The Government has announced the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee to discuss further devolution of power based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A).
Regrettably, this is not the first call by this administration, nor the first since the North-East armed conflict began, nor the first call as a result of external pressure, particularly by India. That this call coincided with the recent visit to India by Sri Lanka's Minister of External Affairs and the visit by a high-powered team of Indian officials was no coincidence though.
Lest one forgets, 13A by itself came in the backdrop of Indian insistence after the 1983 race riots which 'internationalised' the Sri Lankan 'ethnic situation' and gave India a greater handle on the basis that it had caused a refugee crisis in its southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The Indian Government of the day took upon itself the onus to speak on behalf of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Soon after both countries received Independence in the late 1940s, a hangover from centuries of colonialism resulted in a group of people living in the island nation's central highlands to be classified as "stateless" -- those of "recent Indian origin". Later, though, upon them either being repatriated to India or being granted Sri Lankan citizenship that legitimacy passed from India, but India was soon to take on the unsolicited moral obligation of speaking on behalf of the Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka. This it never did in the early years.
However much India would resent Pakistan or Saudi Arabia speaking on the treatment of Muslims in India, successive Governments in Colombo have accepted regular Indian missives as a matter of course and they have now become a fait accompli in Sri Lanka's domestic politics.
Back in 1983, the concept of devolution of power was introduced into the lexicon essentially by India bringing it to the focus of the national agendas of the two countries. It was in November that year that the subject was first mooted during talks between President J.R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in New Delhi. The Sri Lankan President rejected a demand by the TULF, the forerunner to the current-day Tamil National Alliance to merge the existing District Development Councils (DDCs), and for an armed constabulary, i.e. police powers. The Indian mediator, G. Parthasarathi, however, persuaded the Sri Lankan delegation from saying so in the official communiqué that was released after the Jayewardene-Gandhi talks.
In 1984, President Jayewardene set up an APC to reach a consensus, or a political solution to what was then a fledgling insurgency. The SLFP, then in the opposition, first boycotted its proceedings and afterwards attended as observers. After 96 meetings, the APC produced a document which included a controversial Annexure 'C' that provided for the merger of the DDCs within a province to form Regional Councils. Provincial Councils were mentioned for the first time. President Jayewardene thought he had reached the ideal consensus only to have his proposals not only jettisoned by the Opposition, but by the TULF, anti-TULF forces and sections of his own Cabinet. While one group called it a "sell out"; the others said "not enough".
Then in 1987 came the notorious Indian military flexing of muscles and the Indo-Lanka Accord in July of that year, soon followed by the 'Made in India' Provincial Councils and 13A. The question that arises today, is what lessons have been learnt from this part of contemporary history, and whether this Accord should not be revisited in the light of a post-conflict scenario. For one thing, the Accord is not written in stone; for another, it was signed by Sri Lanka under duress.
Despite scoring a resounding victory in getting Sri Lanka to agree to that disastrous Vesak time Joint Statement in New Delhi, the visiting Indian delegation must have seen the writing on the wall in Colombo. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was firm that land and police powers for Provincial Councils are out of the question. The visitors were to say something that ought to be normally understood; that devolution was a matter for the Sri Lankan Government.
Should the Government then revisit the entirety of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the enabling legislation that came with it, it must analyse the effectiveness of the Provincial Councils after almost quarter of a century. For many this system of local government has seen a mere duplication of work, 'white elephants' gobbling state revenue and Chief Ministers complaining they don't have funds. One of the most important subjects, education is a devolved subject and the less said about it the better.
Was President Jayewardene's DDC the ideal unit of devolution? Many believe it is. It is a manageable unit, it is practical and its emphasis is on development. One cannot ignore the geographical size of Sri Lanka when comparing it with Federal states like India, the United States, Canada or Australia. In Britain, it was only last month that the Queen had expressed her serious concerns on the possible disintegration of the United Kingdom with the recent Scottish referendum calling for still greater autonomy.
In revisiting the Indo-Lanka Accord there is, however, the issue of Sri Lanka's capacity to negotiate. Given the fact that the Ministry of External Affairs is in shambles and the classic example of how the Joint Statement was handled, or the recent fisheries and poaching problem was faced, there lurks a danger in treading in these waters.
In an environment where there is increased external pressures gripping the Sri Lanka state, and a fiasco with almost each passing week, the ad-hoc approach to international relations has to be dispensed with. Sooner the better. Knee-jerk reactions must be replaced with studied approaches to issues.
President Rajapaksa is clearly signaling that his presence at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum where the Presidents of Russia and China are present is his wish to steer Sri Lanka's foreign policy to align with these two major powers and away from the West and its separate agenda for the future of the world.
In that context it is even more significant that should the Indian Prime Minister keep to his promise to come on a state visit to Sri Lanka soon, the time is right for the Sri Lankan Government to suggest the need to revisit and revise the Indo-Lanka Accord. For that, Sri Lanka's leaders need to know what they want; and to know what they want they must sit down and decide what they want.