Unity in diversity
After having been off what might be termed the Great Sri Lankan Seminar
Circuit for many moons, I was asked last week to a workshop on
It was specifically about the difficulties of translating various
connected concepts into Sinhalese and Tamil, and featured
thought-provoking speeches on the subject by a range of speakers
including Prof Uyangoda and someone I had not heard before, an
imaginative expert in translation called Sivagurunathan.
However, the main interest for me were the presentations by three
international experts, from Australia and India and South Africa, and
their concern with the promotion of practical solutions without
controversy over nomenclature.
All this should I believe feature in whatever report is written, with
analysis of how the different interest groups represented could be
accommodated in a synthesis without dogma.
D. S. Senanayake
I would like to consider this in time, but for the present I will
concentrate on an aspect stressed by the Australian lady. A large
proportion of her speech dealt with the importance of a second chamber
in any constitution that wants to ensure balance in the relations
between the different components of a state, when there are salient
differences between these components.
Underlying this importance is the realisation that, in a unified
state, there must necessarily be functions reserved for the center.
Amongst these would be security concerns, obviously those associated
with national defence, but also legal security and financial security.
Assuming that the portfolios and departments involved in such
concerns remain the responsibility of the center, it is essential to
ensure that the different components of the state feel also that they
are an integral part of that center.
Whatever day to day concerns are devolved to whatever units, since
the center too has to hold, the periphery must, as the SLFP proposals so
graphically put it, also be strengthened at the center.
Unfortunately those proposals do not seem to have taken into account
a crucial aspect of such strengthening, which is the equal or weighted
representation given to components that may be numerically inferior, but
which represent distinct interests.
This is a principle that was recognised, it should be emphasised, in
the first independence constitution of Sri Lanka, and which has been
upheld since, through the provision that ensures that parliamentary
representation is based not on numbers alone but on area too.
Ridiculously, if typically for the myopic individuals who have framed
our Constitutions, and in particular the disastrous one of 1978, they
have piled absurdity upon absurdity in working out these principles.
This is the reason that we now have 196 members elected to parliament on
a system of proportional representation that is however based on 168
These constituencies are of course no longer relevant except as
counting units, since all the constituencies in a district are lumped
together, and seats belonging to that district then distributed
proportionately. However, the number of members declared elected after
this operation is not 168, but rather 196.
Why this anomaly? The reason is that, way back in the Soulbury
Constitution, it was decided that each province should have a quota of
members based not only on population but also on acreage.
This gave additional weight to sparsely populated provinces in a
chamber that, it may be remembered, then included just 95 elected
members. So, fewer than 3000 voters selected a member for Polonnaruwa,
while Gampaha for instance had 30,000. Interestingly it was the Eastern
Province that benefited more from this exercise than the Northern
Province, though neither as much as the NCP or Uva.
This, it seems was the response of the Soulbury Commissioners to the
request by the Tamil Congress for greater weightage for minority areas.
J. R. Jayewardene
What never occurred to Soulbury, and to Jennings, who did much of the
spadework, steeped as they were in British constitutional traditions,
constitutionally (as it were) incapable of looking further afield, to
the United States or to India, was the device of a second chamber
elected by the people to fulfil this purpose.
Instead they had recourse to this silly idea which, to quote Dr.
Colvin R. de Silva, citing the then Director of the Census, gave the
franchise â€˜to sticks and stones ..... In that way your tried, without
taking a communal approach, to satisfy to some degree at least the
minority communities, in respect of the opportunity to be represented in
Parliament not just in proportion to their number in the country.â€™
Much as one loves Dr Colvin R de Silva, this is typical of the wholly
theoretical approach of the man. As noted, the provision really
benefited the rural peasantry rather than the minorities, but reality
has never stood in the way of the pronouncements, sincere or otherwise,
The idea of a provision that would benefit the rural peasantry - who
certainly needed added weightage, given the domination otherwise of the
western seaboard - as well as the minorities, was not considered.
Instead, Soulbury introduced his ridiculous rubber stamp senate,
which proved of no use to anybody. And when that got rid of, Colvin R de
Silva assumed in his 1972 Constitution that the acreage provision would
be quite enough to ensure satisfactory representation for minorities in
his unicameral constitution.
Jayewardene followed suit while introducing proportional
representation, which is why we now have four extra members per province
when allocating seats, in addition to the population principle.
So, much for history, though I make no apology for introducing it,
because as I mentioned in commencing this column, I believe a lot of our
problems are due to us having no sense of history whatsoever. Looking at
what happened, and the reasoning behind that, may help us to do better
in the future.
So, it was accepted then, and is accepted now, that the pure
population principle is no basis to constitute a legislature, where the
majority - in Sri Lanka the more sophisticated urbanised denizens of the
Western Province and the Kandy, Kurunegala, Galle and Matara Districts -
will in effect dominate all decision making. But the mechanism for
diluting that has proved singularly ineffective over the last 60 years.
Sadly, getting rid of the Soulbury-Silva-Jayewardene tradition of
centralised majoritarianism is not easy. Even our younger politicians
have been brought up on the absolutes they entrenched between them, and
detailed study of other models has not been undertaken seriously.
Even on the Great Seminar Circuit now, the concern is with devolution
or decentralisation, and the size of unit and parameters of power.
This, I am afraid, is grist to the mill of extremists on either side,
who know that these matters can be argued for years without a consensus
being conceivable, let alone reached.
Dr Colvin R de Silva
What is ignored in all this is that, unless one thinks in terms of
almost total autonomy, on the lines of both the Wickremesinghe and the
Prabhakaran ISGA proposals of 2003, there is need too to consider the
role of the periphery, and in particular minorities, at the centre.
The Tigers may not be too concered with this, since their goal
continues to be eelam, but even their most solid backers still claim
that they believe the Tigers would be happy with a solution that
maintained the unity of the Sri Lankan State.
I fail to understand therefore why those backers do not seek
seriously from the Tigers their ideas about mechanisms for power sharing
with regard to the functions that will be reserved for the centre in any
constitution that, in the words of the South African one, recognises one
sovereign democratic Sri Lankan state.
If the Tigers and their supporters are serious, they must surely
welcome the proposals for an elected second chamber that will provide a
different perspective from the first. In such a context, it would make
sense for the All Party Conference to seek consensus swiftly on the
powers and the constitution of such a chamber.
I am sure there are others, but of those that have been brought to my
notice, clearly the most practical on which to build would be the
proposal of the Reformists of the UNP. They have I believe mooted the
Province as the basis of a new Senate, and this makes sense in the
current constitutional situation where that is the basis of devolution
The question of the final unit and system of devolution, whether
district or conjoined provinces, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical,
whether based on elected individual authorities or the Westminster
system, can be left open.
At some later stage the basis of election to the Senate could of
course be changed, but in fact that will not be essential whatever the
final unit of devolution that is decided on.
Given that a Senate should have equal representation from all units,
electing to a Senate on the basis of conjoined provinces, especially in
the context of a merged North East, would reduce the weightage for
minorities, and this surely no one would want, least of all the LTTE,
assuming that indeed they are serious about strengthening representation
of the periphery at the centre.
Conversely, the District would be too small a Unit, for unless each
Unit elected at least five members, minorities, racial or political,
would not gain satisfactory representation. A Senate of over 100 members
would be far too large, the ideal being around 50.
A Senate elected on the basis of nine Provinces choosing 6 or 7
members each would be perfect demographically, whilst also ensuring
representation for the political forces currently in Parliament. The
system would of course have to be one of the more precise proportional
systems that have been devised, the single transferable vote system
being probably the fairest.
This means that particular interest groups can accumulate their
votes, while there can be diverse candidates within that group, of whom
the most popular would end up being selected. Similarly, if an interest
group warrants two representatives, surplus votes will transfer and not
My own view is that the Constitution can be amended quite swiftly to
create a Senate, if consensus on this can be obtained. The first Senate
should be based on interim provisions that will for instance allow
current members of Parliament to stand for the Senate, without losing
their seats if they are elected.
This will encourage able people to come forward for the Senate, which
will in turn contribute to its being a forum for high level debate and
Again, its decision making powers could perhaps be curtailed for the
interim period, so as to permit the idea to take root.
It should also be possible, to ensure high level participation that
would not emerge through the electoral process, as envisaged in the SLFP
proposals, for the President to make some nominations, but these should
be without voting rights, for it is essential that the powers of the
Senate be based on election by the people if it is to have the stature
Such measures would be particularly significant in terms of
monitoring Tiger reactions. Would they welcome a mechanism that is used
all over the world to promote power sharing? If they wanted structural
adjustments, would they return to the negotiating table even for this
very limited purpose?
Once the measures, fine tuned if need be after discussion with them,
were in place, would they participate in the electoral process and thus
make clear their commitment to democracy? Would their various
supporters, who do not seem inclined now to urge them to return to
negotiations, try to persuade them to at least get involved in some
extension of the democratic process?
I cannot see how a rational Senate, as opposed to Soulburyâ€™s joke,
can be opposed by anyone committed to democracy.
For the government, with the concurrence of other parties in
Parliament, to move on this matter would also allow for a better
understanding of the sincerity of the various parties involved in the