Colombo, Constitutional Reform, End of war special edition, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Going Beyond the Politics of Devolution: Back to the Future

As the dust settles on victory parades and politician speeches, a sense of déjà vu is difficult to shake.  The new May Heroes’ Day speeches bear uncanny resemblance to what used to be the November Heroes’ Day speeches – another part of the country and a man with a differently styled moustache but we all recognize that this is not about wars passed but wars in our future, not a lament for dead victims but a war cry that will make future victims; even as victory is declared it is said that there are new enemies that need to be crushed.

The sense of repetition has other resonances too. A new commission on the ethnic conflict is inaugurated with lofty mandates and empty purpose.  They will sit for many months, convene protracted investigations, ponder many complex questions and deliver a lengthy report that is so deferential to power it could be installed as the new wallpaper in Cinnamon Gardens. Yet even that timid file and its hesitant recommendations will be buried alongside the many that came before it.

Finally, talk of backroom negotiations between Delhi and Colombo set the stage for a familiar conversation.  We are once again at a moment where there is discussion of the devolution framework that would be entailed by implementation of the 13th Amendment. Over the last decades, again and again, there has been a turn to alternative constitutional architectures for territorial sovereignty as a solution to the ethnic conflict – a range of diverse proposals for power sharing by disaggregating statehood that run on the continuum from devolution in a unitary state to proposals for regional structures in a federal state.

This broader sense of déjà vu, the sense that we have lived this moment before, partly accounts for the subdued but pregnant terror of the moment. Victory speeches, commissions and constitutions have all been with us through several cycles of war and peace – each time it is re-lived, as if perfected by eternal repetition, the mood is darker, political space more claustrophobic, the climb out of the constraints of the moment more challenging.  I am reminded of the Greek myth of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to an eternally recurring task of pushing a rock up a hill and then, just as he gets to the top, the rock slips downhill and Sisyphus has to descend towards the bowels of the earth and push the rock up the hill once more with the inspiration, energy and commitment needed to get the rock back up the hill.  Yet, even as he reaches the top, the rock slips back down.  Sisyphus has to follow it back down and repeat his labor all over again; this is his eternally recurrent punishment.

Perhaps Sisyphus represents to us an inevitable dimension of political engagement: the labor of justice is relentless.  Yes, we have been here before, but it may be because the challenges of social conflict in Sri Lanka persist. Working towards a more just Sri Lanka is that kind of Sisyph-ian labor, where, even when we descend back into the darkest hell, we need to be able to summon up the inspiration, energy and commitment to imagine the pinnacle of the hill and once again move forward – even if moving forward also means moving uphill.

However, perhaps, the story also represents a warning. Like Sisyphus we have been too tied to a single boulder and a single hill – the idea of a singular ‘solution’ to the ethnic conflict.  Territorial power sharing has been the central, and in most cases, the sole focus of efforts addressing the ethnic conflict.  A cursory survey of past peace proposals evidence a continued focus on different constitutional frameworks for devolution as paths towards a ‘solution’ to the ethnic conflict – federalism, provincial councils, interim self-governing regional authorities, district councils, and various other approaches to regional autonomy and power sharing.

With the back drop of past debates, I want to argue that justice struggles, including struggles for inter-ethnic justice, should not only be aimed at renegotiating the territorial power sharing contract, but also the everyday questions of citizenship.  I use the term ‘questions of citizenship’ here to refer not to passports and identity cards (although that too) but the range of issues that shape resources and meanings in our collective lives.  These are issues that extend from questions of distribution to the space for dissent and accountability.  Undoubtedly, entrenched ethnic injustice is a brutal dimension of the Sri Lankan landscape.  Moreover, far reaching regional autonomy is an urgent and indispensable part of the way forward in addressing that injustice.  However, it is not the only urgent and indispensable arena for political engagement, be it to address inter-ethnic injustice or any other dimension of injustice.  For instance, in a context where journalists and political opponents have been under duress for exposing government abuses (be it the horrors of Menik farm or corruption charges against the President), background citizenship issues regarding dissent and accountability are critical to advancing inter-ethnic justice.  This entails not just a focus on devolution but on trying to expand political space in Sri Lanka more generally.

The near exclusive focus on territorial sovereignty as the solution to the ethnic conflict has been carried forward by fellow travelers of diverse political stripes.  There was the unhappy synergy with the LTTE’s self-serving definition of the horizon of politics as the control of territorial sovereignty such that questions of citizenship would be deferred to a post-Eelam world.  Thus contentious issues of accountability, dissent and democratization (dimensions of what I refer to in this article as ‘questions of citizenship’) were sacrificed to an ever receding horizon.  We got terror in the name of territory.

The near exclusive focus on configurations of territorial sovereignty was the focus not only of the LTTE but also of many groups committed to a political solution – in fact, the very concept of a political solution was equated with constitutional frameworks for territorial devolution.  This was sometimes driven by a series of problematic homologies between ethnic identity and interest, interest and political representation.  The resulting interventions served to further marginalize those issues (such as class) that were not captured by the devolution agenda.  Concomitantly, it also further marginalized groups (such as hill-country Tamils) who were victims of a vicious majoritarianism, but whose situation was unlikely to be radically transformed by devolution to the North and East.   Thus while many worked diligently towards a political solution, the assumptions that shaped their vision were limited and regressive.  Moreover it spurred an approach that may well have been self-defeating because it defeated more transformative agendas and thwarted solidarities with groups and issues that were not addressed by the contours of territorial sovereignty alone.

The problem was not only ethnic or regional parochialism, however; it was also a statist understanding of politics.  With constitutionalism occupying a privileged political space, many embraced sovereignty, and the notion that getting the macro power-sharing formula right would be the key to everything else below.  The lofty heights of constitutionalism and a renegotiated definition of statehood would deliver inter-ethnic justice. Statism is not merely an academic mistake; this impoverished vision of justice bears some responsibility for the disempowering of citizens, the erosion of the space for dissent and the diminishing of alternative political futures.

To examine the issues at stake, we may want to consider territorial sovereignty and citizenship as twin preoccupations that have dominated the politics of constitutional engagement in Sri Lankan.  The former brought  with it a focus on federalism and alternative constitutional approaches to power-sharing; the latter has involved a focus on associational rights, distributive justice, civil liberties, limits on the abuse of power and a host of other matters that are critical to an empowered citizenry.  It should be underscored that these are not alternative but complementary preoccupations.  This is hardly a new point for many readers.  However through the past several decades, the majority of past political interventions seeking to address the ethnic problem have focused disproportionately on proposals for devolution as the sine qua non of advancing inter-ethnic justice.  Even when we have had a wide ranging set of constitutional proposals on the table (the PA proposals of ’95 and 2000 for instance), much of the discussion at that time assessed those proposals’ relevance to ‘solving’ the ethnic conflict by focusing overwhelmingly on the provisions for regional autonomy (rather than how different constitutional provisions empowered or disempowered social movements or impacted questions of distribution and redistribution).  To the extent that it neglected or crowded out questions of citizenship, the focus on devolution may have not been part of the solution but part of the problem.

If our history to date hadn’t already made this evident, the Rajapakse regime has made it clear that approaching the domain of devolution and the domain of citizenship as such separate spheres entails the defeat of progressive forces on both fronts.  Anyone interested in a just approach to the ethnic conflict and its legacies has to also be focused on the everyday issues regarding citizenship.   All Sri Lankans have borne the cost of seeing issues related to federalism or regional autonomy as minority issues or ‘Tamil’ issues, and issues such as labor rights, free speech claims or land rights as ‘Sri Lankan’ issues.  The legal and political terrain of the PTA and high security zones offer the most pointed evidence about the continuities between the “micro” politics of the everyday, and the “macro” politics regarding territorial sovereignty.   However, these continuities surface constantly in quotidian political and legal struggles.  For instance, just a few days ago an indigent, mostly Muslim community in Slave Island were rendered homeless when the Defense department ordered the bulldozing of their homes, shanties that Gotabhaya Rajapakse had declared an ‘eye sore’ – these are issues about inter-ethnic justice in the most significant sense.  Even if there was a federal solution for the North and East, these families will remain vulnerable to the abuse of power – not only because they are Muslims (although this greatly exacerbates their vulnerability), but also because they live in a country where the political space of all citizens to resist such abuse has become much diminished.

A focus of the kind we have discussed here entails recalibrating our political imagination towards change that Roberto Unger has called “incremental but radical.”  We cannot postpone the challenges of citizenship till we achieve federalism, the 13th Amendment or any alternative horizon of devolution.  If we don’t critically rethink past approaches, like Sisyphus, we will be condemned to the eternal task of struggling to take a boulder up the hill that will roll down towards the depths of hell; it will take us with it, again and again.

End of War Special Edition