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Sudden withdrawal of Prohibition of Obscene Publications Bill




By Kalyananda Tiranagama
(continued from yesterday)

In early 2005, Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (LHRD) made a comprehensive and country-wide study on the spread of obscene publications throughout the country and their pernicious social impact, heavily contributing to the increase of sexual abuse of women and children and disruption of family life; on the weakness and lacunae in the existing laws to deal with the problem; the problems and difficulties faced by the Police in the enforcement of the law; how the existing law can be enforced more effectively till required amendments are made in the law and possible amendments that can and need to be made to strengthen the law to effectively deal with the problem. The Study was published in Sinhala and English in May 2005 and launched at a public seminar held with the participation of high officials from the concerned public institutions, Ministry of Justice, Attorney General’s Department, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, National Child Protection Authority, Women and Children Bureau of the Police and Department of Probation and Child Care.

Following the launch, at the initiative of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, a public seminar was conducted for law enforcement officers to explain to them how the existing law can be enforced more effectively to curb the menace of obscene publications. Over 500 law enforcement officers participated in the seminar held in the SLFI Auditorium, chaired by Chandra Fernando, Inspector General of Police.

Limitations in the existing law

In our study we pointed out the following limitations in the existing law:

a. Lack of a clear definition of the term ‘obscene’

retarding Police from taking action against publications that are clearly obscene.

b. Existing penalties,

Rs. 1500 – 2000 fine or/and imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, are hardly adequate for these offences and they cannot have a deterrent effect.

c. No provision to deal with exposure of children to pornographic material.

The 1995 Penal Code amendment does not cover such offences.

d. No provision for confiscation of equipment used for the production and distribution of pornographic publications.

Without confiscating such equipment, the computers used to make these publications, the printing presses used to print them or the vehicles used for their distribution, this menace can never be arrested.

e. This law was hardly applicable to other media except print media

. At present a greater threat is posed by electronic media, social media.

f. The Police had the discretion to decide under which provision of law an offender is to be charged, the Penal Code or the Obscene Publications Ordinance.

g. Though many of the acts promoted through the stories and material published through various media are crimes punishable under the law, there is no specific provision to punish such incitement or promotion of criminal conduct.

h. More than the persons who sell these publications, it is the persons who print, produce and distribute these publications who are mainly responsible for this menace. Law needs to be further strengthened to enable the Police to arrest and prosecute persons who print, produce and distribute them rather than the sellers of obscene materials.

i. Producing and distribution of pornography is a big business with high profits, in which many people are involved. Existing law cannot deal with the partners in this business or the huge profits they make at a heavy social cost.

j. Though equally or more harmful material are shown by various T.V. Channels during peak hours when children are watching them, there are no provisions to prevent that or deal with the persons who are responsible for these shows either in the Public Performances Ordinance or in any other law.

Steps taken by the Government to Amend the Law in 2007

Following the launch of the Study in May 2005, in August 2005 the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage obtained 100 copies of the Study for distribution among the members of the Cabinet of Ministers.

As shown by a letter of the Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage, the Cabinet of Ministers has approved a Cabinet Memorandum presented by the Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage for the Amendment of the Obscene Publications Ordinance and it has been sent to the Legal Draftsman for drafting the Bill.

The Draft Bill prepared by the Legal Draftsman has been presented to the Cabinet of Ministers by the Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardhana (now the Speaker of Parliament) and the Minister of Justice and Legal Reforms, Amarasiri Dodangoda with a Cabinet Memorandum dated 28 March, 2008.

LHRD received a copy of the Draft Bill from the Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs with his letter dated 31 October, 2007 and LHRD sent its observations to the Secretary.

Provisions in the 2007 Draft Bill

This Obscene Publications Amendment Draft Bill has taken steps to rectify several weaknesses in the existing law:

a. Lack of a clear definition of the term ‘obscene’ –

S. 12 of the Bill defines the term ‘obscene’: Any matter, object or thing is obscene if such matter, object or thing tends to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear such matter, object or thing.

b. Existing penalties – Rs. 1500 – 2000 fine or/and imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months – are hardly adequate for these offences and they cannot have a deterrent effect.

Draft Bill has proposed to impose heavy penalties which will have a deterrent effect:

– S. 3 of the Bill: For publishing obscene material – imprisonment up to 10 years or a fine not less than 25,000 rupees or both; second or subsequent conviction – imprisonment for a term which may extend up to twenty years or a fine not less than 100,000 rupees or both.

LHRD made the following observation on the penalties proposed in the Draft Bill

*** The Jurisdiction to try these offences has been given to the High Court. For practical reasons it is better to leave this jurisdiction with the Magistrate’s Court. Otherwise, these cases will pile up in the High Courts for decades.

*** These proposed sentences also appear too excessive. Mandatory jail sentence of two years coupled with a fine of Rs. 100,000 and confiscation of equipment will be more than enough to have a deterrent effect.

c. No provision to deal with exposure of children to pornographic material. The 1995 Penal Code amendment does not cover such offences.

S. 4 of the Bill: Exposure of children to obscene material: imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not exceeding ten years or a fine not less than 200,000 rupees or both; second or subsequent conviction – imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not exceeding twenty years and a fine not less than 500,000 rupees;

d. No provision for confiscation of equipment used for the production and distribution of pornographic publications. Without confiscating such equipment, the computers used to make these publications, the printing presses used to print them or the vehicles used for their distribution, this menace can never be arrested.

S. 16 (2) of the Bill makes provision for the confiscation of any movable property used in the commission of the offence.

e. This law was hardly applicable to other media except print media. At present a greater threat is posed by electronic media, social media.

– S. 3 (a) of the Bill makes it applicable to all media: Any person who (a) publishes, publicly exhibits or lets on hire or knowingly sells or distributes or in any manner introduces into circulation through any medium of communication, any matter, object or thing which is obscene – commits the offence.

f. The Police had the discretion to decide under which provision of law an offender is to be charged, the Penal Code or the Obscene Publications Ordinance.

– S. 4 of the Obscene Publications Ordinance is not in the Bill and they have to ignore Penal Code provisions and act under the new law.

Though this Bill was drafted by the Legal Draftsman to give effect to a Cabinet approved Memorandum, though the Draft Bill was presented to the Cabinet by two Ministers, the Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage and the Minister of Justice and Legal Reforms as early as March 2008, for some unknown and undisclosed reason the Bill was never presented to Parliament.

In the study conducted in 2004 – 2005, LHRD had come across 29 different obscene publications published and distributed throughout the country by different publishers. Most of them were weekly or fortnightly publications with multi-colour photographs. Publishing of obscene material is a lucrative business. There can be no doubt that during election times many of our politicians and political parties get the support of these press owners to have their posters and other propaganda material printed. Otherwise, there is no valid reason for this important Bill not to be presented to Parliament even 12 years after the Bill was presented for Cabinet approval. That was the response we got from the Police as well when we questioned them as to why they raided only the paper stalls where these publications were available for sale and why they did not raid the printing presses where these publications were printed.

The ‘Prohibition of Obscene Publications Bill’ brought by the Ministry of Justice under its Legal Reforms Project was published in the Gazette on Friday, December 24, 2021. The weekend being Christmas Holidays, the public had hardly any time to go through the Gazette and see what it is. However, within two days of its publication the Bill was withdrawn by the Minister of Justice. A statement issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice M.M.P.K. Mayadunne on December 29, has stated that the decision to withdraw the Bill was taken due to concerns raised by civil society activists and other stakeholders, objecting to the bill on several grounds, including copyrights.

Several questions arise from the statement of the Ministry Secretary. Other than the definition of the term ‘obscene’ in the Bill, the contents of the Bill were not published in any print media. What are the provisions in the Bill that led to objections that aroused concerns of the civil society activists? When and how did they raise these concerns? Print or electronic media did not publish any news about the concerns of civil society activists.

Usually when people have objections to or concerns about any matter, they issue a statement or conduct a press conference expressing their views. But nothing of that sort has happened in this instance. Moreover, there was hardly any time for anybody to raise their concerns. If there was anything contrary to fundamental rights or inconsistent with the Constitution in the Bill they can go to the Supreme Court and challenge it.

Who are these civil society activists and other stakeholders who are so powerful as to compel a powerful Cabinet Minister as the Minister of Justice to withdraw a Bill published in the Gazette within 48 hours of its publication? Who are these stakeholders who may be adversely affected by the prohibition of publication of obscene material? What copyright they can have in the production of indecent and obscene material?

Definition of the word ‘obscene’

The word ‘obscene’ has been defined in the Bill as “any matter, object or thing, which by itself or where it comprises more than one distinct component taken by itself, is sufficient to deprave and corrupt the mind of a reasonable person, but does not include any matter, object or thing containing anything done in the interest of science, literature, art, education or learning.”

If it is this definition of the word ‘obscene’ in the Bill that has led to these concerns of civil society activists and other stakeholders, it must be pointed out that it is a definition found in the law of England and India and upheld by our Supreme Court in a number of cases.

The definition in the 2007 Draft Bill

: “Any matter, object or thing is obscene if such matter, object or thing tends to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear such matter, object or thing.’’

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

definition: disgusting to the senses; repulsive; abhorrent to morality or virtue; designed to incite lust or depravity.

Oxford Dictionary

definition: “Offensive to modesty; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas; impure, indecent, lewd.”

The definition

given in the English Case of Regina vs. Hicklin: “I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”- Cockburn C. J., Regina v. Hicklin, 1L. R. 3 Q. B. 360, Quoted in Archibold, 27th ed., 1321

In the case of Sub-Inspector of Police, Tangalle v. Dharmabandu, 33 NLR 14, our Supreme Court adopted the definition of ‘obscenity’ given in the English Case of Regina vs. Hicklin. The Court held: “An Article is obscene where the tendency of its contents would be to deprave and corrupt the minds of those into whose hands it may fall.”

In two other cases – De Bruin v. Dharmabandu, 32 NLR 88; and Perera v. Agalawatte, 39 NLR 22, the Supreme Court adopted the definition given above. In these cases, the Supreme Court has clearly laid down certain criteria for deciding whether a publication is obscene or not. These criteria can be enumerated as follows:

a. Are there persons whose minds are open to immoral influences of (obscene) publications?

b. Is the publication likely to fall into the hands of those persons?

c. Do the photographs, pictures, stories and articles contained in a publication have a tendency to deprave and corrupt the minds of those into whose hands it may fall?

In respect of any publication, if the answers to these three questions are yes, then it is an obscene publication. In determining whether a publication could have had a harmful effect, the overall impact of the publication is taken into account. The intention of the editor/publisher/printer is irrelevant.

S. 292 and S. 293 of the Indian Penal Code dealing with obscene publications, enacted in 1969, has adopted the definition of obscenity given in Regina vs. Hicklin Case.

S. 292(1)

A book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, figure or any other object, shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect, or (where it comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items, is if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstance, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it;

Certain things or items are clearly exempted from the application of this provision:

Exception – this section does not extend to –

(a) any book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, or figure-

(i) the publication of which is proved to be justified as being for the public good on the ground that such book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, or figure is in the interest of science, literature, art or learning or other objects of general concern, or

(ii) which is kept or used bona fide for religious purposes;

(b) any representation sculptured, engraved, painted or otherwise represented on or in –

(i) any ancient monument within the meaning of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958), or

(ii) any temple or on any car used for the conveyance of idols, or kept or used for any religious purpose.

The definition of the word ‘obscene’ given in the withdrawn Bill is more or less the same as the above mentioned definitions found in the English Law, Indian Penal Code and the definitions adopted by our Supreme Court. There is nothing objectionable or inconsistent with freedom of expression in it. There is no apparent valid reason or justification for the Ministry to withdraw this Bill immediately after its publication in the Gazette.

The Ministry Statement has stated that an amended Bill would be presented to the Cabinet for approval, once discussions are held with interested parties, including the BASL.

Who are these interested parties who are so powerful as to compel the Minister to immediately withdraw a Bill that was published in the Gazette?

Are they the same parties that prevented, all this time since 2008, the Cabinet approved Obscene Publications Amendment Bill, drafted by the Legal Draftsman in 2007, from being enacted?

Certainly, it cannot be the BASL.

(The writer is the Executive Director of Lawyers for Human Rights and Development)

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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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An autochthonous Constitution



Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the Constituent Assembly

1972 Constitution in Retrospect – I

By Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne
President’s Counsel

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a republic. We observe the anniversary at a time when the large majority of our people are yearning for comprehensive constitutional reform – “system change,” as they put it. Many believe that, after the failure of the first and second republican constitutions, the time is right for the Third Republic.

This article, in three parts, is based on a paper that I contributed to a collection of essays, titled, Sirimavo, published by the Bandaranaike Museum Committee, in 2010. When Sunethra Bandaranaike invited me to contribute an essay on the 1972 Constitution, I told her that I would be unable to say much good about it. This, I explained, was despite Dr Colvin R. De Silva, the Minister of Constitutional Affairs of the United Front government who steered the constitution-making process, being a former leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party to which I belonged and my senior in several fundamental rights cases, beginning with Palihawadana v. Attorney-General (Job Bank Case), the first fundamental rights case, under the 1978 Constitution. “You can write anything”, Sunethra assured me. My friend, Tissa Jayatilleke, edited the publication.

Replacing the Soulbury Constitution

The Independence Constitution of 1947, popularly known as the Soulbury Constitution, conferred dominion on Ceylon. The Governor-General was appointed by the British sovereign. The Parliament of Ceylon consisted of the King/Queen, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Executive power continued to be vested in the Crown and was exercised by the Governor-General. The Cabinet of Ministers was charged with the general direction and control of the government and was collectively responsible to Parliament. The form of government was in the Westminster model, which meant that the Governor-General would act on the advice of the Prime Minister. By the oath of allegiance, Senators, Members of Parliament, and all holders of office, including the Prime Minister, Ministers and heads of departments and judicial officers, swore to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to the King/Queen.The first move towards making Ceylon a Republic was made by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who, on becoming Prime Minister, in 1956, informed the other governments of the British Commonwealth of Ceylon’s intention to become a Republic, within the Commonwealth. A Joint Select Committee of the two Houses of Parliament, on the revision of the Constitution, accepted the principle of establishing a Republic, within the Commonwealth. It was also agreed that the parliamentary form of government would continue with the President being a constitutional head of state. The President and the Vice-President would be elected by the legislature, fundamental rights recognized, appeals to the Privy Council abolished, and a court established to adjudicate constitutional matters and hear appeals from the Supreme Court.

Although sub-section 4 of section 29 of the 1947 Constitution provided that ‘in the exercise of its powers under this section, Parliament may amend or repeal any of the provisions of this Order, or of any other Order of Her Majesty in Council in its application to the Island’, the question whether Parliament could replace the British sovereign, who was a source of the legal authority of the Constitution and a constituent part of Parliament, had been raised, among others, by J.A.L. Cooray in his Review of the Constitution. The Privy Council stated in Ibralebbe v The Queen (65 NLR 433, 443) that the reservations specified in section 29 were ‘fundamental’ and in Bribery Commissioner v Ranasinghe that section 29 (2) was ‘unalterable under the Constitution’(66 NLR 73, 78). Although obiter (not essential for the decision), these statements gave support to a move initiated by the Left parties towards a new ‘homegrown’ or ‘autochthonous’ Constitution with a complete legal break from the existing constitutional order in preference to amending the Constitution. There was also a definite trend in the Commonwealth towards enacting ‘homegrown’ constitutions to replace those given by the United Kingdom.

The Constituent Assembly route

It was this trend towards and desire for an autochthonous Constitution that led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) to not support the call of the 1965 government of Dudley Senanayake of the United National Party (UNP) to re-establish the Joint Select Committee on the Revision of the Constitution. The SLFP, LSSP and CP, which later combined to form the United Front (UF), whilst declining to serve on the Joint Select Committee, proposed that a Constituent Assembly be set up to adopt and enact a new constitution. At the general election of May 1970, the UF, as reflected in its manifesto, sought from the electorate a mandate to permit the Members of Parliament to function simultaneously as a Constituent Assembly. The Assembly would draft, adopt and operate a new constitution, the primary objective of which was to make the country a free, sovereign and independent republic dedicated to the realisation of a socialist democracy that would guarantee the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens.

At the above-referenced general election, 84.9% of the voters, a significantly high percentage even for an electorate known for its enthusiastic participation in elections, exercised their franchise. The UF won 116 out of 151 seats on offer but obtained 48.8% of the total votes cast. With the support of the six nominated members and the two independent members who won their seats with the help of the UF, the latter now commanded 124 seats in the 157-member Parliament. The UNP was down to 17 seats. The Federal Party (FP) won 13 seats while Tamil Congress (TC) won 03.

The Governor-General, in the course of delivering the first Throne Speech of the new Parliament, called upon the Members of Parliament to form a Constituent Assembly in keeping with the mandate asked for and given by the people at the general election.

That the Address of Thanks to the Throne Speech was passed without a division is also important. On 11 July, 1970, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike wrote to all members of the House of Representatives to invite them for a meeting to be held on 19 July, 1970, to consider and adopt a resolution for constituting themselves into a Constituent Assembly.

The meeting was to be held at the Navarangahala, the newly constructed auditorium of Royal College, Colombo, and not in the chamber of the House of Representatives, signifying the intention of the UF to make a complete break from the 1947 Constitution. Dr Colvin R. de Silva, the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, emphasised that what was contemplated was not an attempt to create a new superstructure on an old foundation. It is a matter of great significance that all political parties, represented in Parliament, participated in the formation of the Constituent Assembly on 19 July, 1970.

J.R. Jayewardene, the Leader of the Opposition and Deputy Leader of the UNP, joining the debate on the resolution to set up a Constituent Assembly, reminded the UF that it had a mandate only from less than 50% of the people. Nevertheless, if both sides of the legislature, the victors and the vanquished, agreed to make common cause in enacting a new basic law through a legal revolution, that new law, if accepted by the people, will become the full expression of the hopes, desires and aspirations of the present generation.

V. Dharmalingam of the FP, while questioning the need to go outside the existing Constitution, noted: “We are making common cause with you in enacting a new Constitution not as a vanquished people but as the representatives of a people who have consistently at successive elections since 1956 given us a mandate to change the present Constitution which has been the source of all evil to the Tamil people.”

The leader of the FP, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, urged the Assembly to reach common ground on controversial issues and quoted Jawaharlal Nehru in support: “We shall go to the Constituent Assembly with the fixed determination of finding a common basis for agreement on all controversial issues.”

V. Anandasangaree, speaking on behalf of the TC, stated that his party did not wish to be a stumbling block but requested the Government to be fair and adopt the new Constitution unanimously.

Indicating the acceptance of the Constituent Assembly route towards the adoption of a new constitution by all political parties, the proposed resolution to form the Constituent Assembly was unanimously passed on 21 July 1970.

It is significant that all political parties represented in Parliament participated in the formation of the Constituent Assembly, thus giving legitimacy to the process. However, the Constitution that the Constituent Assembly adopted lacked similar legitimacy. The Federal Party discontinued participation after the Assembly decided to make Sinhala the only official language. The United National Party voted against the Constitution. With all political parties agreeing on the Constituent Assembly process, it was a unique opportunity to adopt a constitution that had the support of the people at large. But Assembly proceedings show that the United Front, which had a two-thirds majority but had received a little less than 50% of the popular vote, imposed a constitution of its choice. The Constitution also extended the term of the legislature by two years which had a chilling effect on Sri Lankan democracy. There is certainly a lot to learn from the 1970-72 reform process.

Retaining the parliamentary form of government

Whilst the desire of the UF was to make a complete break from the Soulbury Constitution modelled on the British system, it nevertheless considered the Westminster model of parliamentary government to be suitable for Sri Lanka.

However, J.R. Jayewardene proposed the introduction of an executive presidency, a proposal opposed even by Dudley Senanayake, a former prime minister and the leader of the UNP. Interestingly though, Jayewardene was to have the last word. After he was elected Prime Minister in 1977, the UNP he led having obtained an unprecedented five-sixths majority in Parliament, Jayewardene introduced the executive presidency through the Second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution. He followed it up with the Second Republican Constitution of 1978, based on an executivepresidency sans any checks and balances usually found in countries with a presidential form of government.

It is salutary, in the above context, to recall the words and sentiments expressed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike during the debate on the Second Amendment to the Constitution: “The effect of this amendment is to place the President above the National State Assembly. Above the law and above the courts, thereby creating a concentration of State power in one person, whoever he might be. This has happened in other countries before, and history is full of examples of the disastrous consequences that came upon such nations that changed their Constitutions by giving one man too much power. (…) We oppose this Bill firmly and unequivocally. It will set our country on the road to dictatorship and there will be no turning back. This Bill will mark the end of democracy in Sri Lanka, as the late Dudley Senanayake realized when these same ideas were put to him in the United National Party.”

Dr De Silva warned against the danger of counterposing the Prime Minister chosen by the people who are sovereign against a President who is directly elected: “Let me put it directly and more strongly. You have the Prime Minister chosen by the people who are sovereign. Then, if you have a President, chosen also by the sovereign people directly through the exercise of a similar franchise, you have at the heart and apex of the State two powers counterposed to each other, each drawing its power from the same source, the sovereign people, but each drawing the power independent of the other.” No Constitution will be able to define adequately and satisfactorily the relationship between the two, he explained.

(Next: Part II: A Majoritarian Constitution)

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Jacqueline concerned about situation in Sri Lanka



Jacqueline Fernandez: They need empathy and support

Jacqueline Fernandez, who is very much a part of Sri Lanka, and now a big name in Bollywood, has been in the news quite often, the past few months – for various reasons.

However, she does worry about the situation in Sri Lanka and had this to say on Instagram:

“As a Srilankan, it is heartbreaking to see what my country and countrymen are going through. I have been flooded with a lot of opinions since this began from around the world. I would say, do not be too quick to pass a judgement and vilify any group based on what is shown. The world and my people do not need another judgement, they need empathy and support. 2-minutes of silent prayer for their strength and well-being will bring you much closer to them than a comment based on a loose grasp of the situation,” she wrote.

“To my country and countrymen, I am hoping this situation comes to an end soon and through means which are peaceful and for the benefit of the people. Praying for immense strength to those dealing with this. Peace to all!” she added.

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