Devolution of ‘Land Powers’: A Comment


by G. H. Peiris

Among the writings published in the wake of release of the report submitted to Parliament by the Constitutional Reform Sub-Committee on ‘Centre-Periphery Relations’ are those that appeared in recent issues of The Island –C. A. Chandraprema’s ‘Analysis’ of the report, and a more general piece titled ‘Constitutional reform and devolution of power’ by Harim Peiris. The former, needless to say, is an incisive critique written at a level of expertise which the ‘Panel of Experts’ that served the sub-committee appears to have lacked. The latter, I respectfully submit, is a feeble attempt containing misrepresentations, intended no doubt to reinforce the recommendations made by the sub-committee on ‘devolution’.

This paper is being written with the twin objective of supplementing Chandraprema’s criticisms with a few sets of information relevant to a study of ‘Centre-Periphery Relations’ in a multi-ethnic polity such as ours, and to highlight with special reference to Harim Peiris’ article, the superficiality typical of the on-going campaign intended to emaciate the unitary character of the nation-state of Sri Lanka. This campaign is also represented by recent publications such as the reports produced by the ‘Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform’ (chaired by Lal Wijenayake) and the ‘Constitutional Reform Sub-Committee’ referred to above, alongside the sustained literary efforts by self-professed "Sri Lanka experts" in India ̶for example those associated with the ‘Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies’ of the University of Madras̶ whose barely concealed objective all along has been that of promoting the hegemonic interests of India in the South Asia Region.

The Indian ‘Model’

Those who prescribe for Sri Lanka a constitutional arrangement similar to the ‘federal’ or ‘quasi-federal’ system in India tend to overlook several irrefutable facts of utmost significance. The foremost among these facts is that at the eve of the British withdrawal from the Indian sub-continent, the ‘Raj’ was no more than a conglomerate of disparate nationalities the terrestrial and maritime boundaries of which had remained ill-defined. Sri Lanka in contrast possessed almost throughout recorded history a clear geographical identity. Unlike in the case of most modern nation-states, Sri Lanka is not a product of imperial intervention.

Unlike in ‘British Ceylon’, during the formative stages of the Indian nation-state – i.e. the final phase of decolonisation in South Asia – British control over the areas that came to constitute the Republic of India was not uniform. The ‘Provinces’ under direct British rule accounted for no more than about 49% of India at independence. A large part of the remaining territory consisted of more than six-hundred ‘Princely States’ over most of which British rule had been nominal, and several coastal colonies of the Portuguese and the French. There were, in addition, the extensive Himalayan tribal tracts that had been designated ‘Excluded’ or ‘Partially Excluded’ (from Delhi’s direct control) under the constitutional dispensation of the Simon Commission of 1935. Their outer peripheries remained ill-defined, and, in that sense, they constituted a ‘buffer zone" between the British Indian Empire and the interior of continental Asia.

As mentioned in Chandraprema’s study, an appraisal of the federal system of India as a ‘model’ for emulation must also be placed in the context of the extraordinary territorial and demographic dimensions of India which entail, among other things, a degree of "remoteness" of a large segment of its population from central government institutions, which one does not find in small countries with representative forms of government such as ours. The size of a national entity is, of course, not the only determinant of the "distance" between the government and the governed. Nevertheless the significance of the size factor from present perspectives which has tended often to be overlooked could be illustrated with reference to the fact that Sri Lanka (with a population equivalent to less than 2% of that of India), had it been a component of the Indian union, would have been represented in the 545-member Lok Sabha by only about nine members with, say, the entire Colombo District or the Central Province constituting single-member constituencies. It could thus be argued that, given the enormity of the Indian "scale", sub-national institutions of government, sharing power with the central government, is far more vital an ingredient of democratic governance (in order to provide even a semblance of popular participation in the direction and control of the daily lives of the people) in that country than they are in tiny and spatially compact nation-states like Sri Lanka.

Another relevant but frequently overlooked consideration is that the evolution of the present geographical mosaic and the power-sharing arrangements of the Indian federation represents a long drawn-out and tortuous process, the initial impulses of which could be traced back to the Swaraj Movement. Even more importantly, since independence, this evolutionary process has been regulated by a powerful government at the Centre, which, though never entirely unresponsive to the more important sub-national electoral pressures, has always had both the capacity to retrace its steps when costly blunders were made as well as the strength to overwhelm (through recourse to military power when necessary) any serious resistance to its fiat, with hardly any external challenge barring the past Chinese links of the Nāga rebels and the allegedly continuing Pakistani links of the Kashmiri rebels. Unlike in many other federations India’s federal arrangement has been, in that sense, the product not only of trial and error but also of compulsion from the Centre and, at least occasionally, involuntary obedience from the States.

There is controversy among researchers on the relative success of ‘devolution’in India from the viewpoint of expected objectives of democratisation, national consolidation and peaceful coexistence among its diverse nationalities. The best illustrations of this are provided by the mutually irreconcilable assertions on the related issues found in abundance even in some of the most authoritative commentaries on India such as those by Arend Lijphart (1977& 1996), Myron Weiner (1978, 1979, 1996), Donald Horowitz (1985), Rajni Kothari (1989), Paul Brass (1990, 1991, 1994, 2002), Atul Kohli (1990), Christophe Jaffrelot (1993), Dipanker Gupta (1997), Dreze & Sen (2002) and Ashutosh Varshney (2004). While most scholars evaluating India’s record tend to take a stance of qualified commendation rather than outright condemnation, it would be tenuous to claim on the basis of India’s excessively turbulent experiences of the past seventy years to say that its constitution has achieved anything even approaching consociational power-sharing among its people.What this implies more than all else is that the Indian federation is not a model to emulate from the viewpoint of promoting greater intergroup harmony in Sri Lanka.

Devolution of ‘Land Powers

The tendency for statutory powers over ‘land’ to be equated with the rights of people living in different parts of the country to use the physical resources of their habitats in conformity with their needs. In certain extreme formulations of the ‘devolutionist’ discourse the vesting of ‘land powers’ in the Central government is made to appear as a depriving the legitimate agrarian rights of an impoverished peasantry. This is a fallacy. Constitutional and other statutory measures pertaining to ‘Land’ extend over a much wider range of concerns of governance such as territorial rights and security considerations of the nation, entitlements of its people, environmental conservation and the allocation of physical resources between different needs and uses, and the balanced development of all segments of the economy. The ongoing agitation for enhancement of powers and functions of the Provincial Councils of the ‘North-East’ by some of the formidable but "moderate" Sri Lanka Tamil leaders in mainstream politics is intended to appear as constituting an innocuous but vitally significant component of their commitment to promote the aspirations of the people whom they represent mainly in respect of their socioeconomic needs. In the formulation of a constitutional response to this agitation, however, there are several considerations that should not be ignored.

The most obvious among such considerations is that the demise of the LTTE battlefield leadership in mid-May 2009 has not marked the abandonment of the Eelam struggle. The surviving collaborators of that secessionist effort here and abroad have in fact been more strident than ever before in their demands, made ostensibly to promote ethnic reconciliation, and lasting peace. Their package of demands includes:

(a) the merger of the northern and eastern provinces to constitute a single spatial unit of devolution;

(b) the removal from the ‘North-East’ of government installations and manpower for national security and defence, along with the redistribution of the land occupied by the military bases among the civilian population (this demand is coupled with a globally disseminated falsehood that the ‘North’ has continued to remain "militarised" after the battlefield victory over the LTTE achieved in 2009); and

(c) the vesting of powers and functions over land and law enforcement in the Provincial Council of the re-constituted ‘North-East’ also empowered to engage in foreign relations, by-passing the central government);

— in short, the same demands for internal and external self-government demanded by the LTTE in the heyday of its Eelam War.

To be continued

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