THE NATIONALIST PAPERS - Devolution and flat-earth theorists


President J. R. Jayawardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after signing the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord (1987)

by Malinda Seneviratne

When I read some apologists for the Eelam cause I think of a drowning man reaching out for straws. Now all devolutionists might not think of themselves as Eelamists and indeed might abhor the idea of separatism. They should actually be called ‘Naïve Apologists for the Eelam Cause’. ‘Naïve’ can be replaced with ‘Ignorant too’, one observes.

There are all kinds of devolutionists. There are those who run for office in the Provincial Councils and those who vote for them. They can be called devolutionists. Indeed at some level all those who have no choice but to submit to a constitution in a power-devolved state are in effect devolutionists, one can argue. Stretch that argument a little and you find that all citizens of Sri Lanka are by default worshippers of dictatorship, given the dictatorial character of the constitution.

I am talking here about other kinds of devolutionists, those who either claim it is a solution to some problem (either citizenship anomalies on ethnic lines or a means to correct regional economic imbalances). The former kind are conscious Eelamists, I would say for the citizenship anomalies pertaining to ethnic identity are not territory-based, has no foundation in history and are incongruent with demographic and geographical realities. Their arguments are essentially chauvinistic, and in these post-LTTE, post-terrorist times, amount to a revert to the Chelvanayakam Thesis (A little now, more later – ‘Little’ meaning the project of ‘fixing’ boundaries for separatism to base future struggles on).

The latter kind, i.e. those who argue that there is an economic logic for power devolution, are again of two kinds. There are those who you may call ‘Pure Economists’ and those who want to market Eelamist wine in Economic bottles. Current economic theory rebels against all the purported positives (in economic terms) of devolution for the simple reason that territories are not flat and endowed with a roughly similar resource endowment.

A few weeks ago, R.M.B. Senanayake responding to something I had written, said that Batty Weerakoon had said devolution was a done deal even during J.R. Jayewardene’s tenure. I pointed out that ‘The Earth is Flat’ was a done deal until Galileo came along (the Eastern astronomers knew this millennia before, by the way). His response carefully avoided mention of this rebuttal. Humility perhaps is alien to the man. Instead, RMBS took issue with my claim that history does not support devolution, pointing to ‘historical’ instances of power devolution. RMBS does not come out and state that Tamil chauvinistic claims regarding historical homelands are plain and simple balderdash. He is cute about such things. He does not mention that the question of history with respect to devolution is inextricably linked to such claims. He is smart, therefore. His thesis falls flat on evidence, however, for the historical record, while referring to regional powers clearly indicates and overriding sweep of centralized control. Someone calling him/herself ‘A reader of history’ has aptly pointed out that RMBS seems to think history began with the Kotte Kingdom.

His ‘economic’ argument is more interesting. He says that devolution helps get things done and that lack of devolution and control over decision-making processes has resulted in things not getting done. He ignores the fact that you can’t get much done when you have the decision but not the resources. He ignores the fact that many things (schools, hospitals, bridges, electricity, roads and other infrastructure) have got done in many places where such things exist today courtesy a centralized arrangement. He does not even frame devolution in scientific terms, for example, predicated on a redrawing of provincial boundaries which make for a maximizing of regional resource balance.

Since India is in the forefront of ‘pushing’ devolution a la the 13th Amendment, I went to the Indian map, to ‘test’ RMBS’ thesis of devolution bringing about more equitable prosperity. India’s landmass is 3.3 million square kilometers. Sri Lanks is just 65,610 square kilometers in size. If we take province as devolution-unit, that gives an average of 7290 square kilometers per devolved province (with land and police powers as per the 13th and more, if we go with 13 Plus as some demand). If we go with similar proportions, India would need 452provinces with similar powers (which, by the way are way more than any of the 28 states and 17 Union Territories in India enjoy!). All in the name of prosperity, let us not forget.

Now India is not proposing anything like that. It wallows in dreadful disparities. Furthermore, India’s proposal (sorry, arm-twisting) is not about economic issues but ethnic grievances. I am yet to hear RMBS tell India that his agreement with the Indian thesis is not based on convergence of thinking on purpose. I suppose convenience is what turn individuals with different logical foundations suffer one another. This is why RMBS, for example, saluted Dayan Jayatilleka (‘The 13th Amendment as a Political Solution’ in way back in July 2009, for arguing a ‘diplomatic case for devolution (a la the ‘Indian –gonibilla – Factor). In later years he has studious avoided mention of the ‘historical’ argument for devolution. That gear-shifting shows political sleight of hand and severely compromises the detached academic personal that he strives to portray.

The ‘Indian Factor’ or, the more sanitized, ‘Diplomatic Case’, is reiterated by Izeth Hussein (another ardent devolutionist) in a piece titled ‘War crimes?’ in the Midweek Review (‘Island’, July 13, 2011), where he argues, in diplomatic vein, that Sri Lanka should submit to the Indian Thesis, never mind realities and possible political fallout in the coming decades.

Dayan has argued that my writings on the issue of devolution make his work harder. I am happy if this is indeed the case. These politicians in diplomatic garb and intellectual slothful in straw-seeking mode forget that the powerful will do what they want regardless and that there is nothing lost in stating position, mentioning reality, correcting erroneous perception, pointing out falsehoods and debunking flawed argument.

Devolution is the compromise point for Eelamists in circumstances considerably reduced in post-LTTE Sri Lanka. Whether or not India wants to acknowledge that is beside the point. If you want to play cute politics, you better say it out loud that this and that is what you want and the rest is all marketing-frill. If you want to be academic about it, you should not be selective in the fact-set you use to buttress argument.

RMBS would have done better, I believe, to stick to the flat-earth thesis. That’s more honest. As for Eelam-speak, the naiveté or otherwise of it is purely academic.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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