Should Sri Lanka Persist with Province-Based Devolution?

– A Rejoinder


by G. H. Peiris

The article titled ‘Northern Provincial Council: the Devolution Debate’ by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka (The Island, Midweek Review of 8 May 2013) is evidently intended to expose the fallacy of (to quote Dayan) "... three myths about devolution which have been around for a long time but have been resuscitated in the post-war period." The essence of the ‘myths’ referred to are: (a) that devolution as provided for by the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution in Sri Lanka was intended to empower the people but had/has no specific ethnic connotation; (b) that, since it was the secessionist challenge of the Tigers that pressurised the government to province-based devolution, now that the Tigers are no more, there is no longer a necessity for such a system of devolution; and (c) that devolution "... has to do originally and primarily with India."

Since Dr. Jayatilleka has, over many years, been an advocate of "territorial devolution" based upon a provincial framework (13 A, 13A Plus etc.) one is not surprised at his persistence with that campaign. But what does cause surprise, given his eminence as a political scientist, diplomat, provincial minister, son of an illustrious journalist and (above all?) a realist, is that the case he has made in for the 13th Amendment in his contribution at a forum on ‘Constitutional Reform’ (and then, carried in The Island) is so superficial and fragile.

Has anyone whose ideas are worthy of serious note ever said that ethnicity was not a major consideration in the empowerment of the people which the 13th Amendment supposedly meant to achieve? Likewise, who on earth has opposed provincial devolution on the basis of a claim that, with the battle-field defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, Sri Lanka has overcome the secessionist challenge? Indeed, one of the main arguments against the impending elections to the NPC is that the LTTE is very much alive. Since these two ‘myths’ so obviously are products of Dr. Jayatilleka’s imagination, I see no purpose in venturing into his shadow boxing efforts.

The third ‘myth’ Dr. Jayatilleka purports to demolish is somewhat more serious in that his refutation is a distortion of the circumstances that culminated in the promulgation of the Thirteenth Amendment. He says:

"Thirdly (i.e. having disposed of the carcass of the first two ‘myths’) the argument is that devolution had primarily to do (sic.) with India. Well if that is the case, the last time I looked India is still there and political climate is getting even more fraught with the elections coming up in 2014. But if you set that point aside for a moment, the province was publicly agreed upon as the main unit of devolution in the documents of the Political Parties Conference of June 1986, held in Colombo. That conference was under the chairmanship of President Jayewardene and summoned at the written request of Vijaya Kumaratunga. There were no Indians present. If the detailed blueprint arrived at on this occasion had been implemented at the time, with a five-sixths parliamentary majority in hand, there would not have been an opening for the coercive interventionist diplomacy by India one year later!"

Let’s focus here on the relevant facts as documented in several authoritative studies. The process of formalisation of the shift from ‘district’ to ‘province’ as the unit of devolution began in the penultimate stage of proceedings of the ‘All-Party Conference’ (APC) of September-December 1984. The summoning of the APC itself was a response by the Sri Lankan president to pressures emanating from several sources – international sympathy for victims of the convulsions of July 1983 alongside some external support (mainly from scholarly sources in India and the west) for the idea of accommodating Tamil demands for ‘regional autonomy’ over an area claimed as their ‘Traditional Homeland’, and an upsurge of terrorist violence in the north. Economic disruptions caused by ‘Black July’, and the increasingly articulate challenge to the legitimacy of the JRJ regime (widely believed to have been based on a rigged referendum) were additional reasons that impelled the aging president towards a stance of appeasement for self-defence, and thus, to present to the APC in December 1984 a draft ‘district and provincial councils bill’ which, in many respects was identical to the constitutional arrangement suggested in the infamous ‘Annexure C’ of Indian origin ? a document that represented the formal Indian endorsement of the openly articulated TULF demands pertaining to several aspects of governance. (N.B. The clandestine TULF demand from Delhi at this time was for a re-enactment of a Bangladesh-type of military ‘liberation’, because RAW had already done vis-a-vis Sri Lanka the preliminary destabilisation similar in many respects to what it had accomplished in East Pakistan). Self-government for Sri Lanka’s north-east demanded by the TULF was, from Delhi perspectives, an ideal arrangement because it would, while keeping Sri Lanka on a tight leash, not serve as an impulse latent Tamil nationalism in South India.

The sharp escalation of insurrectionary violence in India - Kashmir, Punjab and the ‘North-East’ - in the mid-1980s provided Sri Lanka a brief respite from Indian pressures. Rajiv Gandhi, mainly in order to authenticate his leadership inherited from the assassinated mother, made peace overtures all round within his country, while not deviating significantly from earlier policies towards the neighbour countries. For Sri Lanka, the respite was represented by the two rounds of ‘Thimpu Talks’ (July-August 1985) at which the Indian mediator, Romesh Bhandari, was far more receptive to the Sri Lankan viewpoint than either his predecessor, G. Parthasarathy or his successors like P. Chidambaram, A. P. Venkateshwaran and J. N. Dixit whose stance towards Sri Lanka was distinctly ‘imperialist’, in tone, if not in substance. Dixit, in particular, peremptorily dismissed whatever evidence the Sri Lankan representatives at bilateral discussions presented in order to show that the Eastern Province, in particular, was not, and was never, an exclusive homeland of any one ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

Chidambaran and Venkateshwaran, moreover, were ardent Tamil nationalists. While the former has continued to be the main spokesman for the Congress Party in Tamil Nadu, the latter, after his retirement as India’s foreign Secretary, has engaged unabashedly in anti-Sri Lanka rabble-rousing, as indicated by the passionate presentation he made to the ‘Eelam Tamil Solidarity Conference’ held at Madurai in 1999 in the course of which he said, "Tamil Tiger Movement is justified in its actions"(this, remember, was a time when Sri Lanka was reeling from a series of deadly Tiger attacks on civilian targets in the ‘south’), and asked, "why the people of Tamil Nadu who have a courageous reputation for bravery (sic.) are keeping silent on this matter". So, make no mistake – this is how Rajiv, political tenderfoot though he was, directed his "impartial" mediation in the Sri Lankan conflict in the period leading up to the Thirteenth Amendment.

To return to the shift from ‘district’ to ‘province’, following the ‘Thimpu Talks’ bilateral discussions between the two governments continued, and eventually produced a document which, on the basis of being initialled by the official participants, came to be referred to as the ‘Delhi Accord’ which, among other things, marked the jettisoning of the idea of district-based devolution. Despite this, however, both the TULF as well as the LTTE announced in December 1985 their withdrawal of support for the ‘Accord’. It was thereafter that a team of negotiators led by Chidambaran arrived in Colombo with the intention of pressuring the government of Sri Lanka to make further changes in the ‘Delhi Accord’ so that it would meet the TULF/LTTE demands.

The ‘Political Parties Conference’ (PPC, as distinct from the APC), referred to by Dr. Jayatilleka, which JRJ summoned in June 1986 was no more than an attempt by him to reach consensus within the Sri Lankan political mainstreams to introduce further changes in the Delhi Accord. That attempt was still-born. The SLFP (which, by this time, had recovered considerably from its electoral debacle of 1977) did not participate in its proceedings. The leadership of the Muslims viewed it with circumspection. It was almost entirely a dialogue between the government, a not particularly enthusiastic TULF leadership, and some persons of the ‘Old Left’ who had hardly any representation in parliament. The JVP, with its insurrection in the ‘South’ was not invited. In attributing significance to the PPC and the lengthy report it produced, it would be absurd to ignore the fact that JRJ, with his four-fifths majority in the national parliament and (allegedly) a bunch of undated letters of resignation from all his ministers, the government was still very much a one-man show, with that man acting under duress.

Venkateshwaran, India’s Foreign Secretary, who came into the scene in late 1986 with a proposal to partition the Eastern Province into three territorial units – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese – found no support from any quarters including the TULF. Thereafter he pressed for Sri Lanka adopting a constitution modelled on that of India, with a range of crucial powers and functions devolved to a region consisting of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province (minus the Sinhalese-dominated Ampara electorate). This was also not acceptable to anyone. The tragic failure of the Indian model in India as indicated by what was happening in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam, and many other ethnic enclaves in India’s ‘North-East’ was of no concern either to him or to those in the procession of Indian emissaries who arrived here in late 1986 and early 1987. What was important to them was that Sri Lanka should meekly follow India so that, while the Congress Party would continue to receive the substantial support it usually does from Tamil Nadu, it would also perpetuate the status of Sri Lanka as a vassal state of India.

Since there is no dearth of information on the events preceding the signing of the ‘Rajiv-JR Pact’ in July 1987, the related details do not bear repetition here. Terrorist violence in the North and parts of the East assumed an unprecedented level of ferocity. LTTE annihilated several hundreds of activists of the EPRLF and the TELO. Among the other LTTE atrocities of this time were, the massacre of 127 Sinhalese civilians in Trincomalee district on 17 April, the LTTE bomb attack in Pettah on 21 April resulting in a death toll of 110, and the slaughter of 30 Buddhist monks and 4 civilians in Ampara on 4 June. In January 1987, Prabhakaran returned to Sri Lanka from India with the avowed intention of sabotaging a possible Indi-Sri Lanka agreement. There was, in addition, information on a possible declaration by him of unilateral independence for the Northern Province. It was against the backdrop of these developments that the government of Sri Lanka strengthened its military presence in the North, defying Delhiwarnings, and launched the ‘Operation Liberation’ (a.k.a. ‘Vadamarachi Operation’) ? highly successful until it was scuttled by India through a quasi-military intervention. This was how the ‘Rajiv-JR Pact’, the ‘Thirteenth Amendment’, and the system of province-based devolution were brought about. And, this is why Dr. Jayatilleka’s explanation of how "coercive interventionist diplomacy by India" was brought about is so hilarious.

The purpose of this rejoinder is to convey to The Island readership that the case against the ‘Thirteenth Amendment’ is much more persuasive than what the caricatured portrayal by Dr. Jayatilleka conveys. Recent writings on this subject – those that I have come across – contain references to some of the risks and dangers of Sri Lanka persisting with this system of devolution. At the time of its promulgation under intense Indian pressure there was the expectation that it would prevent a protracted civil war and all the losses which such a calamity would entail. That expectation failed to materialise. The war was finally won, but with excruciating sacrifices. It is not the victory, but the substantially magnified risks and dangers still remaining that warrant the abandonment of the Thirteenth Amendment.

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