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The 20A:

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A very wrong approach to Constitution-making

by Jayadeva Uyangoda

The proposed 20th Amendment has several major defects. One of its key faults is that its sponsors and framers have chosen a very wrong approach to constitution-making.

There are several reasons why this approach is wrong.

The first is their refusal to learn constructive lessons from the past constitutional reform experiments. The lessons that seem to have been learned are all partisan, narrow-mimed, politically short-sighted, and therefore, wrong ones.

The second is that the framers of the 20A are not animated by the larger democratic interests of the political community which Sri Lankan people constitute collectively. Instead, the primary motivating factor seems to be political self-interest.

The third is that the proposed Amendment is totally devoid of a democratic normative framework relevant to our society and its own progressive-modernist legacies of constitutionalism. Instead, in disinheriting the progressive legacies of our society’s modern political and social life, it builds itself on one or two dreadful and destructive experiments of constitution-making in the recent past.

Lessons from the Past

Sri Lanka has a relatively long history of unmaking, making and amending constitutions. They offer a rich array of lessons about what to be avoided as well in constitution-making.

Both the First and Second Republican Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 together and individually offer the following lessons:

(a) Any popular mandate for a new Constitution should not be interpreted as licence to undermine or remove the democratic checks and balances in the exercise of political power. The reason is quite clear: it would encourage rulers and bureaucracies to violate with impunity citizens’ freedoms and liberties. Such misuse of the popular mandate is certain to produce tyrannical consequences and ultimately will erode the legitimacy of the government itself.

(b) Undermining the rule of law, weakening the independence of the judiciary, and making the accountability institutions subservient to the executive will initially please the egos of the politicians and officials, but in the long run are bound to create a deep chasm between the government and the citizens, rulers and the ruled.

(c) The eventual political cost of ignoring minority demands for political equality and equal citizenship rights in a constitutional scheme can be quite high. It will create a condition of unending ethnic tension in society as well as between the state and the alienated minorities.

(d) Constitutions with undemocratic intent as well as content will harm the legitimacy of not only the government in power, but also the prevailing system as a whole.

 

Lessons from 1978C and its 18A

Both the original 1978 Constitution and its 18th Amendment, together as well as individually, offer us the following crucial lessons:

(a) Any ruling party or government that ignores the golden rule of democratic governance that (a) political power is NOT unlimited and that (b) the right to, and exercise of, political power has inherent limits will do so only at its own peril.

(b) Any new Constitution, or any major alteration to an existing one, should not be designed to please the personal desires (‘whims and fancies’) of an individual, however powerful he or she may be at the time of constitution-making. A constitution thus designed is certain to come into conflict with the actual and objective needs of society as well as aspirations of its citizens.

(c) A new constitutional scheme should not be designed to serve only the interests of newly emerged wealthy elites in society. When a Constitution becomes an instrument of a narrow class of wealthy elites, who are suspicious of the dispersal of political power among citizens in a democracy, and entertain political ambitions to capture the state, it runs the risk of providing legality to despotism.

 

Lessons from 19A

There are four key lessons, among many, to be learned from the process of making the much-maligned 19th Amendment:

(a) Wide consultation in the drafting process is not only useful, but also helpful to improve the level of democratic health in the polity.

(d) It is always better to build consensus across all political parties in Parliament for a major amendment or a new Constitution. Constitutional consensus-building in a deeply divided polity like ours is a frustrating and time-consuming political exercise. Yet, it enables all, or a majority of, the stakeholders to take part in the process, make their inputs, and claim some ownership to the outcome although for partisan political reasons, some might later withdraw from the consensus.

(e) If the consultation and consensus-building in constitution-making is not politically managed with clarity of purpose, the overall goals of the constitutional compromise may run the risk of producing a constitutional scheme with potentially harmful internal anomalies and contradictions.

(f) A democratic constitution-making exercise today needs, more than ever, an unwavering political leadership to champion it through to the end by innovative and imaginative democratic means. The reason is a paradoxical one. Alternatives to democracy are also competing with democracy, with enormous material resources, to gain popular support and loyalty through democratic means. In this age of right-wing populism, media-manufactured popular consent and manipulation of public perceptions through information pollution, post-democratic alternatives tend gain easy currency and public legitimacy.

 

Constitutions and the Political Community

A Constitution is in the final analysis a Constitution for the entire political community within a country. Although the basic nature of that constitution may be conceptualised by a ruling party, to be sustainable and be able to survive post-regime change shocks, it should not reflect only the agenda of that ruling party or an individual leader. Experience in Sri Lanka as well as other countries shows that such constitutions have been the first step to despotism in some form.

Rather, a Constitution should embody the highest democratic goals and aspirations – ‘noble ends’ — of the political community, that are open to be shared voluntarily by the vast majority of members of that political community, notwithstanding the momentary shifts in their political judgment occasionally expressed at periodic elections.

A Normative Framework Needed

A good Constitution is always a democratic one. A good democratic Constitution for Sri Lanka should be guided by a value framework embodying a synthesis of the normative ethics which the people of our political community have inherited from our own liberal democratic, republican and social-egalitarian traditions, evolved through our own political and social modernity.

The Indian and South African Constitutions are model post-colonial Constitutions that are guided by such a value synthesis, derived from the best traditions of modern constitutionalism as well as egalitarian and social-justice impulses inherent in their local cultures and histories.

 

What legacy? What inheritance?

Finally, Sri Lankan constitution-makers should not consider the South-East Asian developmentalist authoritarian state model as a new constitutional template for Sri Lanka, because it goes against our own progressive constitutionalist legacy evolved during the past century or so.

What needs to be inherited and further advanced is that progressive strand of constitutionalism which we can claim as authentically modern and local. It appears that the framework of 20A have sought inspirations from wrong constitutional models, at home and abroad, that are devoid of any democratic normative content.

The Supreme Court, where the constitutional validity of the proposed 20th Amendment will be examined and debated, is an eminently suitable forum to raise these points as well. In a number of previous judgments, and as recently as December 2018, our Supreme Court has repeatedly validated the inherent normative framework of Sri Lanka’s own tradition of democratic constitutionalism.

Alerting our Honourable Justices, who make up the much revered public institution that is the last bastion of citizens’ freedom and democracy, should also be a part of the struggle for re-inheriting and defending our own best legacies of political and social modernity.



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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