By Dr. S.I. Keethaponcalan
(The writer is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland)>
Sri Lanka’s Tamil political parties, namely the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Democratic People’s Liberation Front (DPLF), the Eelam People’s Liberation Front (EPRLF), and the Tamil National Party (TNP) wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The letter dated 29 December 2021, was handed over to the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo on 19 January 2022.
The main aim of the letter is to urge India to ensure the full implementation of the 13Amendment (13A) to the Constitution, which led to the creation of the Provincial Council System. The letter was problematic for multiple reasons. This essay discusses some of the significant issues of the letter and the connected political issues.
One, why did the Tamil parties decide to urge the Indian Prime Minister to implement the 13A through a highly publicised letter now? No one explained. No one bothered to explain. The signatories did not even explain it to their constituencies, the Tamil voters. It once again demonstrated the Tamil political party contempt for the Tamil voters. Not only the voters and political commentators but also party insiders did not understand the reason behind the letter. For example, according to a Sri Lankan journalist, TNA spokesperson M.A. Sumanthairan has declared that he did not know why the letter was sent. The lack of justification led to various theories.
One of the theories suggested that the letter was written on the instigation of the Indian government through the embassy in Colombo. There is no evidence to confirm this theory. However, if it is true, the Tamil parties have simply carried out instructions from India. The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), a minor Tamil political party, did not like the letter and organised a protest meeting on 30 January. In response, the letter’s signatories have organised a press conference to counter criticism. One has to wait and see the rationale for the urgent letter.
Two, the letter exposed the general weaknesses of the Tamil parties and their politics. There was a time when Tamil leaders had direct access to top Indian leaders. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi personally met such Tamil leaders as Appapillai Amirthalingam, leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), to discuss the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka. Even Tamil militant leaders had access to Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers M. Karunanidhi and M.G. Ramachandran. These meetings and access embodied Tamil political leadership’s power and status in the past. Currently, the Tamil political leaders, including the leaders of the TNA, the most significant Tamil political party, have been reduced to insignificant political actors. Instead of fighting to reestablish the status, they have meekly accepted the demotion. This is precisely why they had to go to the Indian High Commission in Colombo to hand over the letter. As suggested, if India instigated the letter, the Tamil leader could have (or should have) at least insisted on a high-level meeting in New Delhi.
Three, the Tamil letter lacks sincerity. Although the letter stated that the signatories are committed to a solution based on federal principles, it imparts the impression that they have accepted the provincial councils as the solution. The last paragraph of the (long) letter states that “we appeal to Your Excellency to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to keep its promises to fully implement the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution”. Why would India or, for that matter, Sri Lanka fully implement the 13A if the Tamils will not accept it as the solution? Therefore, one must assume that these parties will accept the 13A as the solution to the ethnic conflict.
The same paragraph also states that India should enable the Tamil people to exercise their right to self-determination. It is not clear how the provincial councils would ensure self-determination. This author’s take is that the terms federalism and self-determination have been included in the letter only to deceive the Tamil people.
Four, the Tamil parties missed the actual point. If there is a reason to argue for the 13A and the provincial councils, that reason stems from the present Government’s project to introduce a new constitution. As soon as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won the 2020 general election with a (near) two-thirds majority, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that his government would introduce a new constitution to consolidate the “One Country One Law” concept. Since the present leaders, including President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa, do not believe in ethnically oriented devolution of power, a new constitution, if enacted, could do away with the provincial council system.
Therefore, the real danger to the provincial councils stems from the possible new constitution. Interestingly, the signatories did not even point this danger out. Appealing for the full implementation of the 13A based on this reality could have been a more powerful argument. Instead, the Tamil parties argued for the full implementation based on history. The hesitation in criticising the present Government could have been a reason for this omission.
Five, the Tamil parties forwarded a flawed argument to demand full implementation of the 13A. They argued that the 13A should be fully implemented because of the past promises and actions of Sri Lankan Governments and Indian leaders. For example, the letter states that “the Government proposals for constitutional reforms in 1995 and 1997 under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and the Constitutional Bill of 2000, all proposed extensive devolution of power”. Former President Kumaratunga is a discredited political leader and currently has no standing among the Sinhala people.
Therefore, this is a weak argument. What matters is the position of the current leaders, especially President Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa had always stood against any devolution of power. After winning the war, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa openly argued against devolution of power. He argued that the North-East Provinces need no devolution of power. He won the election in 2019 based on this argument.
Therefore, arguing for the full implementation of the 13A based on action and statements of former governments and leaders is a feeble approach. The 13A should be fully implemented because it is the country’s constitutional law.
Six, the letter’s first sentence could be misleading and factually erroneous. This line states that “since Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, the Tamil speaking peoples (emphasis mine) have been demanding meaningful power-sharing from all the successive governments that came to power”. There are two issues with this statement.” First, Tamils demanded “power sharing” even before independence in 1948. When the British Soulbury Commission visited Sri Lanka to design the independence scheme to then Ceylon, G.G. Ponnambalam, leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), presented a formula called the Fifty-Fifty proposal. The proposal suggested that parliamentary seats be equally divided between the majority Sinhala community and minority communities. This demand was a power-sharing scheme.
Therefore, it is technically incorrect to argue that the Tamils demanded power-sharing after independence. Second, the letter states that the “Tamil speaking” people demand power-sharing. There is a difference between “Tamils” and “Tamil speaking people”. The second category includes Sri Lankan Muslims. After independence, the Muslims aligned themselves with the Sinhala people and governments in Colombo and hardly demanded power-sharing. They were more loyal to the unitary state than some Sinhalese and played a significant role in the war against the LTTE. Therefore, suggesting that the “Tamil speaking” people demanded power-sharing is insincere. However, the Tamils indeed demanded power-sharing.
Seven, the list of signatories also creates confusion about the Tamil party structure and working arrangements. The TNA is a coalition of several political parties. For example, the ITAK, TELO, and the DPLF are members of the TNA. However, the TNA, the ITAK, and the DPLF have signed the letter separately. This imparts the illusion that TNA is an independent political party. Perhaps, this was done to accommodate TNA leader Rajavarodayam Sambandan in the letter. They all wanted a piece of the glory.
It has been about two weeks since the urgent letter was handed over to the Indian High Commission. New Delhi has not responded to the letter or made any promises on the full implementation of the 13A. What will happen if the letter goes unacknowledged? What would it say about Tamil politics and its power and influence?