“You see, gentlemen, a king whom the army and cannons obey – this is part of a constitution!” Ferdinand Lassalle once said.
Lassalle, writing in 1862, was theorising at the time of the newly-born modern constitutions. They were begat by the bloody battle between the two then competing systems, decaying feudalism, and emerging capitalism. The democratic demands and the revolutionary steps forward contained within the constitutions that developed out of the French revolution and from the US civil war were part and parcel of what made bourgeois class victorious. However, under the capitalist system, all these “high demands” have been undermined and the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, came to disown their own revolutions. Many principled ideas, such as freedom of speech that is held within the first amendment in US, have either been amended out of existence or practically made impossible to realise.
Now, there is no constitution in the world that reflects the interest of the majority working population. There is no law in any country in the world that completely reflects the aspiration of the toiling masses and serves their interests.
Lassalle was right to point to the role of the state and ruling class interests in any constitution. He says that a constitution reflects the “actual relation of forces existing in a given society”. At times struggle on the ground between the opposing class interests can push forward the formation of this or that law which could protect certain interests of the masses. However, the implementation of that law or those parts of the constitution that benefit the working class are always subject to the strength of the class forces on the ground. Historical proof is in evidence throughout Sri Lanka’s past.
J R Jayawardena(JRJ) changes to the constitution in 1978 made it easier for the state to attack the workers’ movement and were put to use in the general strikes in the 1980’s. Executive presidency, draconian laws such as prevention of terrorism act and other anti-working class measures were introduced under JRJ’s rule.
We could argue here that the pogroms against the Tamils in 1983 which strengthened the hands of the ‘militant’ youth organisations were made possible with that defeat.
Going back a little further in history to 1972 we could see more of a striking parallel. At that time enormous hope and expectation existed among the Sinhala masses for an arrangement that could give them an advantage, not over Tamils, but over the ruling elite. With the participation of the parties such as Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) they trusted that the outcome could benefit the workers and poor in general.
A similar enthusiasm and expectations existed among the Tamil workers and youth, though at its core was fear – fear of being in the minority and losing out to the Sinhala elite. However the so-called Tamil leaders at the time – the leaders of the Federal Party (FP) did not reflect this. Their political leaning was largely with the United National Party (UNP), the main bourgeois party, in opposition to the progressive changes. In the south, it was impossible for the class that was pushing the LSSP to see the FP leaders acting in their interest. But at the same time the LSSP leadership failed to understand what elevated them. In this, they made an historical mistake in capitulating to the demands and pressures exerted on them by the bourgeoisie and their representatives and in not carrying forward the interests of their class.
The compromise of the LSSP, indirectly strengthened the FP’s grip on the discontented Tamil youth. Chelvanayagam, the FP leader, resignation in October 1972 had set fireworks in the north. Never in the history of Sri Lanka had a Tamil leader enjoyed such enormous support for their resignation. The youth, who were to play a leading role in the various armed groups later in history, organised a hero’s welcome for him in Jaffna. Despite leaning to the right in the politics in the south, the FP came to express left currents in the north. This may sound strange, but will be clear if we look at the generalised class anger that existed at that time in Sri Lanka.
The LSSP, who at that time publicly argued for a ‘Socialist revolution’, enjoyed mass support and won more seats in the 1970 election than the main bourgeois party, the UNP. It’s important to note that the LSSP stood in 23 seats and won 19. The UNP stood in 130 seats and won just 17. Not all elections are a reflection of class forces, but this one certainly gave a clear indication to what was taking place on the ground. The FP won 13 out of 19 seats and also held some strength in this situation. However, their real strength was expressed after the events of 1972 which pushed them in a leftward direction. On the basis of the Vaddukoddai Resolution that argued for a “socialist Tamil Eelam” and other democratic demands such as for a secular state, etc, the FP was propelled to become the main opposition party in 1977, winning 18 out of the 23 seats. At the very same time the southern situation was already beginning to go into reverse. Due to the betrayal of the LSSP, the masses were willing to take their chances with the right wing in the hope of defending their interests. All the left in the south suffered a mammoth defeat. This background was later capitalised on by the UNP-led government to reverse all the gains and punch a mortal blow to the once strong unions and the left. The working class in general is still paying the price as a consequence of this history. Tamils have gone through a massacre partly as a consequence of this history. Regardless of the constitution, it is the battle of the classes in the end that decided the historical changes.
Now in the year of the 40th anniversary of the Vaddukoddai resolution, we find ourselves in a more or less similar situation. The current so-called “national government” was propelled to power with a populist 100-day programme which created enormous expectations of change. This was more than just the relief at getting rid of the dictatorial regime of corruption and nepotism of Mahinda, it was also a desire to improve conditions. We also see, for the second time in history, a Tamil party, this time the TNA, winning the overwhelming support of the Tamil masses, playing a role of the opposition leader in the parliament and of course true to their historical route leaning on the right-wing UNP.
Once again the UNP is proposing changes, including constitutional changes, to further pull society in a rightward direction. These changes are discussed on the verge of possible economic slowdown, with massive borrowing from the IMF and the implementation of the IMF-led austerity budget. A significant section of the Sinhala workers, particularly in the cities, voted with the Tamils and other minorities to oust the warmongering regime, with the hope of benefiting economically out of it. Tamils on the other hand did not have a choice. The new situation is giving rise to new political expressions. If they takes shape they will undoubtedly challenge the current TNA leadership. In that sense the aspiration of the Tamils and Sinhalese are not on a collision course, but could be brought close together. This is more the case now than ever before – including the 1960s when the left enjoyed higher support. However, as before, the ground forces do not have an independent expression through the currently existing political organisations. What is absent is a mass party of the left. In its absence the UNP has its eye on the prize.
If the Tamil masses begin to move towards demanding “democratic rights” they will find themselves leaderless. The TNA so far has given unconditional support to the economic and political aims of their allies – the UNP. They “hope” to get some sort of “devolution”. The TNA wants to hang on to any crumbs thrown at them in the hope of somehow satisfying and controlling the pressure emerging among the Tamils. At the same time the Sinhala poor and farmers, in the rural areas, the majority of whom oppose the UNP find themselves also in a leaderless situation. The Colombo elite, has no way of providing such leadership.
Given the onslaught that the UNP is planning on the prized services of the people such as education and health, the tables could once again tilt back in the direction of Mahinda or the likes of him. Soon after the election the real intentions started to become clear – that Ranil and Maithri sought a cosy relationship with western interests and that communalism was beginning to rise and along with it was Mahinda’s support. He is now only held back by the threat of criminal charges against his family members. But as Ranil and Maithri admitted many times they are not planning to punish them or travel in the direction of delivering justice for the war victims. But the idea that this “human rights issue” can be “used” as a weapon at their disposal to curtail and control this section of Mahinda’s SLFP and their supporters is bogus. The UN and the western governments use the same tactic. In the meantime the UNP-led attacks on conditions continue to emerge. This can lead to movements of various characters that the UNP will not be able to control. Changing the constitution to prepare for such an eventuality could play role in benefiting UNP like it did in the 1980s.
It is in this light that we must look at the proposed changes. Abolishing the executive presidency has so far been marketed as a “tactic” to side-line the MR family. But so far no meaningful changes have been proposed. If the constitution is to benefit the people as is claimed, it is the people who should have a say, not through wishy-washy so-called “consultation” meetings in which the majority of the population don’t take part and not through a propaganda campaign in a media that is largely controlled by big business and linked to political establishment. This does not amount to direct participation by the masses. It cannot also happen through the parliament. Ranil and Maithri recently claimed ridiculously that the parliament is an elected body and acts as a constituent assembly. The majority of the parliaments in the world do not reflect the whole population – in its constituent parts – let alone the majority the population. The majority in the world and in Sri Lanka do not vote, largely due to the fact that they do not see any candidates as their representatives. Parliament reflects a skewed view even of those who vote. Regardless of the election, in reality it amounts to less than a minute’s participation on a given day within which an opportunity is given to the masses to choose the ‘lesser evil’ or the ‘evil’ presented to them. The masses don’t have any more control of the decision-making process of the parliament or any state apparatus. This largely reflects and serves the dominant class in society that controls production, which is a tiny minority in the population.
But a constitution cannot be formed with this skewed understanding of what is democracy. In the same way that the minority elite and capitalists cannot have a complete say in how society is organised – the majority, with sheer weight of the population alone, cannot demand to be on the right. Every constituent part of the society should have their voice in the society they want to live in – regardless of the various identities and regardless of the number of people in that group. A constitution that aims to cover the whole of society will have an impact even on a minority of one – which it cannot ignore.
Sri Lanka parliament voted unanimously to adopt a resolution to covert the parliament into a constitutional assembly. Prime minister claims that the parliament is an “elected” body and can act as a constitutional assembly. We would argue that the bourgeois parliament cannot act as a representative body that can decide for the whole of the population of their fate. Instead a constituent assembly need to be established. Constituent assembly that consists of all the constituent parts of society and elected representatives from all sections of society should be formed to begin to discuss in what sort of society – under what sort of arrangement they all want to live. Hence this demand for the formation of a constituent assembly is a vital demand. However it should not be like its namesake committee that was formed in the 1970s. That is why it is important to add that what we are talking about is a revolutionary constituent assembly. This of course will not be “delivered” by the ruling elite – but has to be won through struggle. The very nature of a revolutionary constituent assembly itself challenges the bourgeois control and will seek to transfer it to the constituent parts of the society. The bourgeois may be in the minority but will use whatsoever they have in their possession, including the army and the cannon, to fight to prevent such a scenario.
Ranil-maithri’s proposal has nothing to do with the above intention. It is vital to educate the masses about the bogus nature of their proposals and what is to come of it. This is not to argue that the workers and poor stand as spectators and watch the onslaught unfold. This would be a mistake but also seems to be the position of some of the so-called “left” such as the JVP and FSP. The JVP today is a different JVP to that of 1970 which openly supported the LSSP-CP-led fight for power and argued for the full implementation of the programme they stood for. However, the JVP today is not so different from the old JVP in many ways: in their lack of ability to understand the political situation in Sri Lanka, let alone the regional and world situation. The JVP has consistently failed to put forward a fighting programme that could galvanise the masses to the ideas of the left-instead they always taken a shortcut through nationalism as rallying point. It is likely that they could opportunistically support the UNP-led changes. The FSP, on the other hand, is claiming that they are different from the JVP, but have so far failed to show the differences. They both are more preoccupied with their propaganda against the “Indian threat”. The need for the transitional programme – one that address the current demands and the aspirations of the masses and reaches out to their consciousness and links that to the demand for socialist change has never been part of their strategy. Not only do they fail the Sinhala working class by being mere spectators at this important time of struggle, but they also deeply antagonise the Tamil population, and push them further towards Tamil nationalism. These are the methods of the JVP from their early days which led them towards supporting chauvinistic, nationalist policies, which played a counterproductive role of further dividing the working class.
The demand for a secular state, maintaining nationalised health and education, and securing enough funding for it – and defending services that had been won through immense struggle, are some of the key concerns of all the working masses in Sri Lanka. The proposed changes to the constitution can undermine all that, and implement an electoral system that will further restrict all minority parties including the left. It is totally unacceptable to be silent in the face of this. It will be wrong to expect all human rights to be delivered by the bourgeois constitution –and wrong to create such illusions among the masses. At the same time it is also wrong not to fight back against all backward and conservative changes. When the government injected the Buddhist religion into state affairs it played a key breaking point for the Federal Party in the 1970s led them to get full grip of mostly Hindu Tamil population. But it is not just a religious question. Furthering the grip of “Sinhala Buddhist” control of the state in Sri Lanka means extending the rule of the capitalist elite. This has no positive impact on the ordinary working Buddhist population. This needs to be skilfully explained to sway the masses away from chauvinist influences.
We also need to raise awareness and opposition to another backward practice that was allowed through the constitution, in the name of defending the rights of minorities. The so-called Thesa valamai laws, that are protected under the personal laws, allow acute exploitation of oppressed caste, women and children. Oppressing caste in Kandy and in the north east continued to maintain their grip. While defending the right to religion, and individual rights including what to wear, etc, very backward practices such as caste discriminations and child marriages need to be challenged vehemently. This of course is linked to the land rights which are restricted for women in the north to this day. Demands that we need to advance regarding land are crucial in this circumstances. It is not enough to say that the caste discrimination should be outlawed. Like anti-racist laws it itself will not help to eradicate or reduce the level of discrimination that exists. Special preferences given to those face severe oppression should be part of our programme, however it should be linked to the demands that could make lasting impact. While putting forward a demand for some sort of preferences, to enable higher representation from the most oppressed, it should be linked to right to land and education. Crucially a demand for democratic state control of the industries that maintains and thrives from caste discrimination is vital to ending it. State control and subsidies should be paralleled with the wider engagement of the oppressed caste in these industries to lift them out of rotten conditions they are forced to live for centuries.
We should have no illusion that under the present capitalist system every constitution will fail the people it aims to “govern”. To expect a constitutional change by the UNP to deliver on behalf of the most oppressed, minorities and working people is beyond utopianism. To quote Lassalle again:
“No, Gentlemen! Utterly impossible! If you have an apple tree in your garden and you hang upon it a label upon which you write ‘this is a pear tree,’ has the apple tree been thereby changed? No. And if you assembled all your household and all the residents of the county and loudly and ceremoniously swore: ‘this is a pear tree’, the tree would remain what it was and the next year would bear apples and not pears.
So with a constitution. It makes no difference what is written on a piece of paper so long as it contradicts the real state of things, the real relation of forces”.