What, to the Minority, is Democracy?

by Qadri Ismail, ‘Groundviews, Colombo, November 3, 2018

Maithripala Sirisena violates the constitution, stands to destroy democracy itself. Liberals, overwhelmingly Sinhalese, are aggrieved, appalled, aghast.

As a minority, I laugh. Not the happy laughter of someone enjoying a good joke. But the bitter, mirthless cackle of someone forced to read this script many times before – like every full moon, when the temple speakers blare its bana and you can’t blot out the noise with sleep because the liquor stores are closed.

All postcolonial Sri Lankan heads of government, all of them Sinhalese, have consistently violated the constitution and/or “threatened” democracy – usually by practicing it – and/or oppressed minorities. One could deem it a job requirement.

Just a few months after independence, Don Stephen Senanayake denaturalized, then disenfranchised ‘Indian’ Tamil citizens, already alienated from this country by their naming. Constitutional? Probably not. Democratic? Absolutely – passed by a majority of Parliament.

Taking his cue from his father, Dudley Senanayake continued the Gal Oya scheme, to extend Sinhalese colonization of the east. It worked, democratically, to dilute the democratic prospects of Muslim and Tamil voters in electorates from Trincomalee to Amparai.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike’s record is too well known to require iteration, but take ‘Sinhala Only’ as example, exemplary. Again, probably not constitutional. Certainly democratic.

His wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, massacred thousands of innocents in the name of battling the JVP insurgency. I haven’t read the constitution she operated under lately, but I doubt it authorizes state sanctioned murder. (Ironically enough, she incarcerated Rohana Wijeweera and other JVP leaders in Jaffna – where they radicalized the first generation of Tamil nationalist militants.) Notoriously, of course, Bandaranaike replaced that constitution with another that effectively made Buddhism the state religion. All achieved democratically, with a parliamentary majority.

Junius Richard Jayawardene’s government passed the obnoxious Prevention of Terrorism Act, democratically. It failing to prevent “terrorism,” Jayewardene presided over, and justified, the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in the southern parts of the country. Repression only producing resistance, not submission, Jayawardene then unleashed his military against Tamils in the north and east, slaughtering hundreds. Jayawardene naturalized violence as response to a political problem.

And let’s not forget: enjoying a five/sixth’s majority in Parliament in his first term, wanting to extend its mandate without an election, Jayewardene did so with a simple majority vote at a referendum. While keeping the undated letters of resignation of all his MPs in his pocket. How shrewdly, brilliantly democratic!

Initially, Ranasinghe Premadasa let his military loose down south. Among his victims, my friend Richard de Zoysa. When Prime Minister, Premadasa persuaded Jayawardene, towards the end of his regime, to amend the constitution so as to allow a state of emergency to be declared and ratified with a simple majority in Parliament. (It had previously required two-thirds.) All perfectly democratic.

Chandrika Kumaratunga campaigned for President promising nothing short of justice for the Tamil people. Stymied by Velupillai Prabakaran, rather than persist with negotiations, she launched a “war for peace” against the Tamils. Without irony.

Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa’s military butchered an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians in the course of defeating the LTTE. Rajapaksa eliminated presidential term limits, thus diluting, democratically, the democratic rights of every citizen. And exterminated Sinhalese dissenters, including my friend Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Rajapaksa turned Sri Lanka, at least that part of the people not with him, into a nation of permanently strained necks. You never went out in public without watching your rear. In order to look forward (to peace) you had to look back. You learned to speak like cinema-goers, in the lowest of whispers, didn’t trust anyone, even the trishaw-driver who drove you for decades. Your cellphone was paralyzed: either recharging or downloading the latest encryption app. Mostly, you were scared shitless. Rajapaksa terrorized Sri Lanka almost as effectively as Prabakaran. And the Sinhalese people loved him, adore him.

Of Ranil Wickremasinghe one need utter just a single word: Batalanda. Though I don’t think the constitution authorizes robbing the Central Bank, either. It’s a testament to his general ineptitude that he got caught. To the Rajapaksas’ savvy, that they didn’t.

Wickremasinghe takes the presidency as his birthright. An elitist – as Education Minister he once wanted to “horsewhip” striking undergrads – whose elitism has only increased over the decades, he expects the Sirisenas of this country to beg for the vote, then step aside and leave him and his cronies the task of administration.

Within the frame of our postcolonial politics, Sirisena’s move, though unconstitutional, isn’t particularly shocking. Not to a minority. To achieve legitimacy as a Sri Lankan head of government you must violate the constitution. It’s a right of passage.

Now this could be a peculiar characteristic of Sinhalese leaders: they establish rules for the sheer pleasure of breaking them, flout constitutions to demonstrate their superiority to the law. They take the police as extensions of their extortion racket. Understand a bribe as an entitlement, their children’s excesses as a job perk, nepotism as the norm.

But, in so doing, they are not particularly different from the current leaders of many states, including Turkey and India.

We apprehend democracy as an unqualified good, the horizon of our political desires, the best possible, conceivable form of government. But what is democracy in the first place?

Perhaps its best known slogan: “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln). Sounds perfect; how could anyone oppose, even question such a system founded upon the rights of the ordinary person? But, to borrow a phrase from one of Lincoln’s successors, this is fake news.

Modern democracy has a few cardinal elements, among them equality, representative government, the rule of law, majority governance.

Just a few moments’ consideration should be enough to realize that representative government is not synonymous with government of or by the people. Rather, the representative replaces the people, is a substitute, establishes a distance between the people and government. First they take your vote, then your place. The magic of democracy lies in its ability to persuade you otherwise, that you and the representative are one, not two.

On the rule of law, the doctrine that holds all citizens equal before the law: have we forgotten to ask who makes the law? The people or dominant social groups? The latter’s representatives, of course, who also enforce it. Thus, to cite a recent instance from the United States, Barack Obama freely confessed to the U.S. having “tortured some folks” after 9/11, but refused to prosecute the persecutors. If the powerful get absolved, does the rule of law prevail? Have you asked yourself why, exactly, the myriad legal proceedings against the Rajapaksas – including murder and corruption – drag on interminably? Power looks after itself. These are not anomalies but a feature that traverses the system.

So, to rewrite Lincoln: democracy is government of some of the people, by a few of the people, for the most powerful segments of those people. Not something worth getting agitated over, is it?

From a minority perspective, the most insidious aspect of democracy is majority rule. It keeps the minority permanently unable to pass legislation. Thus democracy subverts its promise (equality) by being itself (majority rule). All the legislation cited here was passed by Parliament. Democratically.

No human population could be considered equal if a part of it is deemed major and the rest, minor (as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, not a politician I particularly admire, told Jawaharlal Nehru). A part significant and the rest, insignificant. A part that matters and another that does not. The Sri Lankan minorities (I despise the term, btw) have not mattered since 1948. Thus it doesn’t make much of a difference to me that yet another Sinhalese head of government has violated the constitution. The situation of the minorities remains unchanged.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaiake, Dudley Senanayake and J. R. Jayawardene signed agreements to institute Tamil rights/equality. Then disregarded their own commitments. Chandrika Kumaratunga and Sirisena/Wickremasinghe promised rights/equality. Then negated their own promises. Would a minority be wrong to identify a pattern here?

From a minority perspective, democracy is a political system that structurally enables its oppression by the majority, but allows that same majority to stage its practices as the will of the people, all the people, therefore a good thing. Rather than the best possible, conceivable form of government, democracy is a form of domination, of the minority by the majority.

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