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Sri Lanka’s ancient hydraulic civilisation and birth of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism



by Satyajith Andradi

Sri Lanka continues to be in the grips of many high profile crises of recent origin such as the COVID–19 pandemic, chronic difficulties in servicing foreign debts, shortages of essential items such as food and fuel, skyrocketing cost of living, and crop failures due to the ban of chemical fertilisers, to name a few . However, the national question, which has tormented the country for decades, continues to be one of her biggest problems, if not the greatest.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism features prominently in any discourse on Sri Lanka’s national question. Its detractors often derogatorily call it by terms such as Sinhala Buddhist imperialism, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, and Sinhala Buddhist racism, whilst its protagonists call it Sinhala Buddhist patriotism or simply patriotism. Meanwhile, somewhat esoteric and ephemeral terms such as Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, kinguistic nationalism, and ethnocracy are used for it in learned discourse. Further, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is very often discussed with reference to personages of Sri Lanka’s ancient history such as Dutugemunu and Elara. Hence, it is useful to trace the genesis and early phases of development of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism during Sri Lanka’s ancient past, in order to enhance our understanding of the subject.

Sri Lanka’s ancient agrarian revolution powered by irrigation engineering

As in our own age, in the distant past too, various races migrated from one land to another for various reasons such as the search for greener pastures and the forced eviction by intruding tribes. From about the sixth century BC, Sri Lanka too, which until then was thinly populated by primitive hunter gatherers, experienced an influx of migrants from overseas. Some of them, who had a knack for agriculture, settled in the arid north central plains of the island, which were covered with wooded forests and shrub jungles, as those one could still see in places such as Wilpattu. As direct rain water was often inadequate and undependable for growing paddy, these pioneer settlers cultivated the art of conserving water by building small artificial reservoirs called tanks, and convert the hostile arid terrain into paddy fields with the water thus conserved. Thereby they were able to establish a firm foothold in pre-historic Sri Lanka. These rough, tough, and enterprising pioneer settlers came to be known as ‘Sihala’ or Sinhalese, whose founding fathers were, according to legends, Vijaya and his band of seven hundred followers, who came to Sri Lanka from northern India. Other migrant tribes, either perished in this hostile physical environment, like the traders devoured by Kuveni, or got suppressed and assimilated by the dominant Sinhalese. This was a social process, which had some affinity to the process of natural selection in the biological world – a case of social Darwinism, so to speak. The Sinhalese went on to build progressively bigger tanks, weirs, canals, and complex irrigation systems connecting all such innovative creations with rivers which flowed from the distant wet mountains. As a result, the erstwhile wild and hostile terrain of Sri Lanka’s north central plains were converted into a vast blue and green tapestry of thousands of artificial lakes and lush paddy fields studded with dagobas of immaculate white. The formidable physical challenges posed by the nature were surmounted with an audacious human response. This monumental transformation, which took place more than thousand years ago, inspired many people of modern times. A notable person amongst them was the British planter, archaeologist, and author John Still ( 1880 – 1941 ) of Jungle Tide fame, who in turn drew the insightful attention of Arnold Toynbee, the eminent scholar of comparative history and civilizations ( Arnold J Toynbee; A study of history ; abridgement by D C Somervell ). The agrarian revolution powered by advanced irrigation systems was the bedrock, the backbone, and the material basis of the fully-fledged hydraulic civilization of ancient Sri Lanka. The elaborate social, political, cultural and religious institutions of that civilisation constituted, as Marx would say, its superstructure.

The birth of the ancient agrarian revolution based on irrigation engineering pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism in the island in the third century BC. The medium sized tank ‘Abhaya Wewa’, which is also known as Basawak Kulama, in Anuradhapura, built in the fourth century BC by king Pandukabhaya, proves the point. The next important tank, Tissa Wewa, was built in Anuradhapura during the reign of Devanampiyatissa ( 250 BC – 210 BC ). Irrigation engineering witnessed a quantum leap during the reign of the great Vasabha ( 67 AD – 111 AD ). During his reign, in addition to many large tanks, the Elahera canal was built. This canal diverted the waters of the Ambanganga, a tributary of the Mahaweli river originating from the Matale hills, to the tanks in the arid north central plains. The next great period of tank building was the reign of Mahasena ( 274 AD – 301 AD ), during which many tanks including the giant Minneriya Wewa was constructed. Mahasena’s achievements were equaled or surpassed during the reign of Dhatusena ( 455 AD – 473 AD ), during which huge tanks such as the Kalawewa and the Yoda Wewa were constructed, damming the Kala Oya and the Malwathu Oya respectively. However, the greatest irrigation engineering feat during the reign of Dhatusena was the construction of the Yoda Ela, also known as Jayaganga, a fifty four mile long canal which carried water from the Kalawewa to the Tissawewa in Anuradhapura. Further significant additions to the irrigation infrastructure were made during the reigns of Moggallana II ( 531 AD – 551 AD ) and Aggabodhi II ( AD 604 – AD 614 ). The former constructed the huge Nachchaduwa Wewa near Anuradhapura, augmented the Nuwara Wewa in Anuradhapura ( History of Ceylon, University of Ceylon: editor; S. Paranavitana ) and built the Padaviya tank by damming the Ma Oya (K M De Silva; A History of Sri Lanka ), whist the latter constructed the Kantale, Giritale, and Kaudulla tanks. Thereafter, the expansion of the irrigation systems seems to have subsided for several centuries till the time of Parakramabahu the Great ( 1153 – 1186 ). This king is considered to be the greatest tank builder of Sri Lanka (ibid ). The massive Parakrama Samudraya in Polonnaruwa, which was created by combining three tanks including the Topawewa, is undoubtedly his finest achievement in the field of tank building. It has to be been noted no other king after him built major tanks.

The ancient agrarian revolution powered by irrigation engineering had many important economic, social, political, religious, and cultural implications and outcome. On the economic sphere, it phenomenally increased the extent of arable land by making it possible to bring vast swathes of erstwhile arid forest land under the plough through irrigation. Further, it would have, most probably, facilitated a significant migration from small scale peasant subsistence farming to more productive large scale farming. Anyway, the obvious economic outcome of the ancient agrarian revolution was the generation of ever increasing agricultural surpluses over and about what was needed to feed the peasants and other agricultural labourers. These massive economic surpluses enabled the kings and their ruling elites to invest enormous resources in the expansion of the irrigation infrastructure, in maintaining the irrigation technocracy and the royal bureaucracy, in building impressive Buddhist monuments such as the great stupas, in patronizing outstanding Buddhist scholarship of international repute, and in constructing awe inspiring secular monuments such as Kasyapa’s Sigiriya rock fortress and royal palace.

On the social and political spheres, the elaborate irrigation systems stretching across vast swathes of farmlands, inexorably led to centralized control of agriculture through irrigation management. The technocrat who controlled the spills and the sluices of the tanks and weirs came to dominate the peasant who ploughed the fields, sowed the seeds, and harvested the crops. This entailed the ascendency of the state bureaucracy including the irrigation engineering technocracy, which in turn called for a unified and highly centralized state.

Pandukabhaya and birth of Sinhala state

It was mentioned earlier that the first significant tank was built by Pandukabhaya in the fourth century BC. It is interesting to note that he was also the first ruler of the Anuradhapura kingdom. Prior to him, the main Sinhala presence in Sri Lanka constituted a conglomerate of Sinhala settlements situated between the Kala Oya and the Malvattu Oya, loosely connected by tribal and family ties. It is evident that Pandukabhaya forcefully subjugated these semi-autonomous settlements and united them under his leadership. Thus the first Sinhala state was born. No doubt, this was in response to a historical necessity of the agrarian revolution, which called for an efficient centralized state. Certainly, this nascent state had nothing to do with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or patriotism. In the first place, Buddhism was yet to be introduced to Sri Lanka. Further, the Sinhala state was yet to perceive a real threat from non – Sinhalese. It was young, vibrant and self- confident. It was, in modern parlance, an absolute monarchy.

Devamanpiyatissa and the birth of the Sinhala- Buddhist state

Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the great Mauryan emperor Asoka during the reign of Devamanpiyatissa ( 250 – 210 ) at a time when the ancient agrarian revolution was in full swing. As already mentioned, it was during this period that the Tissa Wewa was built. The peaceful conversion of the country to Buddhism received unreserved royal patronage. The nascent Sinhala state became a Sinhala Buddhist state. Numerous lands and viharas were gifted to the Maha Sanga. These included the Thuparama dagoba, and the spacious Mahamegha park in Anuradhapura, in which the sacred Bodhi tree Sri Maha Bodhi was planted. This signaled the establishment of the Mahaviharaya, the centre of Theravada Buddhist Church in Sri Lanka. No doubt, the doctrine of the Buddha, which laid down a well –structured spiritual path to freedom from existential suffering through the taming of the senses, struck a chord with the well-structured thinking of the Sinhalese irrigation engineers, which provided a path to freedom from material want by taming wild and hostile nature, with technological innovations.

Like Pandukabhaya’s Sinhala state, the nascent Sinhala Buddhist state during Devanampiyatissa’s had nothing to do with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or patriotism. It did not perceive a real threat from non – Sinhalese or non-Buddhists. Like Pandukabhaya’s state, it was young, vibrant and self- confident.

The Sinhala Buddhist state under siege

Devanampiyatissa’s Sinhala Buddhist kingdom was in state of blissful harmony, arguably unparalled in Sri Lanka’s long history. However, this state of affairs was to be dramatically disrupted after a short period of time due to game-changing external and internal interventions. The major external challenge came from Tamil adventurers from south India bent on plundering the growing wealth of Sri Lanka’s hydraulic civilization. The main internal challenge came from the growing Mahayana tendencies amongst sections Sri Lanka’s Maha Sangha, which had traditionally been the custodian and standard bearer of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and abroad. Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism was born as a response to these challenges from within and without.

The first major challenge to the young Sinhala Buddhist state emerged thirty years after the death of Devanampiyatissa. Sena and Guttika, two Tamil brothers engaged in horse trading, captured the Anuradhapura kingdom and reigned for twenty two years. A few years after the Sinhalese regained the kingdom, the second successful invasion from South India was launched. This was led by the Chola prince Elara, who reigned in Anuradhapura for forty four years. The Sinhalese under Dutugemunu vanquished Elara and regained the kingdom. Dutugemunu’s reign ( 161 BC – 137 BC ) was a watershed in the Sri Lanka’s history. The island, which hitherto consisted of several kingdoms, was unified under his leadership. The Sinhala Buddhist state became, in present day parlance, a unitary state. However, less than four decades after Dutugemunu’s death, Anuradhapura was captured and occupied again by south Indian Tamils from 103 BC to 89 BC. They were expelled by Vattagamini ( Valagamba ) , who reigned from 89 BC to 77 BC. Thereafter, for more than five hundred years, Sri Lanka was free from foreign occupation. It was during this period that her ancient irrigation witnessed its first great flowering. However, it was during this period that the serious internal threats to the Sinhala Buddhist state emerged. They came in the form of Mahayana challenges to the uncontested supremacy of the Mahavihara led Theravada Buddhist Church, which was a main pillar of the Sinhala Buddhist state. The initial threat came in the first century BC with the establishment of the rival Abhayagiri monastery by Valagamba, which harboured dissenters. The immediate response of the Theravada Buddhist Church to this was the writing down of the Tripitaka at Aluvihara during that king’s reign. The next threat, which was of a much greater magnitude, was the intrusion of Mahayana thinking in the form of Vaitulyavada in the third century AD, during the reign of Mahasena ( 274 AD – 301 AD ), with the fanatical support of that monarch. This was somewhat contemporaneous with the rise of Mahayana in south India under the guidance of great masters such as Nagarjuna. Anyway, the Theravada Buddhist Church eventually prevailed by winning back the king to its side with great difficulty.

The long peace of half a millennium, which commenced with the reign of Valagamba, ended with the invasion from south India in 429 AD. This resulted in the reign of six Tamils kings in Anuradhapura for twenty seven years, until Dhatusena liberated the country from the foreign yoke. Thereafter, the country did not experience invasions from abroad for about four centuries. Ancient Sri Lankan irrigation witnessed its second great flowering. However, during ninth and tenth centuries, Sri Lanka got caught up in the geo-political rivalries amongst south Indian Tamil kingdoms of Pallavas, Pandyas and Cholas. At that time the Hindu Tamil civilization of south India was in its ascendency, whilst the aging Sinhala Buddhist civilization was in a state of stagnation, if not decay. The end result was the conquest of Anuradhapura and the north central plains of Sri Lanka by the Cholas in the closing decade of the tenth century. This dealt a crippling blow to Sri Lanka’s ancient hydraulic civilization. The Sinhalese were, under Vijayabahu I, able to expel the Cholas from the Island in 1070, and under Parakramabahu the Great, revive the ancient hydraulic civilization. Sri Lanka’s ancient irrigation witnessed its third and last flowering. However, the revival was short lived. The invasion by the marauding Kerala army of Magha of Kalinga in 1215 dealt the death blow to the ancient hydraulic civilization. The Sinhalese, who had populated the north central plains since sixth century BC, migrated en masse to the south west and the central hills. The irrigation works were abandoned and went into disrepair. The hostile arid jungles, which were banished by Sinhalese pioneers, returned to the north central plains with a vengeance. The ancient hydraulic civilization of the Sinhalese, which had flourished for more than one thousand five hundred years, came to an end.

The ancient hydraulic civilization and Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism

Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, like many other –isms, constitute an ideology; an outlook. As already mentioned, it was born as a response to the external and internal challenges to the ancient Sinhala Buddhist state, which was an integrate part of the ancient hydraulic civilization. But, how do we conceptualise this ideology of Sri Lanka’s distant past? Fortunately, the ancient chronicles – Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Chulavamsa, and the last two chapters of the Pujavaliya, come to our assistance. However, it should be cautioned that the ideologies contained in these ancient documents represent , more likely, the views held by their respective authors and their contemporary societies than by the personages of their narratives.

It seems that the internal threat to the Theravada Buddhism by Mahasena’s aggressive promotion of Vaitulyavada prompted the writing of the two oldest exiting chronicles of Sri Lanka – the Dipavamsa, written in the fourth century AD, and the Mahavamsa, composed in the sixth century AD. The fact that the narratives of both works end with the death of Mahasena points in that direction. Anyway, both emphasize that the island was freed from the Yakkas by the Buddha to make way for the Sinhalese settlers and the establishment of the Buddhist doctrine. This amounts to an imprimatur for Sinhala Buddhist exclusivity in Sri Lanka, which goes back, at least, as far as the fourth and sixth centuries. However, the treatment of the Sinhala king Dutugemunu and the Tamil king Elara by the two authors differ significantly. For instance, whilst the Dipavamsa devotes a mere twelve verses to Dutugemunu, the Mahavansa devotes eleven out of its thirty two chapters to him. Clearly, Dutugemunu is the favourite king of the author of the Mahavamsa. Further, whilst both chronicles admire Elara as an incomparably just king, the Dipavamsa, unlike the Mahavamsa, takes note of his outstanding spiritual qualities. More strikingly, the Mahavamsa, in chapter twenty five seeks to lend a Buddhist imprimatur to Dutugemunu’s war with Elara. This is certainly inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Metta Sutta, as much as the crusades of medieval Christendom authorized by the papacy was inconsistent with the letter and spirit of Jesus’ utterance ” Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” ( Matthew 26; 52 ). In fact, the Mahavamsa’s stance on the Dutugemunu- Elara war is reminiscent of the ideas on ‘just war’ advocated by St. Augustine and the Bhagavad Gita. Most probably, the south Indian invasions of the fifth century prompted the sixth century author of Mahavamsa to take a more militant Sinhala Buddhist stance than the fourth century author of the Dipavamsa.

The first part of the Chulavamsa, which was most probably composed in the early part of the thirteenth century, provides useful information about the period from the death of Mahasena to the end of the ancient hydraulic civilization. The last two chapters ( chapters 33 and 34 ) of the Pujavaliya briefly covers this period in addition to history up to the death of Mahasena. The Pujavaliya was composed in the mid thirteenth century, shortly after the collapse of the hydraulic civilization. Whilst the three chronicles were composed in Pali, the Pujavaliya was written in Sinhala.

The Chulavamsa and the Pujavaliya, in comparison with the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, take a more hostile approach towards non – Sinhala Buddhist actors. For instance, unlike the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, the Pujavaliya perceives Elara merely as a malevolent personage bent on destroying the Buddhist Church. The more virulent Tamil invasions from the ninth century onwards, would have contributed towards this more aggressive Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

We have seen how the dynamics of the ancient hydraulic civilization gave birth Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism. The hydraulic civilization itself perished as a result of the devastating invasion of Magha of Kalinga. However, Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism did not perish with that civilization. On the contrary, it has continued to live as a potent ideology of Sri Lanka, right up to the present day.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 



Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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Marked stress on Asia in US foreign policy



US President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One as he arrives at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea May 20, 2022

US President Joe Biden’s recent tour of some Asian powers is indicative of a renewed and enhanced interest the US is beginning to take in the Indo-Pacific region. In this his first Asian tour the President chose to visit Japan and South Korea besides helming a Quad meeting in Tokyo and there is good reason for the choice of these venues and engagements.

The first phase of these bridge-strengthening efforts by the US began in late August last year when US Vice President Kamala Harris visited South-east Asia in the wake of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Besides being driven by strong economic compulsions, the US intention was also to ensure that too much of a power vacuum did not open up in the region, following its pull-out from Afghanistan, since China’s perceived expansionist designs are a prime foreign policy concern of the US.

However, the US President’s recent wide-ranging tour of East Asia seems to have been also prompted by some currently intensifying trends and tensions in the wider stage of international politics though the seeming power vacuum just referred to has a significant bearing on it. The immediate purpose of the US President’s tour seems to have been to bolster his country’s backing for Japan and South Korea, two of the US’ closest allies in East Asia. This is necessitated by the ‘China threat’, which, if neglected, could render the US allies vulnerable to China’s military attacks on the one hand and blunt US power and influence in the region on the other.

While Taiwan’s airspace has reportedly been frequently violated by China, sections in Japan have reasons to be wary of perceived Chinese expansionist moves in Japan’s adjacent seas. Moreover, many of China’s neighbours have been having territorial disputes with China, which have tended to intensify the perception over the decades that in the Asian theatre in particular China is a number one ‘bogey’. For historical reasons, South Korea too has been finding the increasing rise of China as a major world power considerably discomforting.

Accordingly, the US considers it opportune to reassure South-east Asia in general and its allies in the region in particular of its continuous military, economic and political support. Though these are among the more immediate reasons for Biden’s tour of the region, there are also the convulsions triggered in international politics by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to consider.

Whereas sections of international opinion have been complacent in the belief that military invasions of one country by another are things of the distant past, the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year proved them shockingly wrong. We have the proof here that not all authoritarian rulers are prepared to adhere to the international rule book and for some of China’s neighbours the possibility is great of their being attacked or invaded by China over the numerous rankling problems that have separated them from their economic super power neighbour over the decades. After all, China is yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is increasingly proving an ‘all weather friend’ of Russia. Right now, they are the strongest of allies.

The ‘China threat’ then is prime among the reasons for the US President’s visit to East Asia, though economic considerations play a substantive role in these fence-strengthening initiatives as well. While South-east Asia is the ‘economic power house’ of the world, and the US would need to be doubly mindful of this fact, it would need to reassure its allies in the region of its military and defense assistance at a time of need. This too is of paramount importance.

President Biden did just that while in Tokyo a couple of days back. For instance, he said that the US is ‘fully committed to Japan’s defense’. Biden went on to say that the ‘US is willing to use force to defend Taiwan.’ The latter comment was prompted by the perceived increasing Chinese violations of Taiwan’s air space. After all, considering that Russia has invaded Ukraine with impunity, there is apparently nothing that could prevent China from invading Taiwan and annexing it. Such are the possible repercussions of the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly carrying on with its development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. On this issue too, South Korea would need to have US assurances that the latter would come to its defense in case of a North Korean military strike. The US President’s visit to South Korea was aimed at reassuring the latter of the former’s support.

However, as mentioned, economic considerations too figured prominently in the US President’s South-east Asian tour. While being cognizant of the region’s security sensitivities, bolstering economic cooperation with the latter too was a foremost priority for the Biden administration. For example, the US is in the process of formalizing what has come to be referred to as the Indo-Pacific Trade Treaty. The US has reportedly already inducted Japan and South Korea as founding members of the Treaty while, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are mentioned as prospective members to the treaty.

The perceived threat posed to Western interests in South-east Asia by China needs to be factored in while trying to unravel the reasons for this region-wide endeavour in economic cooperation. It needs to be considered a Western response to China’s Belt and Road initiative which is seen as having a wide appeal for the global South in particular.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having a divisive political and economic impact on the world, international politics will increasingly revolve around the US-China stand-off on a multiplicity of fronts in time to come. Both sides are likely to try out both soft and hard power to an exceptional degree to exercise foremost influence and power in the world. As is already happening, this would trigger increasing international tensions.

There was a distinct and sharp note of firmness in the voice of the US President when he pledged defense and military support for his allies in Asia this week. Considering the very high stakes for the US in a prospering South-east Asia, the US’ competitors would be naive to dismiss his pronouncements as placatory rhetoric meant for believing allies.

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A Majoritarian Constitution



1972 Constitution in Retrospect – II

By (Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

In this the second part of a three-part article on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a republic, the writer submits that the 1972 Constitution paved the way for constitutionalising majoritarianism in multi-cultural Sri Lanka.

The unitary state

Although Tamil parties expressed their support for the Constituent Assembly process, they were to be disappointed by the substance of the new constitution.

Basic Resolution No. 2 proposed by the Government called for Sri Lanka to be a unitary state. The Federal Party (FP) proposed an amendment that ‘unitary’ be replaced by ‘federal’.

In a memorandum and the model constitution that it submitted to the Steering Committee of the Assembly, the FP proposed that the country be a federal republic consisting of five states made up as follows: (i) Southern and Western provinces, (ii) North Central and North Western provinces (iii) Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces (iv) Northern Province and the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa and (v) Ampara district. The city of Colombo and its suburbs were to be administered by the centre. A list of subjects and functions reserved for the centre, with all others going to the states, was included. Interestingly, law and order and Police were to be reserved subjects.

However, Assembly proceedings show that the Tamils were clearly for a compromise. Dharmalingam, who was a main speaker of the FP under Basic Resolution No. 2, stated that the existing constitution had failed as it was not designed for a multi-ethnic country. He pointed out that in ethnically heterogeneous countries where unitary constitutions had been in operation, concessions to the federal principle have been made to meet the demands and aspirations of the minorities. Where there has been a refusal to concede the federal principle, there have been movements for separation. The FP distanced itself from secessionists such as C. Sunderalingam and V. Navaratnam, referring to them by name, and stated that it was not asking for a division of the country but for a division of power.

Dharmalingam made it clear that the FP’s draft was only a basis for discussion. Stating that the party was only asking that the federal principle be accepted, he suggested that as an interim measure, the SLFP, LSSP and CP should implement what they had promised in the election manifesto, namely that they would abolish Kachcheris and replace them with elected bodies. He stated: “If this Government thinks that it does not have a mandate to establish a federal Constitution, it can at least implement the policies of its leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, by decentralising the administration, not in the manner it is being done now, but genuine decentralisation, by removing the Kachcheris and in their place establishing elected bodies to administer those regions.”

Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party, the first political party in the country to propose federalism, in 1944, followed Dharmalingam and stated that ‘federal’ had become a dirty word not because of the federal system of government but because of what the FP had advocated. He was clearly referring to the FP’s association with the UNP and the conservative policies it had followed, such as voting against nationalisations, the takeover of private schools and the Paddy Lands Bill. Seemingly oblivious to the offer that Dharmalingam had made, he asked why the FP had not used the phrase ‘regional autonomy.’ Speakers from the UF who followed Muttetuwegama made it clear that the UF was in no mood to consider the FP’s offer to settle for much less.

Consequently, Basic Resolution No.2 was passed, and the FP’s amendment was defeated in the Steering and Subjects Committee on 27 March 1971.

Dr Nihal Jayawickrama, who was the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, under the UF Government, and played an important role in the constitutional reform process, has said that the first draft prepared under the direction of the Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not contain any reference to a ‘unitary state’. However, Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike proposed in the Ministerial Sub-Committee that the country be declared a ‘unitary state’. The Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not consider this to be necessary and argued that while the proposed constitution would have a unitary structure, unitary constitutions could vary a great deal in form. Nevertheless, the proposed phrase found its way to the final draft. ‘In course of time, this impetuous, ill-considered, wholly unnecessary embellishment has reached the proportions of a battle cry of individuals and groups who seek to achieve a homogenous Sinhalese state on this island’ Dr Jayawickrama observed. ‘Reflections on the Making and Content of the 1972 Constitution: An Insider’s Perspective’ in Asanga Welikala (ed), The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice vol 1 (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2012) 43.

It is significant that the FP continued to participate in the Constituent Assembly even after its amendment was rejected. Records show that its leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, regularly attended the meetings of the Steering and Subjects Committee.

With the advantage of hindsight, it could be said that acceptance of the FP’s proposed compromise for a division of power would have proved to be a far-reaching confidence-building measure on which more could perhaps have been built later. Moreover, such an acceptance would have ensured the continued participation of the FP in the Constituent Assembly. Even had the FP, as the UNP eventually did, voted against the adoption of the new constitution, their participation in the entire constitution-making process would have resulted in greater acceptance of the 1972 Constitution by the Tamil people.

Although they discontinued participation at a later stage, Federal Party MPs nevertheless took oaths under the new Constitution. Tamil parties soon united under the banner of the Tamil United Front (TUF), which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At the famous Vaddukoddai conference of 1976, the TULF embraced separatism and adopted a resolution calling for a separate state called ‘Tamil Eelam’ in the Northern and Eastern provinces. At the 1977 elections, the TULF contested on a separatist platform and swept the Tamil areas.

The place of Buddhism

According to Dr Jayawickrama, Dr. de Silva’s original proposal called for the guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience and religion to every citizen. However, the Prime Minister requested that this proposal be added with a provision for the protection of institutions and traditional places of worship of Buddhists.

Basic Resolution No. 3 approved by the Constituent Assembly was for Buddhism to be given its ‘rightful place’: ‘In the Republic of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the people, shall be given its rightful place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Basic Resolution 5 (iv).’

Basic Resolution 5 (iv) referred to read: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have and adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

But by the time the final draft was approved, the proposal had undergone a further change. Article 6 of the 1972 Constitution is as follows: ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18 (1) (d).’ Section 18 (1) (d), in the chapter on fundamental rights, assures to all citizens the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

To the question of whether constitutionally guaranteeing special status to Buddhism not available to other religions of the land might adversely affect the non-Buddhists, Dr de Silva retrospectively responded in the following manner: “The section in respect of Buddhism is subject to section 18 (1) (d) and I wish to say, I believe in a secular state. But you know when Constitutions are made by Constituent Assemblies they are not made by the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. I myself would have preferred (section 18(1) (d)). But there is nothing…And I repeat, NOTHING, in section 6 which in any manner infringes upon the rights of any religion in this country. (Safeguards for the Minorities in the 1972 Constitution (Young Socialist 1987) 10.)

Dr Jayawickrama has been more critical. ‘If Buddhism had survived in the hearts and minds of the people through nearly five centuries of foreign occupation, a constitutional edict was hardly necessary to protect it now’, he opined. (‘Colvin and Constitution-Making – A Postscript’ Sunday Island, 15 July 2007).

Language provisions

Basic Resolution No.11 stated that all laws shall be enacted in Sinhala and that there shall be a Tamil translation of every law so enacted.

Basic Resolution No.12 read as follows: “(1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official Language Act No. 32 of 1956. (2) The use of the Tamil Language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958.”

Efforts by the FP to get the Government to improve upon Basic Resolutions Nos. 11 and 12 failed. On 28 June 1971, both resolutions were passed, amendments proposed by the FP having been defeated. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam informed the Constituent Assembly that they had met with both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and while the meetings had been cordial, the Government had refused to make any alteration to the Basic Resolutions. He stated that the FP would therefore not attend future meetings. “We have come to the painful conclusion that as our language rights are not satisfactorily provided in the proposed Constitution, no useful purpose will be served in our continuing in the deliberations of this Assembly. By taking this step, we mean no offence to anybody. We only want to safeguard the dignity of our people.” There was not even a dramatic walk out. ‘We do not wish to stage a demonstration by walking out’, he added.

That Dr Colvin R. de Silva, who prophetically stated in 1955, ‘one language, two countries; two languages, one country’, should go so far as to upgrade the then-existing language provisions to constitutional status has baffled many political observers. In fact, according to Dr Jayawickrama, the Prime Minister had stated that it would be unwise to re-open the language debate and that the better course would be to let the ordinary laws on the subject operate in the form in which they were. By this time, the Privy Council had reversed the decision of the Supreme Court in A.G. v Kodeswaranthat a public servant could not sue the Crown for breach of contract of employment and sent the case back for a determination on other issues, including the main issue as to whether the Official Language Act violated section 29 (2), as the District Court had held. Dr. de Silva did not wish the Supreme Court to re-visit the issue. ‘If the courts do declare this law invalid and unconstitutional, heavens alive, the chief work done from 1956 onwards will be undone. You will have to restore the egg from the omelette into which it was beaten and cooked.’ He had, however, resisted a proposal made by Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike that Sinhala be declared the ‘one’ official language of Sri Lanka.

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