Sri Lanka is a modern republic – which means that its system of government is based on the idea that the citizens of the country rule themselves through arrangements for the representation of their interests. Our constitution sets out these mechanisms, affirms fundamental rights of citizens and declares in its first chapter that, Ã«In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. The practice of government in Sri Lanka has unfortunately not lived up to the promise of this statement. Even as our constitutional arrangements have fallen short in ensuring the realisation of the equal rights of all Sri Lanka’s citizens, those whom the mechanics of our representative system of government has empowered have often abused the responsibilities and privilege given to them. It seems at times like the republic is turned on its head. The citizen has to seek the favour of the political classes that represent them,rather than those who seek or hold office having to serve the citizen’s interests.
The state, which is supposed to represent the totality of the population who are its citizens, has been captured by certain citizens who are more equal than the others. From our independence onwards, we have seen an increasing dependence of the citizenry on the patronage of the political classes in more and more aspects of our civic life. Both little big men and bigger big men mediate our access to the state resources that are, in fact, held in trust for all citizens. The strong sense of entitlement with which we were born as citizens has been gradually eroded, to the point that most of us now bribe or prostrate ourselves to receive what is rightfully our due. The concept of citizenship has been hollowed out to the point where we only have the right to decide between a few bad options of who is to rule us. We are subjects with a nominal power to choose our lords. No longer are we truly citizens of a republic, except perhaps a bastard version that resembles more closely a colonial dominion, but with one tragic difference Ã± our conquerors come from within our own ranks.
In our case, the inversion of the desired relationship between the republic and the citizen has been exacerbated by the state of emergency that we have lived under for decades. The threat to the nation’s sovereignty has been allowed to justify the rolling-back of many of the constitutional and institutional safe guards that protect citizens from those whom they have had to elect to high-office. In the contest of estate v. citizen, we have been told that it is no-contest at all. Our liberties and entitlements as people of this land may be suspended for the causes of liberation, war or development. The rule of just law is undermined by both criminal legislation and by pure violence. In the state of emergency, we are stripped bare of our civil and political rights. Of course, we have played our part in our own disenfranchisement, seduced by the myths of ethnic purity and national sovereignty propagated by Sri Lanka’s political classes and the revolutionaries who would replace them. They told us that our lives depended on the securing of a state, either extant or yet to be born, and too many believers gave their lives and took others lives for this purpose. Or stood by and witnessed great cruelty as if it were inevitable, or had nothing to do with us. Stripped of our full civic rights and responsibilities, we have not only been alienated from the state, but we have also become alienated from one another.
To reclaim our citizenship and restore the republic, we have to first recognize the state for what it is: a symbolic edifice and a set of mechanisms that are a means to an end, not the end in itself. The state is supposed to exist for us, not the other way around. The nation belongs to us, not we to the nation. When the state has become sovereign over the citizen, and has been captured by the interests of a few, it is necessary to re-design it altogether. Our current constitution must be re-written to guarantee that the citizens of this country are foremost and inalienably sovereign in this island. The spirit of a government of the people and for the people must be present in every clause and every amendment. And yet I do not trust those in the seats of power to return our rights to us willingly or easily. Just as I barely trust my fellow citizens to do so, so habituated we are to abide by authority and not by ourselves. But trust each other we must. And equally live up to the responsibility of our full citizenship in refusing to follow politics and government like the remote audience of a reality television contest, texting in our votes when we’re invited to. We must set the terms of our engagement with the state and with our fellow citizens. We must secure our own individual and collective entitlements. It is we who should write our own constitution, not our rulers.
And we have every right.