Political Status and Democracy in Multi-ethnic and Multi-racial States
Paper Synopsis
Jaydeva Uyangoda
Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

The historical experience of a host of multi-ethnic nation-states, particularly during the last quarter of the twentieth century, has brought to sharp focus a question that perhaps touches the basic foundations of contemporary political civilization. It concerns the inadequacy of the existing forms of the nation-state to address the historical tendency within political societies to disintegrate along ethno-identity formations. The modern nation-state, in all its organizational forms ranging from centralized unitarism (Sri Lanka) and quasi-federalism (India) to the confederal devolutionism (Canada), has been challenged by minority ethnic communities who seek political alternatives ranging from autonomy to separate sovereignty. Meanwhile, impulses for mono-ethnic statehood has been so strong among communities in some states that like in former Yugoslavia, even relatively advanced forms of federalism has not provided a framework or model for other, less federal, state forms to emulate. The point is that in the face of sovereignty-seeking political mobilization among minoritarian ethnic communities, the federal mode of political association has been proved untenable as has the unitarist state. While in a number of instances, the existing forms of the state, unitary as well as federal, have been crumbling, the emerging tendency has been for the setting up of mono-ethnic mini-states with no willingness to accommodate pluralism and devolution of political power within them. Indeed, it is a political irony that ethnic nationalists, who claim discrimination under larger multi-ethnic states, are generally driven towards establishing highly centralized, and where possible anti-democratic, states of single ethnic communities. Given the mono-ethnic nature of these new states, there is hardly any theoretical possibility at the moment for them to offer alternatives to centralization of state power.

This paper intends to discuss some of these paradoxes of the modern nation-state in relation to the experience Sri Lanka. Its central focus will be on suggesting a possible way out from the seemingly inescapable crisis of the nation-state. As I will argue in this paper, one fundamental feature of this crisis is the inability of ethnically majority as well as minority communities to extricate themselves from the crisis which propels them to seek unilateral solutions. The most extreme stage of this scenario is reached when, as the Sri Lankan case once again represents, inter-ethnic relations are militarized and re-politicization of ethnic relations have escaped the sphere of constitutional and legislative politics. In such an extreme stage of ethnic relations, even when bilateral approaches are possible and therefore initiated, there is ever- present possibility of mono-ethnic nationalist movements, through their powerful military wings, succeeding in thwarting attempts at conflict resolution through compromise. The point is that in militarized ethnic conflicts, the possibilities for continuing re-production of the conflict are greater than the opportunities for its resolution. A feature in the current stage of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict is that the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has assumed a life of its own, relatively autonomous of and separated from the political process.

Against this backdrop, and in relation to the concerns of this conference, a host of complex political problems may confront the analyst. Central to these concerns is the link as well as disjuncture between democratic constitutionalism and the nation-state in crisis in multi-ethnic societies. This problematic is grounded in a paradox inherent in the modern democratic state's ability as well as inability to deal with ethnic pluralism. Liberal democracy, in its classical form a la Mill could hardly admit ethnic diversity into its domain of theoretical and philosophical concerns. Nor could it imagine pluralism in ethno-cultural communitarian sense. No wonder that the unitarist legal order of the modern state, with its centralized legislative, executive and judicial institutions, evolved in England. And that legal order based itself on a particular historical version of sovereignty in which the political will of a homogenous political community called a nation, could best be concretized in the centralized state. But, North American and continental European re-working of the modern state deviated sharply from that Anglo-Saxon modular form of the state and developed a politico-legal order in which the state power could be de-centered and sovereignty shared by the units that constitute the nation and the state. In this second model of the modern state, which is called ‘federal', ethnic diversity is supposed to be contained through political and constitutional recognition of pluralized sovereignty. Indeed, and in a historical sense, the federalist model rescued the democratic state by revising one of its fundamental tenets: sovereignty of the nation and the state can be parcelized, shared and de-centered.

Meanwhile, there is now a fascinating problem for theoretical contemplation, posed in the present historical moment, but not adequately acknowledged in political and legal philosophy; it is the possibility of the emergence of a post-plural form of the nation-state. In this paper, I will call this form of the state ‘mono-ethnic mini-state.' One of the meta-political claims I wish to make in this paper is that in a historical sense, old forms of the nation-state have come to and end and new forms are emerging. Unitarist as well as federalist forms of multi-ethnic nation-states are now giving way to mono-ethnic mini states in which ethnic diversity and political pluralism are de-legitimized and violently expelled from the domains of juridico-constitutional concerns. Harbingers of this historical transition of political re-organization of the human kind are already there in former Eastern Europe, in Africa and in South Asia. Sri Lanka indeed is one of the most striking examples of this emerging historical tendency of state formation.

In this paper, my task is partly to treat Sri Lanka as a case study of the political context for the possibilities towards mono-ethnic mini-states. In this exercise, I will be occasionally making the claim that Sri Lanka's experience is not an isolated, exceptional one, but a condition that can be generalized and universalized. Then, in the second part of the paper, I will try to present fictional account for a political future for the humankind in which pluralism and diversity of the nation-state would be rescued and re-installed in anew form of de-ethnicized political order. In writing this futuristic political fiction, which may also have the potential of being universalized, I will treat Sri Lanka as the unit of reflection.