Constitutional Reforms & Ethnic Coexistence: On The Kandy Forum’s Submission

By Mahendran Thiruvarangan –

The government’s move to gather people’s proposals on constitutional reforms has created an opportunity for diverse social and political groups to present their vision for Sri Lanka’s future. The proposals made by the Kandy Forum on the status of the Eastern Province and the political concerns of the non-territorial minorities in Sri Lanka need special mention because they frame devolution as a creative project while acknowledging its limits. Unlike several other federalist proposals which call for a merged North-Eastern province with a non-contiguous Muslim unit or a separate Muslim province within it, the Kandy Forum’s proposals make the point that the separate, contiguous Eastern Province that exists today should be retained:

“The Eastern Province could be a model for co-existence of communities in Sri Lanka. It is the only Province in Sri Lanka that has a near equal ethnic balance, where the Tamils constitute 39.79%, Muslims constitute 36.72% and the Sinhalese constitute 23.15%. It is an ideal situation for the evolution of a model for ethnic pluralism, good governance and peaceful coexistence and this province could be equipped with special constitutional provisions to strengthen inter-ethnic relationships within and between other regions.”

Why is it that ethnicity should always be the framing logic of devolution everywhere in Sri Lanka? Why can’t we consider ethnic coexistence, rather than individuated ethnic identities, as the basis for power sharing when we think about regional autonomy for at least some parts of Sri Lanka like the Eastern Province or the Colombo municipal region? Sometimes it is important that we retain, as solutions to ethnic conflicts, existing territorial boundaries that produce culturally heterogeneous territories, instead of creating non-contiguous ethnic enclaves that cleanse territories of cultural differences, even if those boundaries are colonial in origin or imposed from the top. Because such boundaries underscore the importance of harmonious cohabitation across and despite differences at the local and regional levels, and prevent ethnicity, religion and culture from over-determining our political and social lives. And these boundaries which actively include rather than exclude differences remind us again and again, in our everyday lives, of the importance of acting with a sense of responsibility toward the Other, the ones who do not speak our language and the ones who do not worship our god(s). It is these boundaries that have the potential to create a vibrant cosmopolitical public culture and public space necessary for all the communities to co-inhabit the earth peacefully in the long-run, even as constitutions ought to recognize and territorialize ethnic identities time to time taking into consideration the historical contexts that produce them. In this respect, the Kandy Forum’s creative framing of the Eastern Province as a model for ethnic co-existence in Sri Lanka should be applauded.

I also appreciate the Kandy Forum for emphatically demanding the new constitution to address the political concerns of smaller ethnic minorities such as the Malays and Burghers and non-territorial minorities, the ones with homes but no homelands, as Sharika Thiranagama puts it in her book In My Mother’s House. The statistical data (see the submission for figures) pertaining to the geographic distribution of the non-territorial minorities are telling. They show that devolution at the provincial level alone would not solve the problems of the Tamil-speaking communities scattered outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. They bring to the fore the limits to and limitations of the North-East centric Tamil politics and East-centric Muslim politics.

At a time when liberal pluralists on all sides supply us with the cliché that we speak only for our communities and only on behalf of our regions, it is refreshing to see a group that identifies itself as the Kandy Forum present a set of inclusive constitutional reforms that concern the people of the Eastern Province and all the non-territorial minorities in the country. These proposals show that history, politics and territorial claims link Tamils with Muslims and territorial minorities with non-territorial minorities as much as they produce us differently as ethnicized, territorialized political beings. By alerting us to the ramifications for the non-territorial minorities of constitutional reforms that focus exclusively on the political aspirations of the communities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, these proposals tell us that addressing the national question should not be limited to fulfilling the Tamil and Muslim demands for regional autonomy emerging from the Northern and Eastern Provinces. To this end, the Kandy Forum’s call for special constitutional provisions and the establishment of an Independent Commission of Social Equality to protect the non-territorial minorities from discrimination and violence should be endorsed by all.

The proposals made by the Kandy Forum on the national question and devolution would have become even stronger had the writers also made a call for the abrogation of the constitutional clause that offers Buddhism the foremost place.

*The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka

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