A note on smart-ass devolutionists

When they called it ‘separatism’ is sounded like a cuss-word.  Separatists took time to get smart.  Perhaps it would be more correct to say it took them a long time to recover smartness.  S.J.V. Chelvanayakam hit the correct idea when he said it was possible to extract anything from the Sinhalese as long as it is done slowly, an idea he captured in the pithy ‘A little now, more later.’

Leaving aside the notion that whoever did the ‘taking’ would be taking from all Sri Lankans and not just the Sinhalese, the slogan only pushed separatism to embrace terrorism while it rubbed the Sinhalese majority quite the wrong way.  Had Chelva thought but not said, separatism may have benefited, but chauvinists and land-thieves often trip over themselves. G.G. Ponnambalam’s ‘Fifty-fifty’ for a little lover 10 percent of the population may have been the product of greed gone crazy but it also framed the dimensions of aspirations for more than half a century.  By 1976, Chelva himself lost his way, the Vadukoddai Resolution being nothing less than a go-for-broke adventure that wanted it all; not power-sharing but land and coast grabbing.  Blood-letting was the unscripted inevitable.  Close to a hundred thousand lives were lost.

When the LTTE was in fully cry Tamil moderates (so-called) either out of fear or awe or outright salutation went gear-down on devolution.  The statements of the ‘moderates’, both individuals and parties (in coalition and isolation) make for a symptomatic reading on this aspect.  The TNA’s election manifestoes of 2001, 2004 and 2010 would do in fact.  Post-LTTE, devolution has been resurrected out of consolation-need more than anything else, one might argue, if not for Chelva’s Action Plan of incremental construction of Eelam. The 13th Amendment’s most important contribution to the Eelam cause has been its utility as reference point. India fostered terrorism in Sri Lanka. India gave refuge, armed, trained and funded terrorism.  India took some sparks poured gallons and gallons of fuel, whipped up a roaring fire and then brought fire-size down (for a while) and now insists that where the fire is now is foundation-point for resolution. No mention now of what it is that is sought to be resolved.  No talk either of the fact that foundation-point is still a fire that anyone including India, Tamil Nadu, Tamil and Sinhala chauvinism included can add fuel to.

Today’s Prescriber is undoubtedly India.  Today’s prescription-approvers are the Chelva-Tamils and wooly-headed Marxist-Leninists who are in a permanent state of denial about all that being passé.  Other approvers include anti-Buddhist heirs of the Colonial encounter who are smarter than their 16th-20th Century ideological and political forefathers.  Their logic seems to be based on the notion that if you rob from the Sinhalese it is the Buddhists who lose the most due to the sheer numbers.  They are smart, because they are not running around burning temples in the way the Portuguese did or extracting conversion through the carrot of privilege and the skewing of institution and process against Buddhists.  If you have any doubts about this, just check who the most vociferous approvers are, their ethnic identities, their ideological preferences and their faiths.

The smartest of course are those who say without saying.  There are, for example, those who take ethnic identity and religious faith out of the equation and talk ‘development’.  They know that the Indian Thesis crumbles in the fact of history, geography and demography.  The history that is relevant to the discourse has always been that associated with the claims pertaining to traditional-homelands.  Those who are devolution-smart talk therefore about a history of relative self-sufficiency and administrative decentralization which they conveniently argue indicate that power-devolution was always with us and indeed made us.

Anyone who has studied the extensive and intricate hydraulic system of this land as well as laws about resource exploitation and allocation would understand that while there were times of division, invasion and even anarchy, for the most part there was centralized control and decision-making.  Had it been otherwise, there wouldn’t have been an anicut built in Minipe.  We wouldn’t have the Yoda Ela or the Jaya Ganga.  Kings would not have employed large quantities of resources to build large irrigation structures, temples or places of learning in places far away from the capital.  Rivers would not have been diverted through a series of anicuts. Such schemes were not built subsequent isolated communities conferring with neighbours about how best to use the water flowing down a river.

True, there is a vast mismatch of resource-allocation today. Certain things don’t get done.  The devolution-smart say triumphantly that in a devolved polity things would get done.  A decentralized administrative structure would suffice in most instances, but they don’t want to admit this.  Neither do they acknowledge the fact that devolution would not have given resource-poor areas the kind of access to education that centralized decision-making has.  There is also remarkable silence about the bridges, reservoirs, hospitals and other infrastructural facilities and services that would have remained distant dreams had it not been for centralized decision-making if not for anything the sheer lack of resources and other necessary capacities.  Nothing is said either of the fact that populations are not static, that they move, that we’ve moved a fair distance from (relatively) self-sufficient village-units, or that aspirations have spilled out of the idyllic ‘village’ and perhaps will never be containable in those territorial dimensions again.

What is needed is an overhauling of the entire governance structure and a streamlining of institutional mechanisms and processes to encourage enlightened decision-making.  That this is an uphill task is used as logic for devolution.  That’s being lazy and indeed irresponsible for there are no short cuts to peace and wholesome citizenship.  In this case, any kind of devolution that takes current provincial boundaries as given (never mind their artificiality and pernicious association with homeland-claim – a convenient exaggeration of existing demographic patterns) will etch in such hard lines the Eelamist positions on the Sri Lankan political landscape that it would in effect transform into irreversible fact. We can do better.  We must.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at
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