Pramod De Silva
It is now exactly 31 years since the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed in Colombo on July 29, 1987, between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene amidst political turmoil in Colombo and military advances in the North.
The Accord was signed “Attaching utmost importance to nurturing, intensifying and strengthening the traditional friendship of Sri Lanka and India, and acknowledging the imperative need of resolving the ethnic problem of Sri Lanka, and the consequent violence, and for the safety, well-being and prosperity of people belonging to all communities of Sri Lanka”.
India always took a keen interest in the ethnic conflict and related developments in Sri Lanka, mainly because of the Tamil Nadu factor. The Tamil populations in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s North shared the same linguistic, cultural and religious heritage and it would have been naive to suggest that the Central Government in New Delhi as well as the Tamil Nadu administration would take no interest in developments in Sri Lanka.
It was no secret that secret training camps for Tamil militants in Sri Lanka existed in Tamil Nadu. There was a measure of support for the militants among sections of Tamil Nadu politicians and the populace. The Indian establishment was sensitive to the sentiments of these sections.
By this time, the Sri Lankan Security Forces were on the offensive in Jaffna, recording major successes against the LTTE. India decided to intervene at this stage, resulting in the infamous “Air Drop” of supplies over the Jaffna region on June 4, 1987. There were indications that some sections in India politics were against the ongoing military operations in the North.
Knowing very well that it would be futile to take on India in the military sense of the word, the Sri Lankan Government agreed to a diplomatic solution, which came in the form of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. Among its salient features were enabling the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987 along with the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan troops were to be withdrawn to their barracks in the North and the LTTE cadres and other militant groups were to surrender their weapons. The Army offensive in the North was halted.
The LTTE later turned against the IPKF, which suffered more than 1,000 casualties. It returned to India in March 1990. By then, Ranasinghe Premadasa was in the Presidential seat and battling a Southern insurgency on the side, he made his displeasure over the IPKF known. Just one year later, the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi at a campaign rally in Tamil Nadu, which turned the tide against the group in India, even in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE was banned and it was no longer fashionable to support the LTTE.
Final battles in May 2009
This was one of the turning points in the battle against the LTTE. India did not signal its opposition to any of the Sri Lanka Security Forces offensives from then onwards, including the final battles in May 2009. In fact, intelligence provided by India and several other countries contained vital clues that led to the destruction of LTTE floating armouries in the run up to the final battles.
Although the conflict ended in May 2009, the debate surrounding the Indo Lankan Accord still continues. Some argue that it is no longer valid, while others say that it is very much alive and embodied in our political systems. One point forwarded by the former camp is that Sri Lankan Courts have nullified the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces which was one of the clauses of the Accord.
Others say that Provincial Councils, introduced by the Accord in 1987, are very much a part of the local political fabric now and hence the Accord is still active. With the demerger if the Northern and Eastern Provinces, there are now nine provincial councils. Elections are due soon for most of the provinces.
The idea behind the provincial council system was that the devolution of power would address some of the grievances faced by people in the North and the East. Critics say that devolution of power has already been achieved through the local bodies which go right down to the Pradeshiya Sabha level and that there is no need for bigger provincial councils. They also say that it is a big waste of Government funds considering salaries, vehicles, telephone bills, power bills etc.
Proponents of the provincial councils say that enough powers have not been devolved to the PCs to make them work properly. One of the most controversial issues is whether police and land powers should be given to the Provincial Councils, as stipulated originally. This has stirred a hornet’s nest, since critics say it would be tantamount to Federalism (the F-word seems to be taboo in local politics) and the PCs could try to break away and seek independence.
However, supporters of the PC system say there are built-m safeguards to prevent that from happening. Besides, they point out separation has not occurred in any of the countries which practice devolution of power in a similar manner. The Governor, who is appointed by the President, has sweeping powers to ensure that PCs cannot break away. Interestingly, even the parties that initially opposed the PCs now participate fully in the PC process, signifying that all parties support the concept of devolution. The debate seems to be rather on the unit of devolution.
This all comes back to the much-debated 13th Amendment which paved the way for Provincial Councils and several other features. It is very much a part of the Constitution, so the question does not arise whether it is dormant or not. The real question lies in its implementation. Some Governments have pledged to implement a 13th Amendment Plus, which means even greater devolution of power.
However, some said such an interpretation amounts to a betrayal. There is also a feeling among political circles that India is not overly keen on requesting the Sri Lankan Government to implement the 13th Amendment in full, given the current geopolitical realities. At the same time, it should be pointed out that neither India nor Sri Lanka have publicly disowned the Accord. The question also remains whether it is possible for one side to unilaterally abrogate a bilateral accord.
However, there are many who claim that if the 13thAmendment was implemented in full, instead of on a piecemeal basis, the conflict could have been resolved without the thousands of casualties on both sides. Another special feature of the Accord is the recognition of Sri Lanka as a ‘multi – ethnic and a multi-lingual plural society’, a reference that continues to have greater significance. Like everything else in life, the Accord has its good and bad sides and proponents and opponents.
Several Ministers and MPs mentioned it as one of the agreements which, if implemented, would have prevented the enormous loss of life in Sri Lanka in their addresses to the Sri Lankan Parliament on January 9, 2016 while speaking on the resolution to set up a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Constitution for the country.
The present effort by the Government and many others to enact a new Constitution is the best opportunity to arrive at a broad consensus that can satisfactorily resolve this national issue and set Sri Lanka on the path to peace and reconciliation.
There is no doubt that they will be taking on board the lessons learned from the Indo Lanka Accord in this regard. Devolution of power is still a pivotal concept for resolving the national question but they should arrive at a viable unit of devolution. It is also vital to forge a truly Sri Lankan identity that shuns communalism.
Thirty one years after 1987, we are still searching for some of the answers to these issues. We have won the war, but the battle for peace must begin in earnest now if we are to avoid another dangerous slide down the path of discord and rancor