One more symbolic step: Wigneswaran’s audience with the Mahanayake Thera


by Rajan Philips

We need a break from the tedium, rather the opprobrium, of national corruption. To paraphrase Dr. Harsha de Silva’s public lamentation, the whole country is awash in corruption. The continuing non-promotion of people like Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne to full cabinet rank shows the depth of cabinet entrenchment by the corrupt and the crooked and the extent of exclusion of the bright and the honest. The government leadership has a lot to answer for its cabinet choices even as it has a lot of explaining to do about its highway contract choices.

There are plenty of potholes in the government’s Central Expressway explanation that was presented in parliament by the Prime Minister (and not some ‘e miniha’ in government). But I thought I will stay away from political potholes this week and use my space today and the good editor’s indulgence to applaud the historic audience that the inscrutable Chief Minister of the Northern Province, CV Wigneswaran, sought and was given by the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter, the Most Venerable Tibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera.

This is yet another small but significantly symbolic step on a long road, the direction and destination of which are yet to be figured out. But a starting point for the road has been established by three judges of the Supreme Court in August of this year. The Chief Minister, himself a former Supreme Court Judge, referenced the court ruling ever so gently to make a soft sell, so to speak, of federalism in the highest precinct of the First Estate of Sinhalese society. Symbols are significant when there is nothing substantial going on in the political realm. Nothing tangible will come out of this meeting, but the intangibles of the occasion and its meanings deserve recognition and celebration.

A major expectation of those who were enthusiastic about the TNA’s choice of Mr. Wigneswaran as candidate for Chief Minister in the first Northern Provincial Council election in 2013, was that he would be a bridge builder between the north and the south and a political ambassador for the Tamils among the Sinhalese and the Muslims. It was also expected that by being a bridge builder and ambassador, he would be able to speedily facilitate the rebuilding and restoration of postwar North not only physically and materially, but also emotionally and psychologically. The Chief Minister’s aplomb and ambassadorial abilities were in full display on national television during his meeting with the Mahanayake. And the main purpose of his meeting was not to advocate federalism but to ask the Mahanayake to intercede on behalf of the Tamils in the North and impress on the government the urgency of rebuilding and restoration work in the Peninsula and the rest of the Northern Province.

The Mahanayake does not have to do anything to intercede. His audience to the Chief Minister was the intercession, and it is up to the President and the Prime Minister to respond in kind by giving priority to addressing the land question and the livelihood of people who are still destitute even after eight years since the war ended. As the Chief Minister laid it out before the prelate, there are 89,000 war widows, almost one for every ten people living in the north, and 60,000 acres of land (a quarter of the area of Jaffna) are still in the control of the army. People’s traditional means of livelihood, farming and fishing, are still struggling to become barely subsistent, let alone reach the surplus status that they once occupied. The people of the North need government help to turn things around from rock bottom and not the building of steel houses and super highways. Super highways can come later, but prefabricated steel houses should have no place in the north or anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Better late than never

Although it is now water under the bridge, if not the Elephant Pass, one cannot help speculating how things would have worked out for Mr. Wigneswaran and his Administration if he had started doing soon after becoming Chief Minister what he is doing now in visiting the Mahanayake in Kandy. On the contrary, he was given and followed wrong advice in turning his ambassador role into the role of a propagandist of an old narrative that needs no new elaboration. Against his better judgement, it would seem, he took flight to bandy the message of the Tamils among the converted overseas and forgot the hard work of seeking and persuading audiences here at home.

For a time, the Chief Minister was carried away by passing high-octane resolutions that evaporated into thin air, instead of sober canvassing to achieve real redress for a battered people. He became an instrument in the hands of those who are desperate for an electoral vehicle to win an election because they badly need a seat in parliament to scratch their ‘parliamentary itch’ - as GG Ponnambalam QC memorably described a congenital condition among peninsular candidates. Not that Mr. Wigneswaran could have done much to help unworthy candidates win elections on the pseudo-premise of self-determination, except to help them save face by saving their deposits.

In applauding the Chief Minister’s audience with the Mahanayake, I am not envisaging or speculating about a new trend in Tamil politics. I have no clue about what Mr. Wigneswaran will do tomorrow, the next week, or for the remaining months in his first term as Chief Minister. What we can be certain about is that he would do himself, his reputation and his administration much good if he were to stay the new course that he seems to have started in Kandy. What he has started in Kandy is something that has not been attempted previously by any Tamil leader. There were good reasons and bad reasons why such bridge building and ambassadorship were not attempted earlier. But after a century of fruitless experience, it is never too late to try something that has not been tried before. And the meeting between the Mahanayake Thera and the Chief Minister can certainly be described as an encouraging first step.

A paradox of Sri Lankan society and politics is the incongruence between the intensity of political differences between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims, on the one hand, and the extent of commonalities between their social and cultural spheres, on the other. Unlike in most situations riven by ethnic conflicts, it is not the social and cultural differences that manifest as political conflicts in Sri Lanka, but it is the aggravation of political contentions that has almost always disrupted the social peace and communal harmony. The politics of language and religion, despite the eloquent warnings of both SWRD Bandaranaike and GG Ponnambalam, have created permanent fissures – to paraphrase the latter – in the structures of the state and society.

The evolutions of the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims from caste groups and village communities into ethno-national entities were for the most part in separate and even hostile silos. There was never an overarching process to synthesize and integrate the highest commonalities of the three groups. No one ventured out to discover Sri Lanka the way Jawaharlal Nehru embarked on his Discovery of India. And Nehru was not the only Indian leader to be preoccupied with nation making and nation building tasks. The task in Sri Lanka should have been much simpler and easier but we made heavy weather of it through a lack of mutual appreciation and the absence of synthesizing efforts. The only Sri Lankan political leader who showed some interest in overarching synthesis was Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, whose 164th birth anniversary was this week – on September 14. But even he couldn’t survive the squabble over representation in Colombo, and was apparently "hooted in the streets of Jaffna" when he went there after his disappointment in Colombo.

After a hundred years, representation is still debated in Colombo, and Jaffna would have been much better off if it had stayed with hooting as its mode of politics instead of shooting. The legacies of hundred years are still a dead weight on the country’s future. The Supreme Court ruling in August and the meeting between the Mahanayake and Chief Minister Wigneswaran are small steps leading away from the past to avoid being buried under it. But the country is not short of people who will not let go of the past even when it suffocates them. They are not at all happy with the Supreme Court ruling on federalism and are digging up irrelevant authorities to second guess and spread alarm about a very sound and well-reasoned ruling.

There is some concession in the grudging admission that federalism might be legal, but it is nullified in the next breath by alluding to its supposedly worrisome geopolitical implications. Another delusion is about ethno-federalism, as if the experience of ethno-unitarianism has been a bed of historical roses. There is some truth in what Alexander Pope, the English poet, wrote: "for forms of government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best." Sri Lanka is a living example of much contestation over the form of government with no consideration for achieving even a second-best administration.


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