Unit of devolution: District or Province?

By Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka                                                          

It is old news that those who regard themselves as Sinhala nationalists always preferred the district to the province as the primary unit of the devolution of power. What is amazing though is that they do not recognize that this is no longer an issue in the real world of politics; only in their individual or collective imagination. Thus the debate on the district vs. province is a non-debate. It takes place only in a mono-ethnic echo chamber.

Why is it no longer a legitimate subject for debate?

Because Sri Lanka as a society and the Sri Lankan political class as an elite have realized at very considerable cost, that which is obvious. Namely that whenever there are more than one entity in any unit, in politics or in life, the name of the game is a relationship, not a unipolar, unilateral decision. Relationships are usually negotiated; they require consensus, agreement. Any relationship which is a one-sided imposition is doomed to fail and when it does, most others outside the relationship tend to take the side of the person who suffered the imposition rather than the one who imposed it.

What this means is that on an island in which there are more than one community, the shape of the structure within which they all live cannot be decided and imposed by any one community upon the other. It has to be the result of mutual agreement. That agreement may not be to the complete satisfaction of all parties concerned but it has to be one that all parties can live with. Of course, not all parties have an equal share in the outcome because not all parties are of the same size, just as in a corporate entity there are majority and minority shareholders. But all have to be consulted and compromises negotiated.

It is not for nothing that Gautama the Buddha preached the Middle Path and Aristotle, the Golden Mean. What is the middle path in Sri Lanka? The Sinhala nationalists want the district as the safest unit of devolution. The Tamil nationalists feel safest in a permanently merged North and East, i.e. the Northeast as a single unit; a region. President JR Jayewardene put it best in an interview given in the mid-1980s to the Editor of the Lanka Guardian when he said: “The Tamils say Regional Councils and no less; the Sinhalese say District Councils and no more. I say Provincial Councils.”

The district as the primary unit of devolution is a non-starter. This is because it has never found and will never find a single Tamil taker—a Tamil political party with any support base that would agree to it—and therefore would have no Tamil partner for any government that tried to implement it. It would therefore be a unilateral mono-ethnic (Sinhalese) measure in a multi-ethnic (if not ‘multinational’, as the JVP leader puts it) country.

As our post-Independence political history shows, no unilateral measure taken by the South is sustainable, just as no unilateral decision taken by the North is sustainable. What is feasible is a settlement that at least some of the Tamils and most of the Sinhalese are willing to live with. That settlement is (real) provincial autonomy within a (really) unitary state.

From the perspective of the delivery of development, the district is arguably much better than the province–though the Chinese, with their conspicuous economic success with regional autonomy, may disagree. But the North-South issue in Sri Lanka is not primarily about development. It is about identity–collective identity, or more correctly, about collective political identities. The Tamils perceive themselves as a nation or nationality belonging to and located in a distinct geographic area, the North and East, two contiguous provinces which they call a linguistic region. The problem was never identifiable within or confined to a district, nor can it be atomized into districts. One does not have to subscribe to the Tamil self-image to realize that a solution must correspond to some degree to the problem, its scale and scope and geopolitical proportions—and the province is an approximation, while the district simply is not.

It is true that a measure of autonomous power to a unit as large as a province does constitute a temptation to secede. But the principle involved in finding a solution is rather similar to that of child-rearing. The two extremes of laissez-faire (and uncaring neglect) on the one hand, and overly constrictive and suffocating overprotection are both guaranteed to drive the alienated teenager to drift away or escape. The district is far too constrictive for the Tamils, while merged provinces constituting a single ethnic or linguistic region is far too inviting for the neighbor, Tamil Nadu, and threatening to the Sinhalese. Flexibility and a middle path or golden mean are always the best.

The province as unit of devolution does not date back to the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and derive from it. At the Delhi talks in 1985, HW Jayewardene, the special envoy of the President and signed the note which agreed upon the province as the main unit of devolution.

Sinhala nationalists may concede this and exclaim that it proves that the province became the unit of devolution because of India, but that would contravene the facts.

In early 1986, President Jayewardene received a letter from Vijaya Kumaratunga calling upon him to convene a roundtable conference to arrive at a solution to the ethnic problem. That conference, known as the Political Parties Conference (PPC) was summoned in July1986. All the left parties outside of the JVP participated. Apart from the UNP government, notable and active participants involved Dr. Colvin de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, Vijaya Kumaratunga, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and DEW Gunasekara.

In his address at the close of the Conference, President Jayewardene pledged to implement the agreement arrived at. The parties of Right and Left had arrived at a substantive agreement which was published as a document by the Government printer. The document contained details of devolution of power to the provinces (not the districts), but correctly made no mention of the merger which it had rejected during deliberations. Here was a domestic consensus between the UNP government and anti-government parties of the democratic left, based on the concept of autonomous provinces, not districts or regions.

When the Indo-Lanka accord was signed in 1987, it was not only welcomed by Moscow (preceded by Washington) but also in the pages of the Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, which condemned the JVP uprising against the accord. Fidel Castro told Gamini Dissanaike in Havana (the photograph was in the late Minister’s study) that Sri Lanka should support and implement it because in his experience a country with an unresolved ethnic/nationalities problem was like a person with an unattended wound which would always bleed and chronically debilitate. Fidel emphasized that no sustained economic or social development would be possible in Sri Lanka or any country, with the ethnic problem unresolved. On a visit to Ethiopia in 1977, Fidel had urged a two-pronged solution in which Ethiopia would grant regional autonomy to secessionist Eritrea while Ethiopia, autonomous Eritrea and Somalia would form a Red Sea Federation. None of the parties agreed and are much the worse for it (Somalia hardly exists), while Fidel has, as usual, been vindicated by history.

The idea of autonomy beyond the district and the unitary state, goes way beyond the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. In 1925, the brilliant young SWRD Bandaranaike observed in the Ceylon Morning Leader that he knew of no successful case of a unitary state in a multi-communal society, and made the case for federalism. In 1957 he signed a pact with SJV Chelvanayakam which made for the joinder of two or more Regional (i.e. District) Councils in a non-federal arrangement.

In 1944-1947, the Ceylon Communist Party submitted to the Soulbury Commission a proposal that independent Ceylon should either be federal or ensure regional autonomy for the Tamils. Of course Dr. Colvin R de Silva was more correct when he argued against the federalist demand of the Tamil United Front in 1972, explaining that as a historian and a Marxist, he firmly believes that Sri Lanka requires a unitary state form and cannot afford to countenance federalism, given the internal fissures and fractures that permitted repeated external intervention and occupation.

While eschewing the young SWRD’s idealistic federalism, what is needed is a middle path between the realism of SWRD who understood that a unitary state cannot keep a multiethnic polity together over time, and the contending realism of Dr. Colvin R de Silva who argued that the island of Ceylon, located where it was, imperatively required a unitary state rather than a federal one. Obviously, the middle path/golden mean between the conventionally unitary and the federal is that of a reformed unitary state; a unitary state with suitable structural modifications; a unitary state with autonomy through the devolution of power. This precisely was the B-C pact of 1957 was. And using the same yardstick of the middle path, we may identify the province rather than either the district or the linguistic region (merged provinces) as the only feasible unit of devolution.

Finally, to the elephant in the room—an elephant we cannot export–India. Not only is this island a multiethnic one in which no community can sustain a political order which unilaterally imposes the will of one upon the other, this island is also so located and the regional environment so constituted demographically, that the will of the majority cannot be unilaterally imposed upon the minorities. The Sri Lankan Tamil question has been externalized in the 1980s and will never be purely internalized again. (Even if it were a purely internal issue it will not be one subject to a purely Sinhala decision.) Since the 1980s it has become an intermestic question, to use Kissinger’s term applied to the Sri Lankan issue firstly by Mervyn de Silva. An intermestic issue is an internal issue which interfaces with the international, and vice versa.

In politics as in real life and in international politics in particular, what counts is not what you may think of yourself and of others, but whether you can take the consequences of your actions when others react to them.

In the case of Sri Lanka, one cannot undo the existing devolution arrangements, including that of the unit of devolution, without running up against Delhi, which even if it wanted to, could not turn away because the Sri Lankan Tamil reaction would trigger agitation in Tamil Nadu. The best one can hope for is to stick to the existing system of devolution which was agreed upon with India, and use that defensively to prevent moves in the direction of federalism and self-determination.

Federalism and self-determination cannot be forestalled by undoing the agreement with India and trying to revert to the district or cutting back the powers of the 13th amendment in the face of protest and rejection from all Sri Lankan Tamil political parties without exception. Any unilateral (Sinhala only) attempt to undo the 13th amendment which is inextricably intertwined with the Indo-Lanka accord will meet with a response from India. Not even the most cursory glance at the strategic balance—the balance of forces–will permit any rational and realistic mind to think we can get away with it.

This may not be the morally correct way for the world to work, but it is the way the (real) world (really) works. If one were familiar with one of the foundational texts of the Realist school, the famous (or infamous) Melian dialogue, the dialogue between the inhabitants of the island of Melos and the representatives of Athens as recounted in Thucydides’ ‘History of the Peloponnesian Wars’, one would not fantasize about unilateral measures in a matter with bilateral and indeed international ramifications involving hugely unequal players.

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