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Sunday, 10 January 2016

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Towards the Third Republic

A researcher went to the reference section of the famous Library of the British Museum in London and asked to see a copy of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. She was re-directed, paradoxically, to the Periodicals section, so the story goes. This was a popular political joke circulating among Colombo's intelligentsia in the 1980s at a time when the country's (then) recently crafted Second Republican Constitution was being amended apace - more to the convenience of the ruling party and less in the interests of the political future. That 'future' is today's harsh reality of a State in tatters partly because of the huge flaws of that Constitution.

The fact that the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka of 1978 was, no less, the third Constitution for our little island nation-state in just thirty years and that, too, was being rapidly subjected to amendments within years, was the basis for this political joke that depicted our 'basic law' not as a permanent writ but as one that periodically changed.

In many other countries, constitutions have undergone many amendments, especially in the early 'teething' period when the basic law faces up to various specific contingencies and is found inadequate. But Sri Lanka is perhaps the only nation in modern times where its basic law has undergone not just amendments but has been scrapped and fully replaced with a new 'basic law' three times over in just decades.

Today, barely three decades after its third constitution was adopted, the country has now launched the process to make a fourth basic law.

Cynics and sundry denizens of the fascist and racist underworld may want to reduce the constitution-making endeavour to the level of a transient 'serial' script that could be bandied about at the whims of capricious political mavericks. This would certainly be convenient to all those who place their petty interests above that of the larger interest of this island community to re-group, as it were, its political association in to perhaps a longer-lasting, more stable, more elaborately ordered, and, more civilised, State system.

Following the President's and the Government's initiative to begin a constitution-making process the country's Parliament will now decide, on Tuesday, whether or not to proceed with this historic enterprise in nation-building. Hopefully, the proceedings in Parliament on Tuesday will not be a repeat of the legislative manoeuvres that bordered almost on sordidness during the passing of the 19th Amendment.

The country has come to this point of attempting a transformation of its political structure after much bloodshed, much pain and trauma, much agonised thinking and re-thinking, much destruction and waste of national human and infra-structural resources. Political pretensions, duplicity and betrayals notwithstanding, the body politic has survived - perhaps a tribute not just to the strivings of the civilised and the humane, but also to the multi-religious spiritual bedrock that has blessed our island society.

Today's constitution-making enterprise is marked by many 'firsts'. It is the first time that the most powerful officer of the State, literally the most powerful human on this island, is actively and persistently seeking to reduce the powers of his office. Already, the 19th Amendment has drastically reduced these powers.

It is also the first time that a major political party has acknowledged that what it did in 1978 in enacting the Second Republican Constitution was a major error that now needs redressing. This party, the United National Party, is bravely risking much in terms of party interests in its collaboration with the other political forces - even those ideologically hostile - to re-build the State in a new form. It is also the first time - since the first post-colonial constitution in 1948 - that the ethnic minorities have all come together with the majority ethnic community to share in the constitutional design process. They were outsiders in the previous two republican constitutional processes. If the Tamil minority was estranged from the constitution-making process of 1972, the single-party dominated legislature in 1978 also did not encourage much ethnic consensus in formulating that Constitution.

It is also the first time that the larger civil society is being systematically drawn into the design process with elaborate structures proposed to include the broadest possible representation of group interests. It is to be hoped that this proposed structure of public discussion and consensus building is genuinely inclusive and responsive and will not go the way of many previous sham exercises of democracy. It is also the first time that virtually all of the official processes and deliberative mechanisms will be systematically brought under the spotlight of the news media and will enable public monitoring of the process. With the new internet media in place, such public surveillance of basic lawmaking will, hopefully, herald a new era of e-governance.

All of this, ultimately, hinges on the genuineness of the people managing this process and of the interest groups participating in, and contributing to, the making of our new Republic. Hopefully, the next time - after the year-long struggle and endeavour of constitution-making - a researcher seeks the Sri Lankan Constitution, she (or, he) will not be directed to the Periodicals section.

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