Indian Foreign Minister’s reference to ‘meaningful devolution’


By Neville Ladduwahetty

During his recent visit to Sri Lanka, India’s Foreign Minister S.M.Krishna reiterated the words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (as referred to in the June 2010 joint statement) calling for "meaningful devolution". Since the joint statement had not elaborated on the form and substance of devolution that would make it meaningful, Mr. Krishnan is reported to have stated during his visit to Jaffna that devolution should be "based on the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution" (The Sunday Times, November 28, 2010).

Devolution as a power sharing arrangement has a different appeal to different people. Their appeals could be categorized into four groups. The first group is opposed to devolution in any form. The second group that includes the Tamil community, devolution based on the 13th Amendment (13A) has limited appeal. They are for 13A plus. These two extreme positions represent the opinions of most. Between these two extremes are other groups. To a third group devolution based on 13A is acceptable, while a fourth group is for 13A minus. Two conclusions could be drawn from this broad diversity of opinion: a) that devolution "based on the 13A" that Mr. Krishna referred to would appeal only to a marginal few, and b) that it has no appeal to the Tamil community. Therefore, devolution based on 13A would not have much meaning to most in Sri Lanka, least of all to the Tamil community.


Despite a lack of relevance, devolution in the current circumstances would result in the Northern and Eastern Provinces each having a separate Provincial Council. The demographics of the Eastern Province are such that the Tamil community in the province would have to share devolved power with the Sinhala and Muslim communities. On the other hand, the Northern Province is almost exclusively a Tamil majority province. This demographic reality makes the Northern Province the ONLY territorial unit where the Tamil community would exclusively find devolution meaningful as a political arrangement.

If devolution would be "meaningful" only to that faction of the Tamil community in the Northern Province, how could devolution serve as a meaningful power sharing arrangement to the rest of the Tamil community outside the Northern Province? Considering the fact that those outside the Northern Province constitute the larger proportion of the Tamil community, devolution to the smaller faction in the Northern Province becomes even more meaningless.

The impact of devolving power to one province and not to the rest is to endorse two systems of governance within one country; a prospect that should be avoided at all cost. Therefore, if devolution to the Northern Province is what it takes to appease the Tamil community and if the prospect of two forms of governance is to be avoided, the only option is to devolve power to the remaining 8 provinces as well. The cost of this appeasement therefore is to compel the citizens of 8 provinces to live under a political arrangement that is not of their seeking. This is unjust by any measure of justice. The injustice associated with devolution therefore makes it indefensible as a power sharing arrangement for anyone within or without Sri Lanka, including Mr. Krishna.

Notwithstanding the injustice associated with devolution, the location of the devolved unit is in the extreme north of the country. Its proximity and ready access to India coupled with natural cultural affinities would be used to strengthen relationships with Tamil Nadu. These tendencies would be facilitated by the Consulate in Jaffna and the restoration of travel facilities to India, as promised by Mr. Krishna. With devolution, these bonds would easily mature and what impact they would have internally and externally with India has to be a matter of concern.


The linkages between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu coupled with their physical proximity that Mr. Krishna referred to could be both a source of strength and well as a weakness. Its strength lies in the fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have looked to Tamil Nadu as a source of strength and as a sanctuary. Tamil Nadu in turn has used their coalition strength in the Central Government in Delhi to intervene on their behalf. Such intervention extends from fishing in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters to a range of other issues to culminating in imposing devolution to a merged Northern and Eastern Province until it was dismantled by judicial order.

This ability for India through Tamil Nadu to influence internal issues in Sri Lanka is a major source of apprehension for those in Sri Lanka. This apprehension is what has prevented the Tamil community from moving towards any territorially based political arrangement because of the potential for such arrangement to lead to separation or a situation short of separation. Such concerns may be dismissed as unreal but the baggage of history makes them real and as long as such concerns remain with the Sinhala people they would be reticent about territorially based devolution whether modeled on the 13A or any other. This is the inherent weakness of the proximity to Tamil Nadu; a condition that does not exist with Tamil communities in other Indian Ocean rim countries.

On the other hand, one needs to ask whether the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils would not be better served by their full and undivided commitment to Sri Lanka. It is only through expressions of abiding interest in and about Sri Lanka that Sri Lankan Tamils could assuage the apprehensions of the Sinhala community. Furthermore, such commitment by the Sri Lankan Tamils means that they would no longer be looking to Tamil Nadu as their protectors. This would relieve India to address relations with Sri Lanka unencumbered by the need to balance Tamil Nadu concerns vis-à-vis Sri Lankan Tamils with their influence as coalition partners.

Instead of suggesting that Sri Lanka should devolve power based on the 13A, Mr. Krishna should have advised the Tamil community in the North to commit unreservedly to Sri Lanka, because at the end of the day their welfare and well-being is with and in Sri Lanka and not India. The inclination to look to India as a sanctuary and Tamil Nadu as a protector has not only NOT worked, but has also worked against the interests of the Tamil community. Perhaps after three decades of suffering the Tamil community has come to realize that their future is here and not in Tamil Nadu and/or India, and the sooner there is positive and unequivocal demonstration of that commitment, the sooner will the process of positive engagement begin for the Tamil community as well as for India.


What Mr. Krishna, the Indian Foreign Minister stated during his visit to Sri Lanka, and particularly during his visit to Jaffna, is a matter of concern. In addition to reminding the Tamil community in Jaffna of the beginnings of Tamil nationalism and the centuries old bonds that link the Tamils of Sri Lanka with those in Tamil Nadu, he also stated that devolution "should" be based on the 13th Amendment.

What he did not say is that the concept of devolution was introduced to Sri Lanka following Indian intervention to appease the Tamil community. What he could not say also, is that devolution would be meaningful only to those of the Tamil community in the Northern Province who constitute less than half of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, and has little or no meaning to the rest of the Tamils in the other provinces where they would have to share power with the other communities. What he would not say is that the cost of devolution to appease the Tamil community is that communities in the other 8 provinces would be compelled to accept devolution; an imposition that defies justice and therefore is indefensible. What he should have said, was that the Tamil community should not look to India and/or Tamil Nadu as their saviors, but that they should commit unreservedly to Sri Lanka and resolve their concerns internally.

He should also tell India’s coalition partners in Tamil Nadu that their involvement with Sri Lankan’s Tamil community is forcing India to be partial towards them at the cost of an even handed relationship with Sri Lanka to a point where Sri Lanka is building alliances and relationships with countries that are not encumbered by similar limitations. These developments are affecting India’s geostrategic and global interests. Perhaps Sri Lanka and India, despite its historical connections are destined not to have an even- handed relationship because physical proximity more than cultural and historical bonds between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu serves to prevent it. Clearly, it is not in India’s national, regional and global interests to permit continuance of this situation.

However irrelevant devolution may be in the current context, the need for it is driven by fear. Fear of the majority has driven the Tamil minority to seek political isolation in a geographically isolated unit in the Northern Province. For the majority, it is fear buried in the mists of time in their psyche that makes them oppose territorially based power sharing; an opposition justified on the grounds that devolution has no meaning to the majority of the Tamil community who live outside the Northern Province.

Devolving power to territorial units underscores commitment to self interests over the interests of the whole. This could result in disparities between units. On the other hand, central power sharing underscores a holistic perspective. The concept addresses interests of the whole more uniformly than the random interests of its parts. Therefore, what would make sense for all concerned is to share power meaningfully at the center in a manner where all communities commit to a common national endeavour.

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