From the sidelines The visit to India last week by a delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its discussions with high ranking Indian officials as usual raises questions relating to India’s role in resolving Sri Lanka’s national question. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed his ‘dismay’ to the TNA delegation over “reports suggesting [...]


TNA, 13A and Indian dismay


From the sidelines

The visit to India last week by a delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its discussions with high ranking Indian officials as usual raises questions relating to India’s role in resolving Sri Lanka’s national question. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed his ‘dismay’ to the TNA delegation over “reports suggesting that the Government of Sri Lanka planned to dilute certain key provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution ahead of elections to the Northern Provincial Council,” the official spokesman of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said. The statement said:

“It was noted that the proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment. The changes would also be incompatible with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by the Government of Sri Lanka, calling for a political settlement based on the devolution of power to the provinces.”
In the wake of the TNA’s visit there have been reports that India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon is to visit Sri Lanka next month for talks with President Rajapaksa.

These reports, not confirmed by the Indian High Commission in Colombo, are based on a comment made to media by MP Selvam Adaikalanathan, a member of the TNA delegation. The ‘attempts to dilute key provisions’ of the 13th Amendment (13A) mentioned in the Indian MEA statement, would refer to the two amendment proposed by Government recently. The first is to do away with existing provisions in the 13A for two or three adjoining provinces to merge and form a single administrative unit with a single elected council. This proposed amendment has not met with objections from other political parties, and is to be presented in parliament in the form of the 19th amendment to the constitution. This was announced by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who has just been named as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) tasked to discuss and make recommendations on implementation of the 13A. The Speaker has named 19 MPs who will represent Government in the PSC. Opposition parties are yet to name their nominees.

With the hindsight of the political turmoil that followed the formation of the merged North-East Provincial Council of the 1980s, whose Chief Minister made a ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence,’ the removal of the merger provision should not unduly offend anyone who respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The North-East merger was declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2006. It is difficult to see how objections can be raised externally over a constitutional amendment made by a sovereign state that is proceeding with it on the basis of a consensual understanding.

It would be relevant to recall that Menon on a previous visit to Sri Lanka, when asked if India was adamant on the full implementation of the 13th amendment had told Indian media “…Now if they think they want to do better than the 13th Amendment let them do it…They want to do it different, that’s for them. They all [all parties] must feel comfortable with it.” (The Hindu, 29.06.12)

The more contentious source of ‘Indian dismay’ would be the second amendment proposed by the Government, to do away with the requirement that all nine provincial councils need to concur before a bill can be passed that affects the powers devolved on the provincial councils. The proposed amendment would only require that a majority of councils give their consent to such legislation. Criticism of this proposal has come from parties both within and outside the ruling UPFA coalition, who say the move could undermine the objectives of devolution of power to the provinces. The Government has decided to refer this and any other disputed issues to the PSC. The NPC election is to be held in September regardless of whether the PSC issues have been resolved by that time. Matters to be discussed in the PSC would include the objections raised by the UPFA’s coalition partners, the NFF and the JHU, with regard to the devolution of land and police powers to the provinces.

“These issues are being manufactured and used to whip up racist feelings” says LSSP Leader and Senior Minister Tissa Vitarana. He told the ‘Sunday Times’ the required procedure for the implementation of land and police powers in any of the provinces has not been carried out, although these powers are in the statute book. “The President has to be involved. Just because the TNA is elected (in the North) they cannot implement them.” Vitarana says powers granted under the 13A are limited to start with, and have been further curtailed with the passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution.

Nevertheless concerns have been expressed in the media and elsewhere about the manner in which the devolved police powers will affect aspects of public security in the country. It appears that until police powers are actually transferred to the provinces, there is no way of gauging the changes that might follow. The announcement of the Northern Provincial Council election has suddenly made this a subject of speculation, debate and anxiety. These worries would need to be thoroughly addressed through discussions in the PSC, with input from legal experts of the Government as well as Opposition political parties to help interpret the relevant clauses relating to provincial police powers.

With regard to India’s expressions of concern, in the last analysis it would seem that the issue for Sri Lanka is not whether or not it is acceptable to amend the 13A. The issue is how to balance Sri Lanka’s national interest with the need for power sharing. National interest here would include considerations of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within the framework of a unitary state. Power sharing would refer to the devolution of power to the provinces as provided for in the 13A, that would give Tamils a measure of autonomy in the Northern Province where they form a majority. The limits imposed by these parameters do not seem to be understood by extremists in the Government fold.

The PSC could be considered a democratic means of resolving these issues only if there is broad participation by Opposition parties and parties representing minority constituencies, in arriving at a consensus. Needless to say if the government steamrolls its decisions unilaterally, the credibility of the exercise will suffer, and its purpose will be defeated.

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