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Home > Uncategorised > Sri Lanka: Time to Revisit the Citizenship Debate

Sri Lanka: Time to Revisit the Citizenship Debate

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by siawi2

by Lynn Ockersz

A mob attack on a place of religious worship in a Colombo suburb recently, while drawing public attention to the simmering fires of religious intolerance in some quarters in this country, provokes a reexamination of unresolved issues at the heart of Sri Lanka’s citizenship question.

The attack on the place of worship needs to be unequivocally condemned by all, including, of course, the state. Rather than withdraw into a state of self-induced inner paralysis, the wanton attack should be condemned by the right-thinking, not only in the name of religious harmony and unity but also in recognition of the need to defend and uphold the Rule of Law.

If the laws of the land have been violated by anyone associated with the place of worship in question, he should be subjected immediately to the due process of the law and punished by the relevant organs of the state. Under no circumstances should he be allowed to be a victim of murderous mob violence. In this instance no persons were harmed but the place of worship was vandalized, which is equally violative of the law. Apparently, the ‘long arm of the law’ was completely inoperative when the acts of lawlessness were unleashed. This amounts to undermining the Rule of Law and giving criminality and lawlessness a further boost.

It was only the other day that a man who was described as mentally-ill was done to death by persons who were identified as law-enforcers in the seas off Bambalapitiya, in an unsettling reminder of the degree to which the Rule of Law has crumbled. If this deleterious trend goes unchecked, brutality could very well become institutionalized.

It would amount to labouring the obvious if it is stated that it would be none other than Sri Lanka which would suffer the ill consequences if the Rule of Law is thus relentlessly undermined. One of the tragedies of our times is that brutality is being seen by some as synonymous with heroism, and conscience and reason are being interpreted as signs of weakness. A terrible blight has indeed been born.

The state has a lot of explaining to do in this latest instance of destructive violence which has apparently been unleashed with impunity, because a representative of a minor party in the UPFA has been quoted as having justified the attack on the centre of worship. If this is so, some sections of the ruling alliance stand accused of fostering lawlessness. The government is obliged to put the record straight and bring all wrong-doers in this incident to justice, if it intends taking governance seriously. Besides, the state must ensure that incendiary observations by its alliance partners, which have a destructive impact on national unity, are henceforth put an end to.

Since then we have had a statement from the National Bhikku Front, which, among other things, draws attention to the mutually- reinforcing nature of ‘fundamentalisms’. This is a timely perception which should not go unnoticed and unappreciated. There is no disputing that fundamentalisms of all kinds militate against the democratic health of a country.

What is equal in importance to this gamut of issues relating to law and order, are the implications, some statements issued in the wake of the attack on the place of worship by hard line nationalist opinion, have, for fostering an equal citizenship in Sri Lanka and consequently, for generating social peace.

Apparently, the opinion was voiced by the above sections that Sri Lanka ‘belongs’ to only those who profess the majority religion and so, practitioners of other religions cannot be accommodated in the Lankan fold. Implicit in such narrow sentiments is the opinion that one’s identification with the majority religion, culture and ethnic group is a ‘must’ for being signified as a Sri Lankan. In other words, those who do not possess these labels of identification are to be considered ‘aliens’; in most cases, in the land of their birth.

Therefore, decades after the enactment of the infamous Citizenship Acts of 1948, which resulted in tens of thousands of plantation workers of Indian origin losing their citizenship of Sri Lanka, the myths of who constitute Lankan citizens, are stonily present, preventing the establishment of an inclusive Sri Lanka and precluding the possibility of the expeditious founding of a united country.

Viewed superficially, Sri Lanka’s citizenship laws could be described as, more or less, equitable in the sense that they do not allow for any distinctions once Lankan citizenship is acquired by a person ‘by descent or by virtue of registration’. In fact Article 26(1) of the Lankan constitution states that, ‘There shall be one status of citizenship known as “the status of a citizen of Sri Lanka”’.

Moreover, Article 12(2) of the constitution states that, ‘No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one such grounds,’.

However, the truth is that discrimination against citizens on a number of grounds, flourishes in some state institutions. Not all functionaries of the state regard the above constitutional provision as sacrosanct; this, this writer knows for a fact. The 30 year war in Sri Lanka, growing out of the ethnic issue, was proof of the inadequacy of these constitutional provisions, if not their near total impotence.

Apparently, Sri Lanka needs to greatly expand on its constitutional provisions regarding citizenship and also ensure their stringent implementation. What we need are constitutional provisions that clearly acknowledge and spell out the plural character of the Lankan state. Citizenship needs to be defined as encompassing all the ethnic and cultural groups of the land and should cease to be seen as the sole preserve of this or that ethnic or cultural group. The current provisions on citizenship fall short of these standards by being too general in nature. By lacking specificity, they fail to meet the country’s concrete requirements as regards minority rights.

Besides, and equally importantly, minority safeguards should be emphatically incorporated into the constitution. In fact, the state should seriously consider incorporating in the constitution and rigorously implementing, measures that could contribute towards the empowerment of minority communities, as is done in India, for instance.

It could be seen that plenty of awareness-raising needs to be done on the above and related issues by the state and other sections who need to evince a keen interest in them. If the groundwork in this direction is laid, the appeal of the current ‘fundamentalisms’ could be greatly blunted and democratic development ushered in.


The Island, November 12, 2009