The National Question: Principal indispensable features of a
VEXED PROBLEM: Every solution to the National Question that
was proposed in the past had embedded in it the certain seeds of
All of them illogically sought to perpetuate those very
differentiations which inevitably led to the disastrous conflicts which
have prevented Sri Lanka from joining the company of progressive
countries, where social justice and economic progress have followed from
a serious commitment to unity, pluralism, democracy and obedience to the
Rule of Law.
In the years since 1948, political expediency has been given priority
over every other important consideration and, additionally, there has
been no sincere commitment to the strict implementation of any of the
solutions proposed to solve this vexed problem.
As our contribution, we give below a fair indication of what we
believe are the most heartfelt yearnings of the majority of the ordinary
peoples of Sri Lanka with regard to the National Question, and how one
might set about the task of satisfying those yearnings within the
overall solution that is being formulated. For reasons of brevity, only
the relevant basic concepts are dealt with here.
Unity and Sri Lankan Identity
Most people know of the joint struggles carried out by our leaders in
the early part of the last century for greater justice for the ordinary
people of this country.
The principal figures who were part of this struggle cooperated with
each other without regard to ethnic or religious differences.
It is these civilised relations which prevailed between the diverse
citizens of Sri Lanka that we need to restore and strengthen.
This can be best done by seeing to it that whatever solution is
offered places greater emphasis on what the peoples of this country have
in common rather than stress the differences.
It should help create the conditions which would lead us to give less
weightage to our separate group identities and encourage us, instead, to
think of ourselves more as Sri Lankans, in the same prideful manner that
Indians call themselves âIndiansâ or US citizens âAmericansâ, without
worrying about petty ethnic, religious, class, caste and other
Instead, sadly, what we continue to see are excessive, avoidable
references to Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Moors, Muslims etc.
but hardly any mention of their common identity as Sri Lankans.
Worse still, Veddhas, Burghers, Kaffir descendants, Parsis, Sindhis,
Bohras, agnostics and even smaller minorities in Sri Lanka are usually
treated as if they did not exist.
Furthermore, Upcountry Tamils are insidiously pressurised to turn to
India for solace and support by referring to them as âIndianâ Tamils
where as we do not refer to Indian Sinhalese, Indian Muslims or Indian
Ceylon Tamils. Surely, it is only some Moors, Malays and Burghers who
could not be classified as Indians?
Anyhow, how do our constitutional wizards propose to classify the
progeny of successive mixed marriages?
Is it, therefore, not time that we showed our maturity and humanity,
and minimised the use of these superfluous classifications, which were
so greatly stressed during highly discriminatory periods of Sri Lankaâs
Hence, their use should be minimised in the wording of any solution
to the National Question.
As for the concerns the minorities, regarding their physical
security, based on past experiences, we have to devise better ways of
protecting them than creating minority ghettoes.
We have to counter racist, fascist and hegemonistically inclined
forces, which represent only a small, but highly vocal, part of the
population, by legislating for and providing independent institutions to
protect minority citizensâ rights without trying to herd them into
Defining a Sri Lankan and ensuring individual
The basic proposition that we should start with is that Sri Lanka
belongs equally to all Sri Lankans, a Sri Lankan being anyone who was
born in Sri Lanka or who has obtained its citizenship by lawful means.
The next requirement is that there shall be no discrimination of any
kind that is forbidden by the relevant UN charters, conventions,
covenants, protocols etc. and that no Sri Lankan shall be given special
privileges over any other Sri Lankan.
If discrimination of all kinds is eradicated in this manner, and the
Rule of Law is securely re-established, the vast majority of the people
of Sri Lanka, irrespective of what group they belong to, would not want
this country to be divided into smaller units other than for
Any solution that provides for genuine non-discrimination, and
assured provision for firm implementation, practised in deed and not
merely expressed in cheap words, is bound to have a high degree of
acceptance from all citizens other than a few, loud, extremist freaks.
Every Sri Lankan should be assured that he is equal in all respects
to any other Sri Lankan, and free to develop his potential to the
fullest, including the unhindered right to work towards attaining any
position in the public or private sector, solely based on his merits.
There should be no bar to his progress based on race, religion,
caste, gender, occupation or political of filiations. Every citizen
should feel physically and psychologically secure, and confident of the
fairness of all the nationâs laws and their honest implementation.
He should have the assurance that the Rule of Law will prevail at all
times and that it will apply to all citizens evenly-for, in the absence
of just laws, justly and equitably administered, there can never be a
united Sri Lankan nation.
A comprehensive Bill or Rights should be explicitly included in the
Constitution, incorporating all those provisions which have been adopted
as the acceptable norm by the UN.
No Sri Lankan child, from whatever group, who loves this Island, and
is honest, intelligent and hardworking, should feel hesitant about
aspiring even to be the President of Sri Lanka one day, fearing adverse
racial or religious or caste or gender or other forms of discrimination.
In other words, the pluralistic nature of Sri Lankan society must
never be lost sight of, both in the formulation of all laws as well as
in their practical realisation, if we are to weld our peoples into one
Subsidiarity, not devolution
Article 3 of the Constitution states that sovereignty is in the
people and that it is inalienable. Nonetheless, all the powers of the
people, other than just the vote, have been involuntarily delegated by
the People to the Legislature, the executive and the Judiciary. This is
a major flaw in our Constitution.
The Constitution should be re-written so that as much as practicable
of the peopleâs powers are restored to the people themselves so that
citizens may have more control over their affairs in their own
localities, and leave only matters of a national dimension to be dealt
with by the Centre.
This concept is termed âsubsidiarity, which is the principle that a
central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only
those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.
Given that the people are sovereign, what is the logic of using the
term, âdevolvingâ power to the people when it is the people who, in the
first place , elect the president and the members of parliament, and
delegate to them their sovereign powers?
It is like saying that a person to whom you have given your Power of
Attorney agrees graciously to devolve part of his powers back to you! It
is also absurd to speak as if Parliament and the President are at a
higher level than the voters who elected them.
Even if the President and MPs have virtually completely forgotten
that they are the servants of the People, at least let us not worship
them as our masters.
It is widely conceded that the present excessive concentration of
power at the Centre is highly inimical to the peopleâs interests.
Restoration of the maximum practicable percentages of the peopleâs
sovereignty to the village, town, city, divisional secretaries division,
district and province - in that order - is an absolute must.
Moreover, an acceptable solution must treat the village, town, city,
divisional secretaries division, district, province and the Centre as
being all at the same level rather than as forming a pyramidal structure
with the village at the bottom, and the President and Parliament at the
The distribution of power between these entities should be thought of
as the slices of a round âpower pieâ where the size of each slice is
suited to the capacity of the entity to manage the resources given to
In other words, phrases such as âdelegating upwardsâ or âdevolving
downwardsâ, which connote a vertical hierarchy should be strictly
If there are still some who are so mentally enslaved that they cannot
get away from thinking hierarchically, there is no logical alternative
to putting the village at the top and the President and Parliament at
the bottom of an inverted pyramid so as to reflect the actual direction
of flow of the Peopleâs sovereign powers.
If India is able to maintain its sovereignty and territorial
integrity without employing terms such as âunitaryâ, âfederalâ,
âconfederalâ etc, which have now become emotionally negatively charged
in Sri Lanka, why can we not do the same?
Why do some of us keep on bleating about this trivial terminology,
which only leads to avoidable dissent? So it is time that these terms
are deleted from this discourse.
What would be counterproductive to building united nation would be to
tie down constitutionally each geographically defined entity to a
particular community or communities, when it is plainly unnecessary to
As an example, let us say that certain powers are retained by the
districts, as proposed here. If it happens that a particular district is
populated mostly by a particular group, it will follow that the powers
restored to the voters of that geographical area will enable that group
to cater to its special requirements if they wish so, subject to agreed
constitutional safeguards for the other groups there.
There should be no tyranny of the majority over any minority, however
small the administrative unit. No group, however powerful, should have
the right to deprive even a single citizen of his inalienable
fundamental and civic rights in any of these geographical entities.
Taxation and Financial Provisioning
Every geographical entity should be guaranteed a specified percentage
of all taxes collected by the central government, based on population
and the area of the entity. The Treasury should not be given the power,
under political pressure, to block the flow of funds to the various
entities at the periphery.
There is no use in having laws - eg. the 17th Amendment or the
Official Languages Act - if they are going to be breached blatantly as
has been, and is now being, done.
If Parliament is only going to pass beautiful laws (mostly for
foreign consumption) but without making provision for their strict
implementation by independent institutions, we may as well forget about
trying to maintain the sovereignty, territorial integrity and, most
important of all, national unity of this country.
To take an example of the kind of abomination that we should not
allow in any circumstances in the future, where practice is far from
precept, it may be noted that the existing laws which require the
national languages to be given equal importance are virtually totally
ignored in practice, leaving room for the minorities to doubt seriously
whether the politicians, bureaucrats, police and the judiciary will act
in a fair manner towards them in other matters as well.
The safeguards provided in a good solution must, therefore, contain
self-regulatory features, which cannot be tampered with by politicians
or bureaucrats and which would eliminate the need for aggrieved persons
to go to the hassle and expense of filing Fundamental Rights
applications for the sole purpose of getting those in power to adhere to
the terms of the Constitution and subsidiary laws. Ab initio, there
should be provision made in the Constitution for these matters to be
dealt with by a proactive Judiciary, which should be obliged to take up
such matters under compulsory Public Interest Litigation procedures,
which could be initiated by any member of the public making a complaint
in writing to the Chief Justice, as in India, or to special independent
Fundamental Rights Commission set up for the purpose, the latter being
The State has to provide effective, independent institutional
arrangements to see to it that every citizen enjoys the same rights as
any other citizen.
Such arrangements should also ensure adherence to well-established
norms of good governance, including accountability and transparency,
with checks and balances on all arms of the government.
Otherwise, any solution to the National Question will not work out
successfully. For this ideal state of affairs to be realised, there
should be an independent Constitutional Council and Independent
Commissions to cover the judiciary, public service, police service,
media, prevention of bribery and corruption, national development,
national planning, national finance, national education and so on, and
all of these important institutions should be isolated convincingly from
political interference and financial blackmail by the government of the
Indeed, it was with this kind of objective in mind that Parliament
was persuaded, in 2002, by the Organisation of Professional Associations
(OPA), with the active help of the JVP, into passing the 17th Amendment
but, politicians being what they are, the OPA draft was changed
drastically to make sure that there would be enough loopholes left in it
to make it ineffective whenever needed for political wheeler-dealing.
Not only must the 17th Amendment be implemented immediately as it
stands but its scope must be expanded and its formulation improved.
Furthermore, the funding required for its implementation must be free
from control by the government of the day.
We repeat that mere words and promises are not enough to solve the
A credible solution should contain provisions for independent
institutions and a sufficient period of time for confidence building
during which the government will have to demonstrate its sincerity by
deploying adequate resources of every kind to enforce the provisions of
the Constitution to ensure the true equality of all citizens.
As in the case of the 17th Amendment, there are several clauses of
the Constitution and subordinate laws which require improvement but this
could be done later whilst making sure that the existing laws are
complied with immediately.
Public administration in all its aspects should be divorced
unequivocally from political interference and skullduggery with the aid
of independent institutional arrangements.
Blanker Presidential immunity
The despicable concept of âblanket Presidential immunityâ, which goes
against reason and contradicts the most fundamental principles of
constitution-making, should be surgically excised from our body of laws.
If this is not done, no law or solution to national problems will be
worth the paper that it is written on.
The indefensible, illegitimate and constitutionally farcical idea
that the acts of commission and omission of the President are covered by
âblanket immunityâ should be relegated to the sewers where it properly
Rule of Law
The Rule of Law should be re-established firmly, fairly and without
partiality. This will happen automatically if the independent
institutions, particularly the National Police Commission, Judicial
Services Commission and the Courts are isolated from political
Insofar as the National Question is concerned, the media would need
to be encouraged and monitored to ensure that there is no racial,
religious or regional bias or incitement in reporting or omitting to
report events and news.
The Police should control and monitor public assemblies for the same
reason to ensure conformity with strong anti-incitement laws which will
have to be enacted without delay.
Medium of Instruction
Parents should be allowed to decide in which national language they
wish their children to be educated. If the language chosen is either
Sinhala or Tamil, English must be made the compulsory second language on
account of its importance in science, technology, trade, international
If English is the chosen primary medium of instruction, Sinhala or
Tamil must be chosen as the second language. Conversational Sinhala and
Tamil should be taught to all children from the primary classes onwards,
without encumbering them with written homework as our children are
already overburdened with enough assignments and tuition classes.
Implementing these suggestions in full will require some years of
planning and teacher training. Nevertheless, one should not wait until
everything is ready but make an immediate start wherever the necessary
All public servants, who are bilingual and trilingual, should be paid
substantially better and promoted faster than those who are incapable or
unwilling to make the necessary effort.
The proposals made above can be implemented unilaterally by the
government quite rapidly wherever its writ runs to show its good faith
and to gain the truth of the minorities.
It will be much less difficult thereafter to fine-tune the details
and to carry out negotiations with all the stakeholders regarding the
control of the physical resources of the country because all such
resources will belong equally to each citizen if the above suggestions