It's not about 'Unitary' or 'Federal'

by N Sathiya Moorthy

(December 08, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lankan Transport Minister Dulles Alahapperuma's announcement that the next SAARC ministerial meeting would discuss a railway link connecting the island-nation with the Indian neighbour should be welcome by all. As the Minister points out, it would open up Sri Lanka not only to the larger Indian market for goods and services, connectivity of the kind, which should also include a land-bridge, would be an opening to the entire Eurasian landmass and nations.

The revival of the proposal, first mooted by then UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, by a successor SLFP-UPFA Government also indicates the possible emergence of a 'Sinhala consensus' on larger developmental issues impacting on the nation as a whole. The Tamil majority Northern Province would be the land-point for any land or rail bridge of the kind on the Sri Lankan side of the seas that join the two nations.

Any development of the Sri Lankan nation as a whole, facilitated by the new linkage with the outside world, would thus begin in the North. If the proposal did not take off when mooted, it was also because the Tamil Nadu Government of then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had apprehensions about the LTTE putting it to wrong use.

For the Tamils of Sri Lanka, it would also be a revival of the 'umbilical cord' relation that they have had with the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. It would be a return to the forgotten days of the 'Boat Mail', which connected Colombo and Chennai, then Madras, when the British were the common colonial rulers of the two nations. The two nations and their peoples now need to ponder if it required a foreign ruler to work together, or they could do it one better by replacing the tedium of an inter-linking sea voyage with a fast-tracked bridge in this "Asia's Century".

The way the ethnic war is progressing, it is possible that the LTTE could be militarily neutralised. Yet, Sri Lanka and the region as a whole would need freedom from 'residual militancy' for the establishment of such linkages to shared prosperity. That part of the solution may lie elsewhere.

An end to the ethnic war and a solution to the ethnic issue is not about a 'unitary' or 'federal' Constitution, or a 'unitary' or 'federal' Sri Lankan State. The Tamils' problems with and from the Sri Lankan State pre-dates the advent of the 'unitary State' in 1977. The Sri Lankan Government (whichever party or alliance is in power) and the hard-line sections of the Sinhala polity should remember that mere semantics has not helped.

Whether SLFP or UNP, whoever is in the Opposition has demanded an end to the Executive Presidency, and continued with it while in power. Executive Presidency came with the 'unitary Constitution'. The USA, of all nations, has shown from day one that a strong Executive Presidency does not require a 'unitary State'. If anything, the US is also the strongest example and exponent of the 'federal model'.

The ethnic issue graduated into an ethnic war under the 'unitary Constitution'. Its continuance is among the reasons for delaying/denying a negotiated political settlement. Its removal need not guarantee ethnic peace, either.

Instead, it is the constitutional provision on schemes such as 'subordinate legislation' may hold the key for a political solution. Likewise, on the highly sensitive and least debated issue of 'Police' powers for the Provinces numbers alone would help, istead. That requires constitutional guarantees on reservations in recruitment, for all communities, both at the national and the provincial levels. The provision should apply to all other recruitments to Government service(s) as well.

At the end of it all, people, particularly the Tamils, have suffered from the war that was launched to 'liberate' them. The Sri Lankan nation has suffered. So has the 'Sinhala majority', whose interests some hard-liners still believe the Sri Lankan State was commanded by the 'unitary Constitution', to protect. Even they were, and continue to be vague and unsure about what 'protection' it was meant to be, or what 'protection' it has offered, since.

If it was all about the purported 'Tamil domination' of education and employment, and the consequent denial of the same to the Tamils, thanks to the 'Sinhala Only' law, they are all in the past. Tamils or Sinhalas, the craving today is for knowledge of English language, to qualify for non-governmental jobs -- outside Sri Lanka.

But then, 'Standardisation', the other thorn in the nation's flesh, did help – and not just the Sinhala majority. It helped the Tamil-speaking people, including Muslims, from the East. The thorn has been removed, too.

Peace and prosperity is not about 'unitary' or 'federal' Constitution. It is about an attitude, a feeling of growing together and wanting to grow together. If a link-bridge across the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait is going to ensure it, that should come first. The rest of it can wait – or, need not wait.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. The article an originally published by the Daily Mirror, a daily news paper based in Colombo.
- Sri Lanka Guardian