Why have we forgotten our Republican Day May 22?

One of the charges leveled against Dr. Colvin R de Silva by some sections of the Tamil minority, including Prabhakaran, has been that by not retaining Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution that the protection that it offered to the minorities was no longer there.

[Dr. Colvin R de Silva]

They forget that the Constitution of 1972 was not based on amendments to the Soulbury Constitution but an entirely new one and that the question of retaining one part or another does not arise. What Colvin did was to introduce an entire chapter on fundamental rights, that did not exist at all in the Soulbury Constitution.

by Tissa Vitarana

The 22nd of May 1972 was a historic day for Sri Lanka. That was the day when the last link of the chain that bound Ceylon to the British Crown was severed and the independent Republic of Sri Lanka was born. The newly elected Coalition Government of the SLFP,LSSP and CP, led by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, set up a Constituent Assembly on 21st July1970. The President of that Constituent Assembly endorsed his certificate on the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka once it was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on the 22nd of May 1972. The Soulbury Constitution, which the British Crown had imposed on us in 1946, before granting limited independence, lapsed and ceased to have effect.

Former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike set up a Select Committee of Parliament in 1956 to draft a new Constitution to consolidate our independence, based on the Soulbury Constitution, but it did not materialize. It was when the election manifesto of the United Front of the SLFP, LSSP and CP was being drawn up that the LSSP proposed that a Constituent Assembly be set up “to draft, adopt and operate a new Constitution”, and this was included in the three-party agreement, the Common Programme, for which a people’s mandate was obtained in 1970.

The significance of this new Republican Constitution is not only the fact that it gave us complete independence from Britain, but that it signaled the end of monarchical rule that has been our lot from ancient times. It also extended the right that the people of Sri Lanka got in 1931, through the universal adult franchise to elect and change governments, to “the movement of the people towards the taking into their hands the plenitude of power which independence properly denotes”, as Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, the architect of the 1972 Constitution, stated at that time. While securing fundamental rights and freedoms to all citizens, which was lacking in the Soulbury Constitution, it also pledged to establish a socialist society through democratic processes.

It is this Constitution that enabled the Coalition Government to take the steps that freed our country from British political and economic domination. The British monarch was no longer the head of our Government and the Governor-General could no longer counterpose himself to the Parliament. It became possible to end the direct control of the plantations through British-owned companies that led to the profits being siphoned off to Britain. The losses to our economy by the tea auctions being located in Britain could be ended by locating the auctions in Sri Lanka. The door was opened to nationalization of the plantations, the heart of our economy, as well as the commanding heights of our economy like insurance and the banks. It became possible to sever the economic chains that bound us to Britain and to develop new links with the rest of the world to serve our own interests.

Though the Independence acquired in 1948 was supposed to give a due place to our languages, Sinhala and Tamil, in practice English played the dominant role. In the provisions relating to language in the 1972 Constitution it was stated that ” all laws shall be enacted or made in Sinhala, and there shall be a Tamil translation of every law so enacted or made”, thereby completely displacing English in the law making process.

Considering that the language of the law determines the mode of functioning of a society it was a significant step.

Dr. Colvin R de Silva, the architect of the 1972 Constitution, whose birth centenary was on the 15th of February this year, needs to be remembered for having made the people of Sri Lanka sovereign, unlike under the Soulbury Constitution or for that matter at any time in our past history. He was csommitted to giving maximum power to the elected representatives of the people in the National State Assembly, in contrast to the 1978 Constitution which has concentrated power in the hands of a single individual, the Executive President. Thus the National State Assembly, under the 1972 Constitution, exercises the legislative power of the people directly, and the executive power of the people, including the defence of the country, through the Cabinet of Ministers. Sri Lanka needs to return to such a system if we are to overcome the many problems of governance that confront us today.

One of the charges leveled against Dr. Colvin R de Silva by some sections of the Tamil minority, including Prabhakaran, has been that by not retaining Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution that the protection that it offered to the minorities was no longer there. They forget that the Constitution of 1972 was not based on amendments to the Soulbury Constitution but an entirely new one and that the question of retaining one part or another does not arise. What Colvin did was to introduce an entire chapter on fundamental rights, that did not exist at all in the Soulbury Constitution.

In response to this charge Dr.Colvin R de Silva states ” through the chapter on Fundamental Rights in the 1972 Constitution, we did what was done or purported or believed to have been done by Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution, including those things that were not done there. The 1972 Constitution stipulates that no community shall have an advantage. Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution stipulates that no persons of any community shall have an advantage over persons of another community. ( Refer Young Socialist publication, February 1987, titled “Safeguards for the Minorities in the 1972 Constitution”. Lecture delivered at the Marga Institute.). Colvin adds, “there are those who argue that the Courts should have the right to review legislation. The difference introduced by the 1972 Constitution was that the Courts looked at the law before it was passed instead of after it is passed.” In fact the ineffectiveness of Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution is indicated by the fact that it did not prevent the passing of the Citizenship Bill, that disenfranchised the Indian Tamil voters, nor the Official Language Act of 1956 which made Sinhala the state language.Colvin stands vindicated!

I would strongly urge the Government to declare the 22nd of May “Republic Day”, without it being made a holiday, to mark the fact that it was on this day that we gained complete independence by becoming a Republic. It may also be the occasion to honour the architect of this indigenous Constitution, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who made such a significant contribution to the political life of our country. [island.lk]

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