The Rajapalsa regime is all out to get a two-thirds majority in Parliament through the forthcoming elections on August 5. The avowed objective of such a steam -roller majority is to promulgate a new Constitution or enact Constitutional amendments unilaterally. According to Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) ideologue Prof. Gamini Lakshman Peiris a strong Governmemt is necessary to bring about Constitutional changes without relying on smaller political parties.”Pohottuwa” theoretician Gevindu Cumaratunga explains that such a huge majority is required to adopt a new Constitution that would reflect the historic victory achieved on the shores of “Nandikkadal” lagoon against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
What all this means is that the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to target the 19th Constitutional Amendment of 2015 as well as the 13th Constitutional Amendment of 1987 in their envisaged Constitution making exercise. 19 A is very likely to be abolished completely while 13 A may be drastically amended reductively. The reasons for Rajapaksa antipathy towards 19 A is well-known as the “Medamulna” clan opines that it was brought to stifle the family politically. As for 13 A the long -cherished dream of rolling back devolution and centralizing power by Sinhala hawks will be fulfilled by negating it. A path has been found already by mounting criticism of Provincial Councils as economic white elephants.
Against this backdrop one would have expected the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) to be fully aware of the dangers lying ahead and take remedial measures. After all the TNA is the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. The TNA had fourteen elected and two appointed MP’s in the last Parliament though two of them defected later. The TNA also had the largest number of elected Tamil councillors in the Eastern and Northern provincial councils. In the East the TNA had two provincial ministers in a joint administration with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and United National Party(UNP). In the North the TNA formed the administration with its own chief minister and four ministers.Hence it is the duty of the TNA to act fast and safeguard the Provincial Councils.
Unfortunately the TNA – immersed in hectic campaigning for Parliamentary polls – seems oblivious to the impending political calamity. The TNA’s octogenarian leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan said recently that the TNA would negotiate with the Government in power with regard to a new Constitution and requested the Tamil people to elect 20 MP’s from the TNA so athe party could negotiate from a strong position. Earlier Sampanthan stated that the priority of the TNA was getting a political solution through Constitutional reform and not development though it was not opposed to development.
The premier Tamil party does not seem to have realised that the Rajapaksa rationale for a new Constitution and the Constitutional reform aspirations of the TNA are incompatible at the present juncture. The Rajapaksa regime wants to reduce or to do away with the powers of the Provincial council while the TNA like Oliver Twist wants “More” as it is of the firm opinion that the powers of devolution available is inadequate both in quantity and quality. The TNA Manifesto illustrates this clearly.
The TNA’s election manifesto for the 2020 Parliamentary polls states that “ the present constitutional arrangements are inadequate, unsatisfactory and impose majoritarian hegemony on the Tamil People. Democracy in a plural society cannot function effectively without a constitutional framework that provides for equity, equality, justice, peace and security”. It also notes that “the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka is flawed in that power is concentrated at the Centre and its Agent, the Governor.” The TNA manifesto goes on to say “It is through a constitutional arrangement on the model of federalism within a united Sri Lanka that the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils and other Tamil speaking inhabitants of the northern and eastern parts of the island could be met. In fact, such an arrangement has become indispensable for their survival.”
Politics Is The Art Of The Possible
The TNA or for that matter the Tamil people are well within their rights to demand greater devolution or federalism. They are even entitled to exercise their inalienable right of self-determination and espouse secession or seek a separate state. The problem is how do you achieve it when the overwhelming majority in the country are against it?
The harsh reality that the Tamil people have experienced since Independence from the British is that the Sinhala people were not for federalism or even maximum devolution. In such a situation a pragmatic course to follow would have been adherence to Prussian Statesman Prince Otto Von Bismarck’s saying “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.
This did not happen with the Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders in the past. Instead they opted for secession which resulted subsequently in an armed struggle. Sri Lanka was embroiled in a three decade long civil war that left the Tamils, a battered and shattered people. Instead of opting pragmatically for the “next best”, the Tamils chose to pursue what could be termed with the wisdom of hindsight as a “far worse” one.
In a political environment where the objective conditions for gaining federalism or devolution did not exist how was it possible to create a conducive climate for secession? Likewise in a situation where the ruling regime wants to abolish or minimize the little devolution that is available would it be possible to engage in meaningful negotiations aimed at maximizing devolution through Constitutional reform?
This does not mean that the Tamil people have to meekly accept the diktat of the Rajapaksa govt and cave in subserviently. Injustice and opporession has to be resisted and fought against through legitimate avenues. The search for greater devolution must not be abandoned totally. At the same time one must be realistic.
If the Govt and TNA are truly committed to their positions concrete, sincere talks on Constitutional reform are not possible. Both sides may go through the motions of negotiations for cosmetic purposes but the final result would be a foregone conclusion. Instead of day-dreaming about getting quasi-federalism through discussions with the Rajapaksa regime, the TNA needs to safeguard and consolidate what has been gained so far. In short the TNA and the Tamil people have to work with what has been attained and strive further for the attainable instead of neglecting what is available on ground and yearning for the desirable which is presently unattainable.
The need of the hour is to preserve and protect what has been gained. The Govt plans to abolish or emasculate the 13th amendment and provincial councils must be foiled. For this the TNA must genuinely embrace and work the provincial councils set up through the 13th Amendment which itself was made possible through the Indo-Lanka accord signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene on July 29th 1987.
TNA Needs To Do Four Things
As stated earlier what is necessary at this point of time is to safeguard the 13 A and provincial council scheme. For this the TNA needs to do four things as soon as possible after Parliamentary elections are concluded The first is to engage in dialogue with the Govt, not to seek Constitutional reform, but to impress upon it that the Tamil people do not want the 13th Constitutional Amendment to be unilaterally abolished or amended. The TNA must tell the Govt it wants the provincial councils to continue and urge the removal of perceived bottlenecks retarding smooth progress of the councils. The TNA must assure t he Govt that it will cooperate in working the provincial councils. It is also imperative that the TNA should continuously maintain its channels of communication with the Govt.
The second is to urge the Govt to hold Provincial council elections all over the Island including the North and East. The TNA should contest them and form administrations either alone or in alliance with other parties where possible .
The third is for the TNA to participate sincerely in the day to day running of the Northern and Eastern councils. Instead of agitating for more powers and more funds, the TNA could and should formulate schemes and implement projects with available resources. The primary purpose of devolution is to bring development home and development planning closer to the people.The TNA in the past has constantly griped negatively about needing more “unavailable” powers for the councils but has seldom utilized the powers already available positively.
To digress slightly, I recently had a look at the record of work accomplished by two former provincial ministers from the Ceylon Workers Congress(CWC). One was ex – Uva provincial minister Senthil Thondaman and the other was Maruthupandy Rameshwaran , ex- Central Provincial minister. Both were publicizing what they had done for their people as part of their propaganda in contesting Parliamentary polls. What they outlined was very impressive. If two “Tamil” ministers could do so much in “Sinhala” dominated provincial councils, how much more could a Tamil majority council like the NPC do if it only had the sincerity and commitment?
The fourth and very important task is for the TNA to mend fences with New Delhi in this regard. The TNA may glibly say that everything is hunky-dory with India but this is not so. The reality is that of the Indian establishment being extremely disappointed with the TNA over the Northern provincial council issue. New Delhi expected the TNA controlled NPC -with the blessings of the Sri Lankan Govt – to work in tandem with India and develop the area and help the people. This did not happen. Moreover the TNA seemed more interested in working with western nations in transitional justice and accountability issues than in bettering the lives of the people through the Provincial councils with Indian assistance.
Ambivalence Towards 13 A
The attitude of the TNA towards the 13 Amendment and provincial councils has been ambivalent to say the least. This is vividly illustrated in the current election manifesto. As stated earlier the TNA manifesto expresses much dissatisfaction over the current devolution arrangements in the Provincial councils. At the same time the TNA manifesto has the following reference also. “During the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency, the Sri Lankan government repeatedly assured the Indian government that it would “implement the 13th amendment in full and build upon it so as to achieve meaningful devolution”.
If the TNA really wants the Sri Lankan Govt to implement the 13th amendment in full and build upon it to achieve meaningful devolution, then the party has to work with the Govt in power in a spirit of cooperation. Full Devolution is not possible in a confrontational atmosphere.
The TNA had a golden opportunity to try and work the Provincial council scheme and build on available devolution when the Northern provincial council functioned. The TNA obtained 30 seats in a council of 38. CV Wigneswaran a retired supreme court Judge was elected chief minister. The four provincial ministers appointed initially were a retired chief education officer, a medical doctor, a lawyer and an MA graduate. Many of the elected councillors too possessed high academic and professional qualifications.
When the NPC came into existence there were great expectations. After years of struggle a viable unit of devolution had been set up for the first time in the North. It was headed by an eminent ex-judge. For the first time some power sharing in the form of limited devolution was available to a Tamil dominated PC. Many thought that the Northern Provincial Council would be a model PC and set an example to the rest of the country. It was hoped that the NPC would inspire other provincial councils in the south to emulate it thereby strengthening the case for devolution (and even more devolution). The NPC was expected to harmonize with other councils and demonstrate that devolution was not a dirty word and that it would not encourage or promote separation.Sadly this is not what happened.
Wigneswaran and Sampanthan were literally crowned at an event held to felicitate the new council. A Tamil newspaper published in Jaffna published the pictures with the heading “Thamizh Arasu Malarnthathu”(Tamil State has bloomed).
Interestingly enough the TNA had refused to contest the Eastern Provincial council(EPC) elections in 2008. The LTTE was active then. When the BBC Tamil service asked Sampanthan about the 13th amendment, he replied “Athu oru Setha Pinam. Athaith thoda Maattoam”(it is a stinking corpse.We wont touch it) However when the EPC elections were held again in 2012 and the NPC poll in 2013 the TNA contested and celebrated their triumph. This change of heart was not because the “dead” 13 A had been resurrected to “life” but due to the “alive” LTTE becoming “lifeless”.
The right to manage their own affairs has been a long -cherished dream of the Tamil people but the Northern Provincial Council ( NPC) experience turned into a horrible nightmare. Wigneswaran was at loggerheads with the Governors. It was a state of perpetual confrontation. At first it was said the conflict was due to the governor being an ex-military man – Gen. Chandrasiri. The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was toppled and Maithripala Sirisena became President. Chandrasiri was replaced but the situation did not improve. Wigneswaran could not maintain even a working relationship with the amiable ex-diplomat HMGS Palihakkara or the affable ex-chief minister Reginald Cooray.
Aspirations Not Development
The NPC passed over 400 resolutions most of them pointless and irrelevant. The TNA councillors could not grasp the fact that the NPC was in a sense a unit of self – government and they were the “Government”. Instead they behaved like a “rowdy”opposition. NPC leader of the opposition Sinnathurai Thavarasa pointed out again and again how funds allocated by the Govt in Colombo to the NPC was under – utilzed resulting in the unspent money being returned. The NPC stymied huge development projects proposed by the Govt like the setting up of an Economic centre and expanding the Iranaimadhu tank.
When Tamil expatriates approached the NPC with plans of developing the region, they were told “Abhiviruthi Alla, Abilaashaigalae Mukkiyam”” (Aspirations are only important and not development). Some ministers were accused of corruption and abuse of powers. The NPC also failed to pass meaningful statutes enabling the Council a greater say in matters concerning concurrent powers.Moreover the NPC did not fill the job vacancies available despite agitation by unemployed graduates to do so.
In the case of the NPC’s failure , the fault does not lie with Wigneswaran alone. TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and deputy leader Somasundaram “Maavai” Senathirajah are also to blame. Having made Wigneswaran chief minister, they had a duty to either correct him or remove him if and when necessary. They did neither. When some NPC members rebelled against Wigneswaran and tried to remove him through a vote of no confidence, it was thwarted by Sampanthan himself. On another occasion moves were afoot to replace Wigneswaran but Senathirajah obstructed it. The TNA in general and its leadership in particular must share the blame for the NPCs dismal performance.
The NPC fiasco has eroded TNA credibility to some extent. Nevertheless, the current threat posed to the 13 A and provincial ciuncils by the Rajapaksa regime necessitates an urgent course correction by the TNA. The premier political configuration must dedicate itself to the protection and preservation of the 13 A. For this the TNA needs to request the support and solidarity of New Delhi. Sensible politicians of Tamil Nadu (not the likes of Vaiko or Seemaan) too could be enlisted for this.
Narendra Modi Government
The 13th Constitutional amendment is a political legacy of Rajiv Gandhi. The Narendra Modi Governnent had nothing to do with that. Much water has flown under the bridge since the days of the Indo-Lanka accord.In the current geo-political context New Delhi’s priority is to contain the influence of China in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka is of strategic importance in this regard.. Nowadays India is more interested in getting closer to the Governments in power in Colombo. Therefore New Delhi would not let the “Tamil issue” spoil a potentially beneficial “new” relationship with Colombo. At the same time India would not abandon the Tamils entirely due to the “intermestic” factor.
The term “Intermestic” was first used by Henry Kissinger to explain international issues having domestic economic implications like for instance the middle-eastern situation abroad impacting on the price of gas in the US. The term coined by Kissinger took the “inter” from International and “mestic” from Domestic.It was however veteran Journalist Mervyn de Silva who popularised the term in Sri Lanka.
Mervyn applied the term to all issues crossing the boundaries between the International and the domestic and belonged to both spheres thereby necessitating this sub-category. According to Mervyn, Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue was for Sri Lanka a domestic issue with an international spillover and for India it was an international issue with a domestic spillover. Hence for both Colombo and New Delhi it should be regarded as INTERMESTIC, i.e. “at the interface of the international and the domestic”.
The crux of the matter is that the basics of the policy framework continue regardless of change in rulers. Governments and Prime Ministers may come and go but the underlying strand of policy, if formulated on the basis of a country’s interests, will remain for ever.The style of execution may vary under different rulers or regimes but the substance or core elements remain unchanged.
It is this principle which led to Narendra Modi emphasing some yeaars ago after becoming Prime Minister that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution should be the basis of the envisaged political solution in the Island. A report in the “New Indian Express” then stated “This (solution)should be built upon the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution,”he said, referring to the India backed amendment in the 1980’s which called for devolving autonomous powers to the Tamils”.
H.S.Puri and S.Jaishankar
It is also noteworthy that there are two ministers in the BJP Govt of Narendra Modi who are extremely knowledgeable and experienced in the formulation and implementation of the 13th Amendment. One is Hardeep Singh Puri the Indian state minister in Independent charge of Civil Aviation, Housing and Urban development. The other is the Indian minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Both Puri and Jaishankar are ex-diplomats who served in Sri Lanka as First secretaries in charge of political affairs at the Indian High Commission.
Puri was in Ciolombo from 1985 to 1987 and played a significant role in bringing about the Indo-Lanka accord and 13th amendment. .(it was Puri who turned the pages for Rajiv to sign the accord). Jaishankar succeeded him in 1988 and was here until 1990 end. He had a big role in implementing the accord and conducting the North – Eastern provincial election. Both could therefore play a crucial role in providing valuable input to premier Modi on this subject. Indo -Lanka relations come under the purview of Jaishankar in his Foreign ministerial capacity. The ebullient Hardeep could be the ideal Indian special envoy to interact with Gota, Mahinda and Dinesh if and when the need arises.
All this of course depends on sanguine Sampanthan and his tenuous TNA realizing the gravity of the situation and acting aptly. What is required now is the protection, preservation and consolidation of the 13th amendment. This cannot be done without the good offices of India. At the same time it must be understood that there is a “Lakshmana Rekha” that India would not cross. India’s role has limitations. This must be understood clearly. New Delhi will not exert pressure on Colombo. It will only try to “persuade” Sri Lanka to not tamper with the 13 A and urge it to implement the amendment with regard to Provincial Councils in full. For this the full cooperation of the TNA is essential.
The TNA must realise that India is not going to back efforts aimed at gaining greater powers of devolution at this point of time. For one thing New Delhi cannot ask Colombo to grant powers that are not available for States in India. Moreover the Sri Lankan political climate has changed considerably after the war ended. The Sinhala psyche is in a triumphalist mood. There is no compulsion or necessity for granting greater powers to the Councils at this juncture. It is also important to note that if the granting of more powers necessitates a referendum the entire exercise will be doomed. Such a possibility must be avoided. India is prudent enough to know from experience that there is a point beyond which a Sinhala dominated Govt cannot be pushed. This is more so in the case of Gota and Mahinda who are in reality “Panashaye Daruwo’(Children of 56)though born in the forties.
Gotabaya and His “Golayas”
What is possible however is to work the Provincial councils with full powers as stipulated in the 13th Amendment. Sri Lanka has got used to the Provincial councils. Therefore a pragmatic course to adopt would be to continue with them without any change. More so, because there is a concerted move by Gotabaya and his “Golayas” to abolish the system or whittle it down to the point of emasculation. Hence there is an urgent need to protect and preserve it.
What is important now is to preserve what we have instead of seeking more. If the TNA falls into the trap of trying to negotiate with the Rajapaksa regime for a new Constitution or Constitutinal amendments providing maximum devolution, it will be in for a shock. A new Constitution from a Rajapaksa perspective will seek to undermine the available powers of 13 A.The Rajapaksa Govt will prefer to reduce the powers and then have provincial council polls. The TNA should be wary and demand immediate Provincial council elections first.
It is true that the Provincial councils have several flaws. It is also correct that the powers are in some respects inadequate. Nevertheless it is the only unit of devolution that is available. It needs to be safeguarded now. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Maximum devolution and Quasi-federalism are wonderful concepts but the concrete reality today is the Provincial Council. It is the only political gain that has accrued to the Sri Lankan Tamils in the 72 years after Independence.
Let us not forget that this too was possible only because of India. Thus if 13 A and the PC scheme is to be protected and preserved , the involvement of India is needed again. Indian “input” is necessary to dissuade the Rajapaksa regime from going ahead with its plans to “meddle” with 13 A and to persuade Colombo to ensure the full implementation of powers in working the PC’s. Let me reiterate that the TNA should seek the help of India in this exercise as a matter of priority after elections are over.
“Pattu Verti-Paruthi Verti”
Let me conclude with by referring to a Tamil saying about the “Verti” or “Veshti” called “Dhoti” in Hindi. The”verti” is the trsditional dress of males in Tamil society. It is an unstitched garment that is wrapped around from the waist to ankle. There is a Tamil saying “Pattu Vertkku Aasaip Pattu Iruntha Paruthi Vertiyai Thulaithadhu Poala” ( Desiring a silk verti and losing even the cotton Verti one had). The existing PC system is the cotton verti while the desire for more pwers through Constitutional reform is the silk verti. The Sri Lankan Tamils face the danger of losing the cotton Verti they are wearing while desiring a silk Verti!
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of July 25, 2020. It can be accessed here: