Incremental Devolution, and Eternal Guarantees

It should now be business as usual – and good time for conferring greater urgency on the political negotiations on power devolution. Robert Blake, the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, has offered comfort to the Government of Sri Lanka on the report of the three-member panel appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. For his part, Ban has now laid greater stress on the panel’s recommendations than findings, if any.

Read between the lines, the international community seems wanting early, ethnic reconciliation than any other. It is another matter it has not employed any tool to press home the urgency that is lacking in the TNA, likewise. That is the unfettered, non-committal freedom that non-State players, even of the moderate variety, may enjoy.

It is one thing for the Tamil community, starting not necessarily with the TNA but with the Diaspora, to seek full-fledged devolution in the post-war era. Their negotiating position is stymied not by the absence of the terror arm of the LTTE kind. Nor does it follow — as some of them tend to believe — that the exit of LTTE terrorism is a guarantor to press home their forgotten demands through moderate means. It does not work that way.

The current controversy over the Darusman panel report has exposed the limitations of the support that the stakeholders in Sri Lanka could expect from their international constituencies. China, for instance, was halting its response that anyway favoured the Government’s position – but in nuanced terms that acknowledged the spirit of the known position of the West.

The West, like in the past, seems taking one step forward for every two steps forward – if it is not the other way round. The post-9/11 psyche is not about conceding the point of the allies, real and surreal. It is about bring them around to known and acknowledged positions. Once should feel used, but cannot – and should not – complain. It’s psy-game, if not war of another kind. Power, and not determination, overwhelms in the end.

The vehement and united protest to the UN in Sri Lanka in the past weeks – without the Sinhala polity taking to the streets this time – meant that the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala majors cannot be expected to overlook domestic sentiments and constituencies. The international community cannot overlook the same. Nor could it be seen as equating State and non-State players on an equal footing, not now, again, in the immediate aftermath of Osama elimination.

The solution lies in between. There cannot be wholesale return to pre-war political positions that had been rejected by the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity long ago. Some such rejections were out of turn, and it is these that could be negotiated in the present circumstances.  Moderation on both sides should be moderating what they may have believed to be the moderate position, pre-war, but was not seen as such by the other side.

Moderation of the kind was more in terms of the processes employed to press home what was essentially perceived as hard-line position by the other – and not in conceptual terms. ‘Sinhala Only’ through constitutional means did not make it any less harmful. The ‘Vadukkottai Resolution’ was not any less separatist than the LTTE’s demands. This needs to change. Rather, this is what needs to change.

That way, identifiable precedents of power-sharing elsewhere too may not sell. They had been debated for too long that both sides got tired of them. In turn, the fatigue was among the causes for war and violence. Asymmetrical devolution as a concept – adaptable to Sri Lankan conditions — could be employed, yet.

‘Asymmetry’ does not mean that the Sri Lankan State could escape power-sharing across the country for all time to come. In the ethnic context, it could help fast-track the processes that are getting slack with each passing day away from the war.  It could give the Tamils the greater attention and recognition that they deserve as a victim community.

Real and enforceable powers on Police and Land for a Tamil Province could provide such asymmetry, for starters.  It could give the Tamils a sense of belonging, they having seen those powers in such terms. More importantly, it could give the Tamils a sense of acknowledgement that the Sri Lankan State was responding to them.

Post-war, which in a way is a continuation of pre-war mind-sets, Police powers for a Tamil Province is not only about a Tamil-knowing cop available for the exclusively Tamil-knowing population in the Tamil-speaking areas. It is about a sense of security that the Tamils derive from such an arrangement. In the past, it was lacking, where it was not entirely absent.

In turn, this was another factor that justified Tamil militancy. Terrorism having been eliminated, the situation needs to be repaired. The LTTE having acquired all arms and symbols of separatism, the Tamils too should acknowledge the hangover discomfort of the Sri Lankan State, the Sinhala polity and the larger community.

Land powers, likewise, do not flow any more from what could otherwise be dismissed as ‘Jaffna culture’. It is again about a sense of security against perceived take-over and ‘colonisation’. Returning the land now under the High Security Zone (HSZ) of the armed forces is one way of reassuring the Tamil community. There could be additional ways that are imaginative and immediate.

As for allegations of ‘colonisation’ and the demand on available land that should not be allowed to go fallow, the Centre and the Province should work out arrangements through a shared sense of belonging and accommodation. It should be through verifiable mechanisms that delineate meaningful use of available land from purposeful colonisation, as was alleged to have been done in the past – and supposedly continuing into the present.

The Tamil side has to acknowledge that post-war devolution can be on an incremental basis. Anticipation of one-stop, cut-and-dry solutions can delay the processes eternally. In turn, this could lead to frustrations of the kind from a forgettable past. The contribution of the Tamils to the inconclusive conclusions of the times should not have been overlooked, either. It should not be overlooked now.

What is required instead is a constitutional guarantee – that the Tamil community would not be treated as second-class citizens any more. There may be no better way to achieve this than introducing/re-introducing constitutional provisions that would become the touch-stone for institutions of the State, particularly the higher judiciary, to ensure that equity and equality prevailed.

The forgotten Article 29(2) that the post-Independence Soulbury Constitution should be one. The First Republication Constitution of 1972 took it out, and this was the worst hit for the Tamils than possibly the ‘Sinhala Only’ law of 1956. It was not about ‘unitary State’. The two Republican Constitutions had enough provisions guaranteeing one. It was not about Sinhala dominance. Electoral arithmetic based on demography ensured it.

Instead, the deletion of 29(2) was about depriving the Tamils, the very sense of belonging and a sense of security that they anyway lacked. It was about replacing a sense of being wanted with a sense of being hounded – hounded out, to be precise. It is this that needs to be addressed.

Yet, the re-introduction of 29(2) in some form need not be the end. It could be a beginning, an eternal guarantee in the interim. It may not be the relief, or even the source for faster relief. It would still be a permanent check against further deterioration, now and possibly ever. That is where to begin.

A constitutional provision like 29(2) – negotiable as it may be — could take one to the final goal of ethnic equality – and a sense of such equality in all sections of the Sri Lankan society — step by step, generation by generation. What all were lost over 30 years of war cannot be – or, expected to be — repaired overnight. It will take its time.

It is here that the Tamils have to be alive to the need and possibilities offered by incremental devolution, instead of instant solutions – and acknowledge them as such. Given the past, they need not have to walk half the way – and there anyway is no half way for them to walk. But walk, they still will have to.

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