“What’s wrong with federalism? It is NOT Separation”


Rajitha Senaratne was neither the first nor the most important ‘Yahapalana’ political figure to make a pitch for federalism. The first and most significant was ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga two years ago. The second was Mangala Samaraweera, who keeps saying “what’s wrong with federalism? It is not separation”. The fact that Rajitha chose to make an even stronger pitch for federalism two years later when the political situation is changing, is significant.

When he endorsed and advocated federalism in his SJV Chelvanayakam memorial lecture this year, Rajitha was not speaking in his capacity as Cabinet spokesperson. But what is important is that we have for the first time, a Cabinet spokesperson who is a federalist, just as we have for the first time, a Foreign Minister who is a federalist, and a former President who is also in charge of reconciliation, who is a federalist.

1644106690theOne cannot fault the TNA or the organizers of the SJV Chelvanayakam memorial lecture for having cherry-picked CBK and Rajitha, for this speaking slot. One can however fault the speakers concerned. More important than fault-finding though, is to understand what their common stand signifies.

Chandrika belongs to the SLFP, and Rajitha and Mangala to the UNP. The first two named also belonged, as I did, to the SLMP of which Vijaya Kumaratunga (martyred by JVP assassins)was the iconic founder-leader, and the United Socialist Alliance (USA), a broad Left front of which the SLMP was the largest party.

What is striking is that federalism was never and is not now, the stand of either the SLFP or the UNP, to which these personalities belong. Yet, they chose to espouse that cause.

If one is to tend towards charity and claim that this stand is a throwback, nostalgic or otherwise, to shared progressive past, that would also be inaccurate, or simply put, a lie. Neither Vijaya nor the SLMP nor the United Socialist Alliance (USA) ever stood for federalism. Vijaya and the SLMP as well as the USA were for devolution, which is the transfer of power downwards and outwards, from center to the provincial periphery.

Vijaya supported the Bandaranaike-Chelvanakayam Pact of 1957 and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 (though he was opposed to the merger).

As was made clear by Vijaya in a lecture delivered at the Center for Society and Religion (CSR) about a year before he died, Vijaya relied mainly on a social rather than a political solution to the ethnic question, though he certainly did advocate provincial devolution.

His faith resided mainly in encouraging as a matter of policy the growing interaction between the youth of North and South, dismaying the more bookishly dogmatic young student activists in the CSR audience by saying only half-jokingly, that Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher youngsters meeting, getting to know each other, falling in love, getting married and having children would be the best guarantee of national integration.

In its entire history the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan Left supported federalism only once and that was fleetingly, in the 1940s when it presented its views to the Soulbury Commission. When SJV Chelvanayakam raised the banner of federalism, the Left was unambiguous in its rejection and none were so sharp and sustained in their criticism of federalism than the Tamil Marxists of the Communist party and the LSSP. Of these, N Sanmugathasan stood out for his polemical vehemence.

The Marxist left was so allergic to federalism and suspicious of the Federal Party that it did not actively support even the non-federal B-C Pact in 1957, when arguably it should have.

Therefore, when CBK, Rajitha and their few fellow-travelers attempt to cover up their federalism in a red, pink or purple cloak, they are being deceitful and hypocritical.

To move from the orthodox or traditional Marxists to the democratic New Left that Vijaya pioneered, or, to the put it more accurately, to understand the common stand taken by the Left of both ‘Old’ and ‘New’ streams, one only has to look at the voluminous document presented by them and accepted by the Political Parties conference convened by President Jayewardene in June 1986, in response to a letter from Vijaya Kumaratunga.

The Left was represented at the Conference by Vijaya, Pieter Keuneman, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, DEW Gunasekara et al. It was the ‘A Team’ of the anti-chauvinist Left movement. The document they produced, which Vijaya subsequently summarized and defended in a superb performance on TV when interviewed by Prof Tilak Ratnakara, and was published in full by the Government Press, had no mention whatsoever of either federalism or the abolition of the executive presidency—the two pillars of the current proposal for a new Constitution, supposedly aimed at politically solving the ethno-national issue. In fact the Left’s stand did not support the merger of the North and East. The proposal was a detailed working out of a scheme of devolution to nine provinces.

Thus, if the federalist stand is not that of the UNP, SLFP or the Left, but is articulated by those who belong to and often claim to speak on behalf those formations (or once did), then who and what are these individuals representing? Whose stand is it really?

Apart from the TNA of course, the three mainstream politicians who make a plug for federalism—Chandrika, Mangala and Rajitha—have something in common. What is common to them, apart from their federalism, is CBK herself. They are old ‘Sudu Nelum’ and ‘Package’ operators, belonging to a faction and ideology that hardcore SLFPersin the CBK administration like Anuruddha Ratwatte and Ratnasiri Wickremanayake detested.

Mangala and Rajitha are CBK loyalists more than they are UNP or she is SLFP. This troika acts as a lobby or pressure group, pushing for a federal new Constitution on two flanks i.e. within the UNP and the SLFP. This is of course the line, not only of the TNA, but of the Tamil Diaspora, the international NGOs, the West, and tacitly India.

Their federalism does not stem from any progressive thinking but precisely from the ideology they really adhere to and are practitioners of, namely neoliberal globalization. Their commitment is not to Sri Lanka but to the neoliberal world order. Their federalism is part of their neoliberalism.

The federalist lobby of CBK-Mangala-Rajitha has no mandate to canvass the cause of federalism. This federalist caucus is operating as a Fifth Column behind UNP and SLFP lines, causing grave social, political and electoral harm to both parties, the stability of the Government in general and the interests of the President in particular.

Power Sharing In Sri Lanka

Filed under: Colombo Telegraph,Opinion | 

By Rajitha Senaratne –

Rajith Senaratne

When we were political cubs, we knew of Chelvanayakam as one who was the “father” figure of Tamil Nationalism. He was one Tamil political leader who was affectionately called “Thanthai” – meaning ‘Father’ – Chelva. Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam dominated Tamil politics in the first 03 decades in post independent Ceylon.

I would say that Chelvanayakam was fortunate. He did not live to see the agony of the Tamil people and of Sri Lanka that got dragged into a long brutal war. He was fortunate that he was not there to shoulder the heavy responsibility that his most favoured political recruit, R. Sampanthan, is burdened with now as leader of TNA.

Chelvanayakam was a man of principles. He never compromised on his convictions and principles. He differed with leaders like G.G. Ponnambalama Snr. in the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and C. Suntharalingam on the issue of disfranchising the Indian origin Tamil labour. He stood by their rights consistently, as Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole had recently confirmed.

Like both Mr. Sampanthan and Mr. Sumanthiran today, Chelvanayakam’s conviction that Tamil people need to be treated as equals in the island of Ceylon made him give up a very lucrative legal profession. This was a political position he was determined to work towards. He became a full time politician on his convictions.

It was the issue of the rights of Plantation Tamils that led to his departure from ACTC in 1950 to form the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchchi (ITAK). ITAK is popularly known as the “Federal Party” in English. A “federal State” was the fundamental Tamil political demand that Chelvanayakam stood for. How Chelvanayakam defined federalism was written in the resolution adopted at the first national convention of ITAK in 1951 in Trincomalee.

“The I.T.A.K recommends to the Tamil-speaking people the feasibility and desirability of establishing the autonomous Tamil linguistic state within the framework of a Federal Union of Ceylon, as the rational and natural culmination of centuries of close association between these two nations it is their common motherland and with a view to promoting and maintaining national goodwill and close co-operation with the Sinhalese people.”

There’s nothing about a “separate State”. Nothing about an “Eelam”. It is about living together in a single country; a “federal Union of Ceylon”.

What is “federalism“? Federalism is the most democratic form of power sharing within a single united country. It allows people in different regions to take care of their day to day responsibilities including their cultural life, while acting together as a single Nation State.

Chelvanayakam was a man born for peace. He was ever ready to sit and talk through issues, and to negotiate.

He proved his willingness to be flexible, as long as it did not hurt the dignity of the Tamil people, when he signed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact in 1957. It was far less than federalism. It was for Regional Councils. Chelvanayakam dropped his idea of a merged North-East federal government for Tamil people in accepting Regional Councils.

Regional Councils were clusters of 22 administrative districts then in Ceylon. All local government body members within a region were to elect Regional Councillors.

Certainly, Chelvanayakam went a long way to settle the issue with dignity. Having very badly being let down in 1957, he was once again willing to engage with Dudley Senanayake in 1965 to sign the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact.

Instead of Regional Councils, the compromise in 1965 was to “establish District Councils in Ceylon vested with powers over subjects to be mutually agreed upon between the two leaders”. The two main “Left” political parties, Samasamaja and Communist parties also played a racist role in 1968 to undermine the D-C Pact.

The First Republican Constitution in 1972 was also a bad let down for the Tamil people. This compelled Chelvanayakam to consider the option of a Separate State.

After 30 years in active Tamil politics from 1944, after he resigned his KKS parliamentary seat in 1972 as a protest against the ’72 Constitution, the Coalition government postponed the due by-election for 02 years and finally held it in 1975 February. Chelvanayakam polled over 72% at this by election. This was the highest ever percentage a candidate polled. He declared to the Tamil people, that this was a mandate for a “separate Tamil Eelam”:

“I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free.” 

So, to cut short a long history of promises, negotiations, agreements, abrogation of pacts and a brutal war, we still remain without a decent, workable, power sharing system to allow peaceful and productive living in this country.

Who is to be blamed? Both major political parties and the two traditional “Left” parties have to be held responsible for this catastrophe. That does not leave me out. I am also part of mainstream politics in the South.

In the 80’s, we were in a different political formation and we sacrificed many lives in Kurunegala, Moneragala, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Kalutara, Galle, Hambantota and Matara – all Sinhala local leaders who stood for power sharing within Provincial Councils. Vijaya Kumaratunga was the popular political leader to have lost his life over Provincial Councils. Thanks to the JVP, I still carry shrapnel in my nape as proof of our commitment to have provincial councils established. I suffered this not because I raised my voice on behalf of my own community, but for the rights of the Tamil people. I consider this an honour.

I have always stood for the rights of the Tamil people. And the more I stood for this, the more my vote bank in the South increased. That is because we have stayed consistent in our position, and the people trust us because of this.

We have failed despite all those sacrifices to convince the Sinhala South to agree to power sharing. My question is, “where did we go wrong”? I firmly believe, we in the South have approached the issue of “Federalism” in a very wrong way. We were only supporting “federalism” as a demand by Tamil people. Therefore the Sinhala South was made to understand that “federalism” is a path to a “separate” State. We have to talk of “federalism” as a democratic model for national development.

We should have asked, “Why only for Tamils? We in the South also need federalism”. We need “federalism” because centralised power from the Parliament of 1947 to that of 2017 – for 70 years – have failed to develop the rural Sinhala society. Every Constitution – the Soulbury, the First and the Second Republican Constitutions – have centralised power in Colombo. The poor rural South has been left out. Even my district Kalutara, though within Western Province, is lagging behind the Colombo and Gampaha districts. We have not been telling the South they are poor because political power is centralised in Colombo.

According to the Central Bank, in 2012/2013 the per capita income in the Western Province was Rs.16,124. But in the South it was Rs.10,973, in the North Central province it was Rs.9,877 and in Uva it was Rs.9,382. The per capita GDP in the Western Province in 2015 was Rs.771,117 when it was Rs.453,714 in the South, Rs.446,138 in Uva and Rs.392,913 in Sabaragamuwa. This disparity can be seen in all Sinhala rural areas. For 70 years with a centralised power structure, rural society both in Sinhala and Tamil areas have not gained any economic benefit and social development.

It is therefore time, I believe, that we change our approach in politics to achieve national development within a stable and a peaceful Nation State. It is time for the South to go with Chelvanayakam’s formula – to have provinces “within the framework of a Federal Union” of Sri Lanka. That, I think, is how we in the South can respect and honour this great democratic, Tamil leader – S.J.V. Chelvanayakam – in post independent Sri Lanka.

Thank you.      

*S.J.V. Chelvanayakam Memorial lecture – delivered by Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine on 26th April 2017

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