Ethnicity versus Nationalism: The Devolution Discourse in Sri Lanka
Eric Gonsalves ·       

It requires a brave man to venture into the minefields of contemporary Sri Lankan politics, and an even braver man to suggest a possible way out. Partha Ghosh brings to this endeavour the strict rigour of the academic along with the inside knowledge of one who has interacted closely with many of the main actors. The book provides a detailed historical background. It traces the evolution of the ethnic confrontation to its current status, and the attempts to deal with it. It ends with some tentative conclusions.

Most newly independent countries in the 20th century found a dominant group or tribe taking control usually in the form of a military dictatorship. Other groups got short shrift, and had to make do with second-class status. In rare cases, like Timor or Eritrea prolonged violence did bring independence. India was one of the rare exceptions that have been able to retain its plural and democratic polity.� That it still needs to be vigilant is clear from the deterioration that has taken place in recent years. Sri Lanka did keep a democratic, if eroded, framework. The demands of its Sinhalese majority for a unitary state i.e. their permanent political dominance, and those of the Tamil minority for recognition of their rights, which at a minimum would require a federal structure, and at the maximum a separate state - the Tamil Eelam, became increasingly difficult to reconcile. The first part of the book outlines the history of a constitutional debate escalating into a full-fledged war. The Sinhala leadership was shortsighted in refusing to address the problem of devolution adequately. Indeed, they threw away opportunities while there was still time. The Tamil leadership and later the Indian Government also failed to comprehend the real nature of the LTTE which they had helped train and establish. Ghosh has covered this period in depth objectively and succinctly

The main portion of the book addresses the Devolution Proposals put forward by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1995. They were eventually presented, as a draft constitution for Sri Lanka in 2000. That Constitution could not be enacted into law. The author has spared no effort to provide exhaustive details and reactions from all concerned parties. The UNP Government of Ranil Wickremesinghe initiated a fresh peace process when it took over from the PA after the general elections in December 2001. This was undoubtedly facilitated by the shift in international public opinion against terrorism after 9/11.Consistent with the normal processes of South Asian politics, the concept of devolution is projected by the party in power as it faces the responsibility of governance, and is opposed by the party out of power as they play populist politics. But refreshing, as it is to see so many converts to this idea among the Sinhala elite, it must also be recognised that they have not really done enough to gain adequate support from their compatriots. Also they have done nothing to dent the vociferous opposition from the Buddhist clergy, the Sangha. On the Tamil side, devolution was always acceptable to the political elite. But the LTTE having gained the driver?s seat by force of arms continues to play the same old game of engaging the Colombo Government in parleys to return to war when it suits them. The outside observer is left in little doubt that they remain committed to the goal of a homeland firmly under their control without any internal democratic alternatives and only a fig leaf of federal control. Devolution remains a very desirable goal with no practical road map as to how it can be achieved despite the many rounds of talks. Ghosh has put forward a confidence-building model in his conclusions. They are laudable but will the major players be willing to accept the neccesary quantum of compromise? Even the author is not sure

All through the book one central theme reverberates. Can a nation state be successfully built on the basis of a plural society using different languages, following different religions, having different ethnic origins or different combinations of these and other economic and social diversities? The answer is obviously ?Yes? when we look at Switzerland, Malaysia or the USA. It is less clear if one looks at Belgium or Northern Ireland. It is even more clouded as one scans the emerging nations in Africa. A plural society requires a democratic structure where minority rights are secured not only by law, but also by majority consent. This is easier in societies with a greater degree of plurality. Where the confrontation is between a single majority and a single minority, it soon becomes increasingly entrenched. Part of this is due to the increasing recourse to populism in politics and the reliance placed on vote banks rather than on issues. Post 9/11 the attitude of targeting whole racial groups as terrorists was accentuated. After all, the intellectual basis had already been established by the concept of the ?clash of civilisations?. To a considerable extent ruling elites prefer to use a law and order approach without accepting that this has to go in tandem with eradicating the causes of the confrontation. Sectarian passion may hinder development, and thus harm the individual and civil society, but its capacity to reward those seeking office is considerable.

Hence both the practising politician and the political scientist must join hands to ensure that all citizens, and especially the new generation, are motivated sufficiently to fight for tolerance and a plural society. India?s founding fathers rightly realised that diversity itself contributes to the richness of the nation. Sri Lanka will undoubtedly have to call upon all the available skills of constitutional experts to draw up a suitable political framework. But that can only take place when there is an agreed compromise between the communities as suggested by Ghosh in his conclusions.

Indian involment in Sri Lanka is inevitable. History, geography, religion and other factors ensure this. Since independence, India has slowly graduated from being the successor to an imperial mentor to being a concerned neighbour. Sri Lanka has sought to keep its distance, while also trying to use New Delhi to overawe both the Indian Tamils and the Jaffna Tamils. By the late 90s with the rise of the LTTE to its present predominant position, the unfortunate end of the IPKF intervention, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and the virtual ballet of alliances between the Dravidian parties and federal Indian politics, India?s role has diminished to being a mute spectator. This is unfortunate as Indian political learning processes in federalism and in dealing with terrorism could be shared with benefit. Should the Norwegian brokered cease-fire lead to a settlement in Sri Lanka, that itself could be advantageous to Indian security. Economic bonds are now growing quite swiftly, and the momentum would become faster if there was peace, giving a boost to the whole process of South Asian integration. India does need to be more mature in its attitude to the Sri Lankan peace process. It should not be a mere sightseer. It should even be willing to provide some security guarantees in the event of a genuine compromise, ensuring that these are limited as they were in 1971, and their not becoming an end unto themselves as happened with the IPKF.

Ghosh's book is a very valuable contribution to the understanding of the current situation in Sri Lanka and all the circumstances leading up to it. One can only hope that policy makers will follow the sage advice put forward with his characteristic modesty.