A long view of constitution making

The things people first wrote down


by Kumar David

Hard determinists say that leaders of the day cannot shape history; they, like the rest of us, are adrift on a sea of titanic waves. This is going too far; to a degree men do make their destiny, though not under conditions of their choosing but under "circumstances existing and transmitted from the past which hang like a nightmare on the brains of the living". Tamil extremists say that RW and MS are no different from Sinhala racists and deep-down do not wish to concede anything to Tamils. This is not true; a rancid cancer eats the soul of racists but it is false to metastasise this to RW/MS. However, neither do I go along with butter-won’t-melt-in-their-mouth liberals who fail to recognise that RW/MS and their ilk are afraid; afraid of a chauvinist backlash and lack the political equipment and confidence in the ability of the people to confront and defeat proto-fascist racism. Mobilisation is the last word in their lexicon.

If national leaders lack the guts to tell racism ‘Four-letter off, or suffer a broken nose’, they will repeatedly retreat in the face of the bigots. Let’s begin with four items that I fear will be built into the new constitution. Secularism will be spurned and Buddhism will facto endure as state religion; the state will continue to be defined as "unitary"; Sinhala-Only with "reasonable squealing" in Tamil will remain the formal norm; devolution will be evaded and federalism eschewed, but to give the devil its due as much regional administrative space as can be smuggled in without wetting pants/national dress will be inserted. There will be needless constraints on the space for the North and East to administer themselves, not because the government is racist, but because it funks racists. This, lovely ladies and kind gentlemen, is the plain unvarnished truth. Now, am I too harsh or are they wisely pragmatic; you decide.

Ministerial cowardice and Cabinet confusion are manifest in a report in the Island of 16 January; "Cabinet spokesman Dr. Rajitha Senaratne reiterated that the process will be a domestic process and not a hybrid process as proposed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights". The PM on the other hand steadfastly assures the world that Lanka will live up to the undertakings it gave in Geneva.

If a majority of the vast majority, meaning most Sinhalese who make up 75% of the population, are moved to spill blood than countenance change in the four die-hard constitutional blots referred to in the previous paragraph, then they won’t be changed. QED! Try making Saudi Arabia or Israel secular and riots and disorder will engulf the land. Tweak the antediluvian monarchy in Thailand and be eviscerated while the populace cheers. So don’t waste time with the undoable; politics as we are so often told is the art of the possible. Though Obama is the most intellectual US president since Woodrow Wilson and the most inspiring orator since Lincoln, his presidency has achieved little. It ran aground on an immovable rock, an elected Congress. The Obama presidency could NOT have achieved much more than it did.

The debate I am provoking is about the judgement of what is possible and what impossible. I believe that the Saudi, Israeli and Thai examples are wrong analogies for what is possible in Lanka now. Examples that did transform nations are more to the point at this juncture. The suffragettes won votes for women, the Civil Rights Movement abolished voting impediments on blacks, apartheid went to hell, and Burma is winding-up military dictatorship. Things changed when conditions matured and leaders made the right calls at the right moment as did Emily Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Mandela and Suu Kyi. A timely Suu Kyi comment is; "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it". And change does not come free: "If you want to make enemies, try to change something" – Woodrow Wilson.

My bottom line, which I have often echoed in this column after the 8 January defeat of the Mafia presidency, is that a watershed HAS been crossed and the terrain IS more favourable to defeat racism. The balance of forces on the streets and in the chambers at this moment is such that chauvinism CAN be defeated. Mahinda-Gota, by fair means or foul, finished off secessionist Tamil nationalism. Conditions and the balance of forces for finishing off Sinhala extremist racism are now favourable. Let’s do it! Sinha-Le can and must be smashed NOW; delay is a dagger not only at RW/MS’s throat but at ours as well.

What Lanka needs today to go all the way with this task is leadership; leadership which shy RW and confused MS are reluctant to offer and the JVP, unable to untangle itself from its racist past, cannot rise to. If all these actors fail to rise to the challenge it will be chaos. Defeating chauvinism is not for the purpose of giving concessions to the Tamils in the north; no the primary purpose is to prevent a fascist monster rising from the ashes of the old regime in the south. I have flogged this theme repeatedly, first demanding boldness in prosecuting criminals of the old regime and the extended ‘first family’, and now in this essay saying that unless chauvinism is pulverised the new constitution will be still-born. That’s enough for one day; let me change track.


Writing and


Constitution making, in the final analysis, is about writing a document. That’s the thread that got me into exploring the origins of writing. The earliest scripts, cuneiform (conical or triangular) markings on clay were used to keep accounts and first used in Mesopotamia in 3200 BC. Beer was the most popular beverage – fermentation of cereals to make beer preceded the fermentation of fruit to make wine - and the earliest extant records are for its sale. Only pictographs or signs, not alphabets were known and were used to track the number of jars.

This first Sumerian cuneiform evolved in many directions in the Fertile-Crescent including south Anatolia, and then Persia. It took another thousand years for the first alphabet, the Phoenician, to emerge. It is the grandfather of the Hebrew, Persian, Greek and Latin (hence all European) and Central European alphabets. The Brahmi script, source of all Indian alphabets (Sanskrit, Tamil and dozens of descendants) is dated to 800 BC but there is much disputation whether it grew from a Sumerian-derived script or is of indigenous origin. Chinese character writing (logograms), born independently, can be traced to the Shang Dynasty (1200-1050 BC), while Mesoamerican glyphs track back to 300 AD Central America. Language of course is one hundred-thousand-plus years older than writing; homo-sapiens, even males, spoke eons before they wrote.

The earliest written laws, call them constitutions, originate with the Code of Hammurabi dated to 1750 BC – the old Babylonian period. It may have been influenced by the code of Ur-Nammu (circa 2100 BC) only two fragments of which have been found. The Hammurabi Code influenced later laws such as the Laws of Moses (Torah) of Old Testament fame which has to be after 1279 BC since the ‘wicked’ Pharaoh of the Exodus is 19th Dynasty Rameses II who reigned from 1279-1213 BC.

Fast forward to our part of the world and jump over the most developed system of ancient law, Roman law, to arrive in India and the Laws of Manu (Manusmrti) starting circa 300 to 200 BC. Lanka’s govigama/vellala patriciate is put in class 3b and 4b by Manu – see illustration. Aw goddam it! The Laws are in Sanskrit and the extant text is the work of many authors extending from the 2nd Century BC to the 2nd Century AD. The Asokan edicts (39 inscriptions), contemporaneous with the earlier dates ascribed to the Manu codes, were influenced by Buddhism and served alongside the Buddha’s teachings in the great proselytization campaigns the Emperor (reign 269 to 232 BC) dispatched all over Asia. (Manu, by the way, is not a chap, but a sort of divine progenitor of all humanity in the Hindu pantheon).

For today, I will skip the Magna Carta and the 1215 deal at Runnymede, England and Britain sans written constitution but with a paramount Parliament, common law, edifices derived from Roman law, the widely varying First to Fifth French Republican Constitutions, Code Napoleon and the all-important American and Indian Constitutions. Rohan Edirisinha has often reminded me of the importance of the South African Constitution for a country facing excruciating trauma like Lanka; but our drafters, their heads buried deep in savage contemporary snarl-ups, can spare little time to take a long view of history. So I too will desert constitution making and talk about the origins of literature for the rest of this essay.


The beginnings of literature

The earliest written fable is the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (circa 3000 BC; Egypt, Middle Kingdom). The oldest extent epic, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was composed circa 2150 BC. The former is a Thousand and One Nights type adventure of wondrous lands and creatures, the latter tells of the quest of the great king Gilgmesh of Ur (Mesopotamia) for the meaning of life. The earliest known-by-name writer is the poetess Enheduann (2285-2250 BC), daughter of Sargon of Akkad, who signed and sealed her poems. (Akkad was a powerful empire of the middle Mesopotamian period).

The next great milestone, the hymns of Zarathustra and the Rig Veda, were composed about a millennium later (1200-900 BC) as oral narrative poems and written even later. After that, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the contemporaneous Ramayana and Mahabharata, too were composed by many folk balladeers and sung by many mistrals. These epics could be written down only after a script (Old Avestan in north-east Persia and Bactria, Greek and Sanskrit) emerged in the middle of the first millennium BC. (The Culavamsa and Mahavamsa were composed in Pali in the middle of the first millennium AD).

No I am not rambling all over the place; there is a point to my meandering. We squat in Lanka in a corner of the world ignorant of how far back the story goes and how vast the world is. That men do not learn much from history is the saddest lesson history teaches. But suppose we could take a longer, bigger, view would we care so much what people in other corners of this little Isle speak, worship (or not worship) or how they arrange their affairs? Narrowness of mind and xenophobia of nations are born of ignorance of history and unawareness of how big and broad the human story is. Isaac Newton has this obiter dictum, apocryphal or not I do not know, attributed to him: "I do not know how I may appear to the world, but I see myself like a boy playing on the sea-shore, now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me". With a forgivable tilt in meaning it nicely fits what I am trying to get across.

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