TENSE TURF: Students clash with the police in Jaffna last November
It seems India’s troubles with its neighbours will never cease. Even as Pakistan keeps up the pressure on the line of control, another neighbour, Sri Lanka, seems to be gearing up to make India uncomfortable. In Sri Lanka’s case, the issue is a legal one — albeit something that is the internal matter of that country.
Sri Lanka has formed a Parliament select committee to review the 13th amendment to its Constitution. A product of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed between former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene in 1987, the 13th amendment created provincial councils in Sri Lanka. There was devolution of powers related to land, police, health, education, finances, tax collection, housing and construction to the provincial councils, which were to work on the model of India’s state governments. The amendment came into being mainly to safeguard the interests and rights of Tamils who were agitating for self-determination and separate statehood in the northern province of Jaffna. The accord also made Tamil, along with Sinhala, one of the official languages of the country.
Needless to say, India is concerned about the possibility of Sri Lanka doing away with the amendment as that may impact the interests of ethnic Tamils in the country. Especially as provincial polls are going to be held in September after 25 years.
But Sri Lanka feels that the 13th amendment has lost its relevance today. “When Sri Lanka was a conflict state, the 13th amendment was thought to be a solution. But we have peace now. This is the time for reconciliation, reconstruction and development,” says Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lankan high commissioner to India.
Sources in the Sri Lankan government too assert that the provincial council system was “forced on Sri Lanka” by an external power like India. Hence, doing away with it would be the best option.
But that argument doesn’t go down well with India. “Sri Lanka’s 13th amendment is a constitutional provision. So we want the Lankan government to wait till the provincial councils come into being. We want to ensure that it follows a political process for deciding the fate of 13th amendment,” says a ministry of external affairs (MEA) official, adding that the decision to dilute or repeal the provision should take place only after the September elections.
But strategic affairs experts say that Sri Lanka is ignoring this plea, leading to huge embarrassment for India. “It would be a slap on India’s face if Sri Lanka dilutes or repeals the 13th amendment,” says V. Suryanarayan, former director of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. “India should pursue this harder as it has to live up to the commitment that it has made to the Tamils in Sri Lanka that it cares for them,” he says.
Experts say that there is a conflict of interest between India and Sri Lanka over the 13th amendment. India thinks this is the best mechanism to safeguard the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka while the latter is clearly not convinced.
“It is not sacrosanct since we have run into problems in implementing the provisions relating to land and police powers,” says Kariyawasam.
Many say that the 13th amendment was drafted in a way that control in most affairs related to land and police remained in the hands of the central government. As it stands now, land is a provincial subject as all rights related to land tenure, transfer and alienation of land use and settlement are enjoyed by the provinces. But there is a national land commission set up by the central government that formulates policy with regard to land use. And the 13th amendment states that the powers shall be exercised by the provincial councils with due regard to the national policy.
The situation is the same in the case of police powers. Public order and the exercise of police powers related to law and order is supposed to be under the provinces, but not national security.
In fact, the Sri Lankan government now seems to want to do away with the powers related to land and police that were given to the provinces. “A dominant section of the United People’s Freedom Alliance government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa feels that since the limited police and land powers vested with the provinces were not practically implemented, there should be a move to devolve only the implementable portions,” says N. Manoharan, a Delhi-based independent researcher.
Experts also say that the Lankan government wants to do away with the 13th amendment before the provincial elections in September because it fears that if the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) comes into power, the latter will demand that the 13th amendment be implemented in full.
Kariyawasam won’t admit that the TNA is a cause of worry. But, he says, “Our provincial councils have not matured enough to handle the full range of police powers. We fear that these powers could be misused.”
However, the Government of India too has its compulsions in seeing to it that Sri Lanka does not follow through on its move to ditch the 13th amendment. Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh twice to urge Sri Lanka not to repeal or dilute the amendment. And last month Singh assured her that India was serious about the devolution of political powers to ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and would ensure that they were “masters of their own destiny within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.”
Naturally, the powers that be in Sri Lanka resent India’s position on this. “India is trying to pacify its local Tamil political parties by creating a noise about this. There is an impression in Sri Lanka that India is meddling too much into our internal matters,” says a senior Sri Lankan government official.
But the Indian government refutes these allegations. “There is no internal pressure,” insists an MEA official.
But experts say that if Sri Lanka does dilute or repeal the 13th amendment, Lankan Tamils might be greatly aggrieved. “The disgruntlement may lead to conflict in the north again. And it is India’s responsibility to see that there is no new trouble in the neighbourhood,” says P. Sahadevan of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
So India is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place here — putting pressure on Sri Lanka will be construed as meddling in its internal affairs and not doing so will be treated as a reluctance to safeguard the interests of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils. It remains to be seen how the Indian government tackles the problem.