Regional Autonomy in a Multi National State 1957

Regional Autonomy in a Multi National State 1957

Somasunderam Nadesan QC,

July 1957

“…While no doubt in a democratic state the will of the majority should prevail, the principle of majority rule can operate fully only in those states which have a homogenous population. In multinational states, this principle cannot apply in determining matters relating to the rights of national minorities. If this principle is applied to such questions then it would amount to the rule of the national minorities by the national majority. The minorities will thus be denied their ordinary human rights of self-expression and self-determination and will he subject to the tyranny of an impersonal majority….if the Tamils as a result of a plebiscite in the Tamil areas opt for a federal constitution, they will be exercising their right of self-determination and it is not for somebody else to say “nay”…”

To mark the 80th Birthday of its founder member S.Nadesan Q.C. on 11 February 1984, the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka reprinted two of his earlier writings. Regional Autonomy is the substance of a series of 3 articles published in the Sri Lanka Sunday Observer in July 1957, just before the signing of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam pact. CRM (though not taking any position on the subject examined) considers the arguments of special relevance at the present moment, and hopes that their wider dissemination will be a useful stimulant to further discussion

Somasunderam Nadesan QC

The proposed Satyagraha campaign of the Federal Party and the agitation of the Bhasa Perumuna against the Government honouring the solemn pledge contained in the S.L.F.P. manifesto to give due recognition to the reasonable use of the Tamil language, on the strength of which Tamils in several electorates in the Sinhalese areas cast their votes for the MEP in the last general election, focuses attention once again on the real nature of the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil nationalities inhabiting Ceylon.

These two nationalities speak different languages, profess in the main different religions and cherish different historical memories and traditions. This is a demographic reality which we have to face.Today, the children of these two different nationalities study in different schools in their respective languages and, while remembering the conflicts and wars between their kings and chieftains in the past, are growing up ignorant of one another’s culture, language and achievements. In such a state of affairs, conflicts are bound to arise. This is not a feature peculiar to Ceylon. Such conflicts have arisen in practically every multi national country in the world.

These conflicts can be eliminated or reduced only if one appreciates the real nature of the problem confronting a multi – national state such as ours. The problem is that of reconciling the predominance of the majority nationality with the liberty of the minority nationality. The solution of this problem depends on the proper application of democratic principles to the peculiar circumstances of each country and a survey of the history of the world would reveals methods have been adopted by multi-national states in this connection.

Ever since the nineteenth century, when nationalism became a live factor in the affairs of men and the world witnessed the crisis of the doctrine “One Nation, One State” on which Western democracy was based, no multinational state has succeeded in solving the problem by suppressing or ignoring the rights of its national minorities. Political thinkers and statesmen have devoted considerable attention to this problem and there is available today a vast literature on the subject. A careful study of this literature cannot but be of assistance to us in solving this problem and it is desirable that our policy makers should familiarise themselves with at least some of this literature.

The language conflict that has arisen in Ceylon is only one of the difficulties that can arise in a multinational state. Unless the fundamental problem is radically solved, acute conflicts are bound to arise in practically every field of social, economic and political activity.

The problem cannot be solved by relying on the principle of majority rule. While no doubt in a democratic state the will of the majority should prevail, the principle of majority rule can operate fully only in those states which have a homogenous population. In multinational states, this principle cannot apply in determining matters relating to the rights of national minorities. If this principle is applied to such questions then it would amount to the rule of the national minorities by the national majority. The minorities will thus be denied their ordinary human rights of self -expression and self -determination and will he subject to the tyranny of an impersonal majority.

A country which is true to the democratic ideal cannot countenance the rule of its national minorities by its national majority. The democratic solution to the problem can therefore only be found through direct negotiations between the leaders of the majority and minority nationalities.

If one were to read the literature on this problem for the purpose of ascertaining the various methods suggested for its solution, one would find that only three approaches have been adopted, namely those of bilingualism, federalism and regional autonomy. In addition to these methods there are often constitutional provisions made safeguarding the fundamental rights of national minorities.

Until the time of the last general election, the policy of the Ceylon Government was bilingualism. But during the last election, the “Sinhalese only” issue was placed before the Sinhalese electorates who naturally voted for Sinhalese only to be the official language.

A considerable amount of feeling and emotion on this issue has been whipped up both before and after the elections. The signal success of the Federal Party in the Northern and Eastern Provinces has in no small measure been due to the “Sinhalese Only” cry raised in the South. “Sinhalese Only” is not a solution of any problem arrived at as a result of negotiation between the leaders of the two nationalities, but a unilateral act imposed by the will of the majority nationality and its allies in respect of a matter in which their self interest was involved.

However this may be, one has to face facts as they exist. As a result of all that has happened the adoption of bilingualism (i.e. the recognition of both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages on the basis of complete equality) does not appear to be a feasible solution in the political climate prevailing in Ceylon today.

The only other available solutions, are federalism and regional. autonomy. As for federalism, this is a method which several thinkers have suggested as the ideal way of solving the problem. It is a method which has been adopted in recent times in communist countries like the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia and, earlier, in capitalist countries such as Canada and Switzerland.

In the Soviet Union, the principle has been given effect to on the widest possible scale by the creation of autonomous republics even within individual union republics. For instance, within the Union Republic of Uzbekistan there is an autonomous republic consisting of 500,000 people with their own language and institutions. Soviet National Federalism recognises national differences and encourages the national languages, customs and administrative and other institutions.

“It acknowledges the fact that the composite character of the population should be reflected in the State on the basis of complete equality and it grants a wide latitude in regional self-government”.

In Ceylon, the solution of federalism cannot be achieved without the consent of the Sinhalese people. These people have to be persuaded to accept that this principle is a sound and equitable method of solving our problems. Above all, they must be satisfied that such a solution does not affect their legitimate tights.

One step in convincing the Sinhalese people is to convince their leadership that this is a sound and feasible method and that the Sinhalese people have nothing to lose by consenting to this demand. This can only be done through discussion, through propaganda in the Press and from public platforms but, not through threats. However reasonable a principle may be, one cannot make people see it as such by resort to threats.

Though the Federal Party itself has never officially defined in clear and unambiguous terms the geographical limits of the Tamil federal unit, yet some of its members have made fantastic claims demanding that Tamil cantons should be established in parts of the Uva and Central Provinces. Such extravagant demands have been interpreted as an attempt on the part of the Tamil people to dominate Ceylon and have naturally roused the fears and antagonisms of the Sinhalese people.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the merits of the federal principle and its applicability to Ceylon within proper limits and subject to proper safeguards have never been seriously considered or examined by responsible Sinhalese leaders. It must be remembered that extravagant demands not only prevent the acceptance of what is intrinsically a sound principle but also provide ammunition for reactionary Sinhalese politicians who desire to inflame the passions of the Sinhalese masses for their Own purposes.

It is however very desirable that the Government should seriously consider applying the federal principle for the solution of our national problems.

Two objects have been raised against it, one is, that the Tamil people will suffer, but if the Tamils as a result of a plebiscite in the Tamil areas opt for a federal constitution, they will be exercising their right of self-determination and it is not for somebody else to say “nay”.

The other objection is that federalism will promote disunity and lead to a separatist movement. It is rare, to find in the pages of history instances of separatist movements in federal unions. The general experience has been that federal constitutions have increased and cemented unity, friendship and understanding between different nationalities. On the other hand, it is in unitary states with national minorities that irredentist and separatist movements have taken root.

Besides, as the majority of members representing Tamil electorates have been returned on the Federal ticket, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to meet these representatives, obtain their views, get his own experts to report on their proposals and thereafter consider the matter dispassionately. If after such discussion and consideration it is found that no agreement can be reached, the duty of the Government does not end there. It is for the Government to solve the problem. The mere fact that they find it impossible to accept the federal principle does not entitle them to sit with folded arms and allow the situation to deteriorate.

The only remaining solution known to political science since the nineteenth century is regional autonomy with constitutional provisions for fundamental rights. Regional autonomy is one of the methods of ensuring the “reasonable use” of the Tamil language (“reasonable use” was an unhappy phrase to have been used in this connection).

Eminent writers like Dr. Cobban have stated that the powers granted to these autonomous regions established to solve multi-national problems should be as wide as possible. The powers of such autonomous regions should not be confused with the powers of local authorities if such autonomous regions are to serve any useful purpose. (Czechoslovakia and Italy) have in respect of Slovakia and Sicily, respectively, adopted the principle of regiona1 autonomy). The powers of the autonomous region must. naturally be the subject of discussion between the representatives of the Tamil national minority and the Government , which for all practical purposes represents today the Sinhalese nationality.

As it is clear that any solution must be the result of discussion between the Government and the representatives of the Tamils and not the result of a unilateral decision of the representatives of the Sinhalese nationality, it is the paramount duty of the Government to take the initiative in respect of this matter.

In the course of such negotiations, while the parties should no doubt pay due regard to correct principles it must be remembered that in a democracy one has to take the majority of the people along with one.

A spirit of compromise and tolerance is essential for the successful working of democratic institutions and if negotiations take place with due appreciation of the difficulties inherent in the functioning of democracy in a semi feudal country such as ours, it may yet be possible to work out a satisfactory solution which of course may fall short of the ideal solution.

The Prime Minister has fulfilled one part of the M.E.P. election pledge to the voters to make Sinhalese the sole official language. As to the other part of the election pledge, to recognise the “reasonable use” of the Tamil language, he has delayed the implementation of this part for over a year though his party obtained the votes of the Tamil in the South on the strength of this pledge.

The significance of this delay has not escaped the notice of the Tamil people who rightly consider that in the eyes of the Government a pledge given to the Sinhalese voters is more important than a pledge given to the Tamil voters.

However, this may be, the Prime Minister has not yet discussed his plans with the accredited representatives of the Tamil people so that he may acquaint himself with their views before finally formulating proposals which vitally affect them. Moreover, there is the federal demand, which it is his duty as Prime Minister not only of the Sinhalese but also of Ceylon, to consider after hearing the views of members of the Federal Party.

It is the failure to discuss with the Tamil representatives their problems and difficulties, without laying down prior conditions for such discussion, that is partly responsible for the mounting sense of frustration and resentment among the Tamil people today. They are surprised that proposals regarding their future are formulated by the representatives of the Sinhalese people as if what these representatives decide has to be meekly accepted without question by the Tamil people. This impossible situation must be ended and ended soon.

The initiative in this matter must naturally come from the Government but the Federal Party can assist considerably if it calls off the Satyagraha movement contemplated by it. Its leaders must not forget that satyagraha is a spiritual weapon and that it can easily become a weapon of suicide the moment there is an outbreak of violence. The Tamil people have neither been trained in the spirit of non-violence nor adequately prepared morally and spiritually for the sacrifice and sufferings entailed. Even Mahatma Gandhi who launched the famous Bardoli Satyagraha campaign after months of preparation, was compelled to call it off in a few days on account of the outbreak of violence. The recent happenings in Jaffna and Mannar should be sufficient indication as to whether or not violence is likely to take place.

There is no Tamil worthy of the name who approved of the imposition of the “Sinhalese Only Act” upon the Tamils, against their will, by a national majority. It is the solemn duty of every Tamil to resist this imposition.

But resistance in the form of civil disobedience can be justified only if one can in all conscience say that all preliminary steps for a settlement have been taken and every avenue has been explored and exhausted. Even then however, no responsible leader will launch such a movement unless he is certain that the masses are imbued with an abiding spirit of non violence.

Judged by any criterion the present is not the time for a movement of this nature. Though the Tamil people have been subject to acts of discrimination, pinpricks and humiliation on a number of occasions during the past year, still nothing is lost by their being patient and exploring all avenues to a peaceful settlement. Moreover, calling off the civil disobedience movement will assist in creating the right atmosphere for any discussions that may take place.

The language conflict in Ceylon can be ended only if the problem of reconciling the predominance of the majority nationality with the liberty of the minority nationality is satisfactorily solved.

The problem reduces itself to discovering a method by which people belonging to different races, languages and nationalities may live peacefully together within the confines of one political state.

It is generally agreed that such living together depends upon the existence of a regime of genuine equality within the state.

P. de Ascarate, former Director of the Minorities Section of the League of Nations, gave expression to practically the unanimous view of all thinkers and writers on this subject when he said

“ordinary common sense will tell us that this peaceful living together will not be possible unless there is real and effective equality within the State between the majority and the minority”.

The cornerstone of democracy is equality. It has however to be noted that equality does not mean that the influence of the majority in the affairs of the country is equal to that of the minority, or that the minority and the majority should be equally represented in the public and the other services, or that revenue should be equally spent on the majority and minority nationalities, or that all government records should be kept in both the minority and majority languages.

It only means that a citizen who belongs to a minority nationality has in his dealings with the State qua citizen the identical rights and duties that a member of the majority nationality has and does not suffer any disabilities which are not shared by such member.

To take an illustration, it is obvious that a Tamil citizen has the right to correspond with the state in his own language and that it is for the state to provide the necessary facilities for this purpose. If such facilities are not provided, the Tamil citizen will suffer a disability which does not attach to a Sinhalese citizen.

It will be noticed that giving effect to this principle only requires the creation of a small translation section in the government department concerned. It has nothing to do with the maintenance of the records of government.

There has been some discussion recently regarding the language in which local bodies in Tamil areas should correspond with the centre. The members of these local bodies will be mostly people who know only Tamil and the proceedings of these local bodies will be conducted in the Tamil language. The Chairman, who is the chief executive officer of such local bodies, will not know any Sinhalese and his correspondence with others can only be in the Tamil language. If this local body is to be treated on a basis of equality with a similar local body in a Sinhalese area, then both local bodies should be able to transact their business with the centre in their respective languages.

This can be ensured if at the stage of receipt and despatch of letters from and to a Tamil body, the translation section attached to the central government office does the Sinhalese and Tamil translations. Thereby, effect is given to the principle of equal treatment of local bodies and citizens, as the state spends money on the translation of the letters instead of casting the burden of such expenditure on Tamil local bodies and citizens and thereby discriminating between them and their Sinhalese counterparts. This does not mean that the records of the local government department should be maintained in Tamil. These instances can he multiplied.

A Tamil citizen has the same right of access to a minister as a Sinhalese citizen. This means that a minister should put up his name board and other particulars outside his office not only in Sinhalese but also in Tamil, in order to facilitate the exercise of this right by the Tamil citizen.

The amount of confusion that prevails in this matter may be seen from the fact that the Commissioner appointed to implement the “Sinhalese Only” Act has thought that this Act required that in forms sent out for use by the public, the Tamil equivalent should be only in footnotes and that after 1961 even those footnotes should be done away with so that the entire form would be in Sinhalese. If such action is carried to its logical conclusion, it would mean that a Tamil citizen will not be able to purchase a ticket at a railway station unless he has learnt Sinhalese.

The state exists for the protection of its citizens and for the provision of certain services to them. While the state may conduct its internal business exclusively in Sinhalese, it cannot tell its citizens who speak one of the indigenous languages of the country that the condition precedent to its affording such protection or rendering such services is that such citizens should speak to the state in the Sinhalese language. If this is permitted there will be discrimination between one citizen and another and the principle of equality of citizens irrespective of race or nationality will he undermined. Besides, one cannot see how the relegation of Tamil to footnotes in government forms meant to be issued to or filled in by the Tamil people helps the Sinhalese people to promote their language and culture.

It has to be remembered that the passing of the “Sinhala Only” Act does not necessarily mean the abrogation of the democratic principle of equality in Ceylon. Neither does it mean a licence to officials to indulge in petty pinpricks and acts of humiliation at the expense of the Tamil nationality. Equality means equality before the law – equality of civil and political rights) and equal treatment in law and in fact. A solution to the nationalities problem cannot be achieved without adhering to this principle of equality.

In recent times, the socialist countries have given serious attention to this problem. For instance, in the U.S.S.R., the devices of federalism and of regional autonomy have been adopted, and the principle of equality proclaimed in the Soviet Constitution.

Article 123: “Equality of rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R., irrespective of their nationality or race in all spheres of economic government, cultural, political and other public activity, is an indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or conversely, the establishment of any direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, are punishable by law”

Czechoslovakia in attempting to solve its nationality problem has adopted the principle of regional autonomy in a unitary state, while Yugoslavia had adopted the federal principle. Both these countries have constitutional provisions similar to Article 123 of the Soviet Constitution.

The most recent and useful example for us in Ceylon is China which is an Asian country. China has a population of over 600 million. More than 90 per cent of this population belong to the Han nationality, (or Chinese as we call them). The rest of the population of less than 10 per cent comprise more than 60 different nationalities.

It would have been the easiest thing for the Han majority to have ignored the rights of these national minorities for the reason that the Hans constituted. more than 90 per cent of the population. J3ut they did not do so because their leaders accepted the truth of Lenin’s dictum that, identifying a particular nation as being dominant, even if warranted by number~ and influence, would stir up resentment and foment national strife, and that therefore national sensibilities should be taken into account.

The Chinese did not adopt the principle of federalism. instead they adopted the device of regional autonomy in a. unitary state, coupled with other safeguards for scattered minorities.

In the report made in December 1951, Li Wei-han, Chairman of the Commission of Nationalities Affairs stated

“Any national minority urine in a compact corn unity is entitled to regional autonomy for nationalities and has the right to establish an autonomous region and autonomous organ, in accordance with this general principle and major prerequisite. Any national minority has the right to administer its own internal affairs in conformity with the wishes of the great majority of its own people and leaders in touch with the people. It is the right of every national minority to be the master of its own affairs. Assistance must be given to each national minority in order to facilitate the exercise of this right. This principle, too, must be adhered to strictly”.

Regional autonomy has been established in China in accordance with the general line of the Common Programme of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Articles 9, 50 and 51 of this Programme provide inter alia that all nationalities within the boundaries of the People’s Republic of China shall have equal rights and duties, that all these nationalities are equal, that they shall establish unity and mutual aid among themselves so that the People’s Republic of China will become a big fraternal and co–operative family comprising all its nationalities and that actions involving discrimination , oppression and splitting the unity of the various nationalities shall be prohibited and that. regional autonomy shall be exercised in areas where national minorities are concentrated.

In August 1952, the Central People’s Government promulgated its detailed programme for the implementation of regional autonomy for its national minorities. Some of the Articles of this programme are reproduced below

Article 4

“In areas where national minorities are concentrated, the following types of autonomous regions may be established according to the relations obtaining between the nationalities of the localities and to the condition of local economic developments, with due consideration of the historical background:

1. Autonomous regions established on the basis of an area inhabited by one national minority.

2. Autonomous regions established on the basis of an area inhabited by one large national minority, including certain areas inhabited by other national minorities with very small populations who, likewise, shall enjoy regional autonomy.

3. Autonomous regions jointly established on the basis of two or more areas, each inhabited by a different national minority. ~ether a separate national autonomous region will be established in each of these areas depends on the actual conditions in the respective areas and on the wishes of the nationalities concerned.

Article 8

“In designating a national autonomous region, the name of the nationality shall be prefixed with the geographical denomination. Exceptions are permitted in special cases.

Article 10

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region is the organ of state power of the people in that region.

Article 12

“The people’s Government in a national autonomous region shall be composed mainly of members from the nationality or nationalities exercising regional autonomy, with the participation of an appropriate number of members from other national minorities and the Hans inhabiting the same region.

Article 14

“The actual form which the autonomous organ of a national autonomous region is to take shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the nationality or nationalities exercising regional autonomy and the wishes of the local leaders who are associated with the ~

Article 1.5

“The autonomous organ a national autonomous region may adopt the language most commonly used in the region as the chief medium of intercourse in the exercise of its authority. But where the autonomous organ exercises its authority over a nationality to whom this language is unfamiliar the language of the latter nationality also shall be adopted.

Article 19

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region may, subject to the unified financial control of the state, administer the region’s finances within a sphere prescribed by the Central People’s Government and the local people ‘s governments above its level.

Article 20

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region may freely develop the region’s economy in accordance with the unified economic system and plan for economic construction of the state.

Article 21

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region may take necessary and appropriate steps to develop the culture, education, arts, and health services of the various nationalities inhabiting the region.

Article 25

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region shall protect the right to national equality of all nationalities in the region: educate the people of different nationalities to respect each other’s language, both spoken and written, customs, traditions and religious beliefs, and prohibit national discrimination and oppression, and all acts liable to provide disputes between nationalities.

Article 27:

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region shall in accordance with the provisions of Article 4 of this General Programme, help the other national minority or minorities concentrated in the region to practise regional autonomy.

Article 28:

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region shall enter into full consultation with representatives of other nationality or nationalities living in the region on all problems relating particularly to that nationality or nationalities.

Article 29:

“The autonomous organ of a national autonomous region shall educate and guide the people living in the region towards unity and mutual assistance between all nationalities of the country and towards love for the People’s Republic of China, in which all nationalities live together in a spirit of fraternity and co-operation like one big family.

Article 30

“The people’s governments of higher levels shall respect the rights of autonomy of the national autonomous regions and help to put them into practice.

Article 35

“The People’s governments of higher levels shall educate and assist the people of all nationalities in observing an attitude of equality, fraternity, unity, and mutual assistance among the nationalities and in overcoming all tendencies to domination by the majority nationality or to narrow nationalism.”

When questioned about the advisability of adopting regional autonomy as a solution to China’s nationality problem, Ulanfu, the Vice Chairman of the Commission of Nationalities Affairs, stated

“It is just because we want all nationalities to go forward together into a future where all mankind shall live in peace, because we want to eliminate narrow nationalism and because we want to hasten and enhance the political, cultural and economic development of areas inhabited by national minorities that we must establish regional autonomy for nationalities”.

China’s example is an inspiring one, not only with regard to the spirit that should animate any government which desires to solve its problem, but also with regard to the steps that such a government should take if it is to justify its claim to have taken the road to socialism.

Despite the acute controversy that has raged over the language issue it is significant that no Sinhalese leader of note has questioned the right of the Tamil people to cherish and foster their own language and culture. Every successive government in this country since we attained independence has expressed its concern for the rich cultural heritage of the Tamils.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues have on more than one occasion proclaimed that the right of the Tamil people to their language and culture will not be denied them. The recent action of the Government in resisting all attempts to make Sinhalese the sole medium of instruction at the University shows not only its recognition of a sound educational principle but also its genuine regard for the preservation of the Tamil language and culture in this country.

This is an indication that the passing of the “Sinhala Only” Act was motivated not by a desire to throttle the Tamil language but because of a general feeling that it was necessary step for the protection of the Sinhalese language. Apart from this, economic factors also played an important part in the agitation for making Sinhalese the sole official language.

With rapidly increasing population and a stagnant economy unable to provide employment for all citizens it was easy to persuade the Sinhalese people that the Tamils were taking the bread out of their mouths.

Though the number of Tamils in all white-collared jobs in the Public Services including Civil List jobs, does not exceed 30 per cent of the total number and in the other services is less than 10 per cent, yet an erroneous impression has been gaining ground that the percentage of Tamils in the Public Service is as high as 60 or 70 per cent.

This erroneous impression is partly due to the fact that there is a concentration of Tamil Public Officers in Colombo. Both during and after the elections, the Sinhalese people have been persuaded to believe not only this exaggerated percentage but also that the Tamils have obtained their position in the Public Services as a result of unfair competition.
Several ministers of government have stated from public platforms that the passing of the Sinhala Act will reduce the number of Tamils in the Public Service and thereby solve to some extent the problems of Sinhalese unemployment.

Though the estimate of the percentage of Tamils in the Public Service is highly exaggerated yet there is considerable substance in the statement that as a result of the “Sinhala Only” Act there is bound to be a reduction in the number of Tamil officers. Even if a Tamil citizen learns Sinhalese as a second language he will find it very difficult to compete successfully with a Sinhalese educated in his mother tongue. Besides, at the rate at which unemployment is increasing it will not be unnatural if the Sinhalese are first absorbed into the Public Service before the Tamils are considered for such employment.

Apart from electoral pressure which the Government will find difficult to resist, it may be rightly considered that a person proficient in the official language will prove more useful as a public servant. The chances are that in course of time very few Tamils will be able to find government employment unless it be in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and there too only if the regional administration is carried on in the Tamil language.

This is a situation to which the Tamil people have to reconcile themselves. Though at first sight it might appear a great hardship, yet it is worthwhile to pay this price for the sake of communal peace and amity. The keen competition in the field of public employment has been the principal cause of ill-will and friction between the two nationalities.

The entire political thinking of the Tamil leadership during the past 30 years has been dominated by the one idea of conserving to the Tamils their position in the Public Service. It is this which has contributed to some reactionary proposals made by this leadership in the past and the consequent impression created in the minds of the Sinhalese people that the Tamils were against the progress of the country.

The “Sinhala Only” Act has dealt a fatal blow to the position of the Tamils in the Public Service, and the educated youth of the Tamil country will have to seek other avenues of employment. The main fields in which they can hope to be employed are agriculture and industry, particularly in the homelands of the Tamil people.

Despite the intense racial propaganda of the last fifteen months, there is hardly any animosity between the farmer in the Northern Province and his counterpart in the South. It is significant that during the communal troubles in June 1956, the area in which there was the most serious rioting and bloodshed was Gal Oya, which had a mixed population.

If one desires to avoid communal friction it is not advisable to create rural settlements with mixed populations in the present state of economic development of the country.

The above considerations will show the desirability of adopting regional autonomy as a solution to our troubles. If this is done, some Tamil citizens will be able to find employment under the regional authority while others will be able to embark on agricultural and industrial pursuits in the regions set apart for them, without coming into collision with their Sinhalese fellow citizens.

In course of time, with an expanding economy and full employment which must necessarily result with the establishment of a truly socialist pattern of society, friendship and understanding are bound to replace the present hostility between the two nationalities. No doubt, life in the region will not be a bed of roses, particularly for a class of people who have been prizing office jobs and professional careers, but without sacrifice and hard work on the part of the Tamil people there can be no lasting or permanent solution of our internal conflicts.

Besides, it is the duty of the government to take the necessary steps to solve the ever-increasing problem of Tamil unemployment which will result from the full implementation of the Sinhala Only policy and to alleviate in some measure the inevitable economic distress in the Tamil. areas.

Government has not seriously addressed itself to this problem perhaps because it has not yet become acute, but it cannot afford to wait until it does become acute to search for a solution.

If it seriously examines the question now it will find that regional autonomy affords a satisfactory solution of the problems created for the Tamil people by the passing of the “Sinhala Only” Act, without causing any prejudice to the Sinhalese nationality.

It must also be remembered that the right to his national culture is a basic right of every citizen. Ever since the first European war it has been widely recognised by most thinking people that minorities must be protected against the danger of their “losing their national character and that an individual could not enjoy human rights in any meaningful sense unless adequate recognition was given to the ethnic collectivity of which he was an integral part”.

The present government has taken the right step in recognising Tamil as a medium of instruction for Tamils from the kindergarten to the university. But this alone is not sufficient to protect the Tamil people against losing their national character. The language, customs, culture and traditions of a people are preserved not in cosmopolitan towns but in the villages and the countryside.

If one took a group of people speaking the Tamil language and settled them in large numbers in colonisation schemes in the Southern Province among people who cherish a different language and culture, one would be undermining the national character of the people of the area.

The same applies to large scale colonisation of the Tamil areas by Sinhalese colonists. The principal method of affording protection to a minority culture and language is to carve out a territorial area in which such minority is concentrated and in which there should be no state- aided colonisation by persons speaking a different language and belonging to a different culture. If such colonisation is permitted it will be detrimental to both cultures.

Index of materials on S. Nadesan QC:

It should also be noted that the language of a people cannot be adequately safeguarded unless it is used in some measure in the daily administration of the region in which such people are concentrated. Thus, the demarcation of a region in which the Tamil nationality is concentrated and the employment of Tamil in the administration of the region are two essential pre-requisites for the protection of the Tamil language and culture.

The Government cannot carry out its avowed policy of affording such protection unless it carries to its logical conclusion its educational policy and demarcates a region within which the Tamil people may be able to participate in the administration and share in the cultural life of their nationality.

This shows the necessity of creating an autonomous region which could absorb all Tamil citizens and their descendants inclusive of those who will be thrown out of employment or who will be unable to secure employment once the “Sinhala Only” Act is fully implemented.

If the Tamil people are given the land in their own areas to develop, and if they have an assurance that this land will be there for them and their descendants, they should not worry about losing their position in the Public Service and the professions. With hard work they should be able to develop their region and contribute substantially to the economic prosperity of the country. Moreover they will have a cultural home in which their language which is found in its pristine purity only in Ceylon will flourish. This will also remove all causes of friction and hostility between the two nationalities, and usher in an era of friendship and fruitful co-operation. All these results can be achieved only if there is an adequate measure of regional autonomy.

Though the term autonomy in its original meaning includes the concept of independence, the term as generally used now implies a relationship between a social body and a power to which it is subordinate. One cannot ask for a separate state within a state and call it regional autonomy.

The basis of regional autonomy is that the state for the sake of peace and contentment of a minority grants a certain measure of self-government within the political framework of the state so that the minority nationality may develop a “regional individuality” and also participate fully in the public life of the community.

The population is thus afforded full scope for the exercise of its political energies and it will feel that it governs itself in matters which vitally affect it. It should however be noted that regional autonomy while protecting the cultural and economic interests of a minority nationality must recognise a higher national unity and superior national interests which transcend the interests of the particular national region.

Regional autonomy affords a reasonably satisfactory method of resolving the conflict between the ideal of a nationally homogenous state and the reality of ethnic and cultural heterogeneity. It reconciles the right of self-determination of a minority nationality with the sovereignty of the State.

“Sovereignty has its own natural limits; chief of these is the duty of respecting the liberties or rights of the individual including his right to national liberty. But national liberty is not an absolute right; it is only to be asserted to the degree in which it is compatible with organised social life”.

If one bears the above principles in mind it should not be difficult to evolve a satisfactory scheme of regional autonomy. The Regional Council Bill published by the Government cannot serve the purpose unless it is suitably modified, because it has been framed to meet a totally different set of circumstances.

It must further be recognised that the ordinary rights of democratic local self government in towns and counties, communes and departments, are not an adequate answer to the demand for regional autonomy. It is an essential element in the claim of nationality that the nation or sub nation should be treated as a unity. Even names are important in this connection.

If once the principle of regional autonomy is accented it should not be difficult to work out the details with the assistance, if need be, of well known experts on the subject.

The adoption of such a scheme will prove beneficial not only to the Tamils but also to the Sinhalese people.

Regional Autonomy in a Multi National State 1957 – Ilankai Tamil Sangam

About editor 3043 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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