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Wary Indian eye on Lanka legal coup

New Delhi, Nov. 5: Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s political bombshell has caused concern in India, fearful as it is of the adverse impact the upheaval may have on the economic and political stability in the region.

But India hid much of this anxiety in the statement it issued today, expressing hope that the events would not “impact on the peace process”.

In private, officials and policy-makers shared their concern about the sudden developments in the island nation. Having burnt its fingers with involvement in the tricky ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Delhi now wants to keep a safe distance and watch the events play themselves out before taking an active role.

India is wary of another bout of violence on the island, which will mean a fresh influx of refugees into Tamil Nadu and other southern states. Delhi’s economic ties with Colombo have been making good progress and a return to the old days will throw up an unexpected speedbreaker.

Opinion is sharply divided both within and outside the island on whether Kumaratunga’s flurry of action was prudent.

Many feel that by refusing to rise above personal and party considerations, the President has followed in the dubious footsteps of her predecessors, including her father, the charismatic S.W.R.D. Bandarnaike.

Kumaratunga’s sweeping decisions are being touted by her supporters as a move to keep the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka intact. But there are others who see the action as little more than a “coup”, though conducted within the constitutional framework.

Kumaratunga’s supporters make the point that she has not done anything unconstitutional as the executive President has the power to dismiss ministers and take over the defence portfolio.

The President had long claimed that as head of the armed forces, the defence portfolio should be her prerogative. She had asked the supreme court “for its consultative opinion to take on certain portfolios like defence, police and media control”.

The chief justice’s verdict was delivered on Saturday but made public yesterday evening. The chief justice had ruled that the President could not abrogate her powers as the supreme commander of the armed forces to anyone else according to the island’s Constitution.

The government, led by Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, was initiating an impeachment motion against the chief justice when Parliament was suspended for two weeks.

Given the fact that she has serious reservations about the peace process led by Wickremesinghe and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the chief justice’s verdict was just the opportunity she was seeking to settle scores with the Prime Minister and ensure that no ground was yielded to the LTTE.

The Tigers, according to some analysts, were laying the ground for the creation of a virtual Tamil homeland. The power-sharing deal the Tigers unveiled on Saturday touched upon several sensitive areas, including “occupied lands” — the standoff over which had led to the collapse of talks earlier. (See chart). The former Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka, J..Dixit, said: “The LTTE’s demands are much more than what V. Prabhakaran made to me in 1987. No government can concede such demands.”

“Kumaratunga has done the right thing. Knowing Ranil, he would have let the peace talks drift so that when he stands for President around 2005, he will win in a mandate of peace. But knowing the antecedents of his party, he will follow the example of Premadasa (who was Prime Minister and then President) and concede nothing to the LTTE once he is President. Chandrika also has a political motive. I suspect she is taking advantage of Sinhalese fears of a Tamil eelam,” Dixit said. He felt that the peace process would finally break down and a much stronger LTTE would take on the Lankan security forces.

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