Photo Courtesy of Al Jazeera

By Asanga Welikala and Roshan de Silva-Wijeyeratne

The election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 marked the beginning of a new era of a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ascendancy in Sri Lanka. The Covid-19 pandemic provided an early opportunity for the government to establish an authoritarian governing style, helped by Parliament standing dissolved, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to subject the government to the constitution. In the delayed parliamentary election earlier in August, the government and its allies sought and obtained a two-thirds majority mandate. This mandate describes not merely the electoral success of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the political dominance of the Rajapaksa government for the foreseeable future. It denotes a more fundamental and wider cultural realignment of Sri Lankan politics in favour of a new nationalist elite that seeks to reshape the form and content of the Sri Lankan state. Accordingly, in the President’s statement of government policy to the new Parliament, it was made clear that the two-thirds majority will be deployed to, both, introduce a set of immediate constitutional changes, as well as to consider a new constitution later.

The broad contours of the new governing elite’s conception of the constitutional form of the Sri Lankan state are not difficult to discern. It is a type of constitutional order that will enshrine the ideological values of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, the central purpose of which is to intertwine the cultural identity of the Sinhala-Buddhist community with the identity of the Sri Lankan state as a whole. In institutional form, such a new constitution will establish a monarchical form of presidentialism that centralises power. It will weaken the constitutional safeguards of democracy including the separation of powers, fundamental rights, and devolution. The consequence will not only be presidential authoritarianism buttressed by militarisation of civil administration, but also the inevitable corruption and shrinkage of democratic pluralism.

One of the underlying aims of this legally unconstrained yet institutionally weak regime-type is to break down crucial separations – between the religious and the secular, the public and the private, and between the state, society, culture, and the economy. While driven by the ideological tenets of the majority nationalism, there are manifold consequences to this regime-type. Politics becomes centralised and hierarchical, and public culture becomes monistic and anti-pluralistic. The economy becomes unbalanced and unequal, dominated by plutocratic fellow-travellers of the regime and a kept middle class. And an overdetermined national identity becomes defined by the willing vassalage of the majority and the coercive oppression of minorities. One of the ways in which this whole edifice is constructed is by appeals to history, and through history to ideas of authenticity. In the hands of highly competent social communicators like the SLPP, a weaponised history becomes a political tool of constitutional reordering of extraordinary power.

Those associated with the government in building the intellectual arguments in favour of this type of reform rely heavily on history to justify the primacy of the Sinhala-Buddhists and why they should enjoy a privileged position in the Sri Lankan polity. Reliance is placed on history in two interconnected ways. The first is to invoke the history of colonialism to remind us of how it despoiled our culture, and the second is to evoke the history of the pre-colonial state as the vehicle of the ancient Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation. Constitutional reform to attune the Sri Lankan state with the Sinhala-Buddhist identity is justified by reference to history in both these ways. All ideologies and especially ethno-religious nationalisms try to make use of history in these ways. But it is important to remember that history as interpreted by nationalists may exclude important historical truths that are inconvenient to the political projects of the nationalists in the present.

The presentation of the ancient Sinhala-Buddhist pre-colonial state as mapping seamlessly on to a modern unitary presidential republic is a claim that must in particular be treated with a great deal of scepticism. We say so for mainly two reasons. The first is that the way in which we absorbed the ideas of Western modernity through colonialism is much more complex than the Manichean – West (bad) versus Us (good) – presentation of the nationalists. Indeed, the very concepts of modernity including the concepts of nation, nationalism, state, sovereignty, and territory that are today pervasively used by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists are Western in origin. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a non-nationalist reading of pre-colonial history reveals a state form in the Sinhala-Buddhist kingdoms that does not easily support the arguments of the nationalists in favour of a highly centralised unitary state in the present. It was instead a type of state, within the overall umbrella of the symbolic over-lordship of the king, which was devolutionary and asymmetrical with a high degree of autonomy at the peripheries. In what follows, we develop these two points in more detail.

Central to the new elite’s avowed rejection of the constitutional frame of the nation-state (originating in the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of the 1830s) in favour of that of the civilisation-state, is the desire to align the future of the Sri Lankan state with a certain reading of pre-colonial Sinhala-Buddhist history. In this reading of past and present, the power of the state is ameliorated only by the religio-moral constraints of the Dasa Raaja Dhamma and the very limited spatial limits of the graama raajya. The pre-colonial reality, as we will show, was radically different. At its simplest this view seeks to elevate the Sinhala-Buddhist identity as the axiom on which the new constitutional order will revolve. In this they seek a break with both the colonial and post-colonial order, so that the new elite can fashion a constitutional dispensation that they imagine is consistent with the island’s pre-colonial past. The rationale for this is that European colonialism, and British colonial rule in particular – notwithstanding the way in which the British colonial state uniquely created a territorially and administratively unified island that is now the foundation of Sinhala-Buddhist constitutionalism – somehow ruptured the seamless narrative of Sinhala-Buddhist history since the dhamma arrived on the island from India.

In some senses, this is neither a new nor an original project of the new nationalists. The elevation of Sinhala-Buddhist culture to the apex of the state’s cultural and religious identity is a process that has been going on since independence. The architects of independence may never have envisaged that the 1948 Constitution would enable Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists to successfully undo the nation-state model of constitutional government that was premised on general principles of limited government, individual rights, the rule of law, the separation of state and religion, and the notion of depersonalised office. This latter concept, associated with the form of a secular state, holds that advancement in public office is on individual merit, and not bound by collective categories such as caste, religion, or ethnicity. And yet majority nationalists have since 1956 used the nation-state model of constitutional government to achieve the political, cultural, and legal dominance of Sinhala Buddhism.

Thus what is happening now can be characterised as a process of finalising this long-gestating and developing constitutional transformation, based on a blueprint the nationalists claim is drawn from ancient Sinhala-Buddhist cultural resources. The problem is that their understanding of this ancient pre-colonial world is one they can only imagine through a nationalist, and hence modern/post-colonial lens. Our argument is that it is virtually impossible, consistently with the acceptable methods of both constitutional history and constitutional law, to speak of a territorially bounded and centralised state in the pre-colonial period as the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists do. We expand on this point by providing some signposts through recourse to Theravāda history in general before saying something specific about pre-colonial Sri Lanka.

The historical resources of the Theravāda world allow for what can be called an ‘ancient constitution’ that did perform the functions of what we expect from a constitution even today, namely to establish a framework for the organisation and distribution of power. It performed this function in the form of what anthropologists call a ‘mandala-state’ or ‘galactic polity’. It is a state form that was centralising in intent (through often extravagant rhetorical claims of over-lordship) but highly decentralised and asymmetrical in practice (not least due to the absence of the technology and the resources for centralisation used by modern nation-states). In Stanley Tambiah’s words, the mandala-state was a “galaxy-type structure with lesser political replicas revolving around the central entity and in perpetual motion of fission or incorporation”. At the centre of this state form was the monarchical court, the monarch claiming ‘sovereignty’ over vast territories and even the entire universe. This political model was replicated by lesser chieftains within the orbit of the central monarchy, while acknowledging the suzerainty of the centre through ritualised practices of paying tribute. Neither the central nor the peripheral rulers conceived of their ‘jurisdiction’ in territorial terms; the claims to ‘sovereignty’ were cosmological, not corporeal.

This core organisational form of the ancient constitution of the Theravāda world had its origins in Asoka’s Mauryan Empire. In purpose, the Mauryan Empire was centralising, as it sought to bring the outer reaches of the empire within the orbit of its capital, Pātaliputra. Buddhism functioned as a form of symbolic capital – or social glue – that unified this vast territory. While Asoka’s Pillar Edicts (a key source of Buddhist non-monastic law that never prevailed in Sri Lanka but did in mainland Southeast Asia) suggest that Asoka sought to bring the smaller tributary polities and diverse religious sects within the orbit of the centre, in practice the Mauryan Empire was a mandala-state. Subsequent mandala-states throughout Theravāda Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka were characterised by a non-centralising logic, the authority of kingship diminishing as one moved further from the capital. We have the Pāli Vinaya to thank for this insight which indicates that the political systems of eastern India at the time that Buddhism was developing its presence were organised on mandala lines.

This was hardly a model of centralised control. The devolutionary dynamics between the centre, periphery, and semi-periphery in Sri Lanka’s pre-British polities confirmed the virtual status of royal sovereignty over the whole island. Gananath Obeyesekere hence notes that even “minor kings who had effective control over only a miniscule area (such as the Tamil kings of Jaffna after the 15th century) claimed sovereignty for all Sri Lanka”, and that the Ruhunarata kingdom in the south was, for much of the ancient and medi­eval period, essentially independent and at an institutional level a replica of the Anuradhapura and later the Polonnaruwa kingdoms in the Rajarata. The semi-periphery and periphery of polities like Anuradhapura were in tributary relationships with the centre. The reality of Buddhist kingship was that it gave way to a decentralised geographical structure, such that there was a replication of like entities on a decreasing scale, which constituted the classic mandala configuration, rather than a bureaucratic hierarchy in centralised control of territory. That is the material difference between the decentralised pre-colonial and the centralised modern (both colonial and post-colonial) state traditions in Sri Lanka. And it is the crucial difference that contemporary majoritarian nationalists deliberately obfuscate in instrumentally and selectively using the past to construct constitutional arguments in the present.

The configuration of space and territory in these mandala-states was such that it even allowed a certain slippage between the categories ‘Sinhala’ and Tamil’ in the period prior to the consolidation of colonial rule following the ceding of the Kandyan kingdom to the British Crown in 1815. Thus a large number of Keralans and Tamils from south India found their way into the Kandyan kingdom. The decentralised nature of the Sinhalese galactic polities ensured that new migrants could easily be placed within a state structure that distributed labour and land through a finely graded system of honours and privileges. Thus non-Kandyans (including Muslims and Low Country Sinhalese) were finely incorporated into the politico-administrative structure of the Kandyan kingdom.

As an example of its decentralised character the Kandyan kingdom was divided into two halves, the northern and the southern, each under the jurisdiction one of two adigars. The role of the adigars was central to the administrative decentralisation of the kingdom, which was concomitant with the inability of the king to enforce his will in a manner that was consistent with the all-encompassing claims of Buddhist king­ship. The responsibilities of the adigars were extensive, requiring them to act as both military leaders and judicial figures. Both adigars exercised general juris­diction throughout the Kandyan kingdom, with the first adigar responsible for the north and east of the kingdom and the second adigar responsible for the south and west of the kingdom. So the ancient constitution validated a form of government that was conspicuously contrary to the contemporary Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist vision of the past.

While such mandala-states were hierarchical in intent, they were fissiparous and asymmetrical in practice. The centre-periphery relations in the Kandyan kingdom were devolutionary, allowing substantial practical autonomy at the periphery including in the Tamil chieftaincies of the Vanni. In the absence of a strong concept of territoriality in this model, cohesion was maintained by the principles of hierarchy and encompassment, that is, by the administrative practices of tributary over-lordship and the hierarchical inclusion of all including Tamils, Muslims, and Low Country Sinhalese within the kingly domain. This revealed a spatial and temporal picture of the island in which Sinhala-Buddhists could certainly claim a dominant position, but the Tamils and the Vanni Chiefs likewise could claim significant autonomy at the northern periphery of the kingdom. As James Heitzman, who specialised in the relation between ritual and administrative practices, argued, based on the archaeological evidence, “administration and control over territory were not the bases of early [pre-European] political structures in South and Southeast Asia”.

When the Kandyan nobles ceded their kingdom to the British Crown in 1815, as a mark of the influence of Sir John D’Oyly, the first Commissioner of Government in the Kandyan Provinces, the administration in Colombo established the Kandyan Department, acknowledging the unique system of government in these provinces. If anything it was the first act of devolved government by the colonial state in recognition of difference. But it was the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of the 1830s (informed by nineteenth century British techniques of government and the utilitarian thought of Jeremy Bentham) that saw the colonial state develop strategies for the centralisation of judicial and civilian administration of the island. On the plus side, these reforms took away from the Governor his near-absolute prerogative powers, but on the down side, they set up for the first time in the history of the island a unitary structure for the admin­istration of the colony, an administrative structure and constitutional form maintained at independence in 1948. This process of centralisation reached its express fulfilment in Section 2/Article 2 of the republican constitutions of 1972 and 1978 declaring Sri Lanka to be a unitary state.

We conclude by asking – if somewhat rhetorically – why Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists would want to claim ownership of or even celebrate a unitary state structure that is clearly colonial in its origins. Their version of presidentialism, similarly, imitates the absolutist prerogative powers possessed of a British Governor prior to the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms. When we remove the lens of today’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists and their present-day political projects from the task of examining our pre-colonial history, we can see with reasonable clarity that neither the unitary state nor monarchical presidentialism has anything much to do with the rich, diverse, and plural history of our island and of Sinhala-Buddhist kingship. Instead, it has everything to do with giving a new lease of life to the centralising traditions of British colonial rule – an extreme irony, when Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists claim to be the sole purveyors of anti-imperialist cultural authenticity. The new elite, like all nationalists, remain circumscribed by the conceptual categories of modernity. They claim to restore some bygone glory, which in reality never was, by returning to the past. But pre-colonial Theravāda Buddhist Asia was one in which the polity was not centralised and the king was only all-encompassing in name only. In short, it would not be too much of an overstatement to conclude with the observation that the SLPP’s constitutional reform ambitions are based on a grandiose historical confidence trick – of which, sadly, the new democratic majority is itself the primary victim.