By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham
The Government Agent in Hambantota for a number of years proposed a federal system on the Swiss model for Sri Lanka the 1930s
As the political discussion and debate on constitution making gathers momentum, earlier this week, a local English Daily carried two lengthy interviews with two legal luminaries, Dr.Jayatissa de Costa, the former Principal of Sri Lanka Law College and Dr.JayampathyWickramaratne,parliamentarian and constitutional expert playing a vital role in the current constitution drafting process. Both gave insight and details into the current status of the constitution making process, but their views on federalism prompted this writer to share his opinion in this column.
Dr. Costa argued federalism under any garb, was not acceptable for a small country like Sri Lanka and even went to the extent of deeming it ‘dangerous’ When asked why he believed so, he said the federal system was successful in big countries like Canada, United States and Australia and even Malaysia.On being reminded that even small countries such as Switzerland and Belgium have federal system, he argued that Switzerland was an exception and that it had built safeguards for different ethnic groups throughout its history.Sri Lanka on the other hand he said, was too small to have a federal state and added, “You can’t compare the incomparable.”
Dr.Wickramaratnecountered that the argument about Sri Lanka being too small to have a federal structure wastime-worn and cited Switzerland, a country much smaller than Sri Lanka, as having federal structures.However, he pointed out that nobody in Sri Lanka was asking for the powers of Swiss cantons. What was being asked wasonly devolution, not federalism, he said, expounding that devolution doesn’t depend on the size of the state.
It is incongruous that a seasoned politician and legal expert like Dr.Wickramaratne who has been playing an important role in the constitutional reform process, should say nobody is asking for federalism in Sri Lanka now. Especially since the main sections of Tamil polity including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by the leader of the opposition in Parliament, R. Sampanthan, who is cooperating with the National Unity Government in constitution making have been demanding a political solution based on federal lines. However, Dr.Wickramaratne’s utterances fits in with the thinking of the entire Southern polity, which is averse to the demand and regard federalism as an untouchable word.
This however doesn’t negate the undeniable historical fact that the idea of federalism has been prevalent for almost nine decades in the political discourse of this country and became a contentious and politically sensitive issue only after the advent of the Federal Party led by Late SJVChelvanayayagam.
Political scientists and analysts have time and again pointed out that long before Tamil political leaders advocated federalism, the young SWRD Bandaranaike in the mid1920s and the Kandyan Sinhalese representatives before the Donoughmore Commission in the late 1920s were advocates of a federal Sri Lanka. In fact, historical records reveal that theKandyan Sinhalese proposed a federal Ceylon with three provinces including a province for North and East.
Well-known British civil-servant Leonard Woolf, who was Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota for a number of years also proposed a measure of devolution or even federal system on the Swiss model for Sri Lanka as far back as the 1930s. Ironically this is not remembered in the political discourse when it comes to federalism.
From his position as a Government Agent Woolf was able to observe the life of the Sinhalese villagers in the South. One result of this observation was his famous book ‘A Village in the Jungle’.
After he returned to England, Woolf became active in the Labour Party and played a big role as one of its key advisors. He was said to be one of those who recommended immediate independence for Ceylon soon after the First World War. In his memorandum to the colonial government in 1938, Woolf recommended a Swiss model federal system for Ceylon. And anticipating those opposed to such a solution would come out with the argument that Ceylon was too small to have a federal system, heexplained clearly with details of populations of all the communities in the then Ceylon and compared them with the sizes and populations of each cantons in Switzerland to justify his recommendations.
In in this context the following paragraphs in the memorandum submitted by Leonard Woolf makes interesting reading:
“The indigenous Tamil minorities are concentrated in the extreme North and East of the island. The Kandyan Sinhalese who are in many ways very different from the Low country Sinhalese, form a homogeneous Sinhalese block in the Centre of the Island.
“At least four cantons on the Swiss model could be created – Low country Sinhalese province, the Kandyan Sinhalese province, the Tamil Northern province and the Tamil Eastern province; and it might even be possible to create a fifth canton out of the area where immigrant Indian Tamils form the majority of the population on Tea estates.
“The objection that Ceylon and its sub- divisions are too small for such a system does not hold water. The area of Ceylon is about 10,000 square miles greater than that of Switzerland; the population of Ceylon is roughly 5.3 million and that of Switzerland is 4 million. If the Swiss federal system were adapted to Ceylon, the smallest canton would be the Eastern province with over 200,000 population. In Switzerland the smallest canton has a population of about 14,000 and the largest about 700,000.
“The Swiss federal canton system has proved extraordinarily successful under circumstances very similar to those in Ceylon i.e. the co – existence in a single democratic state, of communities of very different size sharply distinguished from one another by race, language and religion.Thus the German speaking Swiss with a population 2.75 million occupy the numerical position of the Sinhalese, the French speaking Swiss with 824,000 that of the Tamils and Italian speaking Swiss with 284,000 that of the Moor men. The democratic canton and federal system has safeguarded the legitimate interests of the minorities.”
Nobody in his right sense would accuse Leonard Woolf of having no Sympathy for the Sinhalese people. Therefore his views on the legitimate rights of minorities were not coloured by any pro-Tamil slant. They were the valuable views of a progressive Englishman who had lived in Ceylon as a colonial administrator for several years and had come to know its people intimately.
It is also noteworthy that Leonard Woolf is, as far as we know, the only person who had recommended a separate canton for the Indian Tamils in the Tea estates as a way of solving their particular national interest. The idea of having two separate cantons or low country Sinhalese and Kandyan Sinhalease may be irrelevant in the present context but, there is no doubt that when it comes to rights of the minority communities and their safeguards he had certainly thought ahead of his time.
The Englishman who wrote The Village in the Jungle is dead and gone but we are still in the political wilderness without any clear sign of an imminent solution to the protracted national question due to the lack of foresight of our political class of both side of the ethnic divide.
Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd