supreme. The first ever provincial council election took place in such a time. Opposed with equal virulence by both the JVP and the LTTE, that first PC poll amounted to a mini-war. The election, held in four rounds, was boycotted by the JVP and the LTTE. Anyone participating in it, be it as candidate, activist or voter, was deemed a traitor – to the Sinhala cause or the Tamil cause, to unitary Sri Lanka or to future Eelam. The punishment was death.
One of the earliest victims of the resultant blood-letting was a man who, like Lorca, was a poet: Nandana Marasinghe, a JVPer of 71 vintage and the creator of the JVP’s hugely popular Vimukthi Gee. He had left the JVP when the party embraced Sinhala racism, but remained active in the anti-racist left. He supported the Indo-Lanka Accord and the provincial council system. For that cardinal sin, he was murdered by the JVP while he engaged in his livelihood, selling footwear in the pola in his hometown of Anuradhapura.
If the opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord and the system of provincial devolution it mandated took place within democratic and rational confines, Nandana Marasinghe’s life – and the lives of about 60,000 men and women of every possible political persuasion and none – could have been saved. But the anti-devolution campaign of late 1980’s was a visceral thing which admitted neither doubt nor dissent. In the eyes of majoritarian-supremacists, devolution was the dirtiest word in the political lexicon, and the most dangerous. There was no good or safe devolution. It was a sin against the nation, an act of hara-kiri. With it, there could be no compromise, no accommodation.
JR Jayewardene’s UNP didn’t want to devolve power either (power-concentration not power-sharing was Mr. Jayewardene’s style) but the demands of reality made some concession to Tamil demands unavoidable. Every time the government made a reluctant and half-hearted effort to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem, Southern extremists responded with a campaign of fear-mongering. By the time the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed, many Sinhalese feared and opposed devolution without the slightest understanding of the subject.
The secretive manner in which the government of JR Jayewardene signed the Accord didn’t help, but even if the process had been as open as the sky and as transparent as glass, it wouldn’t have mattered. The SLFP and the JVP were opposed to any political concession to Tamils – decentralisation or devolution, home-grown or externally-pushed. Their plan was simple: ignite Sinhala anger, and use the consequent protests as a battering ram against the Jayewardene administration. That was to be their path to power. The JVP and the SLFP had only one serious disagreement – which would eventually doom their alliance. That disagreement was not about killing unarmed proponents of devolution but about who should be the monkey and who the organ-grinder.
So violence engulfed the country. As rationality vanished and extremism became the greatest political virtue, bullets replaced words and discussion was trumped by murder.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would well-remember that past. Though not a parliamentarian (he lost his seat in 1977), as a close confidante of Anura Bandaranaike, he played a major role in that bloody drama. So did Rev. Maduluwave Sobhita Thero – they were both at the Pettah Satyagraha which ignited the anti-Accord riots. Sobhita Thero understood the danger of fanaticism and changed. Mr. Rajapaksa continues to play the racist tom-tom, continues to hitch his political project to the human-consuming steeds of majoritarian-supremacism and anti-devolution.
Politicians of all hues and stripes possess an abiding faith in their ability to dupe the public. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s determination to postpone local government and provincial elections cannot be a secret to most Lankans. The government’s tissue of excuses has worn thin, baring its unwillingness to face the judgement of the electorate.
The Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition is, quite rightly, opposed to the attempt by the government to postpone provincial council elections. The Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition is insisting, quite rightly, on the first round of PC polls being held, sans delay.
Thirty years ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of those who virulently opposed the first PC poll, denouncing it as a bridge to separation.
If PC polls were bad and dangerous in 1988, how come they are good and necessary in 2017? People were murdered in cold blood in 1988 for defending provincial devolution and taking part in the first PC poll. The country was set on fire in the name of opposing the 13th Amendment. Provincial devolution was equated with federalism which was equated with separation. Provincial councils were denounced as tools of separatism, an expressway to the creation of an Eelam in the North and a Malaya Nadu in the hill-country.
Today Mr. Rajapaksa would admit that the 13th Amendment is not, never was and can never be a path to Eelam. He owes the country an explanation for his changed stance, not least because many of the charges which he and his acolytes are levelling at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft-constitution today are near-identical to the charges hurled at the 13th Amendment and the system of provincial councils in the blood-soaked years of 1987-1990. Just as the SLFP-JVP-MEP combo saw in the Accord and the 13th Amendment a fast-track to power then, today the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition is seeing in the new draft-constitution a means of regaining their lost universe, ahead of 2020.
When the JVP imposed its boycott on the first PC poll, the SLFP and the MEP readily agreed. The MEP was an electoral nonentity, but the SLFP could have won power in at least some of the provincial councils. Had it gained power at provincial level, it would have possessed a better chance of winning the subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections. Perhaps saner minds in the SLFP understood the disadvantage of acceding to the boycott, but sanity was a crime in the SLFP of late 1980’s, as it seems to be in the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition today. It is only in a mental space devoid of rationality and sanity that someone of Prof. GL Peiris’s age, experience and education can make a claim so preposterously apocryphal – that “it is clearly visible that a separate country has practically been created in the North,”i and that the police in the North is being controlled by the TNA.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft-constitution can be opposed without resorting to racism. But the Rajapaksas have decided to take the extremist road. Instead of offering rational arguments, they are resorting to the old tactics of whipping Sinhala fears. Once again, the shrill scream of ‘Motherland in danger,’ can be heard. Once again, devolution is being denounced as evil and patriotism redefined as unequivocal and absolute opposition to devolution. Just as the Accord, the 13th Amendment and the provincial councils constituted the adamantine line separating enemy from friend in the late 1980’s, the proposed new constitution is being turned into the sole means of separating patriot from traitor today. The forces are being readied, from monks to students, to unleash a wave of protests against the draft constitution (it cannot be an accident that one of the speakers at a public seminar against devolution/a new constitution was Dr. Anurudda Padeniya of the GMOA-ill fame). Shrill invective is replacing rational arguments. The decision by a group of top-ranking monks to oppose not just a new constitution but even an amendment to the existing constitution is indicative of fanaticism at play. Someone should tell the venerable monks that Sri Lanka is not a hieratic system, not yet.
During the late 1989’s, at a demonstration against the new provincial council system, participants shouted, “Pala baba apita epa” – we don’t want pala baby. That showed the role played by public ignorance in the tragedy of the time. If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is serious about a new constitution, it must carry out a public awareness campaign about the need to deepen democracy and strengthen devolution. If the government wants to win a referendum, it must explain to people the what, the why and the how of the new constitution. That campaign should have started 34 months ago. It is late now, though not too late. And it is the only way to stop history from repeating itself.
This Penchant for Missing Opportunities
The best time for the new constitution would have been the first year after the historic presidential election, when the government was still popular. Currently, the government’s popularity is heading down, in tandem with broken promises. Any referendum is likely to become a vote not on the merits and the demerits of the new constitution but the government’s performance in general, and its economic performance in particular. The electorate is bound to use a referendum to express its displeasure at the government’s penchant to do what it promised not to and refrain from doing what it pledged to.
Not only did the government fail to take up the promise of a new constitution in the first two years of its existence. Not only did it fail to build a national coalition to actively back a new constitution. It also failed to capitalise on unexpected favourable developments – such as the decision by the Supreme Court that federalism cannot be equated with separatism and the outspoken words of support by the Malwatte Mahanayake for a new constitution which aims to resolve the problems of the Tamil people.
Christopher Clapham identifies “the lack of organic unity or shared values between state and society” as the “single most basic reason for the fragility of the third world state.”ii Good governance was supposed to play the role of that glue between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and its support base. But that glue is being weakened daily by a deluge of decisions which snacks of unintelligent and therefore bad governance. The recent examples include the shenanigans of Shalila Moonesinghe and his patron Ravi Karunanayake as well as the inexplicable decision by President Sirisena to give an electorate organiser-ship to a provincial politician who gained national notoriety by forcing a teacher to kneel in her own class.
Responding to the less than cordial reception he got during his latest visit to Jaffna, President Sirisena warned the Tamil people not to weaken him as it would strengthen the ‘devil’, a not so oblique reference to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who, during the presidential election campaign, told Tamils to vote for the ‘known devil’. Given current political realities, Mr. Sirisena’s warning is not incorrect. The only really existing alternative to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is a triumphant return of the Rajapaksas. But the president is wrong to blame the electorate for that possibility. It is not the electorate which has given the twice-defeated Rajapaksas a new lease of life but the President, his prime minister, his ministers and his government. The Rajapaksas might be willing to set the country on fire to clear a path to power for themselves, but it is the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration that is providing kindle for that conflagration. If the pale horse of death rides this unfortunate island again, it would be because the government, in its arrogance and ineptitude, opened the stable door.