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India's External Affairs Minister pushes for an inclusive Sri Lanka

India's External Affairs Minister pushes for an inclusive Sri Lanka

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on his three-day visit to Sri Lanka that ended on Wednesday, has reinforced the importance of the now ‘defunct’ Indo-Sri Lanka Accord that was signed between former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ).

The accord was enacted on November 14, 1987, which triggered the Article 13 A amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.

Despite the introduction of article 13 A in the Constitution, Colombo has not enforced it. Consequently, the government of Sri Lanka has not put it into action, basically, the devolution of powers to the 9 provinces of Sri Lanka, arguing that ‘it was pushed down the throat of President JRJ by India, hurriedly.’

The current government led by the Rajapaksas has announced that a new constitution would be introduced and the minority politicians have urged the government to retain the 13A which is alleged ‘would be studied and reviewed’ by the government. The new draft is expected to be ready by March 2021 for debate. The Tamil politicians have raised once again the importance of an inclusive 13A in the new constitution.
As a result they have considered Jaishankar’s visit as timely—in fact vital to push the government to pay attention to it.

The ‘contentious’ clauses in the 13A are that the government should devolve land, the police and financial powers to the provinces, which some of the political parties and academics agree. But the "worrisome" part is that, the devolution of power to the Northern and the Eastern Provinces that are demographically and predominantly Tamil areas where the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) originated and later took to an armed struggle to fight for 30 years for self-determination of those two provinces could risk separatism. In other words, the LTTE had fought for a separate state for the Tamils. As a result, the majority Sinhalese ‘fear’ that the 13A ‘would be the stepping stone’ for the Tamils to demand secession.

The governments that were in power then and now, have been stressing that the 13A structure should be accepted by the entire people of the country, knowing the fact that the 72 per cent of the Sinhala majority would not vouch for it and the matter would be dismissed altogether.

Sri Lanka saw one of the most gruesome and bloodiest war which lasted for 30 long years. It ended in 2009, resulting in the sacrifice of soldiers, politicians, academics as well as civilians. On the other hand, the Tamils of the North East also paid a horrendous price. The Tamil Tigers fought tooth and nail with the support of several South Indian politicians as well as the support of the Tamil Nadu youth who have historically, culturally and religiously bonded with the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Sri Lankan Tamil political parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), Thamil Thesiya Makkal Koottani, Tamil National People's Front, whose leaders are all active members of the current Sri Lankan Parliament, have ad nauseum voiced their demand for the devolution of power. They have also urged India to intervene to enforce it. It is therefore notable that before his
departure, Jaishankar also held a meeting with them.

On January 6 2021, TNA explained its position on a New Sri Lankan Constitution and said that the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) believes that a new constitution is imperative if Sri Lanka is to move forward towards sustainable peace and prosperity as a
united country.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet">
<p dir="ltr" lang="en">Thank Prime Minister <a href="https://twitter.com/PresRajapaksa?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@PresRajapaksa</a> for his warm welcome this evening. Discussed further strengthening our close cooperation in so many areas, following up on the progress made since the Virtual Summit with PM <a href="https://twitter.com/narendramodi?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@narendramodi</a>. <a href="https://t.co/ccav0sMAvx">pic.twitter.com/ccav0sMAvx</a></p>
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) <a href="https://twitter.com/DrSJaishankar/status/1346867581307666433?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 6, 2021</a></blockquote>
<script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

<strong>Excerpts of their demand in the new constitution are:</strong>

<strong>On the Nature of the State: (1)</strong> Sri Lanka (Ceylon) shall be recognised as a free, sovereign, independent and united Republic comprising the institutions of the Centre and of the Regions, which shall exercise powers of governance as laid down in the Constitution. <strong>(2)</strong> One of the Regions shall be for the territory predominantly occupied by the Tamil speaking peoples in the North-East.

<strong>On Police power:</strong> The Tamil Political parties urged the government to include in the new constitution: <strong>(1)</strong> Law and order shall be a devolved subject. <strong>(2)</strong> There shall be a National Police Force and Regional Police Forces for each Region. <strong>(3)</strong> Offences that are reserved to be dealt with by the National Police shall be listed in a schedule to the Constitution. All other offences shall be within the purview of the
Regional Police.

<strong>On the Land: (1)</strong> Land shall be a devolved subject. All state land used by the Central Government for a subject in the Central List shall be continued to be used by the Central Government. Rights acquired by citizens in state land shall be preserved. All other state lands shall vest in the Region concerned, and can be used by the Region in terms of its devolved powers over land. <strong>(2)</strong> Alienation of state land shall be done on the basis of the principles enunciated in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact. <strong>(3)</strong> Regions shall have powers of land acquisition and requisition.

<strong>On the Judiciary: (1)</strong> The Constitution shall provide for a Constitutional Court, comprising members appointed by the Constitutional Council, to hear and determine the constitutionality of legislation made by the Central Legislature and statutes made by Regional Councils.

<strong>On Sharing of Powers of Governance: (1)</strong> There shall be Regional Councils for every Region, as defined in a schedule to the Constitution. <strong>(2)</strong> There shall be a Governor for each Region, who shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Chief Minister of the relevant Regional Council, and such advice shall only be given with the approval of the Regional Council.

<strong>On Language: (1)</strong> The Constitution shall recognise Sinhala, Tamil, and English as the official languages throughout Sri Lanka, and the languages of administration in the entire island. <strong>(2)</strong> Citizens should have a right to interact with the State, whether in person or in correspondence, in the language of their choice.

Jaishankar underlined on Wednesday, after meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa: “It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled. That applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.”

He also pointed out that with the implementation of 13A, the progress and prosperity of Sri Lanka will surely be advanced as a consequence. India as a supporter of peace and well-being in the region, has been strongly committed to the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Therefore the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is longstanding, advocating an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony.

For India, the immediate neighbour has expressed its concerns on Sri Lanka’s political affairs from time to time. Lately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has declared ‘neighbourhood first’ policy to create a safe and secure Indian Ocean region, had seen the impact of the war and how the economy and the bilateral relations of the two country had soured time to time.

For New Delhi, the interests of Tamil Nadu people, which is one of the biggest states of India, had to be meted too as the Tamil Nadu people have been voicing their concerns of the Tamils. These include grabbing of lands in the North and East, heavy presence of the military, relocation of Sinhalese and establishment of Buddhist temples in the Tamil areas. These are some of the issues that have attracted the international community, which also led the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution on Sri Lanka, calling upon Colombo to implement their recommendations that would engage the minority community to exercise their share of rights in the country.

India, which supported Sri Lanka to end the war, even went further by committing itself in developing the north and east in the interest of the Tamil people. India assisted with Lines of Credit to re-build the railway line between Colombo and Jaffna, several housing projects in the North and in the East including for the upcountry Tamils bringing a sigh of relief for those communities living there.

Indian Prime Minister Modi, on seeing the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka had repeatedly urged the government of Sri Lanka to implement 13A. However, his call has been either silenced or took the form of a debate in parliament, in television channels where it has been argued by the majority that 13A should be done away with. In fact, the entire provincial council system should be removed and the Central government should take in charge of the entire system under the President who now has unfettered powers to govern the country.

The President who has been honoured for freeing Sri Lanka from the clutches of terrorism has not heeded to the Tamil aspiration. In several of the local and international media, he and his backers have said that there is neither a national problem nor Tamil issue in the country. The problem lies with the Tamil politicians who are dividing the country feeding hate and separatism.

The adamant government’s refusal to heed to minorities’ calls, which also saw horrific ethnic riots in 1983, followed by the bloody Easter attacks more recently has exposed to the international community, and on social media almost constantly.

India, which had its portion of tension on separatism and terrorism knows its negative impact on the region. The Modi administration has sensed the paramount importance of the implementation of the 13A by the government of Sri Lanka. But during Jaishankar’s visit, these views have been expressed more strongly than ever before.

<em>(The writer can be reached on rrmlilani1@gmail.com)</em>.