SWRD Bandaranaike and the paradox of Sri Lankan federalism
September 24, 2016
by Rajan Philips
Tomorrow, the 26th of September, will be the 57th death anniversary of Sri Lanka’s fourth Prime Minister, SWRD Bandaranaike. The shocking circumstances of his death in 1959 and the subsequent electoral successes of the political party that he founded ensured his posthumous political significance and the commemoration of his death as an annual state event for the next two decades. Even tomorrow there will be commemoration ceremonies at the Horagolla Samadhi, but not at the same scale of splendour as they were during the 1960s and 1970s. A silver tongued orator, Mr. Bandaranaike was also a rare political figure outside the two Left political parties, who could actually ‘write’ and did write on politics. The subject of my commemorative piece today is what Mr. Bandaranaike (SWRD) wrote in 1926 to The Ceylon Morning Leader that was published in Colombo at that time. SWRD wrote six Letters to the Morning Leader on the subject of federalism in May-June 1926, and in July the newspaper carried an extensive report on a speech he delivered in Jaffna on July 17, 1926, on the topic: ‘A Federal System for Sri Lanka.’
At the time of his writing, SWRD was 27-years old, had just returned home after his studies at Oxford, and was cutting his teeth in the practice of law and testing the waters in politics. The Letters and the speech are now more known for their historical originality than any impact they might have had at that time. They constitute Chapter 1 in the 2008 compilation of nearly 1000 pages, by Rohan Edrisinha, Mario Gomez, VT Thamilmaran and Asanga Welikala, and entitled: ‘Power Sharing in Sri Lanka – Constitutional and Political Documents 1926-2008.’ SWRD was the first to write about federalism in Sri Lanka. But, to my surprise, I could not find any reference to them in James Manor’s otherwise well-researched biography of SWRD Bandaranaike: ‘The Expedient Utopian.’
According to KM de Silva (A History of Sri Lanka), although Bandaranaike advocated federalism, in 1926, as the “main plank” of the Progressive Nationalist Party, “his party” at that time, his “ardour for federalism cooled somewhat over the years”. But 30 years later in 1956, in de Silva’s view, “it was a grim irony that he should be called upon, at the moment of his greatest political triumph, to articulate the strong opposition of the Sinhalese to any attempt to establish a federal constitution.”
The federal genealogy
It is true that Mr. Bandaranaike did not pursue the goal of federalism in later years so single-mindedly as his 1926 articulations would have suggested. Equally, it is not correct to say that he categorically rejected federalism as unsuitable for Sri Lanka after cogently arguing in 1926 that federalism was the only solution to Sri Lanka’s political problems. On the contrary, his specific ideas and initiatives in a number of instances in later years, such as local government reform, decentralization of administration, and devolution of power, were always consistent with his philosophy of federalism that he espoused in 1926. The celebrated B-C Pact of 1957 falls within the same genre of political ideas and initiatives. It was not a rejection of federalism, nor was it a launching pad for federalism. Therein lie the paradox of Sri Lankan federalism. There is another dimension to this paradox that I will address later on.
It is also an exaggeration, even a lie, to suggest that everyone worthier than Chandrika Kumaratunga, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, has rejected federalism as unsuitable for Sri Lanka. The 2008 Documents I referred to earlier, gives the lie to this spurious contention. Not long after SWRD’s espousal of federalism, the Kandyan National Assembly, a political organization representing the Kandyan Sinhalese, picked up the idea and argued before the Donoughmore Commission for “the creation of a federal state (in Sri Lanka) as in the United States of America.” The “Kandyan Claim” as it came to be known was based on the premise that the “amalgamation of Government in 1833” has been detrimental to the people of the former Kandyan Kingdom, and advocated a federal solution creating “three self-governing areas” in Sri Lanka, comprising: “(1) the Northern and Eastern Provinces in which the Tamils predominate, (2) the Kandyan Provinces, (3) the Southern and Western Provinces peopled mainly by Low Country Sinhalese.”
The Donoughmore recommendations did not go as far as to accommodate the Kandyan Claim in its entirety, but included a number of “federalizing features” to address Kandyan concerns and to decentralize the state structure and government administration. The main feature was the establishment of Provincial Councils, a task the Commissioners left to be fulfilled by future State Council governments that would be established under the Donoughmore Constitution. Alas, that fulfillment never materialized, but that is another of an enormously missed opportunity.
After the Kandyans, the (Ceylon) Communist Party championed the idea of federalism in its internal deliberations and in its representations to the Ceylon National Congress, calling for an All Party Conference to “forge a united demand for independence and a free constitution” from the British rulers. Based on resolutions passed unanimously at a rally of 5,000 people at the Colombo Town Hall, on 15 October 1944, The Communist Party appealed to the Congress and all political organizations to take united stand and avoid making unilateral representations to the Soulbury Commssion that had just been set up to navigate the final phase of colonial rule. The appeal fell on deaf ears.
In the scheme of things, the Tamil Federal Party was the last to take to federalism, three years after independence, and not coincidentally the Tamil association with federalism rendered the concept politically toxic and un-implementable in Sri Lanka. To the credit of Chandrika Kumaratunga, she demonstrated bullish political courage, unfortunately not strategic persistence, in resurrecting her father’s original idea for new public discussion after her historic ascent to power in 1994. Now, to the new dimension of the federalism paradox. It will be utopian for anyone to think that a new constitution even remotely suggesting federalism could be adopted in Sri Lanka in the current political circumstances. At the same time, for very practical reasons that have only multiplied since the Donoughmore Commissioners first formulated, Sri Lanka cannot avoid the implementation of measures that could all be categorized as features of federalism.
In a one-page masterpiece published in the Lanka Guardian (around 1985 – I could not get my hands on my copy of that article to give full reference here, in the rush to meet my editor’s time constraints), Dr. Colvin R. de Silva demonstrated the continuum linking unitary and federal constitutions. One could formally name a constitution unitary and have several federalizing features, and vice versa. It is now known that the insertion of the unitary clause into the 1972 Constitution, and later retained in the 1978 constitution, was at the stupid insistence of Felix Dias Bandaranaike against the saner counsel of Colvin R. de Silva. We are stuck with that insertion, a very silly one without constitutional parallel anywhere, in letter, but that need not preclude our political leaders and even judges working around it, out of practical necessity, in specific instances. 13A is a living example. It has proved to be more durable than the Rajapaksa enterprise to entrench family power through 18A.
To end on a commemorative note, Mr. Bandaranaike’s advocacy of federalism in 1926 was more a reflection of Sri Lanka’s situation in the British Empire and changing world circumstances than its internal circumstances. The six Letters, that preceded the lecture in Jaffna, primarily dealt with what he called “Ceylon’s external relations”. Interestingly, given the circumstances of his time, SWRD envisaged different ‘external federal’ options for the island: as a self-governing member of the British Empire; federation with India; as a Mandate from the League of Nations that had come into being after the “Great War” (i.e. World War I). It was in the Lecture in Jaffna, that SWRD advocated federalism to address the island’s “internal relations.” He argued in anticipatory refutation of future historians, and the stupidity of his nephew Felix Dias, that the “whole land was a loose federation” based on the twin systems of “Nindagama” and “Gansabawa”, until … “when the British came to the island they introduced a centralized form of Government.”
Where did Mr. Bandaranaike get the federal idea from? We can only speculate. The Documents on Power Sharing (referred to earlier) include as Chapter 3, the Memorandum of Leonard Woolf, the celebrated British Civil Servant and author of “The Village in the Jungle”. Written in 1938 during considerations of reforming the Donoughmore Constitution, Woolf advocated an unabashed federal system, based on the Swiss model, and comprising five cantons, one each for the Kandyan Sinhalese, Low Country Sinhalese, Tamils of the North, Tamils of the East, and a potential fifth one for Tamils of Indian origin in the plantations. I am not referring to Woolf’s advocacy to suggest any relevance to the present time, but to indicate the support of the federal idea among well-known British political theorists, even though it could seem counter-intuitive given the so called unitary character of the unwritten British Constitution.
It is commonplace that the British utilitarian philosophy (i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number) was the inspirational motive behind the political, constitutional and judicial reforms that British colonial officers implemented in Sri Lanka from 1833 onward. At any point in time since 1833, colonial Ceylon was far ahead of every non-white colony in the British Empire in progressive reforms. What has not been pointed is that a part of utilitarian philosophy was the advocacy of federalism, as a way of resolving the rising tensions between political states and the emerging nations, by leading 19thcentury British political theorists such as John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. It would seem that SWRD Bandaranaike was the only Ceylonese of his time, if not even later times, to have been influenced by such thinking. In that light, Chandrika Kumaratunga is more than qualified to advocate her father’s original idea to her generation of Sri Lankans. Politics, while being the art of the possible, is also a great deal more than electoral success. Worthwhile ideas should not be abandoned just because they are not in popular currency.