Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The perils of democracy - The origins of Conflict in Srilanka - a perspective and a background


The perils of democracy - The origins of Conflict in Srilanka - a perspective and a background

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”    ---Mahatma Gandhi

 Any kind of civil war has its roots in the way communities have lived and worked together within a given geographical area, and is often the result of a long history of slow rot, discontent and dissent accumulating over a period of time.  The origins of the Sinhalese – Tamil conflict is interesting principally in this context because for centuries, both these communities have lived, worked, produced great works of art and literature, shared common religious dogmas and myths; despite having the same ethnic differences, that are being bandied about so much over the last three decades. So my question is: what has changed in this century that resulted in this brutal civil car claiming thousands of lives on both sides; and how is that we find that two essentially mature communities who have lived together in harmony and peace for so many generations have all of sudden fallen prey to genocidal warfare in this century. I am attempting in this essay to provide an answer this rather controversial question.

In the year 1911, the educated sections of Sinhalese and Tamil communities were given their first “Ceylonese constituency”; ironically, with a Tamil leader elected to hold that seat, against a fellow Sinhalese. This was obviously the handiwork of the British colonialist policy of imposing their version of order on a diverse society. Nonetheless, seeds of communal tension were sown, and this first timid move towards elected representative politics was soon to disrupt much of the traditional harmony between both the groups. Numerically, the Sinhalese constituted a higher proportion of the population, and it is but natural there would be discontent simmering its way to the top. To appease this uneasiness, the Donoughmore commission was appointed and in 1931, it took the bold step of introducing universal franchise in one go, intending to move politics from caste, communal and class allegiances towards a broader and encompassing national identity. Though this move did much to improve education and social conditions, it dubiously resulted in entrenching Sinhalese leadership in a position of unassailable majority and power, thereby aggravating, stimulating and viciously strengthening the island’s bludgeoning pattern of communal politics.

The key question here is whether Ceylon was ripe for Universal Suffrage at that point in time, when its political system was still nascent and in a democratically embryonic stage. I don’t think so. Undoubtedly, the decision was taken with the best intentions in mind, but unfortunately was not based on factual reality. The previously elections witnessed a mere four percent of the population turning out to vote, and such miniscule numbers cannot be the rationale to impose such a significant moral demand on a country not educated or mature enough to appreciate the power of an Vote. And like most other Asian societies, the Ceylonese ended up accepting the Parliamentary system of Democracy, vociferously evangelized by the British.
The Second World War changed the course of Asian history. India and Pakistan attained independence in 1947, Burmese – in 1948; and Ceylon became a free country on 4th February 1948. Signals of the coming storm began to appear shortly after independence.  In 1948-49, the United National Party government led by D.S. Senanayake passed legislation which effectively deprived nearly one million Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin of their citizenship and voting rights. Apart from its manifestly discriminatory nature, it upset the balance provided by minority weighting in the legislature which had been a key element in the political compromise on which the Independence constitution had been accepted. Thereafter, it was much easier for a major Sinhalese party to ignore the wishes of the Tamil minority and yet win a majority in parliament. This imbalance was the key impetus for all that followed in the little Island nation that culminated in the cleansing of the Tamils and their demands in the early months of 2009. Organizations like the LTTE were mere branches of this deep fault line that was carved in the early days of Srilanka democracy.

To me, the entire debate on this issue boils down to the fact as to whether democracy and its concomitant rights can ever be imposed on people. Is it not something that grows and matures from within? Unfortunately, democracy is largely misconstrued as an ideology. Nothing can be further than the truth. Democracy is enlightened citizenship participating wisely and judiciously in the process of nation building. Franklin Roosevelt observed that “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”. The history of Srilanka would have different if a political order was not imposed from outside to advance the selfish interests of a few avaricious colonialists. The stunted development of many Asian societies is largely due to the fact that they have not grown organically. Unless, they are tempered and chiseled by wise education and learn to seamlessly adopt and appreciate the fruits of living in a free society, there will be chaos and conflict, and chances of a civil war, or even a Genocide is pretty high.

While we mourn the deaths and loss of so many innocent lives in the civil war that has ravaged Srilanka and seek retribution, let us also understand that all of us are collectively responsible for preventing such brutality. Srilanka may be eventually ostracized for its role in perpetuating the Genocide, but that is no solution to the problem. The answer lies deeper:  the way we organize ourselves as nations, the deep respect we must cultivate for everybody around us and an understanding that differences are necessary for Order to be born, otherwise democracy will quickly slip in dictatorship and end in Genocides, more brutal and horrific than our imaginations can possibly conceive.

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