Gearing up for nation-building | Sunday Observer

Gearing up for nation-building

How does a nation weave its flag, its insignia, its founding narrative? Will it be the energies of all its people that combine in a creative unity that inspires the imagination for a long term vision of national community? Do we follow the path of extensive negotiation, public consultation, intensive deliberations and a painstaking search for the exact, suitable, structures of polity and nationhood? Or, do we let personal and clan ambitions and rivalry exploit religious, cultural and ethnic differentiation for immediate political gain – superseding institutionalised political negotiations with coercion and brute force?

After insurgent groups garnered enough popular support to launch a ‘class war’ on the one hand and, a secessionist campaign on the other, Sri Lanka’s peoples have had to suffer the tragic consequences of a neglect of social consultation and accommodation in favour of coercion and imposition. As the memory of the extreme violence and social insanity fades, some of the issues that provoked the mayhem are today glossed over in the new ferment of economic development and a multiplicity of choices. The early exhilaration of freedom from centuries of colonial subjugation once gave vent to ethnocentric triumphalism and language exclusivism. Today, paradoxically, the expansion of the market has led to a vibrant commercial celebration of different languages, cultural variations, ethnic specialities with the old sense of difference unnoticed or, overcome.

The Constitution of our nation has evolved in step with the vicissitudes of our national politics. The Dominion Constitution gave way to the First Republic of 1972 and then to the Second Republic of 1978. Each new constitution was formed out of a process of negotiation, consultation and consensus, some processes being less inclusive or consensual than others. Pressures of powerful political vote banks and interest groups have generated numerous constitutional amendments as well as subsidiary laws that tended to serve sectional interests rather than a national consensus. Add the various wars and bouts of inter-ethnic rioting to the institutional inadequacies and we have ended up with today’s unfinished business of continued refinement and strengthening of our nation’s statehood.

The essence of a nation’s basic law is its degree of representation of that nation’s consensus on its collective life and societal expectation. The less the Constitution represents the whole, the greater the dissonance between the parts. When one community is marginalised, when another caste is ignored or a religion is undervalued, to that degree the nation is deprived of the possible optimum unifying of energies so necessary for an island population to survive and thrive. Today, yet again, our national political energies are being mobilised not for social division and conflict (as a few still try) but for sustained, cautious consultation and negotiation between the numerous social, cultural and political interest groups and constituencies to re-define our national political structure and basic law.

Last week, the Government announced that the Experts’ Committee that had been studying the output of the several working groups on the proposed constitutional reform had finalised its report. The report, which presumably holds a possible formula for political consensus on a new national structure is likely to be presented to Parliament shortly. The Government, true to its commitment to national reconciliation and social justice, made the formal announcement in good faith. The process that has been under way since the election to power of the National Unity coalition in 2015 has gone through several stages of consultation and, is now about to transition to a national forum – namely the Parliament.

The Government’s endeavour in nursing through this most delicate of matters now needs the support and co-operation of all other sectors – the Opposition, sectional interest groups, and broader civil society. Those opportunist elements that pretend to collaborate only to await the best moment to exploit for their individual or factional political gain are, no doubt biding their time even as they make pretence at “co-operation”. The group most prone to divisive politics, the so-called Joint Opposition, that for months has pretended to participate in the constitutional discussion process, is already beginning to cast doubts on the Experts’ report.

Many other issues of national politics, from the economy to wages to foreign debt, no doubt crowd the national agenda while recent political contestations may have also distracted from the matter of constitutional reform. Even governmental leaders have tended to focus on these other, more immediate issues and flashpoints leaving the constitution-making to the experts. Who will lead in mobilising national energies and diverse interest groups in supportof the next step in re-making our basic national law?

Needed are a dedicated team of political leaders – ideally from both Government and Opposition – to take forward this delicate process of consultation on renewing our nationhood. The public needs to be mobilised by more vigorous and extensive outreach of awareness building on the features and goals of the new constitution-in-the-making. The wide range of political, social and cultural interest groups and constituencies need to be engaged with in a manner that encourages and enables positive thinking and co-operation rather than antagonism and hostile discourses. The citizenry needs to be reminded of the awful consequences of a return to coercion and imposition. It is up to the Government to pick up the reins of constitution-making and take our people forward toward a more stable, harmonious and prosperous nation-statehood.