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Sri Lanka: Can nationalism be separated from justice?

Jul 02, 2012

'Nationalism' according to Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission is one of the most misused words in the 20th Century, and Basil feels Sri Lanka is no exception to this.

Can the idea of a nation be separated from the idea of the social contract that the people of that nation has among themselves.


Of course, the idea of social contract is an abstraction. At no particular place or time have the people got together to make such a contract. But it is necessary abstractions to talk about the kind of agreement that people have about the nation they want to be a part of.


Of course, one of the great misconceptions is that the British, as the power that developed an administration for the whole of the country created the Sri Lankan nation. However, the construction of the administration and the making of the nation is not the same thing.


The British were a colonial power and therefore did not have any interest in making all Sri Lankans constituted as a nation. That would be self contradictory as the making of a nation is a political activity and a colonial power that needs to have control over a people for their own ends could not have constructed a political entity on the basis of the agreement of the people.


The struggle for independence was therefore the time for the construction of this idea of the agreement of the political entity that the people would have wanted for themselves. Did this, in fact, happen? Of course, answering that is a matter for the historians who are looking into what the discourse was then.


Looking at what that discourse was from generally available sources and the popular knowledge it is difficult to find any kind of serious debate about what the people wanted their country to be.


Using words like 'obtaining freedom', 'ending colonialism' and the like were mere slogans and were not products that came out of a serious discourse of the future as the people wanted to construct it.


Though there were consultations at the time of the development of the country's constitution there is no evidence of a serious engagement of the people among themselves brought about by political parties or by any other social organisations about shaping a basic identity for the kind of relationship people wanted amongst themselves.


Later, in 1972 and 1978 when two constitutions were drafted that process too did not involve in an effort to try and forge the internal consensus on what people wanted their nation to be. In fact, the 1972 Constitution began the process of stealing the limited freedoms achieved by way of independence and one of the primary areas attacked was the peoples' right to justice. Even the limited recognition achieved during the colonial times to have the courts adjudicate on the liberties of the citizens was attacked in 1972.


The 1978 Constitution took the process of the removal of whatever was achieved by way of freedom and liberties by removing the very idea of constitutionalism through the 'new constitution'. It was a constitution to gain all power for the regime and deprive the people of all power. The idea of public institutions itself was fundamentally attacked and consequently the paralysis of all public institutions developed since then was no surprise. Using the same constitutional framework the rights of the trade unions was attacked as the rights of the political parties. Together with that the freedom of expression, association and the freedom of having free and fair elections were fundamentally attacked.


The 1978 Constitution was one that removed whatever agreements the people had amongst themselves.


Thereafter they developed the security apparatus making good use of the insurrections which arose in the south, north and the east. Under the cover of fighting against terrorism a security apparatus grew like an octopus strangling all the freedoms of the people. In that process the country's criminal justice system was also crushed. See also, SRI LANKA: The rise of the security apparatus and the decline of the criminal justice system.


What then is the social contract of the Sri Lankans among themselves?


Can a people who are trapped within a security apparatus have any social contract among themselves anyway? Perhaps the metaphor of a fish caught up in a net is a more correct depiction of what Sri Lankans have become, than people who are capable of making a social contract among themselves.


Thus, we come back to the original question of what is nationalism if there is no initial contract of people amongst themselves.

As against those who corrupt the word 'nationalism' for whatever abuses they want to achieve it is time for a more intelligible conversation of what the Sri Lankans want their nation to be and how to create it.

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