British official argued for Swiss type federalism in Sri Lanka

British official argued for Swiss type federalism in Sri Lanka

By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham/Daily Express

As the political discussion and debate on constitution making gathered momentum, earlier this week, a local English daily carried two lengthy interviews with two legal luminaries, Dr.Jayatissa de Costa,  former Principal of Sri Lanka Law College and Dr.Jayampathy Wickramaratne, parliamentarian and constitutional expert who is playing a vital role in the current constitution drafting process.

Both gave insights into and details of the current status of the constitution making process, but their views on federalism prompted this writer to share his opinion in this column.

Dr. Costa argued that federalism, under any garb, is not acceptable to a small country like Sri Lanka. He even went to the extent of deeming it ‘dangerous’.

When asked why he believed so, he said that the federal system has been  successful only in big countries like Canada, United States and Australia and even Malaysia. On being reminded that even small countries such as Switzerland and Belgium have a federal system, he argued that Switzerland is an exception and that it has built safeguards for different ethnic groups throughout its history. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is too small to be a federal state he said, and added: “You can’t compare the incomparable.”

Dr.Wickramaratne countered the argument about Sri Lanka being too small to have a federal structure saying that it is a hackneyed one worn out by use. He cited Switzerland, a country much smaller than Sri Lanka, as an example of federalism. However, he pointed out that nobody in Sri Lanka is asking for the powers of Swiss cantons. What is being asked is only devolution, not federalism, he said. Devolution doesn’t depend on the size of the state, he stated firmly.

But it is incongruous that a seasoned politician and legal expert like Dr.Wickramaratne who has been playing an important role in the constitutional reform process, should say “nobody” is asking for federalism in Sri Lanka now. The main sections of Tamil polity, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by the leader of the opposition in Parliament, R. Sampanthan,  who is cooperating with the National Unity Government in constitution making, have been demanding a political solution based on federal lines.

However, Dr.Wickramaratne’s utterances fits in with the thinking of the entire Southern polity, which is averse to the demand regarding federalism as an unutterable word.

This however doesn’t negate the undeniable historical fact that the idea of federalism has been prevalent for almost nine decades in the political discourse of this country. But it became a contentious and politically sensitive issue only after the advent of the Federal Party led by Late SJV Chelvanayakam.

Non-Tamil Progenitors Of Federalism

Political scientists and analysts have time and again pointed out that long before Tamil political leaders advocated federalism, in the 1920s, the young SWRD Bandaranaike and the Kandyan Sinhalese representatives had sought a federal structure for Ceylon. The Donoughmore Commission gave them an opportunity to put forth this idea. In fact, historical records reveal that the Kandyan Sinhalese proposed a federal Ceylon with three provinces including a province for North and East.

Well-known British civil-servant Leonard Woolf, who was Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota for a number of years also proposed a measure of devolution or even a federal system on the Swiss model for Sri Lanka as far back as the 1930s. Ironically, this is not remembered in the political discourse when it comes to federalism.

From his position as a Asst Government Agent, Woolf was able to observe the life of the Sinhalese villagers in the South. One result of this observation was his famous book ‘A Village in the Jungle’.

After he returned to England, Woolf became active in the Labour Party and played a big role as one of its key advisors. He was said to be one of those who recommended immediate independence for Ceylon soon after the First World War. In his memorandum to the colonial government in 1938, Woolf recommended a Swiss model federal system for Ceylon.

Anticipating opposition to this on the grounds that Ceylon is too small for federalism, he gave details of populations of all the communities in the then Ceylon and compared them with the size and population of each of the cantons in Switzerland to justify his recommendation.

In this context the following paragraphs in the memorandum submitted by Leonard Woolf makes interesting reading:

“The indigenous Tamil minorities are concentrated in the extreme North and East of the island. The Kandyan Sinhalese who are in many ways very different from the Low country Sinhalese, form a homogeneous Sinhalese block in the Centre of the Island.

“At least four cantons on the Swiss model could be created – Low country Sinhalese province, the Kandyan Sinhalese province, the Tamil Northern province and the Tamil Eastern province; and it might even be possible to create a fifth canton out of the area where immigrant Indian Tamils form the majority of the population on Tea estates.”

Leonard Woolf with his staff in Hambantota 

“The objection that Ceylon and its sub- divisions are too small for such a system does not hold water. The area of Ceylon is about 10,000 square miles greater than that of Switzerland; the population of Ceylon is roughly 5.3 million and that of Switzerland is 4 million. If the Swiss federal system were adapted to Ceylon, the smallest canton would be the Eastern province with over 200,000 population. In Switzerland the smallest canton has a population of about 14,000 and the largest about 700,000.

“The Swiss federal canton system has proved extraordinarily successful under circumstances very similar to those in Ceylon i.e. the co-existence in a single democratic state, of communities of very  different size, sharply distinguished from one another by race, language and religion. Thus the German speaking Swiss with a population 2.75 million occupies the numerical position of the Sinhalese, the French speaking Swiss with 824,000 that of the Tamils, and Italian speaking Swiss with 284,000 that of the Moor men. The democratic canton and federal system has safeguarded the legitimate interests of the minorities.”

Nobody in his right sense would accuse Leonard Woolf of having no sympathy for the Sinhalese people. Therefore, his views on the legitimate rights of minorities were not coloured by any pro-Tamil slant. They are the valuable views of a progressive Englishman who had lived in Ceylon as a colonial administrator for several years and had come to know its people intimately.

It is also noteworthy that Leonard Woolf is, as far as we know, the only person who had recommended a separate canton for the Indian Tamils in the tea estates as a way of solving their particular national interest. The idea of having two separate cantons for low country Sinhalese and Kandyan Sinhalease may be irrelevant in the present context, but there is no doubt that when it comes to rights of the minority communities and their safeguards, he had certainly thought ahead of his time.

The Englishman who wrote “The Village in the Jungle” is dead and gone, but we are still in the political wilderness without any clear sign of an imminent solution to the protracted national question due to the lack of foresight of our political class on both sides of the ethnic divide.

(The featured image at the top is that of Leonard  Woolf  British civil servant ,left wing democrat, politician and the husband of author Virginia Woolf) 


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