Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014

A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.

Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.

This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.

In Pakistan, where identity was even more complicated, given the linguistic divide between East and West Pakistan, and the cultural divides within West Pakistan itself, an identity based on religion alone was seen as essential. But it was a restrictive concept of religion, and has led to the persecution of sects that most Muslims would find perfectly acceptable, but which fundamentalists deplore as taking away from the purity of what they are bound to uphold. The imposition too of laws which most Muslim majority nations had found culturally unacceptable before has contributed to a narrowing of space for the different strands within a geographical space, which should be the fundamental criterion for a country.

I propose here to look at the different elements that individuals see as contributing to their identity, and which they believe the state to which they belong should, if not foster, refrain from destroying. How successfully Sri Lanka has lived up to these beliefs will be my major concern.

The obvious elements that people cling to are those I mentioned before, ethnicity and language and religion. But I think there are some others that people believe need fostering on an equitable basis through state systems and resources. At its simplest, health and education must be provided so that any individual can compete satisfactorily with others. And these should lead to employment and dignity, in the sense of being able to contribute to decisions affecting oneself.

Sri Lanka has suffered from a protracted conflict which has led many to feel that there was appalling discrimination. This was not the case. But the failure to develop systems and provide services equitably in terms of the areas identified above led to inequalities that were unacceptable. It is therefore incumbent on the Sri Lankan state, having overcome the terrorism that was the final expression of dissatisfaction, to remove the causes of those dissatisfactions.

Unfortunately, there are signs instead that further reasons for dissatisfaction are developing. I refer to the fact that recently in Sri Lanka there has been religious conflict, whereas this was not a problem in the past when the ethnic conflict began. Unfortunately there is a small minority within Sri Lanka that believes the victory of the State is a victory for Sinhala Buddhism, and seeks therefore to affirm the primacy of Buddhism all over the country. This problem has been exacerbated by a hyper-active Department of Buddhist Affairs that issues instructions contrary to law, under a Prime Minister who is very easily misled.

The problem is made worse by a militant Buddhist organization that is resentful of what they see as an increase in Muslim influence in recent years. This has led to attacks on mosques and failure on the part of Law Enforcement authorities to deal firmly with such actions. Unfortunately the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence was seen as promoting such activities. However, it has been suggested that his involvement was one means of controlling these and, since that has clearly proved unsuccessful, there are signs that such aggression will be discouraged. But there is still much tension, and the whole episode has been extremely worrying.

This has caused much dissatisfaction in the Eastern Province which is populated by Muslims and Tamils and Sinhalese in similar proportions, with the first having the largest numbers and the third the smallest. Unfortunately there is a common perception that a few Buddhist temples in the area are claiming lands to which they have no right, and that the armed forces are supporting this. I have written frequently to raise questions, and the Minister of National Heritage has responded in a most enlightened manner, but he too seems helpless in the face of a complaisant Department of Archaeology and an aggressive Department of Buddhist Studies.

And I fear the armed forces here are not as enlightened as those in the North who have generally done their best to stop encroachments. Unfortunately Tamil politicians make political points and accuse the armed forces of constructing Buddha statues, whereas the forces have often tried to prevent this, which is the work of civilians falling prey to rapacious monks, as noted by senior military officials.

But let me return to language, which was the root cause of the problems. Before I deal with the history, let me note some principles which we need to observe sensitively, since language also impacts on employment and dignity.

First, individuals are proud of their own language and see it as a function of identity. Therefore to discourage its use strikes at the root of their self worth. I would argue therefore that the right to be educated in the mother tongue is something that should be upheld.

However we need also to accept that mother tongue education is impractical when very few speak the language. It is also limiting in a situation in which employment is not generally available for those who know no other language.

I realize there are no easy solutions, but I would suggest

a) Ensuring that children can use their mother tongue when learning
b) Where possible education at primary levels should be in the mother tongue
c) At secondary level children should be given the opportunity to learn in a major language used in the country. This should not preclude the choice of mother tongue education where this is practicable, but mother tongue education should not become a fetish at the expense of lucrative employment opportunities

Though Sri Lanka stood firmly by the first two principles, thus giving the lie to the claim that there was active discrimination against minorities, it provides a clear example of the divisive impact of insensitive language policies. The rot began when a young politician called J R Jayewardene proposed in the State Council way back in the early forties that education should be compulsorily in the Sinhala medium. He did however immediately accept the alternative of Tamil, and that he was not insincere is apparent in the utterly foolish speech he made, when he spoke of two nations in Sri Lanka, one that functioned in Sinhala or Tamil, and the other that functioned in English.

This petty nationalism, from someone who commanded the heights of power because of his command in English, in essence destroyed the country. Children had to learn in Sinhala or Tamil and, though in theory English was compulsory in all schools, it was compulsory in the strange Sri Lankan sense that imposed no sanction if it was not learnt. So, while privileged children, such as those of the politicians who had imposed this straitjacket, learned adequate English, the majority of our children were trapped in a monolingual straightjacket.

And when Sinhala became the language of administration, Tamils who did not know the language were placed at a disadvantage. Though the North and East, where Tamil was the majority language, did work in Tamil, central government functioned in Sinhala which made their communications incomprehensible to many, while job opportunities for Tamils were of course reduced. And for most youngsters, Sinhala as well as Tamil, the more lucrative jobs were out of reach, given that they could not function in English.

Though in theory the situation has improved, with all students supposed to study all three languages, and the option of English medium being reintroduced, there has been little progress in providing sufficient teachers to the less privileged schools. Ministers of Education have rarely thought of language policy or schemes to develop teacher supply, and most would not understand how to innovate productively.

I should add that this has impacted very harshly on those areas in the North that were most affected by conflict. And the problem is not confined to language alone there, since the same deficiencies apply with regard to the teaching of Maths and Science, and also now Technological subjects. This last, which we have long advocated, has finally been introduced, but hardly any Tamil medium teachers have been recruited. This, I should note , is not because of a perverse policy, because the supply is almost non-existent. But with a Ministry that cannot understand that, when supply is limited, programmes must be devised to develop supply swiftly, I fear that the North – and also many rural areas – are doomed to suffer for ever.

In addition to deficiencies in the school system, there has been a culpable failure to provide employment oriented courses for those leaving the schooling system. Four years ago I was assured by the Minister that this would be fast forwarded, but very little was done. I am still told when I ask that a large German Technical school will be set up in Kilinochchi, but this will only be in 2015, and very little was done to train youngsters for the consruction industry that obviously was prominent in the North in recent years. So there are regular complaints about outsiders coming in for jobs, but with a Minister of Economic Development who thinks, as one prominent – I should stress Sinhala – administrator put it, only of cement, the idea of developing Human Resources has remained stillborn.

The courses there are also continue to produce, as a university academic put it, artisans rather than technicians. I have tried to change this through the work of a very progressive educational NGO called Aide-et-Action, which I first saw in action in India, and which I gather also does excellent work in Assam and Meghalaya. I have contributed Rs 5 million over two years for the establishment of 5 centres through this organization, which stresses developing a sense of self worth in addition to technical skills, in the more deprived divisions of the North. But I was told I was the only Member of Parliament, whether government or opposition, to contribute so much, and indeed the statistics I saw indicate that in a couple of divisions all the others together contribute much less than I did – and what they do is things like building fences for schools and providing instruments for school bands.

The failure to develop human resources has been matched by a failure to promote productive employment. There are many complaints of militarization of the North, and I am sure there are similar complaints in the North East of India, given possible subversion. I have no problem however with a military presence, if it is not oppressive, because I believe security is vital for any country, and where there has been a history of terrorism one cannot be too careful. But the problem in Sri Lanka is that the military has also got involved in other businesses, and it is widely believed that this is at the cost of the native population.

Again, I see no reason for the military not to get involved in business, given their general skills. But it is grossly insensitive to do this without engaging in partnerships with the local population. Some time back, when I thought the government was serious about Reconciliation, I made some suggestions about the support the military could offer the populace with regard to both education and business. The initial reaction of the Secretary of Defence was that he would have to face yet more blame if he undertook such activities. But instead of wondering how such blame could be reduced by clearly providing benefits to the local population, he seems to have decided to abandon all discretion now, and not worry about local feelings. Thus an opportunity has been sacrificed to actually develop the region, providing training and expertise that a war affected population sorely missed, and also ensure greater prosperity for the region.

In one area it should be noted government has done very well, and that is in the provision of health care. In many cases hospitals are run by the doctors who had been caught in the No Fire Zone and who did an admirable job under tremendous pressures. Government has also expanded services and, though there are continuing difficulties about doctors serving in distant areas, by and large those in position are dedicated and with every month there are fewer complaints about inadequate services.

In one area though there has been a shortfall, in that government took no steps, despite regular reminders, to develop better counselling services. Given the traumas wrought by war, and the deprivation of loved ones, including the horror of having youngsters conscripted by the Tigers and thrust into the front lines, it was inevitable that there should be psycho-social problems. These are compounded by the number of single mothers and single parent families. Fortunately, with some concerted effort by a dynamic Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Rights, who has learned to work in coordination with other Ministries in a system in which Ministries multiply like rabbits with no effort at coherence, recently there has been a forceful effort to develop counselling services.

Another area in which there are shortcomings is that of reproductive health services. This is the greater pity because Sri Lanka had an excellent record in this respect, but recently the number of sexually transmitted diseases, and of HIV and abortions, has gone up. This is because of an absurd decision, based on claims of changing demography, to limit family planning services. And in general we have still not come to terms with the need for sex education, since archaic concepts of morality combine with diffident teachers to privilege culpable ignorance.

Fortunately, under the leadership of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, and with Women and Children’s Units in each Division with clear responsibilities, things may improve and protection provided through empowerment rather than reaction. As I noted earlier, people in vulnerable situations should not be treated as dependents but should rather be given the wherewithal to build up their own lives with dignity, deriving strength from the community around them as well as their own skills and capacities.

In this regard we need to go much further with regard to both the local consultation mechanisms the President had proposed in his manifesto, as well as clear empowerment of those elected to regional political authorities. Unfortunately Sri Lanka is bedeviled by controversy about the Provincial Councils, which were a necessity in terms of providing greater decision making powers to devolved units, but which have failed to make much impact because of ambiguities about their powers. Since however discussion is dominated by those who want more powers, or those who want less, no effort had been made to work out how to resolve the problems there are, and ensure that decisions are made at the level that can best respond to the needs of the people.

Those who want to reduce the power of Provincial Councils are obsessed by security concerns, but there is no clarity about what they fear. If this were spelled out, there should be no difficulty about accommodating their concerns, just as there should be no difficulty about addressing the concerns of those who feel the Councils need more powers. The latter I suspect could be readily dealt with by reducing the concurrent list, and providing an equitable mechanism to resolve disputes in areas which remain the responsibility of different levels of government.

Fortunately we now have at least one Chief Minister, for the government, who has the potential of becoming a National political leader, and he has shown what thoughtful and courageous leadership can do. His decision to make over 40 schools offer English medium education shows recognition of how we need, in response to the needs of the people, to act swiftly to get rid of the restrictive language policies we have languished under. I can only hope the Chief Minister of the North, who is also a distinguished public figure of proven ability, will also act decisively – and that the central government, which has failed to fulfil the emotional and psychological needs of people thus far, will give him leeway.

This to me is the key to ensuring strengthening of a national identity through positive attitudes all round. Given the deep worries about governance in general in Sri Lanka at present, and the perception that priority is given to the needs, and even the wishes, of the majority, it is vital to ensure that the minorities feel their concerns are addressed. This can best be done by the political leaders they have chosen.

Understandably, given the separatism of the past, and the support for this that is still found abroad, and even in India, despite the solid support the central Indian government has given to a unified Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan government will worry about fissiparous tendencies. But as India showed in the Punjab, and as your Concept Paper makes clear, the way forward is through ‘a more understanding, purposeful, open and entirely sympathetic national involvement, whilst also making crystal clear that terrorism will not be tolerated.

Providing good infrastructure is vital for economic development, as your paper notes, and this is essential. In this regard we have done much in Sri Lanka. But dignity must also be promoted, and for this education and training must support self worth and flexibility, whilst participation in decision making affecting the area is of the essence. These are areas in which we need to do much more.