Building blocks of nationhood | Sunday Observer

Building blocks of nationhood

How a nation is built and thrives depends on the will of its people and the degree of social unity and co-operation desired by them and exercised by them. It is the strength of this social unity that defines the contours of the political structure and system of governance.

There is no room for mere wishful thinking by anyone in this process, no room for fantasies of greatness or exclusivity. A country’s political structure must reflect the demographic realities of our society at its broadest plurality as well as the democratic expression of aspirations and interests of all these different groups of citizens.

Our rich South Asia tradition of politics over the millennia teaches us so. Even the greatest of emperors in our region have acknowledged the importance of inclusive governance and social protection to ensure political stability and State integrity. Dharma Ashoka admonished his regional governors to prioritize protection for minority communities, while Akbar the Great innovated new philosophies of State to ensure that all religious communities were protected and consulted in the processes of governance.

This is our legacy that inspires us, as we, Sri Lankans, set about re-inventing our nationhood and its political system.

On this island, we have had a long history of polities and sub-polities, of kingdoms, princedoms and chiefdoms that have ebbed and flowed, fought, won and lost. The ultimate defeat was by alien colonial domination.

Our re-emergence from colonial rule has given us a modern system of politics that reminds us of the republicanism with which human communities first ruled themselves. It is as a modern republic, since 1972, that we have begun steering our common destiny on this beautiful island of ours. How ‘common’ that destiny is to all of us is critical if we are to remain unified as a nation.

Now, once again, Sri Lankans are deliberating a new political system. The process of discussion and sharing of ideas has been on-going since last year under the guidance of the National Unity coalition government that was elected with a mandate to revamp our current system.

It was the bitterest of experiences during the last regime that drove the nation to seek changes in the system itself. Too much nepotism, political plunder, and violent repression became the spur for change. The massive corruption and deliberate mis-governance of the recent past that is still being exposed testifies to the need for fundamental changes to our political system.

How do we prevent authoritarian and nepotistic politicians from abusing the political system for their selfish ends? How do we manage ethno-communal aspirations and interests in a manner that prevents marginalization and secessionizm on the one hand, and ethnic supremacizm on the other? How do we revive a state structure that is battered by bureaucratic opportunism and sloth and has lent itself to corruption by the citizens themselves? How do we transcend race, gender and class interests and rivalries in collectively building our nation’s future? How do we co-operate across the land in protecting our island environment in a time of climate crisis?

All these questions and problems must be addressed as we set about re-writing our Constitution. The first Interim Report of the Parliamentary Steering Committee of the Constitution-drafting process has now been submitted to Parliament in its capacity as the Constitutional Assembly.

Unlike past secretive – even furtive – constitution-making processes that we have experienced, the current process has been the most inclusive and transparent process so far in our history. The release of the Interim Report itself bears testimony to that.

The Interim Report is a document that outlines the directions and possible alternative directions that the constitution-drafting must take from here on. Citizens are free to read for themselves and debate the proposals and ideas herein. Their elected representatives in Parliament and also in the Provincial Councils are directly involved in the formal deliberations and negotiations to take the drafting forward.

As we understand it, this is but the first stage. It is up to the citizenry and their elected representatives to ensure that these deliberations and negotiations are continued in this sober and rational manner in the fora designated for this purpose. We cannot afford to have these complex and delicate issues picked up and exploited emotively on other platforms in a manner that provokes public fears and passions that could then affect the work of the Constitutional Assembly.

We must look to the news media, now enjoying a freedom as never before, to facilitate rational expressions of opinion and public discussion of constitutional matters rather than exploiting crude political passions for its own marketing purposes. In fact, for the mass media, there are opportunities here for constructive and creative facilitation of public discussion that uses the new internet media to the fullest, in the service of democracy.

All citizens have access to their parliamentary and provincial representatives and all doubts and arguments on matters constitutional should be directed through these channels. The alternative is a process muddied and even bloodied, as we know from past experience. Those shady elements who want to stir passions and fears outside the carefully structured discussion and drafting process should be shunned by citizens who want the nation built up properly and soon.