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qrcode.30341177In this 8th Chapter of my book on this subject I look at how the majoritarian system of democracy we had in this country contributed to increasing resentment by those who felt shut out of the decision making process. This played out principally with regard to racial differences, where what seemed majoritarianism on the part of successive elected governments contributed to the movement for autonomy and then for secession. But we should also remember that there were deep resentments based on class differences that led to two violent youth insurrections in the seventies and the eighties.

The Official Languages Act

In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, in a coalition of nationalist forces dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He had established the party after leaving the United National party (UNP). During the election campaign he had presented himself as a champion of the common man against the elite who had dominated Sri Lankan politics. But due to the pressures of political competition his victory was seen as the triumph of Sinhala nationalism.

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qrcode.30309543Chapter 7 of my book on this subject dealt with the Donoughmore Constitution and its workings. The State Council it had set up achieved a lot but by the forties the Sri Lankan political leadership wanted more. Since, unlike in India, there had been loyal service to the British war effort by Ceylonese political elite, as represented by the Board of Ministers, a commission led by Lord Soulbury was sent to Ceylon to commence discussions on self-government during the war. The ensuring achievement of Independence and the power of the Prime Minister under the Soulbury Constitution was the subject of Chapter 8.

It was D S Senanayake who during the Second World War presided over the negotiations towards independence. Though initially only a larger measure of self-government was being considered by the commission, the logic of history and the imminent independence of India prompted Britain to agree to the request for independence.

The new Constitution, under which Ceylon became independent in February 1948, abolished the State Council, which had encouraged a sense of responsibility regarding government in all members of the legislature. It introduced instead an oppositional system that was based almost entirely on the British cabinet system. After the parliament was elected, the person who commanded the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament was appointed prime minister, and he then appointed a cabinet to exercise executive power.

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qrcode.30245058Chapter 6 of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka dealt with the introduction of Universal Franchise to Sri Lanka, and the beginning of   Representative Government. This happened through the Donoughmore Constitution, which gave Sri Lankans a much greater say in government than in any other colony which was not composed largely of European settlers.

The main grievance of Ceylonese politicians with regard to the Manning-Devonshire Constitution had been that while the Legislative Council, in theory, had authority over the government through its financial and legislative powers,  it had no executive powers. The two representatives in the Executive Council, without responsibility for any specific area, could not really influence governmental action.

In response to these grievances, Britain sent another commission at the end of that decade to draw up a new constitution. In the 1920s, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, along with at least some members of the cabinet and parliament was keen on reforms in the colonies. The Donoughmore Constitution, as it was known after the Chairman of the Commission, Lord Donoughmore, moved in radical new directions. It introduced universal suffrage, which was opposed by most Sri Lankan politicians such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan, James Pieris, E.W. Perera, D. B. Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayake and S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. Only two minor politicians, one of whom was the Labour Party leader, A. E. Goonesinha, spoke in its favour.

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Parliament excelled itself last week when it cancelled three Consultative Committees (of those I had planned to attend – there were others too that were cancelled). The third of these, which I think a vital Ministry though not many others share my views, that of National Languages and Social Integration, was cancelled on the morning of the scheduled day, apparently because the Minister had to go to a funeral outside Colombo.

This did not seem to me proper because, much as Ministers feel obliged to attend funerals, they really should not subject other Members of Parliament to their own convenience. Either they should attend the event at another time, or else they should instruct their Deputies or their Secretaries to go ahead with the meeting. This seems the more urgent, because in any case Committees meet rarely, the plethora of Ministers we have (raised to 69 last week when the Police were entrusted to a newly created Ministry of Law and Order) making it impossible to respect the Standing Order enjoining meetings once a month.

If my proposed Amendments to Standing Orders are accepted and implemented, this problem will be solved, but I gather that, the Speaker being away, the motion was not taken up at the Parliamentary Business Committee. Since Parliament is going to meet on only two days in September, it looks like I will now have to wait a month and more, though I have pleaded with both the Speaker and the Leader of the House to take the matter up in early September. Since statutorily the matter is not debated but simply referred to the Committee on Standing Orders, this will take up hardly any time, so I hope Party Leaders will agree to this.

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I was quite flattered recently when I was told by a former public servant, for whom I had the greatest regard, that I was probably the first politician since S W R D Bandaranaike to be so interested in Local Government. I am not sure that this is quite correct, not only because I am not really a politician, but also because I think President Premadasa did a lot of work in this field. But nevertheless it set me thinking on why the subject has not had the attention it deserves.

This is sad because other countries have moved forward significantly in this sphere. Indeed some of the hot air now being blown about with regard to India and its role in our introduction of the 13th Amendment would I think be dissipated if we looked at what India has actually done, since that Amendment was introduced, to bring government closer to the people.

The 13th Amendment came about quite simply because centralized government had been too distant from the people. While this was obviously the case with regard to the needs of minority communities, which also suffered because of exclusivist language policies, we should also remember that rural majority communities also suffered because of a majoritarianism that did not take the concerns of the marginalized into account. Hence indeed the two Southern youth insurrections.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2018
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