The government while proposing the report of the Steering Committee on constitutional reform expected the debate to open in Parliament at the end of October. However, the debate already started in streets and newspapers. As a member of the Steering Committee spearheading the constitutional reform project, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne expects that the Constitutional Assembly would take up proposals over a three-day period beginning on October 30.
However, he admitted the finalization of the process would depend on the outcome of three-day talks. In the meantime, Ranil Wickremesinghe wants people to believe that measures proposed to further strengthen the unitary character of the country will work. He emphasized that the proposals were also meant to ensure maximum possible devolution without undermining the unitary status of the Constitution. Since its appointment by the Constitutional Assembly in April 2016 the Steering Committee has met on 73 occasions. That shows the eagerness of all parties to understand the constitutional process. The public debate is arrested by the seriousness of the debate within the Constitutional Assembly. It is true that the large number of meetings that have taken place is a positive expression of the commitment of the political parties to the constitutional reform process. All parties in Parliament with the exception of the ultra Sinhala nationalist National Freedom Front have chosen to remain within the process.
The latter expected the Mahinda Rajapaksa group to follow them, thus Weerawansa becoming the militant leader of the fascistic group. That failed and the participants have included members of the Joint Opposition who have been the racist opposition to the government but continue to attend the Steering Committee meetings. This has created hopes among minority nationalities as expressed by political leaders such as Tamil National Alliance and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan.
He has said with much hopes, that in the past “No Constitution has thus far been framed for Sri Lanka on the basis of a substantial bipartisan consensus amongst its different people, in particular the Tamil people , or on the basis of such bi-partisan consensus between the two main parties and other political parties. The present exercise in Constitution-making presents the first such opportunity”. The constitutional reform process remains grounded in the consciousness of the people as necessary for the country though racists on all sides are creating confusions.
There is also a lack of awareness about the dangers created by some of the key and emotive issues in the constitutional reform process. These include the unnecessary confusion created about the meaning of the Unitary State and the foremost place given to Buddhism under the present Constitution. The Steering Committee has tried to explain that “the classical definition of the English term ‘Unitary State’ has undergone change.” In the United Kingdom it is now possible for Northern Ireland and Scotland to move away from the union. Therefore, the English term ‘Unitary State’ will not be appropriate for Sri Lanka. This argument is confusing as the term United Kingdom is not very different from United States. However, it is proposed that the Sinhala term ‘aekiya raajyaya’ best describes an undivided and indivisible country. The Tamil language equivalent of this is ‘orumiththa nadu’.
India is considered a Unitary State though the powers of States are much more than in Sri Lanka. So it is possible to follow Indian example to satisfy everybody. Instead of following the practical example of India constitutional pandiths are struggling with Western models.
The issue of whether Sri Lanka should remain unitary in its constitutional structure has traditionally been the line of division between the Sinhala and Tamil polities. Hence the key question has been whether Sri Lanka should be a country where a single government dominates, or move towards a federal system in which central and devolved governments can coexist at different levels.
However, nobody wants to follow the thinking of Ambedkar and Periar. The trouble is that law makers are looking towards Western examples without giving attention to Asiatic wisdom.
By Vickramabahu Karunaratne