The visit by the Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, a one-time High Commissioner in Colombo, was the ‘umpteenth’ visit by an Indian diplomat — from the days of G. Parthasarathy and Romesh Bhandari three decades ago to now, carrying New Delhi’s veiled directives on how the Government in Colombo must carry out its business. [...]


Review the ‘coerced’ Indo-Lanka Accord


The visit by the Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, a one-time High Commissioner in Colombo, was the ‘umpteenth’ visit by an Indian diplomat — from the days of G. Parthasarathy and Romesh Bhandari three decades ago to now, carrying New Delhi’s veiled directives on how the Government in Colombo must carry out its business.

It is also significant, if significant can be, that the visit was on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the 1983 July race riots in Sri Lanka. That pogrom was a watershed in the country’s contemporary history; it turned the lives of people upside-down; it created a new Sri Lankans Diaspora who have carried out a relentless campaign against the state from outside its shores; and it has engrossed much of the country’s attention on ethnic issues, devolution of power, federalism and indeed spawned bloody insurgencies that have taken their toll for three long decades.

That India was at the bottom of the Northern insurgency in Sri Lanka is now an acknowledged fact. That was aimed at destabilising its Southern neighbour seen then as pro-West. How roles have changed. Right now the Indian Finance and Commerce Ministers are in Washington wooing American investors.

That pique played a major part in the then Indian Prime Minister’s nod for India’s external spy agency RAW to fund and train a terror group to operate in Sri Lanka, given India’s personal relationship with Sri Lanka’s then leader, J.R. Jayewardene is a public secret.
The Indian Government was not interested in a separate state in the North of Sri Lanka – it had a limited agenda and for that wanted a ‘cat’s-paw’ to irritate Colombo and gain a foothold in the North of the island. It was not entirely for reasons of good neighbourliness that India did not go the full stretch, unlike when it helped bifurcate Pakistan with the creation of Bangladesh. India feared a pan-Tamil link-up with its Southern state of Tamil Nadu which already had a history of separatist tendencies with a secession movement in the 1960s.

Analysts believe that by 2009 when the Sri Lankan Armed Forces went all out to defeat the Indian-trained LTTE, events had overtaken one another; the most important being the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE — on Indian soil — and his widow being the ‘power- behind- the- throne’ in New Delhi.

India’s honeymoon with the LTTE ended once the LTTE began shooting at the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). India was hoist on its own petard was what the cynics felt. With the assassination of Mr. Gandhi, the LTTE was banned in that country and by 2009, India had begun to revisit the line it ostensibly took all along — the need for a political settlement in Sri Lanka by way of creating a semi-federal state like in India with Provincial Councils.

India cared little if it was an efficient system of local government. Only that it gave the minority Tamils in the North — and the East — a degree of self-governance. From the perspective of India’s Southern detractors on the island, it was another approach to get a foothold in the North through a proxy — as is the case today with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Ever since these Provincial Councils were rammed down the country’s throat in 1987, almost all governments have tried to ward off Indian pressure to establish the Northern Provincial Council. For some time the LTTE controlled the Northern territories, but otherwise they have been Government-held. Even when the LTTE was eventually liquidated on the battlefields of the North-East, the North was under Government control.

It is only now that this Government has capitulated into creating the Northern Provincial Council. It is ironic in that it is this Government that makes no bones about claiming the rightful credit for defeating the LTTE and ridding this country of the menace of terrorism in the North, South, West, East and central parts of the country. And it is not for any holistic reasons that the Government has decided to establish the Northern Provincial Council and hold elections there in September. India’s heavy hand in the decision-making was there for all to see.

The new initiative by India has brought attention to the relevance of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the forerunner to the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and the Provincial Councils that followed.

The Minister in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office was on record last week saying that this Accord cannot be abrogated ‘unilaterally” by any one party and if Sri Lanka wants any changes, it will have to re-negotiate the provisions. Counter-arguments from this side of the Palk Straits say that 1) India never fulfilled its obligations under the Accord to de-fang the LTTE and thus Sri Lanka need not fulfil its, and 2) that the Accord was signed under duress and therefore, is null and void.

International law experts would say that abrogation of bilateral agreements can be a compact problem. Some treaties have a termination clause. It seems this Accord does not. In that case, a party that wishes to abrogate it unilaterally must fall back on the general principles of treaty law, spelt out in the 1969 Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties.

There are a number of grounds it could be done, that the Government must surely explore, including coercion. The threshold is high, but for instance, when Germany got Czechoslovakia to sign the 1938 treaty transferring Sudetenland to Germany threatening war, it was later considered null and void.

No doubt there could be geo-political consequences in abrogating the Accord ‘unilaterally’, consequences Sri Lanka, given its present disposition, may not be confident enough of facing. But going by India’s own argument, it might be time for Sri Lanka to review the so far dormant Accord and begin the process of re-negotiating it with a view to revamping the Provincial Council system in the greater interest of this country’s local administration.

Clearly, there is thinking in that direction. But the Ministry of External Affairs is left out in the cold in Indo-Lanka relations. It has a South Asia desk with a Deputy Director but is hardly consulted. Its desk heads are not even taken to New Delhi, or for that matter present when important talks are held in Sri Lanka as was the case with the visiting National Security Advisor.

Unlike with the relationship between the Indian bureaucracy and its politicians, in Sri Lanka everything is a political decision. When the Indian dignitary came, there was no note-taking on the Sri Lankan side and it is a case of going from one blunder to the next without any archival record of previous meetings.

The result is that the President has got himself and the country into a submissive position vis-à-vis India due to the Government’s domestic human rights, good governance record and its international obligations; something India is vigorously capitalising on towards its end-game.

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