Book Review: The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

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Image courtesy National Youth Front

A Genre Defying Future Classic on the Psyche of a Republic

A contemporary masterpiece that interweaves fact, fiction and fantasy with seamless and vibrant prose, the Constitution is a must read for all literature lovers. The Constitution was first published in 1978 in not one, but three languages – the only piece of literature in the reviewers understanding to be thus translated at its very outset – an indication of the confidence that the authors had in its literary value and broad appeal. Due to popular demand, eighteen new editions have been published since, each with minor (and sometimes major) improvements. The book is so popular that moves in 2000 to cease publication and replace with another text were met with vehement protests and organised book burning ceremonies. In its 34-plus years of existence, the Constitution has truly proved to be a ‘living text’ – an accolade usually reserved for the masterpieces that have stood the test of time – Moby Dick, War and Peace, Mrs. Dalloway – and just like those other works it is sufficiently rich and nuanced to accommodate multiple and even contradictory interpretations based on the readers aptitude, wisdom, politics and indeed mood.

For decades, the majority of Sri Lankans have mistaken the Constitution for a non-fiction work that in some intangible manner sets out the broad framework within which society operates, thinks, values, protects and punishes. Herein lies the genius of the authors, who created a whole new literary genre – that has subsequently become known in the film world as the ‘mockumentary’ (fiction presented as fact). But the Constitution is not merely a mockumentary. It transcends other literary genres – from magical realism to absurdism, to satire and at times even Gothic horror – with the simplicity and ease that is a hallmark of true genius. Think Kafka, Allende, Coelho, Stoker, Saki, Wilde and Orwell all rolled into one, and somehow working.

That it was ahead of its time is beyond doubt, that it is probably the most influential contemporary work is rarely acknowledged.

The Constitution is to the Republic of Sri Lanka, what Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ is to post-colonial India – the story of a history of a nation. It is flawed – as this review will explore later; but even its flaws are compelling and of literary value – full of irony, metaphor and imagery – and most importantly, integral to the story it tells.

The strength of the Constitution does not lie in its ‘plot’ – which some have argued, is ‘lost’. In this sense, the book is ‘Kundera-esque’ – to be read more for the beauty of its prose, its wisdom and philosophical insight than for a good story. Ostensibly, the very thin plot is that of the life of a republic. Consequently, the protagonists, as set out in the initial pages include ‘the people’, ‘the state’, ‘the unitary state’ (are they one and the same?), ‘sovereignty’, ‘the executive’, ‘the legislature’ and ‘the judiciary’. As the story develops, we learn about the rights of the people and how these rights are the most important and inalienable thing – but not quite. How the executive, legislature and judiciary – all manifestations of the sovereignty and power of the people – pull together to ensure that every person has the best possible chance to succeed and is guaranteed protection against any and all injustice.

That may sound like a pretty dull story – and it is. But therein lies the genius of the Constitution. No good fiction is complete without elements of conflict, tension, uncertainty and suspense. The Constitution has achieved all of the above and much much more, not through its text alone, but through how this text has been perceived and interacted with by the reader. It is only now that the ‘fiction’ element of the Constitution is being recognised, as a large metaphorical neon tube light haltingly flickers on above our collective heads. For the longest time, readers mistook the Constitution for ‘fact’ and responded to it accordingly – and thus, unknowingly became integral to the story themselves. The increasingly attractive notion of ‘creative reading’ i.e. that the reader plays an important role in the literary process, was taken to the next level by the Constitution in a manner that has rarely been replicated since.

One example was the 2010 Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary ‘I’m Still Here’. Phoenix publicly announced his retirement as an actor and his ambition to build a new career as a hip hop artist. He proceeded to make really bad records, and visibly degenerate from one of the most talented actors in the world to a socially awkward, hobo looking terrible terrible singer. The reaction was pretty massive, and was recorded and subsequently incorporated into the mockumentary – thus making the viewer an active and not passive participant in the literary process.

The Constitution does the same. But does it better. And this is why its many flaws are so essential to its success. It is because it is a flawed document that well intentioned people were sucked into the story and made arguments and counter-arguments to improve it. One example would be the discourse around the manner in which the beautifully articulated rights of the people as enshrined in the Constitution are undermined by one stark sentence – “all existing written law and unwritten law shall be valid and operative notwithstanding any inconsistency with the preceding provisions of this Chapter.”

It is because it is a flawed document that the opportunistic rallied under seemingly counter-intuitive sections that when carefully studied, demonstrate that the people though declared to be ‘equal’, are actually not. And that while ‘People’ benefit from certain Constitutional provisions including a declaration that the state is unitary; ‘people’ do not.

And so through its flaws, the Constitution brings out the best and worst in human nature, and has made the reader part of the story. This is literature at its very best – a true reflective piece that casts a mirror on society and does not shield us from the resultant image.

But as with all good things, the Constitution could not deceive the astute readership forever. The recent impeachment of the Chief Justice, the rejection of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional interpretation and the reliance instead on an interpretation by the legislature, were perhaps a step too far and have finally confirmed that this text will go down in history as a great work of art and not a mediocre work of legal drafting.

Perhaps if we had been looking more closely though, the truth would have emerged earlier.

For example, the Thirteenth edition of the Constitution provided for some improvements that never transgressed into fact from fiction. Perhaps because most of these improvements would have benefited ‘people’, ‘People’ did not notice their non-implementation. The same could be said for the Seventeenth edition. Again, we hardly noticed.

Similarly it is not like the legislature and executive have not treated the Constitution for what it really is – fantasy – in the past. But then again, most often such acts resulted in ‘people’ not being treated in compliance with Constitutional text (which recognises them as the sovereign power with inalienable rights), like many youth of the South in the 80s or the Wanni population circa 2009 for example.

Most embarrassingly – and perhaps because it is popularly known in shorthand as ‘The Constitution’ – many a discerning reader failed to make an educated guess based on its full title – “The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.

Finally, while the present state of affairs which brings into focus the ‘separation of powers’ and ‘rule of law’ is what has confirmed to many that the Constitution is indeed a work of fiction; there were many long-standing signs for those willing to look, that this has been the case for some time.

The Constitution provides for three arms of government (judiciary, legislature and executive) that have different and separate powers which counter-balance each other in order to ensure that the people remain sovereign and supreme.

But reality has been increasingly very different.

For example, despite the Seventeenth edition of the Constitution introducing improvements which enhanced the separation of powers, the very next edition brought in even better improvements which ridiculed the very notion. Furthermore, this Eighteenth edition was written by an executive, passed by a legislature and approved by a judiciary with seamless ease, almost as if all three organs were one and the ‘people’ (and ‘People’) did not matter. The three organs have colluded before – many a time to deny justice to the ‘people’ – but the separation of powers was never questioned. It is only now, when the lack of a separation has been highlighted due to conflict between the organs as opposed to collusion, that we finally have seen the light.

They say that fact is stranger than fiction. With the Constitution, they are one and the same.

  • http://- Sarwan

    Are we independent and civilised than we were in 1948?

    1. If the Westerners did not colonise us we will be still Veddahs roaming the jungles, killing each other, “might would have been right” without rule of law and judiciary, let alone accounting financially and corruption. We will be wearing amude and not trousers, bows and arrows and not guns. This would have made us uncivilised in this world.

    2. LTTE was formed because of ultra racism and perverted Buddhism causing repression and murder of Tamils, an uncivilised character of the Sinhalese, nearing barbarism. Liberation movements such as LTTE were the good reason to liberate the people of more than 30 African countries. Therefore LTTE was a necessity caused by Sinhala barbarism.

    3. The western inaction was more out of indifference than “divide and rule”.

    4. Sri Lanka is not a small country. No one must cheat himself and others. There are at least 38 countries smaller than SL.

    5. The island of “SL” has two nations with different culture, character and aspirations. The only way to live peacefully would be to allow each nation to have its autonomy in its territory by a new constitution, as the present “constitution” is illegally formed and flawed with several amendments- about 18- to put in order, And the “constitution” has became more flawed.

    • Leela

      Sarwan,
      You seemed to be mesmerised by the so-called exuberant era of Europeans that started with Spanish and the Portuguese sailed the world in search of loot. Pity you do not know that Portuguese pirates that washed up to Sinhale have stole the ivory crown of our king and knocked down the beautiful ‘Kelaniya Temple’ that stood for more than millennia. Don’t take my word; read Christianity in Ceylon by Sir James Emerson Tennent to find out more.

      D.B.S.Jayaraj wrote; a Tamil named Visvalingam first proposed to divide Sri Lanka in 1928 which he called ‘elom’. In 1928 British Raj ruled this country not Sinhalas.

      So how on earth you can say; “LTTE was formed because of ultra racism and perverted Buddhism causing repression and murder of Tamils, an uncivilised character of the Sinhalese, nearing barbarism.” Do not talk bullshit.

      I will tell you in short how and why LTTE was formed. Tamils have a dilemma. Tamils are over 65 million all over the world but they have no country. So, A man named EVR Periyar started to agitate a Dravidastan for Dravidains in the 1920s. That is long before Jinna even thought of a Pakistan for Muslims. When Dravidains opted out of Periyar’s band wagon after India marked states on racial basis Periyar changed his slogan to ‘Tamil Nadu for Tamils’. And, Tamils continued their separatist demand for Tamils in Tamil Nadu. But Nehru banned it in 1963 by the 16th amendment.

      Thereafter racist Tamil Nadu politicians had appointed their kith and kin in Sri Lanka as their proxy to get what they cannot in India.

      Your man tantai Chelva, self professed Ghandian but a trousered one at that took over from where Periyar and Visvalingam left. He told one thing to Tamils and another to Sinhalese. He tried to get Sinhalese to believe Tamils only want Federal. But from what had one on in India, Sinhalas knew true goal of Tamils of Sri Lanka is the same as Tamils of India – a separate county.

      When trousered Ghandi failed to get what he wanted through protests, sittings and etc, he came up with the now infamous ‘Waddukkodai Resolution’. Last sentence of the resolution that was proposed and adopted at the party convention of, TULF on May 14th 1976 says; “And this Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of TAMIL EELAM is reached.”

      It is that war we have ended on the May 19th 2009 around Nanthikadal lagoon. You cannot have a separate country here period
      Leela