Constituting A Continent Of Trust

By Gopalakrishna Gandhi

On the first anniversary of Sri Lanka’s government of national unity, we must recognise that the idea of a joint Sri Lanka Freedom Party-United National Party (SLFP-UNP) government, bringing two traditionally opposed parties together, was thought oxymoronic beyond description, a contradiction as absurd as a king coconut growing on a mango tree.

At the call of the pioneers of the experiment — Maithripala Sirisena, then a rebel Minister; Ranil Wickremesinghe, then leader of the Opposition; and Chandrika Kumaratunga, former President — the people of Sri Lanka withdrew the mandate given to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, drew reconciliation from the ambience of revenge; dialogue from division, peace from war; and indeed, at the cost of sounding platitudinous, life from death.

If there is one nation, aside from Afghanistan, where the phrases ‘war and peace’ and ‘life and death’ have been as real as the breath in our lungs, it is Sri Lanka. Countless people in Sri Lanka have lived and continue to live under the spectre of ethnic violence, have felt death’s cold hand, with many survivors carrying scars on, and shrapnel in, their limbs. Some of them will always be logjammed with peril.

An experiment with trust

Sri Lanka stood last year on nothing less than, nothing less dangerous than, a precipice. The players involved were taking a risk and no ordinary one at that. The issue was of course trust, plain simple trust. But the plain and the simple do not come plain and simple. If the players trusted too little, they would lose even before they started. If they trusted too much and the trust was betrayed, they could lose more than their political futures. When those who trust trust like these three did, they step beyond the politics of the predictable into the margent of the unknown, of a future that could either be a farce or a force. They acted in faith, those three, with their colleagues, and became a force, a force for change. Not the change that comes from modifying laws alone but one that comes from modifying relationships.

Trust is a strange thing. If it works, it is seen as noble; if it does not, it is seen as stupid. A politician, like a cricketer, can live with the image of a loser. However, he cannot live with the title of ‘a stupid person’. The Sri Lankan experimenters with trust took the risk of being called exactly that and worse. Simple Sri Lankans of all categories, linguistic, religious, political, coming from various occupations, chose, a year ago, carefully but unambiguously, to affirm the hypothesis of trust for the nation’s greatness. Not without courtesy, but with firmness, they held authoritarianism by the hand, took it to the out door and said to it: See you later.

The victory of the SLFP-UNP alliance pulled Sri Lanka back from the brink.

Back from the brink but to what exactly? The experimenters intended, clearly, through the huge step they had taken, not to bring the country back to the old hearths of mutual suspicions but to take it to a new threshold of continuing and incremental trust. ‘Incremental’ is the crucial word here.

There is a Tamil saying mullai mullaaldaan edukkuiyelum (a thorn can only be removed using a thorn). It is a fact that the insensitive thwarting of moderate Tamil Lankan leaders’ legitimate aspirations, decade after decade, by narrow ethno-linguistic nationalism, grew into the nightmare that ended with one of the world’s most sanguinary wars. The Ponnambalams and Chelvanayagams and Tiruchelvams were men of vision and equal perseverance.

Tamil aspirations are non-optional

If the Ponnambalamas and Chelvanayakams had not been disappointed, spurned, marginalised in the 1950s and 1960s, Velupillai Prabhakaran would not have been required by the cause of a ‘Tamil Lanka’. Sri Lanka does not have those great political leaders today, but we have in the Tamil leaders of Sri Lanka today, persons who have survived terror. The Tamil Sri Lankan who is a constitutionalist, a parliamentarian and a believer in a united and just Sri Lanka must not be disappointed, spurned. The old vicious cycle must not be repeated. An early and sincere meeting of Sri Lankan Tamil aspirations is non-optional, for there is a historical imperative to those. Sri Lanka must do all it can to prevent new disappointments, new spurnings, new marginalisations to lead to a revival of the Eelam goal which lurks in the Tamil Sri Lankan diaspora’s alienated mind.

A return of vengeful violence, in some new second coming, and its twin, hideous repression, would be disastrous. As Sri Lanka moves into Constitution-making, all that made the earlier Constitution vulnerable would have to be kept firmly out and all that makes for the federal spirit within a unitary system strengthened.

Here, the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, much criticised in both countries, has in its long-term recommendations much which, through Sri Lanka’s 13A constitutional route, remains valuable. There cannot be a better anchor for the ship of Sri Lanka’s inclusive unity than that Indo-Lankan accord, even as there can be no truer friend of a united Sri Lanka than a reassured India.

Inclusivity, power-sharing, between the Centre and periphery, and the deepening of democracy are imperative. But this cannot be done patronisingly. The majority which confers rights on a minority remains dictatorial, an overlord. The majority which self-effaces everywhere except in the matter of seats in an elected house of representatives is democratic, is republican.

Inclusion is about more than tolerance, accommodation. It is even more than respect. It is about a celebration of the other, pride in the other. Politics becomes, then, a matter of culture, civilisational culture. Why should more Sinhala Sri Lankans not see and share the wisdom of Colvin de Silva’s famous all-time utterance, “One language, two countries; two languages, one country”? And N.M. Perera’s equally famous scoffing at the idea of “one superior race”?

Ethnic fairness is not a one-way street

But ethnic fairness is never a one-way street alone. Nelson Mandela said famously, “I am against White racism”. There was no big deal to that. But he also added the very next moment, “I am also against Black racism”. That was a big deal, a very big deal. If the Sri Lankan Tamil were to say, “I am against Sinhala racism,” there would be no big deal. But if he were also to say …and I am against Tamil racism,” a huge difference would be made to trust and trusting.

The Sri Lankan Muslim and the Sri Lankan Christian also need reassurances of trust, as does the plantation Tamil, especially the Tamil tea-plucker, whom Professor Suryanarayana has characterised as Sri Lanka’s ‘Cinderella’, and, I must add, the unaffiliated Sri Lankan dissenter and the independent Sri Lankan iconoclast as well. The transition in Tamil Sri Lankan positions from constitutional reform via constitutional means to separatism via violent means to an Eelam via terrorism was thought irreversible. That has changed. Negotiated change is now back on the table. It must not slumber there. Vengeance is waiting to see how reform fares. Not just Sri Lanka but the whole of South Asia and in fact liberalism and pluralism everywhere require the success of the Government of National Unity’s endeavours, for this opportunity, if lost, is unlikely ever to come again.

I believe the opportunity has not come only to be lost. This island is not Serendib for nothing. An island is a small continent, a continent only a large island. Let no one think of Sri Lanka as a small island. In what it has done over the last year and more for building trust between communities and political groups, in cutting egos and trimming pride, it has shown itself to be large, larger than many a large country, including India. An island of discord for decades, Sri Lanka has become an island of hope and must become a continent of trust.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University. This article is from a keynote address delivered at an event to mark the completion of the first year of the Government of National Unity, in Colombo on January 8)