Sri Lanka: Danger of two-thirds without consensus

The need to develop a contemporary Sri Lankan political model that recognises the realities in the country with regard to its demography, ethnicity, culture and aspirations drawn from history. This must apply to all communities.

by Raj Gonsalkorale

Two significant events, amongst many others, define Sri Lanka’s impotency in preventing waste, corruption and a total absence of ethical and moral behaviour amongst Parliamentarians and senior officials. History also shows that political decisions taken by governments that had a two-thirds or more majority have created more reversals than advances to the cause of democracy, equality and fairness. Judging from recent history, a two-thirds or more majority in Parliament to any governing party in Sri Lanka would be counter-productive in bringing about ethical and moral behaviour and advancing democracy.

The two scams mentioned are the Airbus fiasco and the bond scam. Both have cost Sri Lankans dearly. As far as the Sri Lankan Airlines fiasco is concerned, its beginnings date back to the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and reportedly the bond scams too are pre-2015 in origin, although the mother of all happened during the last regime.

Besides these two, others like the purchase of luxury vehicles for Ministers and MPs, reported at Rs 2.8 billion during the period of 2015 to 2019, and quite possibly a similar amount or more prior to that, plus all other scams that have been reported from time to time as well as many others very likely not been reported demonstrates beyond doubt that entrusting major financial decision-making to Parliamentarians hails absolute disaster.

A history of regressive politics

Besides these fiscal decisions, some major political decisions taken by governments that had majorities of two-thirds or more have also been blemished. The politicisation of the country’s administrative service by disbanding the Ceylon Civil Service and replacing it with the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, appointing political authorities to districts, ignoring the Tamil community and their political rights in the 1972 Constitution and extending the term of the Government to seven years were some of the 1970 Sirimavo Bandaranaike government’s ill-considered decisions.

The 1977 the government of J R Jayewardene promulgated a new republic with a five-sixth majority, introducing an all-powerful Executive Presidency and consigning the Prime Minister and Parliament to the status of virtual office assistants. Such power was used to exacerbate community tensions instead of easing them. Under duress from India, a Provincial Council governance structure was introduced without adequate discussion and debate. Proportional representation was introduced in selecting members of Parliament and people deprived of the right to elect their electoral representatives. Both these administrations are remembered unfortunately for their negative impact on democracy rather than their positives.

In this backdrop, giving any government a two-thirds majority can be seen as a serious economic and political risk, an opportunity to curtail democracy rather than advance it.

Consensus for reconciliation

The only reason a government would require a two-thirds majority is to effect changes to the Constitution and pass new legislation requiring such a majority over a simple majority. Democratic principles will better be adhered to if a two-thirds majority or more is the outcome of discussions and consensus amongst all parties in Parliament. Of course, it needs to be said here that such a consensus will only be possible if political parties leave their baggage of self-interest including religious and ethnic partisanship outside the Parliament and consider only the interest of the country.

If whatever flaws in the 19th Amendment are to be addressed or is to be scrapped and replaced by a new 20th Amendment, it should be done through discussion, debate, compromise and consensus if the country is to move forward as a democratic nation.

A topic that has come up again and again during discussions with the Indian leadership, as it has on the occasion of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit, is the topic of reconciliation amongst communities.

If Constitutional amendments are seen as the path towards reconciliation amongst communities, without consensus amongst the same nothing could be further from reality. Reconciliation should be the outcome of coming to terms and finding a model to live with the cultural differences that exist on account of language, religious practices, historical prejudices and a host of other humanistic issues.

The end of secular India?

The preamble to the Constitution of India asserts that India is a secular nation. Officially and on paper, secularism has inspired modern India as it has Sri Lanka. In practice, unlike Western notions of secularism, India’s secularism does not separate religion and state. The Indian Constitution has allowed varying degrees of interference of the state in religious affairs.

However, India does partially separate religion and state. For example, at present, it does not have an official State religion and State-owned educational institutions cannot impart religious instructions. In matters of law in modern India, however, the applicable code of law is unequal, and India›s personal laws – on matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony – varies with an individual›s religion as it does to an extent in Sri Lanka, especially amongst the Muslim community. The Thesavalamai law in Sri Lanka exists side by side with Roman Dutch law in regard to land ownership. Muslim Indians have Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law, while Hindu, Christian and Sikh Indians live under common law. The Indian Constitution permits partial financial support for religious schools, as well as the financing of religious buildings and infrastructure by the state. The Islamic Central Wakf Council and many Hindu temples of great religious significance are administered and managed by the Indian Government. The attempt to respect unequal religious law has created a number of issues in India, such as acceptability of child marriage, polygamy, unequal inheritance rights, extrajudicial unilateral divorce rights favourable to some males, and conflicting interpretations of religious books.

Secularism as practiced in India with its marked differences with Western practice of secularism is a controversial topic. Supporters of the Indian concept of secularism claim it respects “minorities and pluralism”. Critics claim the Indian form of secularism as “pseudo-secularism”. Supporters state that any attempt to introduce a uniform civil code, as in equal laws for every citizen irrespective of their religion, would impose majoritarian Hindu sensibilities and ideals. Critics state that India’s acceptance of Sharia and religious laws violates the principle of equality before the law.

In Sri Lanka, the push from some quarters to galvanise the Muslim community away from the sense of moderation known and practiced in the country for centuries and veer them towards more fundamentalist one seen especially in Saudi Arabia have had the consequence of greater nationalistic stridency within sections of the Sinhala Buddhist community.

Compared to India, Sri Lankan inter-community issues and challenges arise from a mix of religious ones, as with the Muslim community, and ethnic and language issues, as with the Tamil community where religion, be it Hindu or Christian, has had little to do with it.

In a headline titled “The Making of a Hindu Republic of India – Politics” in the India Today Magazine of 13 December 20191 the following appears: “Make no mistake about this. Republic 2.0 is coming. At any rate, a serious attempt is being made to usher it in. The second decade of the 21st century could well go down in history as the beginning of a conscious, deliberate and determined effort by Narendra Modi’s government to create the Hindu Republic of India. The logic is this: if Pakistan and Afghanistan can call themselves Islamic republics, and if another Muslim-majority neighbour, Bangladesh, can declare Islam to be its state religion, why can’t Hindu-majority India become a Hindu Republic? The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill is a foretaste of this change in the years and decades to come.”

But something different – altogether different and ominous – has started happening after the two landmark elections that took place in the decade that is about to come to an end. Modi’s rise to power in 2014, and his consolidation of power with a bigger majority in 2019, are no ordinary milestones in the evolution of the Indian State and society. They foretell a plan by the Sangh parivar, the ideological family to which the ruling party belongs, to transform the Indian State into a Hindu state, Indian society from a Hindu-majority society into a Hindu majoritarian society, and finally, the Indian nation itself into a Hindu nation (‘Hindu Rashtra’). Is this what Modi means by his promise of creating a ‘New India’?

Secularism, which is a preambular cornerstone of the Indian Constitution, Indian State and Indian society, is under assault like never before. Removing this cornerstone, de facto and de jure, and replacing it with a ‘Hindu First’ principle, both at the state and societal levels, has become the Bharatiya Janata Party’s foremost governance objective. Ask yourself: Has Modi even once affirmed his commitment to secularism since becoming Prime Minister in May 2014? With the Prime Minister himself making no effort to hide his aversion to secularism, his vast legion of supporters has felt emboldened to trash it as ‘sickularism’, a ploy for Muslim appeasement, and worse still, to brand its votaries as ‘anti-national’.

Modi and the BJP are hardly able or qualified to lecture Sri Lanka about majority rule, and if he is spearheading a move to find a model where all communities could live with equality, security, harmony and pride within a Hindu Republic in India, perhaps he could share his thoughts on what he envisages that model would be so that Sri Lanka can learn from his thoughts.

In this backdrop, with India moving towards formalising majority rule, Sri Lanka should take what India says with a pinch of salt, and instead discuss openly and with all concerned a governance model that is best suited for Sri Lanka.

Salience to Sri Lanka

This backdrop leads one to consider some very salient issues in Sri Lanka.

Reconciliation with the Tamil and Muslim communities based on their sense of insecurity and the power of majoritarianism, which at times has been forced on them.

The need to make political and administrative structural adjustments that would help in easing fears amongst the Tamil and Muslim communities about their safety and security

The need for the Muslim community to veer away from fundamentalism and move towards moderation that had been the hallmark that underpinned the mutually beneficial relationship with the majority community.

The need to develop a contemporary Sri Lankan political model that recognises the realities in the country with regard to its demography, ethnicity, culture and aspirations drawn from history. This must apply to all communities.

The hope that the Tamil community would work towards a political and administrative model that has the acceptance and support of the majority community.

A decision whether Sri Lanka wishes to be futuristic for the benefit of future generations or perpetuate historical inequities and prejudices, which to a large extent have been addressed, and where any ongoing issues could be overcome by the community and political compromise and consensus.

These and any other relevant issues should be discussed openly and freely within all sections of the community and scaled up to a national forum where a solution that is acceptable to all communities could be agreed upon and implemented.

Based on the past performance and record of politicians and political parties, they cannot be trusted or relied upon to find such a solution.

A two-thirds majority, or even better, a unanimous decision by the Parliament to formalise the political solution arrived at by the community to address the reconciliation issue with the Tamil community as well as the Muslim community, could follow the community consultative and decision-making process.


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