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Myth Breaking 02: Representing Federalism is not aiding the Separatism

There are several myths and factless assumptions made by various parties about power sharing in a country like Sri Lanka. In a series of articles, we will examine how these myths need serious reconsideration.

By Madhuri Ranasinghe

Imagine a legal decision that doesn’t just affect the way laws are interpreted but also sparks intense debates about the future of a country. Well, that’s exactly what happened in Sri Lanka back on August 4th, 2017, when the Supreme Court made a ruling that would reshape the nation’s political course. This ruling centred on the persistent calls by the ‘Ilankei Tamil Arasu Katchi’ party (formerly known as the Federal Party) for a federal system of governance in the country. With Chief Justice Priyasath Dep, Justice Upali Abeyratne, and Justice Anil Gunaratne at the helm, this landmark decision opened the door to a deeper understanding of federalism’s potential contributions to unity and progress.

Federalism: Correcting Misconceptions
Think of it like this: For a while, people believed that talking about federalism was almost the same as talking about breaking a country apart. This belief was particularly strong in Sri Lanka. When the ‘Ilankei Tamil Arasu Katchi’ party began pushing for a federal system, many people argued that this was against the country’s Constitution. But here’s the game-changer – the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling put a stop to this misunderstanding. The esteemed justices unanimously clarified that advocating for a federal system within the bounds of the existing constitutional framework does not signify advocating for secession. This landmark judgment dispels the misguided belief that federalism inherently undermines the unity of the nation.

An Innovative Perspective on Governance
As the Supreme Court pointed out,
“There can be unitary government systems that incorporate features of a federal system of government, and federal systems of government that incorporate unitary features. A unitary system of government can be considered a federal system of government when its constituent units are given extensive powers”
The Supreme Court’s ruling did more than just clear up confusion; it offered a whole new perspective on how a country can be run. Picture this: a country can have a unitary government but also include some federal features. Or the opposite – a country with a federal system can still have some unitary traits. It’s like having two flavours of ice cream in one cone! The judges said that a unitary system can become a bit federal by giving more powers to smaller parts of the country. And a federal system can feel more unitary if most of the power stays in the central government. This flexible approach means that even different systems can get along just fine, as long as they share responsibilities, spread power, and work together.

Secondly, this judgment puts an end to various baseless allegations and myths that the ‘Ilankei Tamil Arasu Katchi’ party is engaging in illegal activity by demanding a federal system. A very clear truth has now been declared by the Supreme Court of the land: namely, that federalism is not illegal. However, just because it is not illegal, federalism has no political appeal. The judges were also tempted to cite the 13th constitutional amendment as an example of devolution of power to the provinces without violating the constitution. Moreover, it is not practical in the short term. For now, we should understand that the Supreme Court has ruled that ‘the existence of a federal system of government in a unitary system of government’ is constitutional. At the sam time, through this judgment, it has been ruled that ‘Ilankei Tamil Arasu Kachchi’ or any other party or organization should work within the existing unified system and not outside of it. However, the existing unitary system is not rigid and immutable, but flexible. At the same time, because the 13th constitutional amendment has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, it will be sustainable for a long time.

It is worth noting the contemporary political scientist Alfred Steffen (Columbia University) made the same point in 1999, citing Sri Lanka as an example: ‘A unitary state, territorially multilingual and multi-ethnic, fearful of a future danger of federalism, Unable to manage the racial disparities faced, it plunged into a bitter civil war that lasted for more than fifteen years.’

Federalism: A Catalyst for Unity
It’s important to remember that this ruling didn’t just stay in the courts. It had a ripple effect on how people think and talk about politics. It brought the idea of federalism – which might sound like a complex word – into everyday conversations. Some people loved the ruling because they thought it would make things fairer and fix old problems. Others weren’t so sure and worried about what could go wrong. But one thing was clear: this ruling shook up the way people thought about how a diverse country like Sri Lanka could stay together while still giving different areas a say in how things are done.

Navigating the Path Ahead
Fast-forward to today, and the 2017 ruling is still making waves in Sri Lanka’s political sea. Some people are cautiously hopeful, thinking that maybe this ruling could be the key to solving long-standing problems. But not everyone is convinced. Some folks are worried that changing things too much could cause even more trouble. The ruling has brought a fresh twist to political debates, pushing parties to talk about issues they might have avoided before. It’s like a puzzle where the pieces are slowly falling into place, but some parts are still missing. Political actors and parties have reacted to the ruling with a mixture of cautious optimism and scepticism. While some have welcomed the clarity provided by the court, others remain apprehensive about the potential consequences of adopting a federal model. The ruling’s significance is underscored by its role in shaping the political debate and influencing the platforms of various parties. Advocates for greater regional autonomy have found renewed vigour in light of the ruling, championing the cause of federalism as a means to address historical grievances and promote diversity. And so, the journey to make federalism a reality continues. It’s not easy, considering Sri Lanka’s history of disagreements and the fear that federalism could lead to splitting up the country. But the ruling showed that it’s possible to talk about federalism while keeping the country together. It’s like walking a tightrope – balancing the unity of the nation with the wishes of different groups. As politicians and citizens wrestle with this challenge, the 2017 Supreme Court decision remains a guiding light, reminding everyone that the path to progress might be tricky but worth the effort.