Federalism Addresses Minority Rights: Prof. R. Sivachandran

by Kelum Bandara, ‘The Daily News,’ Colombo, December 30, 2016

Prof. R. Sivachandran, a Central Committee member of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), in an interview with the Dailymirror by email, advocates the Federal structure of government for the North and East. The ITAK is the dominant ally of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at the moment. Expressing views at the time a constitution-making process is underway, he says powers cannot be devolved under a unity form of government as in today, fulfilling the aspirations of the Tamil people. Excerpts of the interview.

Q. There is a strong demand for Federalism from your end. What do you exactly refer to by a Federal solution?
What we mean is two tiers of government. Each acting directly on their citizens. A formal distribution of legislative and executive authority and allocation of revenue resources between the two orders of government. That includes some areas of authority for each order. The provision for the representation of regional views within the central policy-making institutions is also sought in this exercise.

Here, a chamber consisting of regional representatives at the centre to prevent unreasonable encroachment by the centre on regional powers is sought. In a Federal structure of government, a balance has to be maintained. Neither level of government should become dominant. One cannot dictate to the other on decision-making. One should not be legally subordinate to the other.

Devolutionary Federalism should redistribute the powers of the State among its entities that obtain autonomous status within their field of responsibility. The goal is to achieve unity among diverse and pluralist society. This system has been proved to be efficient and congenial, and it restricts the powers and promotes participatory democracy. The people far from the capital city will have greater access to wielders of power. A regional government will be able to focus on the particular concerns of the given area and act according to the wishes of people. It provides for shared rule at the centre and self-rule in the regions with dignity for people.

Q. What are the reasons for you to reject a unitary constitution?
The unitary constitutions which have been made since independence have denied equal rights to minorities. In fact, they have taken away the rights and privileges enshrined in the Constitution made by the previous colonial rule. Post-independence unitary constitutions of Sri Lanka have unfortunately been partisan documents drafted by the successive governments to suit their needs and to toe political agendas. These home-grown unitary constitutions were rejected by the minority communities. These are not consensus and all-inclusive documents at all.

Q. There is an argument that power should be decentralised and not devolved. What are your views?
Decentralisation of power has been followed for a long period of time in Sri Lanka. In the local context, this has not satisfied the needs and aspirations of the people distantly located from the capital. Under decentralisation, some central government powers of decision-making are exercised by officials of the very same central government located in various parts of the country. This lacks participation of people and their elected representations. Therefore, decentralisation is not an effective and efficient system to meet the needs of the people who are far from the capital.

Q. How do you support your argument that the North and East are the exclusive home of Tamil speaking people?
There is no doubt that the North and East are the homeland of Tamil speaking people from time immemorial — where their language, religions, culture and distinct traits followed for centuries. This has been accepted by the colonial rulers too. In the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, it is said the North and East were historical habitation of Tamil speaking people. The words ‘exclusive homeland’ can be changed to ‘homeland.’ Before the settlement of people from other areas of the country through the state -sponsored colonisation schemes since the establishment of the Galoya Scheme in 1930s and other colonisation schemes, Tamil speaking people were the predominant majority in the North and East. The general trend of the world is to demarcate regions on the basis of their linguistic identity. This is applicable to the North and East as well. Tamil speaking people are the majority in the North and East, and they have a legitimate claim for their homeland as the Sinhala people in other provinces of Sri Lanka.

This sub-natural consciousness has been forced upon Tamil speaking people by discriminatory legislations introduced by the successive regimes after independence. If equal rights and privileges are given to all the communities throughout the country, all citizens, irrespective of their race and religion, feel Sri Lanka as their homeland.

Q. What are your views on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution?
The 13th amendment provided for the establishment of Provincial Councils (PCs). The PCs enjoy legislative power over subject matters specified in the Provincial Council and concurrent lists. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution and Provincial Councils Act.No.42 of 1987 did not meet the aspirations of the Tamil people, but they hoped comprehensive power devolution would evolve. This amendment is a starting point for further devolution of power. In short, people have easy access to government services after the establishment of Provincial Councils.

As the Provincial Council system functions under the unitary system, powers of the Provincial Council are restricted.
The following matters should be considered for further democratisation of the Provincial Council system; The Governor should be made a nominal head; Subjects matters under the concurrent list should be assigned to either Provincial Councils or the Central government. It means it should be abolished; Provincial Public Service should be vested in the Board of Ministers. The national Public Service should be vested with the Cabinet of Ministers; The powers relating to State lands. Police are devolved subjects. They have not been given to the Provincial Councils; The Chief Minister of the Province should be allowed to establish the Chief Minister’s Fund and negotiate direct foreign aid projects in the Province.

The 13th amendment made Tamil also an official language of Sri Lanka. There has not been much progress in implementation despite our efforts made. In practice, the Tamil Language has been relegated to the position of a provisional language. Language rights of the Tamil speaking people should be ensured. Bilingual administration in the specified Divisional Secretariats should be implemented.

Q. How realistic is a political solution in keeping with the aspirations of the Tamils under the current political development?
The majority of citizens voted for a change at the Presidential election in January 2015. They voted to preserve democracy and to uphold human rights and good governance. Finding a solution to the ethnic issue is a long-felt need. This issue has affected every sector in the country. The formation of a government by the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with minority parties has created a conducive condition to find a political solution with that can be reached.

We do not think any citizen advocates separatism. The minorities want a sense of security, peace, equal right with Sinhalese. Some politicians’ mislead the masses by saying Federalism is separatism. Politicians should not work for their political agenda. They should work for the well-being of the people. The politicians and leading personalities in the civil society should explain to the people how ethnic problems have been solved in developed and under-developed countries after devastating wars. Aspirations of the Tamils can be achieved under an undivided Sri Lanka. If politicians act as statesmen, it is not a major issue.

Prof. R. Sivachandran was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at University of Jaffna before his retirement.

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