Remembering Neelan via David Miller in Q and A on Pluralism and Devolution Issues

Darshanie Ratnawalli, in Q and A with David Miller, courtesy of The Sunday Island, 25 July 2015, where the title is “Sri Lanka must find its own form of pluralism” ….

 NEELAN  DAVID for more info on Professor Miller, see end of Q and A

Dr. David Miller, Professor of Political Theory, Nuffield College Oxford gave the 16th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial lecture this year titled Democracy in plural societies. Problems and Solutions”. Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam was gunned down by the LTTE on 29th July, 1999. He was co-architect of the GL-Neelan devolution Package under the aegis of the then Executive President Chandrika Bandaranaike, which sought to replace the unitary state of Sri Lanka with a union of regions. It enshrined the post-colonial claim that the Sri Lankan Tamil community was a distinct and separate Nation. It came into conflict with the overriding claim that although centuries of historical processes had placed concentrations of Tamil speaking peoples in the eastern littoral, Jaffna Peninsula and the Northern Wanni, they were minority communities settling in the inalienable and sovereign habitats of Lanka and did not constitute a separate Nation.

Predictably the Package was abandoned. But the issues still remain in the Lankan ideologisphere, an ideal playing field for a political theorist like Professor Miller.

Q- Have you done research on Sri Lanka? Does your work touch on specific case studies?

No I am certainly not an expert on Sri Lanka. In preparation for coming, I did read a little bit about it. But my field is political philosophy and I study problems of democracy and nationalism generally. Not about a particular country.

Q- What is a plural society?

I mean by that a society divided into sections, it might be, on the basis of ethnicity, religion or nationality- where it is hard for people to move across the divisions- and they are always going to be part of their own community. It’s not a fluid society where people usually move across these boundaries.

Q- Is one justified in opposing pluralism in particular instances in order to promote it in the overall sense? Supposing a particular ethnic group is concentrated in a particular region. And there is activism which fights to preserve the special demographic character of that region, insisting that there should be special measures to stop development schemes, and other economic activities from changing the demographic identity of that region. After all in a democracy numbers confer clout. Is this sort of activism being faithful to pluralistic principles?

As you say, in a democracy numbers carry clout. If a group is in a minority, but is in some ways concentrated in a particular region, it is justified in trying to preserve in some parts the character of that region, its culture, the way the place looks, the buildings and the landscape and so on to reflect the values of that group. Pluralism of that kind I’d certainly support.

Q- You’d call that kind of territorial marking pluralism?

It’s a way of expressing pluralism. Of course part of the issue also is to see how a pluralistic society can have sufficient unity for it to work together as a whole. So there has to be always this balance between recognizing the different identities of the groups and forming a common identity across all of them to enable them to work together. It is that balance I think which is so important.

Q- In the case of a region with a particular ethnic concentration, should inclusivity take a back seat in favour of maintaining demographic superiority? One shouldn’t advice that region to be unreservedly inclusive, to allow free in and out migration and interaction with other regions?

If you mean a group forming a majority in a region wanting to preserve certain aspects of their culture, I have already said that they are justified. I don’t think in general they can impose restrictions on in and out migrations. Occasionally there have been some examples from North America where indigenous groups have been given rights over property which actually has the effect of slightly hampering in migration to the area they control. Something like that may be justifiable. But they can’t erect a barrier to keep people out of the region within a state. You can never hope to preserve your culture unchanged. Cultures are fluid. But you can try to preserve large elements of it including language for example.

Q-In Sri Lanka there has been this allegation that developmental schemes by the government initiated to resuscitate the irrigation network, settled people from elsewhere in places claimed as Tamil majority areas. It’s said that these schemes changed the demography of the region and that is a threat to the cultural identity of the minority.

I don’t want to say too much about Sri Lanka specifically because I don’t know well enough. But in general that kind of engineered homogeneity isn’t justified. Rather a clear example would be the Chinese policy in Tibet where large numbers of Han Chinese were put in Tibet to dilute the Tibetan culture.

Q- What if the aim of the schemes was not to create homogeneity but purely development and they invited applications from all communities to come and settle in the region?

That shows that there is a good argument for having some form of devolution of power to the region. So that you can have some kind of body which can make a decision there whether to allow that development to happen. They should have some control over it.

Q- But professor that assumes that region is owned by that particular group and the region is not in the ownership of the entire country.

I don’t think so. The word ownership is a very contentious word in this context. Whenever you have some kind of division of powers between the centre and the local body, each exercise certain powers over that place. Neither is complete owner. Even a city has powers of planning and the use of land in that city. I don’t think you are handing over ownership, just allowing a degree of control in the areas important to the group.

Q-What is a Nation? Can there be two or three Nations within one country?

Yes. You can have what I’d call minority Nations. You can have large Nations and within it smaller Nations and people there would have double identities as members of a particular group as well as members of the large group. The examples of this would be UK, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and so on.

Q- Taking UK, leaving aside the obvious Nations; Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Can the Jewish community within Britain be counted as a separate Nation?


Q- When does a community become a Nation?

Number of conditions. One is that it’s a distinct group with its own identity and culture. I think it needs a territorial base. That would automatically disqualify the Jewish community in Britain. It has no territory within Britain. The other thing is more psychological. It has got to think of itself as a Nation, have aspirations for some form of self-determination. So you have objective features like culture and place. Then you have psychological aspiration. That’s what distinguishes the Welsh and the Scots. I don’t know about the Cornish (laughing).

Q-Talking hypothetically the South Asian communities in Britain, the Indians, and Pakistanis and so on are to a certain extent concentrated in specific areas. In about 500 years if they were to get aspirations to become a separate Nation, could they do that?

It’s hypothetically possible. But completely unlikely. You are right. There is some sort of geographic concentration. But I don’t think anyone thinks that these groups have any sort of territorial claim to these areas. The pattern is one of one of out-migration anyway. As the groups prosper they tend to disperse. I think a minority Nation has to emerge out of groups that have been settled already for long periods of time.

Q-When Scotland says they want to be separate from the UK are they being pluralistic or are they going against pluralistic principles?

I think they are going against. I think Scotland should remain part of the UK having its own Parliament. Separation would not be pluralistic because it would ignore all those people in Scotland who also feel British and the large number of people who live across the border. I am myself a hybrid. My mother was Scottish, my father English.

Q-Did your mother feel insulted when she was thought of as English?

She lost her Scottish accent and so people probably would have thought that she was English. That is a good question although I don’t know the answer to that.

What it shows is that when people have these hybrid identities. Complete separation is not the solution. The solution is a devolved form of government. It’s interesting as to why the British government agreed to have this referendum. It’s wrong to think that you can just decide these things by referendum in the area. There are political reasons why it happened. But I think it was a mistake.

Q- So the region doesn’t have sole power to decide on these issues?


Q-The entire unit should have a say?


Q- You think the Welsh are a less of a Nation than the Scottish?

The strength of Welsh nationalism is less strong and less widespread. The Welsh are less distinguished from the English. They are already more integrated than the Scots. Most people in the territory Wales wouldn’t think of themselves as Welsh. But you can’t say they are less of a Nation.

Q-Is there a case for the Cornish to be called a separate Nation?

I don’t think so

Q- Why not?

I think while a vast majority of the Cornish might think that there is something special about being Cornish, they don’t think of themselves as a separate Nation. There’s really nothing culturally distinct about Cornwall.

Q- How can you stop the demographic configuration of ethnic groups in space leading to political fragmentation?

One way is to encourage formation of coalition groups; parties that represent more than one ethnic group. Or governments that include representatives of more than one group. One of the things that I talk about in the lecture is power sharing where you ensure formally or informally that in government the different groups are all represented.

Q-You mean power sharing in the centre?

Yes. If you look at plural societies where stable democracies have been achieved, it’s often through some power sharing arrangement. At a more emotional level; also building an identity that cuts across the groups, where everybody feels part of some bigger thing.

Q- In Western Europe and USA, there is a trend for the Islamic communities to retain aggressively separate identities. Is there a danger that they are not integrating? That they could in the future transform themselves into separate Nations?

I don’t think they’d ever be separate Nations. But you could have a kind of separation almost into ghettos you might say. Some people are worried about this. I think the danger is not so great. But it’s right that there should be conscious integration policies to try to prevent this. It does represent a failure of integration.

Q- So when Chancellor Angela Merkel said that multiculturalism has failed she was right?

Multiculturalism can mean different things. We don’t know exactly what Angela Merkel meant. When people say it has failed or it’s a bad idea what they mean is a form of multiculturalism that locks people into separate communities. You should have a kind of multiculturalism with Nation building, where you have support for minorities but you also have integration, ways of encouraging groups to identify with the larger society. So if you argue for multiculturalism it should also go along with Nation building. I guess that’s what I was about to say in connection with Sri Lanka.

Q- When concepts like pluralism are at loggerheads with national sovereignty, which should prevail? Saudi Arabia for example is aggressively anti pluralistic. The laws are arcane and draconian. They stone women for adultery.

You can’t force a country like Saudi Arabia to change its policies towards women and minorities. If national sovereignty means it’s their right to make decisions, you can’t directly challenge that. You can show the country that you disapprove and dislike these practices, be willing to criticise on occasion, not send them arms. These are the kind of policies you can adopt to persuade them to liberalise.

Q- But these would depend on geopolitical realities. They might strong arm a relatively unimportant country but with a strategic partner to the West like Saudi Arabia, they may be soft.

I agree.

Q-Isn’t it the duty of all liberal democracies to promote pluralistic values throughout the world?

Yes. By being sensitive to the special nature of each country. Not by marching in and saying this is the form of pluralism you must have. Each country should work out its own solution. It’s a very delicate matter. Important thing is to provide positive support when a country has worked out a solution. Not to try to interfere and certainly not to forcibly impose a particular solution. There’s a lot of talk about democracy promotion and I think it nearly always went wrong because people had some idea of what the right form of democracy was for this country and tried to engineer that. But…it never works.

Q-How can you stop power masquerading as global justice? I am specifically referring to the USA?

Well it’s a big problem. I think the best hope is for counterbalancing groups to form. You can never get rid of power. Sometimes you can balance power with power. I think one answer is for other regional groups to serve as counter balance. One of the disappointing things about Europe and EU is that it [EU] has been reluctant to be an international actor as a possible counter balance to the US. At the moment there are other regional powers like China coming into the scene.

 @ / and   

Prof. David Miller of Nuffield College, University of Oxford, has made contributions to our understanding of nations, national identities, and nationalisms, all political challenges with which Sri Lanka is at present grappling with.

Prof. Miller’s longest standing interest is the idea of justice, originally social justice, but now also global justice. He has published three books about this subject: Social Justice (Clarendon Press, 1976), Principles of Social Justice (Harvard University Press, 1999) and most recently a collection of essays, Justice for Earthlings (Cambridge University Press, 2013). He has also published on the idea of market socialism: Market, State, and Community (Clarendon Press, 1989). This led him to ask questions about the kind of political community within which policies of social justice could be pursued, leading to a sustained engagement with ideas of nationality and citizenship, including On Nationality (Clarendon Press, 1995) and Citizenship and National Identity (Polity Press, 2000). In the last decade he has combined work on national issues with work on global issues, culminating in National Responsibility and Global Justice (2007).​

David Miller’s Summary of his Research Interests: “I have wide interests in the field of political theory. Although in the past I have done some work in the history of political thought, my research is now focussed on issues in contemporary political theory and philosophy. These include: theories of justice and equality; democratic theory; the concepts of nationality and citizenship; multiculturalism and immigration; and global justice. My book National Responsibility and Global Justice was published in November 2007, and I am continuing to work on questions that arise from that book, in particular the relationship between social justice and global justice, and the question of how the boundaries of distributive justice are set.  I am also working on the question of territorial rights, and how nations can acquire such rights.  A further related interest is in the idea of collective responsibility, and in particular the allocation of responsibility in situations where there are multiple agents each capable of remedying some harm.    I intend in the future to do further work on social justice in multicultural societies, and to continue to engage critically with cosmopolitan conceptions of global justice and governance.

Current Research Projects: Theories of Human Rights; The Political Philosophy of Immigration; Territorial Rights; Collective Responsibility.

Research Sudents


Filed under accountability, communal relations, devolution, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, plural society, politIcal discourse, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, world events & processes

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