By Uditha Devapriya
Review of Yasmin Rajapakse’s The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de La Nérolle: The French Lieutenant of the Expedition Escadre de Perse to Ceylon in 1672.
98 pages, Rs. 2,000.
Europe’s imperial forays into the East were shaped by a long line of events, dating back to the Reconquista of 1492. These events sealed the fate of one part of the world: limited until then to occasional encounters with the West, Africa and Asia eventually turned into colonial outposts. That, in turn, had a profound impact on the course of politics in Europe; rocked by economic changes and religious tensions, it became a hotbed of conflict.
These developments did not escape Sri Lanka. Conquered by succeeding waves of South Indian dynasties, the country had its first taste of European colonialism in the mid-16th century. With its logic of exploitation and proselytisation, Portuguese rule lasted for more than half a century. Its inception coincided with the inception of the Kandyan kingdom, its collapse with the onset of the Dutch-Portuguese War. Taking advantage of these shifts and developments, Kandyan rulers sought Dutch support to overthrow the Portuguese. The ruse worked, though not entirely to the satisfaction of the Kandyans.
In November 1656, Dutch forces forced Rajasinghe II away from Colombo, contrary to the terms of an agreement that had pledged to cede the capital to Kandy. With the surrender of Portuguese forces in Jaffna on June 24, 1658, the Dutch established their rule in the country. We are told that five months later, on November 20, officials passed a resolution praising God for helping them evict their foes. Paul E. Pieris observes that while these celebrations were taking place, “[a] Jesuit was beheaded and 11 others were hanged, their bodies being left to rot on the gibbets.” These were obviously spoils of war.
One of the most idiosyncratic of the Sinhalese kings, Rajasinghe II was arguably the most tempestuous. We are told that he acted “like a caged tiger.” One day he would vent his fury against the Dutch, and the very next he would tell them that he appreciated their services. Anxious to secure his goodwill, the Hollanders for their part humoured him by sending him gifts, missives, entreaties, and ambassadors. At the peak of his reign, Paul E. Pieris notes, he had collected a large and perfect menagerie of foreigners and diplomats; perhaps the most well known of these was Robert Knox, taken prisoner in 1660.
Yasmin Rajapakse’s book is about one of these officials. At once lucid and accessible, it is rich in sources and packed with details. As she notes at the very beginning, though much has been written about the subject of her work, very little has been verified. What Rajapakse’s account attempts to do, then, is make sense of the man behind the legend, deconstructing one of the more intriguing periods in our history.
The subject of several apocryphal and anecdotal accounts, sieur de La Nérolle’s life has never been seriously examined until now. While a number of essays, articles, and even books have been written about him, none of them has attempted to place his story in the context of his times. This is what Yasmin Rajapakse tries to do in her book. Guided by her intense passion for French and Sri Lankan history, she traces de La Nérolle’s trysts with the island to certain political developments in 17th century Europe.
Rajapakse begins her account, understandably enough, with the land of La Nérolle’s birth. France in the 16th century, she notes, was different to the country it would later become. With an abundance of resources, officials did not feel the need to expand into other regions, especially in the East, as the Portuguese, Dutch, and British were doing. All that changed in the second half of the century, in particular after the establishment of the French East Indies Company. Hemmed in for so long by rival European powers, it realised that to contend with them, it had to go out and explore. To that end, under Louis XIV, the “Sun God”, the French STate began to build up a strong naval force, to pursue trade in the East Indies.
At the time France was witnessing not just economic change, but social upheaval. Religious tensions had become the order of the day, with schisms between Catholics and Protestants spilling over to the country’s political life. One of the more prominent officials of the French East Indies Company was François Caron, a Protestant-Huguenot refugee born in Flanders. Caron’s career resembles that of many petty officials who went on to hold high positions in the Orient: working as a kitchen assistant at the age of 19 in the Dutch East Indies Company, he mastered Japanese and became the President of the Company and Admiral of the Dutch Fleet. Falling out with the Company, he later switched allegiances to the French.
Caron’s first task was to establish trade in the East Indies. Louis XIV’s Minister of State, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, had envisioned a series of reforms that would help France stand on par with the rest of Europe. To this end, Caron’s proposal, that the French Navy go beyond the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, was well received.
Having been involved in the Dutch capture of Negombo from the Portuguese in 1644, Caron soon realised that Ceylon figured in his scheme of things, and communicated as much with Colbert. In 1669 he despatched a letter to Rajasinghe II, informing him of France’s intention to “forge a lasting friendship” with his Court. A year later Colbert summoned a naval force, baptising it Escadre de Perse, or “Squadron of Persia”, and sailing from La Rochelle in March 1670 to the coast of Koddiyar, or Trincomalee, in March 1672.
All these details seem superfluous, but they are vital to Rajapakse’s narrative. We are told that Rajasinghe II received the first two diplomats sent by the French mission to Kandy well. We are told that he agreed with their proposal to counter the Dutch. Yet Dutch designs on the island and on Kandy being what they were, they could not prevail for long against their competitors. The upsurge of war between Holland and France in 1671 did not help resolve these confrontations, and in the end, barely a year after settling in the East of the island, the French fleet, or what was left of it, evacuated and abandoned Trincomalee.
Yasmin Rajapakse reflects on the reasons for these failures, noting not just the logistical problems that French soldiers had to face, but also the capability of the French fleet tasked with securing conveniences across the Indo-Pacific. This is where she gets to the subject of her study. Before setting sail back home, French officials despatched yet another mission to Kandy. The man chosen to head this mission, who would remain in Kandy despite his wishes and plans, was a young lieutenant attached to the fleet, the sieur de la Nérolle.
Who were the de La Nérolles? Rajapakse traces them to a family of military officials from the village of Charante. Today, of course, there are many De Lanerolles in Sri Lanka, with a separate but related line bearing the name Lenora. In France the de La Nérolles faced the brunt of the country’s official religious policy, converting from the Protestantism of their youth to Catholicism after Louis XIV cut their privileges. This, no doubt, made Lieutenant de La Nérolle, stranded in Kandy, the sole Protestant or Huguenot from his family. As Rajapakse makes it clear in her account, that had a profound impact on his relations with not only the Sinhalese kings, but also the many foreign emissaries at the Kandyan court.
The Kandyan kingdom of the 17th and 18th centuries, as countless historians have pointed out, was a flourishing cosmopolitan enclave. Open to a great many foreign influences, it occupied a world of its own. Sinhalese kings had made contacts with Catholic refugees, Protestant priests, Muslim traders, Hindu swamis, and European diplomats. Rajasinghe II’s fascination with the latter endeared him to Westerners.
These policies were maintained by his successors, two of which Sieur de La Nérolle served: Wimaladharmasuriya II and Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe. De La Nérolle went on to endear himself so well to the Kandyan Court that, in 1723, he was not just permitted to marry a woman from a prominent noble family, but also conferred with the title of Mudiyanse.
A beneficiary of Kandyan largesse, de La Nérolle found himself enjoying a status few others did. Though there were obvious strategic motives to their decision to tolerate and reward foreign officials, the Sinhalese kings went out of their way to ensure that the Europeans in their realm were taken care of. Often they took them into their confidence, granting them access. For their part, European emissaries remained respectful of local customs, especially the King’s patronage of Buddhism. This did not, however, mean that they abandoned their way of life: writing of de La Nérolle, for instance, Rajapakse tells us very clearly and candidly that he “was known to be vehemently anti-catholic.”
It was the Frenchman’s rigid anti-Catholicism, in fact, which compelled him to denounce Joseph Vaz as a spy to Wimaladharmasuriya II. The latter at once ordered his men to seize the priest, yet upon realising that he was “a harmless Catholic ascetic”, he let him go. This by no means resolved tensions between the Huguenot and the Papist: Rajapakse relates a particularly lively debate between de La Nérolle and a later Catholic ascetic frequenting the Kandyan kingdom, Jacombe Gonçalves, played out in front of Narendrasinghe over matters of faith such as the relevance of saints and idols to the Church.
In what can be taken as a testament to the influence of the Portuguese Church in Sri Lanka, the avowedly Sinhalese Buddhist king sided with Gonçalves, convinced by his defence of the worship of idols. Though Rajapakse does not mention it, it is possible that the king’s own partiality to “idol-worshipping” made him favour the Catholic priest, a fact which may explain his patronage of not just Gonçalves, but also other priests. Gonçalves for his part conspired to convert de La Nérolle’s closest aide, Pedro Gascon of “Daskon” fame, a ruse that eventually succeeded. Meanwhile, having sided with the Catholic priest, the ever sharp and intrepid Narendrasinghe threatened to hand sieur de La Nérolle over to Catholic adversaries unless he “cease his rant” against their Church.
All this changed with the advent of the Nayakkars. A Telugu dynasty from South India, the Nayakkars found themselves in the midst of a swirling mass of conspiracy at the Kandyan Court. Though commanding the loyalty of Sinhalese nobles and Buddhist priests, they had to prove their allegiance to Sinhalese culture and Buddhist practices. Unlike their predecessors, they had to be more public about their patronage of those practices. This obviously meant shedding off all foreign accretions, not just within their family, but also within the kingdom. Faced with the “atmosphere of uncertainly and insecurity” that followed this, the La Nérolle courtiers in Kandyan Court felt compelled to leave. With their exit, Rajapakse concludes, the family line shifted from the hill country to the Dutch-controlled South.
The Odyssey and Living Legacy of sieur de La Nérolle is unabashedly a labour of love. Well researched and well sourced, it is replete with enough references to qualify it as a first-rate work. The only discernible error, on page nine, is a misdating of a letter sent by Caron to Rajasinghe II. What makes it stand out well in other respects is the author’s love for French culture and Sri Lankan history. A Francophone and, I daresay, Francophile, Yasmin Rajapakse first came to us onboard Bonsoir. Though not a professional historian, her account of sieur de La Nérolle puts her above many professionals in the country, whose abandonment of the most basic principles of scholarship is to be deeply regretted. At the end of it all, this is what distinguishes Rajapakse’s work, and what distinguishes her.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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).
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.
An autochthonous Constitution
1972 Constitution in Retrospect – I
By Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne
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)
Jacqueline concerned about situation in Sri Lanka
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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