Featured image courtesy British High Commission

The ex-colonies at their independence were presented with a state conforming exactly to their former colonial boundaries. They were expected to build one nation into it – even if there were two or more nations within them. We thus started with a ‘state nation’ and not a nation state; because the state was established first, with the hope that one nation could be fitted into it. Democracy was to be the means by which this was to be achieved. This article seeks, from a historical, constitutional and political perspective, to analyse some of the problems that have arisen in doing so.

Two problems arise. First, the boundaries of the states are completely arbitrary, reflecting the ebb and flow of the tides of colonial fortune rather than true national boundaries. In Africa, new ‘nations’ are expected to contort and convolute themselves to fit into the geometric shapes of these colonial constructs, euphemistically called ‘nation states’. Closer to home, the Shan, Karen and Kachin ‘nations’ do not feel part of the Myanmar nation state, fighting even 70 years later to avoid that fate. Likewise, India is trying to build a nation out of a sub-continent made up of many nations, some of which may not even want to be part of India. Thus, the old wine of ethno-religious differences was just poured into new bottles and labelled ‘nation states’.

Secondly, the pre-existing ethnic, linguistic and religious differences are supposed to be settled through democracy. But nowhere in the democracies of Europe were these differences ever resolved through the vote. It took about 400 years of violence and bloodshed after 1066 for the English nation to emerge, while it took the Hundred Years’ War in France merely to resolve differences between different Christian denominations. Democracy appeared only 300 years after these ethnic, linguistic and religious differences had been settled and the nation states had already been formed. In contrast in the ex-colonies, two or more communities/nations with differences of race, religion and language were bundled together and declared at independence to be one ‘nation state’ within their former colonial boundaries. Democracy was to decide who would be the ruler and who the ruled, within these chance colonial boundaries.

The problem is that the outcome of a ‘democratic’ vote is decided by the counting of heads within these arbitrary colonial boundaries. For instance, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was ruled as part of the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu) in British India; it was excised from India only for a colonial tax reason. If Ceylon had not been so excised, we would be part of Tamil Nadu, and Tamil would be our regional language and Hindi our national language. Would Sri Lankans accept this as being democratic, just because it is decided by a vote under former colonial boundaries? Or should we go back to our pre-colonial boundaries before the first colonisers (the Portuguese) came to our island, which would yield a different ‘democratic’ result?

The problem about the ‘democratic vote’ is that its outcome is determined not only by the counting of heads, but also by the boundaries within which the heads are counted. It is the arbitrary colonial boundary (and not democracy) that decides who will be the ruler, and who the ruled. This is not only undemocratic but could even be dangerous – as seen in Rwanda, Burundi or Mali.

This is not to say that Sri Lanka should have different boundaries: it is only to say that the boundaries of Lanka were colonially contrived and should not be seen as giving a right to the ethnic majority to remake the state in its own image, to rule exclusively every part of it, or to deny equal rights to its minorities. The minorities were promised a secular state at independence, but they have woken up to a different reality.

This situation has been compounded since independence by the rise of rival ethnic/sectarian ‘nationalisms’ within the same ‘nation state’. It was historically inevitable that such a racial/religious resurgence would occur at the end of the colonial period, especially because local languages and religions were suppressed or held in hibernation during colonial times. Given this nationalistic resurgence and aided by the British-type constitution, the majority ethnic community has run away with the state, which the minorities also call their own. Consequently, the minorities feel that they have no part in such an ethnic or religiously identified state – which was not what they were promised at independence. They find, in fact, that they have merely exchanged one ‘external’ ruler for another, conquered this time not by the bullet, but by the ballot. Worse still, they find they are now ruled by a party to the dispute, a party flushed with its own nationalism, which often treats the minorities as unwanted ‘guests’ in the country.

This violates, however, the first principle of democracy as far as the minorities are concerned, which is the consent or willingness to be governed. How can it be democratic to be ruled against one’s will, under a constitution which grants all power to another ethnic majority which wants to remake the state in its own image? For instance, the Constitution of 1972 in Sri Lanka conferred sovereignty on Parliament – which in practice conferred sovereignty on the Sinhala majority, since they have a permanent majority in Parliament. There were other provisions too, which changed the nature of the state to mirror the majority community only.

The above unintended distortions of the nation state and democracy have been made possible by the following mistaken concepts and assumptions regarding the same:

    • It was believed or pretended that the ‘nation states’ set up at independence really represented true nations. In reality, they were merely colonial constructs, representing only the territorial entities left by the colonial powers with pluri-nations living within them.
    • It was believed that the pre-existing ethnic/sectarian divisions within them could be settled by democracy – although democracy has never been able to achieve the same in Europe earlier.
    • In the long run, it was hoped that a wider nationalism congruent with that of the new nation state would emerge and that secular ideas of national development would prevail. But, in the context of unresolved ethnic, language and religious issues, the electoral process of democracy has resulted in the most divisive communal cries in order to obtain the vote of the majority community. The minorities do the same, thus placing conflict at the heart of the would-be nation state. It has been argued that elections are decided by many factors, including caste and class. While this is true with respect to elections to particular seats in Sri Lanka, it cannot be gainsaid that the overall result of General Elections since 1956 have been determined by race and religion.
    • In the context of unresolved communal claims, electoral democracy augments communal conflict in the following ways. Politicians of the majority community seeking election promise greater rights/privileges for their community – often at the expense of the minorities. Although the voters may not have any personal grievances against the minorities, they are incited to believe that they do. The candidates having raised ‘demand’ before the elections hasten to provide the ‘supply’, after they are elected, by delivering on their promises. The politicians in the minority communities tend to do the same. So the mutually reinforcing race those seeking election and their electorates goes on – to bid the country down the drain.
    • This process is aggravated when there are two or more political parties of the majority community vying for its vote, since each party now tries to ‘outbid’ the other with more extreme racial or religious appeals. Even where the minorities join with one of the major parties to win a General Election, they have never obtained what was promised to them, since the other major party raises the communal cry to win the majority vote at the next Election.
    • The ethnic/sectarian majority spurred on by its resurgent nationalism uses the electoral process of democracy to capture the power of the state on a permanent, monopolistic basis. It then uses that power to re-make the state in its own image, using the cover of ‘democracy’ and ‘national sovereignty’ to legitimise its actions.
    • The countries’ constitutions conspire in this excursion to the extreme. Most ex-colonies copied the British or French Parliamentary systems (those of their colonial masters) which are, however, the weakest in protecting minority rights. This is, first, because these constitutions do not provide a fool-proof Bill of Rights that cannot be overridden by Parliament with the requisite majority – which can easily be achieved by raising the communal cry. Secondly, they lack a rigid separation of powers that can be constitutionally enforced. It was naïve to assume that the traditions of Westminster in regard to minority rights and the rule of law would be followed by a resurgent racial/religious majority without protection from a rigid constitution which cannot be changed at the whim of an ethnic majority. Thirdly, most of the constitutions started from the premise of a unitary constitution patterned on that of their colonial masters (Britain and France), which is not the best way to deal with different nations/nationalities locked up within the same so-called nation state. In contrast, the ex-American colonies and those under its dominance adopted federal or devolved constitutions, which would probably have solved many ex-colonies’ ethnic/national problems.

All the above make it difficult, if not impossible, to use the true power of democracy to resolve such disputes by way of power-sharing arrangements such as devolution, since the ethnic/sectarian majorities are unlikely to agree to give up the powers and perks of elected office. In countries where there is a mix of race and religion, this becomes even more difficult because religion is brought in to justify racial claims and vice versa. It is also more politically difficult to change from a unitary constitution to a more devolved one than vice versa.

Armed with such a permanent monopoly of state power, acquired and legitimised by ‘democracy’, the racial/religious majority begins to identify itself with the state, and vice versa. This sounds the death-knell of the ‘nation state’ as agreed at independence: for it is now a state ‘belonging’ to a particular ethnic group and not to the broader nation congruent with the eponymous nation state. The minorities now do not feel an affiliation with such a racially or religiously identified state. Many ex-colonies are in this predicament.

All the above was enabled proximately by the electoral process of democracy. The latter, when applied before pre-existing ethnic/religious issues are settled only exacerbates these divisions, driving all parties to the communal extreme. Democracy was introduced in Europe only after these ethno-religious disputes had been settled. Least of all was democracy called upon to settle them.

Electoral democracy based on ex-colonial boundaries and the above mistaken assumptions has given rise to certain unintended and undesirable consequences in Africa, the Middle East, Central America and Asia. There are of course some fortunate emerging democracies that have been able to overcome this fate. It is revealing, first, that all the countries listed below were not exposed to democracy until after national/ethnic unity had been attained. Secondly, it is not a coincidence that the countries that did not go under western colonial rule in Asia, such as China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand are the most advanced in Asia today in terms of national unity, political stability and economic development. This is partly because, in the absence of the colonial period, they had time enough to build a true nation state. This benefit is also shared by ex-colonies blessed with one-party rule since independence, which also gave them the time to solve their ethnic problems.

It has been argued that the emerging democracies need not repeat the experience of Europe, where these disputes of race and religion took over 400 years to resolve – especially because they now have the aid of democracy to help them. But it is the very first step of democracy, its electoral process, working with different nations trapped within arbitrary colonial boundaries in so-called nation states that has exacerbated these ethnic/sectarian disputes. The electoral process of democracy by being the purveyor of this power to the ethnic/religious majorities has become the proximate cause of the problem, making it part of the problem rather than part of its solution. In Sri Lanka, given the communal nature of the vote since 1956, why even bother to have elections now, when the electoral outcome was decided when the British drew up the boundaries of colonial Ceylon more than 200 years ago? Elections now become only a contest between parties of the ethnic majority with the winner being the one that raises the most extreme communal cry, thus exacerbating the problems of national unity and of the minorities. The current government appears to be an exception to the above, having been elected with the help of the minorities; but its inability to fulfill its promises to the minorities is rooted in the same causes.

Obviously, true democracy does not end with the electoral process. True democracy implies the rule of law and equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens, backed by democratic constitutions, institutions and processes needed to sustain them. The problem is that this later stage of democratic development is seldom reached. This is because state power has often been intercepted or captured by racial/religious majorities to whom democracy means little more than commanding majorities within their former colonial boundaries. Needless to say, the minorities do the same with whatever power is left to them.

It is necessary to emphasise that the problem is structural and political as much as communal. Nor is this to blame any particular ethno/religious majority for all the above – since there is communalism on both sides in most ex-colonies. Moreover, one can be sure that if the roles were somehow reversed such that the minority suddenly becomes the majority ‘inheriting’ all the power of the state, it would probably do the same. Hence, this is not only a communal problem: it is also a political and constitutional problem, which can only be solved by political and constitutional change that ensures a sharing of power.

The final stage is reached when the ethnic/religious majority, now identifying itself with the state and acting in its name, claims the entire former colonial territory exclusively as its own. There are three steps in this process, as illustrated by the unfolding events in Sri Lanka. The first step has been the conflation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism with Sri Lankan nationalism; examples can be cited. The second is the self-identification of the Sinhala-Buddhist nation with the state of Sri Lanka, resulting in a change in the nature of the state to reflect the Sinhala nation’s own, communal image; again, examples can be cited. The third is the ethnic majority’s claim, acting for the state and using always its name, to rule the whole country.

This allows Sinhala Buddhist parliamentarians (41 percent of whom are reported not to have even passed the GCE Ordinary Level Exams) acting in the name of the state, to determine the fate of the Tamil people in the North and East. They thus have the constitutional right to authorise an ‘army of occupation’ (always in the name of the state) to rule the North and East, even if that Army (95 percent Sinhala or Buddhist) does not even speak the language of the people whom it rules, nor share their religion. This is not to blame the Sinhala people but to show the constitutional inevitabilities that have led us to this pass.

It is time to admit that Sri Lanka, like many other ex-colonies, has more than one nation within it. The Sinhalese were the first to assert that they are an exclusive nation with a glorious past. The problem for the minorities, however, is that the Sinhalese now have exclusive control over all powers of the state and wish to transform it in their own cultural and religious image – the same state which the Tamils and Muslims also call their own. The Sri Lankan Tamils of the north and east also claim to be a separate nation with a proven presence in our common island home, not having been ruled by the Sinhalese from at least the 10th century onwards – i.e. for over 1000 years.

This Lankan Tamil nationalism is based on differences of race, religion, language and culture from the Sinhalese – constituting more differences than in Switzerland, which has a smaller area and smaller population, but still has a federal or confederal constitution. This Lankan Tamil nationalism has been further forged by the killings of innocent Tamil civilians from 1956-83, the 1972 Constitution (and subsequent ones) and the ‘civil war’ that lasted 26 years. This Lankan Tamil nationalism is rooted in this country and is easily identifiable as separate and distinct from the Tamils of India. A Sinhala friend has asked the writer: ‘How can there be a separate Lankan Tamil nation when there is already a Tamil nation in South India?’ This is like saying that there is no New Zealand or Australian nation or nationality because there is already an English nation in England. Likewise the Lankan Muslims inflated by international Islam and now attacked by radical Sinhala mobs have also come to feel a new separateness and a new ‘nationalism’. (Admittedly, there is a growing problem here, since the Muslims seem to be undergoing social and cultural changes in response to the demands of international Islam). The problem now is how to reconcile these different nationalisms within one state, especially within our unitary constitution. It is up to the Sinhala majority, which actually wields all the powers of the state, to provide the constitutional and institutional means to resolve these different ‘national’ claims.

The current Government in Sri Lanka, brought into power with the help of minorities, has tried its best to address these problems. However, we have seen this same play before: both the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam and Dudley-Chelvanayagam Pacts were aborted by the action of mobs mobilised by Sinhala politicians, while the armed agents of the state looked on. More recently, the Mahanayake Theras of Asgiriya and Malwatte have ‘vetoed’ even the modest devolutionary proposals proposed by the Government. Significantly their stand seems to have been based not on religious grounds, but on racial and political grounds. They did not even protest the killings and burnings of Muslims and their dwellings in the Mahanayakes’ own backyard in the Kandy District.

Meanwhile, the Government that had promised reforms to the minorities is frozen into inaction like a rabbit caught in the headlights of the prospective Rajapakses’ (Sinhala) nationalistic return. While there is no immediate danger, what is feared is the Sinhala-Buddhist majority’s vote at the next General Election: just the fear of a racially charged electorate is enough. Meanwhile the Sangha and the Army, who have become major players now, stand ready to ensure that there is no change in the existing constitutional arrangements, which have ensured Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. This is illustrated by the following example. The Tamils want a credible investigation into the alleged massacres at Nandikadal as an important step in the major communal reconciliation, that had also been promised by the Government to the Tamils and to the United Nations. However, the Government, the Parliament, the Sangha and (especially) the Army are united in their refusal to permit such an investigation – except on their own, cover-up terms. Thus the circle is complete: the Government, the state, the Parliamentary majority, the Sangha and the Army are one. This harks back to the Mahavamsa’s fateful equation of Sinhalese to Buddhism to Sri Lanka that has been the bane of national unity in Lanka: for it postulates the right of only one race and religion to rule the whole of Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa’s flawed and distorted view of history and of Buddhism (the latter confirmed by many Buddhist writers) has been seared into the Sinhala-Buddhist psyche in the pirivenas and schools for over 1500 years, so that it has become like mother’s milk to the Sinhala masses, especially in the rural areas.

While the Mahavamsa provides the conceptual basis for this ideology, the departing colonialists (the British) have provided the practical (mechanical) means for the Sinhalese to obtain ‘ownership’ of the whole of Sri Lanka. This has been achieved by the false British notion (believed by the Ceylonese at the time of independence too) that Sri Lanka already constituted, or would hopefully become, a true nation state. Hence, all communities were locked up together in a unitary state, governed by a British-type Parliamentary system with a sovereign Parliament (to which the majority has added an Executive Presidency), all of which have resulted in complete ‘ownership’ of the state by one community only. The British and Lankan notion of a true nation state has thus been trumped by a resurgent Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that ensures permanent political power to one race and religion only.

Thus we have come to the end of the road on three fronts. First, the idea that the minorities can ever change national (communal) policy by allying with one of the two major Sinhala parties has, since the experience of the present Government, been permanently laid to rest. Secondly, there will be no change from the current constitutional system in the direction of more devolution, despite the fact that it has led to a war that lasted 26 years. All that will be allowed are petty changes that allow particular benefits/power to the particular party or persons in power. Thirdly, it is clear that what cannot be achieved by legal means will be achieved by extra-legal means (violence), as directed against the Tamils (1971-1983) and now against the Muslims. The minorities seek only shelter from the ethnocratic state through a federal or devolved constitution. Instead, while the Tamil people have been rendered powerless and defenseless by the war and the Muslims now under attack, the Mahavamsa’s fanciful equation of Sinhalese to Buddhism to Sri Lanka (the whole of it) is riding high again. Since the minorities are locked together in the same colonially created cage of a unitary state with an aggressive Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, it is clear that there cannot be any remedy within our constitution or within the country. This leaves Lanka a prey to outside forces – like the Tamil diaspora and international fundamentalist Islam. Meanwhile, the corruption and indebtedness of the past have made the country more vulnerable to Indian and Chinese intervention. The result is the externalisation of what is basically our own internal problem.

Unfortunately, the electoral process of democracy tends also to abort true democracy in the long run. For the ethnic/religious majorities that made short shrift of minority rights tend to do the same with democracy. The flowering of Executive Presidencies in the developing world, often coupled with corruption and erosion of the rule of law sound also the death-knell of true democracy. Thus, electoral democracy in the context of rising race and religious intolerance is likely to see the death of true democracy and the rule of law.

This article seeks to dissect the anatomy and physiology of our recent political, social and constitutional history and the difficulties in achieving a true Sri Lankan nation and nation state – even 70 years after independence. It is hoped that all communities/nations in the country will make an effort to live harmoniously together in our common island home. Even if we cannot achieve a true nation state, at least efforts should be made to salvage a ‘state nation’ wherein all our people can live together in peace and equality. Since the latter seems to be our only hope, it is time to think of the constitutional means by which this could be achieved.

Editor’s Note: Also read “Reform Resistance in Sri Lankan Politics” and “The Fall of the No Confidence Motion against the Prime Minister