by C.A. Chandraprema
The government has made an official statement to the effect that it’s reconsidering the 19th Amendment but no such official statement has been made with regard to the 13th Amendment. However opposition politicians have expressed the view that the government is trying to use its two thirds majority to do away with the 13th Amendment as well.
The government does not have to take the trouble to do anything to get rid of the 13th Amendment. It has been tied up in knots by the yahapalana political parties including the Tamil National Alliance so effectively that all that the government has to do to get rid of it for good, is to do nothing. If the government is to restore the provincial councils system, they will need a two thirds majority to do away with its predecessor’s 2017 Act which sent the PC system into the limbo that it is in at present.
When the provincial councils system was functioning there was the oft heard complaint that it had not been made fully functional i.e. that the police and land powers of the provincial councils had not been implemented as originally intended. This has been a major bone of contention during the past three decades with the Tamil National Alliance calling for its full implementation and even demanding that the Sri Lankan government should go beyond the 13th Amendment in order to satisfy Tamil aspirations. One thing that we have to realize is that like so many other aspects of the 1978 Constitution, the 13th Amendment is a very badly drafted piece of legislation. When police and land powers were included in the 13th Amendment, they were copied wholesale from the Indian constitution with no consideration for its practicability in Sri Lanka.
In India, what has been said in the text of the Constitution in relation to the powers over land of the center and the states has been defined and interpreted by the Supreme Court. In the landmark 1962 case, State Of West Bengal vs Union of India, a majority judgment concluded that the structure of the Indian Union is centralized, with the States occupying a secondary position. Hence the Center possessed the requisite powers to acquire properties belonging to States. The Indian SC observed in this case that even under Constitutions which are truly federal and full sovereignty of the States is recognized, the power to utilize property of the State for Union purposes is not denied. Therefore the power of the Union to legislate in respect of property situated in the States remains unrestricted. This judgment was delivered in 1962. The provincial councils system was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1987. If the text dealing with land powers in the 13th Amendment had been formulated on the lines laid down in State of West Bengal vs Union of India, the Northern Tamil political parties would have had more realistic expectations with regard to powers over land. Instead, the text of the 13th Amendment on land powers followed the text of the Indian Constitution thus making it necessary for Sri Lanka to reinvent the wheel as it were.
In 2013, Sri Lanka finally got its own version of State Of West Bengal vs Union of India which defined the extent of the land powers mentioned in the 13th Amendment. The 2013 case of Solaimuthu Rasu, vs The State Plantations Corporation was heard by a three member bench of the Supreme Court made up of Chief Justice Mohan Pieris, K.Sripavan, and Eva Wanasundera and each judge delivered separate judgments while coming to the same conclusion. Justice Sripavan observed in his judgment that ‘land’ is a Provincial Council subject only to the extent set out in Appendix II (of the 9th schedule of the Constitution). The Constitutional limitations imposed by the legislature shows that in the exercise of its legislative powers, no exclusive power is vested in the Provincial Councils with regard to the subject of ‘land’… a Provincial Council can utilize ‘State Land’ only upon it being made available to it by the Government. It therefore implies that a Provincial Council cannot appropriate to itself without the government making state land available to such Council. Such state land can be made available by the Government only in respect of a Provincial Council subject.
Justice Sripavan explained further that the only power cast upon the Provincial Council is to administer, control and utilize such state land in accordance with the laws passed by Parliament and the statutes made by the Provincial Council… Even after the establishment of Provincial Councils in 1987, state land continued to be vested in the Republic and disposition could be carried out only in accordance with Article 33(d) of the Constitution read with 1:3 of Appendix II to the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution. Despite such Supreme Court interpretations given in India and Sri Lanka, the Tamil lobby in Sri Lanka continues to demand exclusive land powers that even Tamil Nadu does not possess. They may point to the text of the 13th Amendment, but never to the interpretations given to that text in India or even in Sri Lanka. People pretend that they have neither seen nor heard of any interpretation given with regard to land powers and we keep going round and round in circles.
When it comes to police powers however, what the 13th Amendment has is what India actually has in practice. The first item on the Provincial Council List of powers is Police and Public order. The extent of these powers are set out in an Appendix to the 13th Amendment according to which the Sri Lanka police force was to be divided into a National Division (including Special Units) and nine Provincial Divisions. The National division would have jurisdiction only over 11 specified areas such as offenses against the State, election offenses, offenses relating to currency, offenses committed against a public officer, a judicial officer, or a Member of Parliament, offenses relating to state property and international crimes etc. Other than such specified offenses, all other day to day police work such as crimes, traffic, drugs, fraud and maintenance of public order etc. were to be carried out by the provincial police forces.
Thus what we were to have under the 13th Amendment were in effect nine different police forces combined with a national police force all crammed into an area the size of one of India’s smaller states. A police system designed for a sub-continent is applied to a country only a little bigger than Himachal Pradesh. Furthermore the creation of separate police forces for each province would have given rise to a Tamil police force in the north, a Muslim and Tamil police force in the east and Sinhala police forces in the rest of the country – a sure recipe for disaster given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic conflict. No leader in the past three decades since the 13th Amendment was passed has even considered implementing the police powers laid down in the 13th Amendment. Moreover, these police powers have been included in the 13th Amendment in a situation where some of the most important safeguards in the Indian Constitution against separatism have been left out.
The missing safeguards
The Indian President’s veto power over state legislation: Even though some Indian states are much bigger than most nation states in the world, the Indian President can veto any legislation that comes to him from the states. According to Articles 200 and 201 of the Indian Constitution, When a Bill has been passed by the Legislative Assembly of a State it has to be presented to the Governor for assent. The Governor can either give his assent or reserve it for the consideration of the President. The President can either assent to the Bill or withhold assent therefrom and he does not have to give any explanation as to why he withholds assent. He does not have to consult the Supreme Court or any other authority. This veto power is exercised entirely at the discretion of the Indian President.
In terms of Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment however, every statute made by a Provincial Council has to be presented to the Governor for his assent, and the Governor may either assent to the statute or reserve it for reference by the President to the Supreme Court, for a determination on the constitutionality of the statute. If the Supreme Court determines that the statute is consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, the Governor is mandatorily required to assent to the statute. The Sri Lankan President is thus only a post box through whom the Governor sends the statute to the Supreme Court and receives its opinion! The Sri Lankan Executive President has no discretionary power over statutes passed by the provincial councils even though the supposedly ceremonial Indian President has such powers.
Taking over state legislative power in the national interest: According to Article 249 if the Indian Constitution, if the Council of States (the upper house of Indian parliament – the Rajya Sabha) has declared by resolution supported by not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting that it is necessary or expedient in the national interest that Parliament should make laws with respect to any matter enumerated in the State List, it shall be lawful for Parliament to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to that matter while the resolution remains in force. Such A resolution shall remain in force for a period not exceeding one year, and so long as a resolution approving the continuance in force of such resolution is passed, it can continue in force for a further period of one year. This takeover of legislative power can continue indefinitely for as long as is required. (It’s important to note that it’s only the upper house of parliament that needs to vote on this matter and that too only with a two thirds majority of Members who may be present on that day, and not a two thirds majority of the whole number of Members of the Rajya Sabha.)
Take over of state legislative power when a state of emergency is in operation: According to Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, Parliament shall, while a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, have power to make laws for the whole or any part of the territory of India with respect to any of the matters enumerated in the State List. A law made by Parliament under this provision will lapse six months after the Proclamation of Emergency has ceased to operate.
We have to recognize that what has been dished out to us in the form of the 13th Amendment is something of a much lower order than that which exists in India. For example, under Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a Proclamation of Emergency is in operation, the executive power of the Union extends to the giving of directions to any State as to the manner in which the executive power thereof is to be exercised and further, the power of Parliament to make laws includes the power to make laws with regard to matters that are not on the Union list (i.e. items on the State list). However according to Article 154J of the Sri Lankan Constitution introduced by the 13th Amendment which is the equivalent of Article 353 of the Indian Constitution, when a state of emergency is in operation, the President may give directions to any Governor as to the manner in which the executive power exercisable by the Governor is to be exercised; but Parliament will not have the power to legislate on matters coming under the provincial councils list!
Shortchanged at every turn
It’s only with regard to the ‘President’s rule’ provisions that we appear to have got what the Indian Constitution has, but even that is merely an appearance and we have been shortchanged there was well. Article 356 of the Indian Constitution states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of a State or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the Government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the Government of the State and all or any of the powers exercisable by the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Legislature of the State shall be exercisable by the authority of Parliament;
The equivalent provision in the Sri Lankan Constitution which was introduced by the 13th Amendment – Article 154L – states that if the President, on receipt of a report from the Governor of the Province or otherwise, is satisfied that a situation has arisen in which the administration of the Province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the President may by Proclamation – (a) assume to himself all or any of the functions of the administration of the Province and all or any of the powers vested in, or exercisable by, the Governor and (b) declare that the powers of the Provincial Council shall be exercisable by, or under the authority of Parliament. Thus we see that the President’s rule provisions in the Indian Constitution and Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment are almost identical. The difference however is that in India, President’s rule can remain in force continuously for a maximum period of three years, but in Sri Lanka President’s rule can remain in force only for a maximum of one year.
What was stated above was just the most obvious instances where Sri Lanka has been shortchanged. Closer scrutiny of the Indian Constitution and the way it operates, will reveal many more instances. If the Sri Lankan President had veto power over all statutes passed by the provincial councils, if the declaration of an emergency automatically gave the Sri Lanka Parliament the power to legislate on any matter coming under the provincial councils list, and if there was a system whereby Parliament could take over the legislative power of any province in the event of perceived danger as stipulated in Article 250 of the Indian Constitution, the entire attitude towards the devolution of power in this country would have been very different. As of now, people in Sri Lanka see devolution as a kind of creeping separatism, and they are right because the demands that we hear most often are for powers that even the Indian states do not possess.
The 13th Amendment was drafted before India got into a confrontation with the LTTE and before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. That was a time when some officers of the Indian army even thought that the LTTE would not turn on them because the latter had been trained and given refuge in India. Furthermore, because Sri Lanka was a small country, some would have thought that fewer safeguards would be required here. The Sri Lankan side may have thought that because India was guaranteeing the implementation of the peace accord, nothing can go wrong and they may have thought that a downsized version of India’s President’s rule provisions was all that was needed in terms of constitutional safeguards against separatism.
Both India and Sri Lanka have learnt many new things since then. Even though the provincial councils system is supposed to be based on the Indian system, we don’t have any of the safeguards that India has. To expect police powers to be implemented in such circumstances is unrealistic. In the opinion of this writer, if legislation is to be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament to revive the provincial councils system, the same legislation should be used to remove all references to police powers from the provincial councils list in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution for the reasons given above.