Manmohan Singh, (below) GL Peiris
New Delhi. Aug. 19: India’s level of participation at a key Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka may hinge on the island nation’s response to concerns over proposed legal changes opposed by Tamils there, New Delhi has quietly, but powerfully, signalled to Colombo.
Sri Lankan foreign minister G.L. Peiris visited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s residence today to invite him for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November that many are viewing as a global referendum on Colombo’s human rights record.
But Peiris left without any commitment from the Prime Minister, top government officials here confirmed to The Telegraph, pointing to the increasing pressures Singh faces on relations with a neighbour that is strategically crucial but is also a political hot potato that the ruling UPA coalition fears could singe its chances in an election year.
“We are keeping our options open on whether the PM will attend,” a senior official said. “We value our relations with Colombo, but maintaining good ties is a two-way street.”
At the heart of the strain between India and Sri Lanka is a plan mooted by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to tweak the 13th amendment to that nation’s constitution.
That amendment was introduced in 1987 following the India-Sri Lanka Accord the same year between then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka’s President at the time, J.R. Jayewardene, committing Colombo to ensuring the devolution of powers to provincial councils.
The amendment, at present, requires all provincial councils to agree unanimously before the central government in Colombo can tweak their powers. That gives the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, mostly in the state created from the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, confidence that a local council they elect cannot be overruled by Colombo.
But the changes proposed by the Sri Lankan government would alter the 13th amendment to require only a majority — as opposed to a consensus — of provincial councils to support any central government move to tweak the powers of the local governments.
Rajapakse’s United People’s Freedom Alliance currently controls the councils in eight out of the country’s nine provinces — Sri Lanka has promised polls in the Tamil dominated North-East.
The Tamil National Alliance, a grouping of Sri Lankan Tamil parties, and several other Opposition parties in Sri Lanka have opposed the changes to the 13th amendment, and have refused to participate in a parliamentary panel there that is mulling the proposal.
But the ripples of the debate in Sri Lanka have also drifted northwards, into India.
In India, both major parties in Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK, have demanded that India boycott the CHOGM as a sign of protest against the proposed changes to the 13th amendment.
Congress leaders from the southern state are also pressuring Singh’s government to take Sri Lanka on, over an issue that threatens to snowball into a political rallying point in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Any dilution in the 13th amendment would also violate the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and New Delhi has communicated its concerns to Colombo in a series of public and diplomatic messages.
Singh told the Tamil National Alliance he was “dismayed” over reports of the proposed changes to the 13th amendment, when leaders from the coalition visited him in June.
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon had clearly told Rajapakse in July that pursuing the changes would have consequences, a senior official aware of the meeting said.
But by not committing to Sri Lanka’s invitation for the CHOGM, Singh today sent out the first direct signal that one of the consequences Menon warned Colombo about could include the Prime Minister skipping the meeting.
It will not be easy for Singh and India to choose that path, and New Delhi has no plans to “boycott” the Colombo meet, officials clarified. “The only question is the level at which India will be represented, and whether it will be the Prime Minister,” one official said.
China’s shadow will be critical in making that decision, officials conceded.
Beijing has offered Colombo aid worth over $2 billion since just 2007 — a period when many other countries were cool to Sri Lanka as its forces faced allegations of human rights abuses towards the end of the civil war. China has also built a port in the southern town of Hambantota.
India, an official said, can’t afford to cede further strategic ground to China in Sri Lanka. “But, at the end of the day,” the official said, “you’ve got to remember that Chennai is closer than Beijing.”