Blood ties

Despite all the periodic hiccups, the ties between Sri Lanka and India have been inked in the blood of the peoples and soldiers of both countries

It is ironic that the only memorial to the 1,100 or so soldiers of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) who fell in battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is located in Colombo.

There, not too far from Sri Lanka’s beautiful Parliament building, is inscribed the names of all the officers and jawans who died as a result of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s impetuous misadventure which earned him no brownie points at home or gratitude in Sri Lanka. Yet, despite the political controversies that surround the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987, what is heartening is that the soldiers who gave their lives for an objective they knew little about have been honoured by Colombo, despite New Delhi’s reluctance to remember those dreadful three years.
The memorial underscores the fact that despite all the periodic hiccups, the relationship of Sri Lanka and India has been inked in the blood of the peoples and soldiers of both countries.
It is pertinent to remember this at a time when dark clouds are once again hovering over bilateral relations. And it is also important to remember that at the heart of the emerging dispute over “autonomy” or “devolution” of powers to the minority Tamil community is a clause that was injected into the Sri Lanka Constitution by the Rajiv Gandhi-J.R. Jayawardene Accord 26 years ago.
The 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution had three features. First, Tamil was given official language status; secondly, the Northern and Eastern Provinces that Tamil nationalists regard as their traditional homeland were merged; and finally, despite the unitary Constitution, it was proposed to establish provincial councils — much like India’s state governments — throughout the small island. The 13th Amendment was not really the brainchild of Indian officials who imagined they were remote controlling the Tamil upsurge from Delhi’s South Block. It encapsulated most of the earlier agreements entered between Sri Lanka’s Tamil leadership with Colombo. There was only one difference: The earlier attempts at reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese had been derailed by competitive populism on both sides. With India’s insistence, the 13th Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution.
After two decades and despite a bloody civil war, some of the features of the 13th Amendment have become institutionalised. Today, after the disastrous experiment with a “Sinhala only” language policy, the island has set in motion a pragmatic three-language formula that makes it obligatory for all Sri Lankans to be conversant in Sinhala, Tamil and English. In other words, the groundwork for all the communities to converse with each other, rather than talk at each other, has been laid.
This is not to say that Sinhala and Tamil chauvinism are dead. Despite the decimation of the LTTE and the Marxist-chauvinist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), there is still an inclination among some people to talk in terms of exclusivist nationhood. But in political terms, there is a greater appreciation of the fact that the island cannot afford another bout of 30-year bloodletting. The goal of greater prosperity makes peaceful coexistence and accommodation imperative.
That is why the Supreme Court decision striking down the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces wasn’t a devastating blow to ethnic harmony. The Eastern Province is ethnically mixed with large populations of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. Tamils may have constituted the majority in the distant past but today’s reality is different. And although Tamil nationalists still nurture a grievance over state-sponsored Sinhalese colonisation, the demographic pattern of today is irreversible.
Indeed, the politics of the Eastern Province is a pointer to why the provincial council experiment can actually be a great healer. The provincial election led to a fractured verdict and today, it is the Muslim community which holds the balance of power. Like the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka’s Muslims were targeted by the LTTE. Yet, the community has cultural links with both the Tamils and the Sinhalese, and wielding local power for the first time, this community is loath to abandon devolution for a return to centralised rule.
The Tamils are in an overwhelming majority in the Northern Province which includes the Jaffna peninsula. Owing to the civil war, no elections to the provincial council have been possible, and the first one is scheduled for September. In principle, the schedule poses no problems but Tamil politicians are insisting that the Northern Province be given additional control over land and law and order. The 13th Amendment does stipulate these powers but they have been kept in abeyance for all the provincial councils. Making an exception and giving the Northern Province something akin to India’s Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir may be a way out but it carries the risk of triggering a Buddhist-Sinhalese backlash. A more pragmatic way would be for elections to be held and for Tamil politicians to secure a stake in the political system. Of course, this won’t happen if President Mahinda Rajapaksa tinkers with the Constitution at this late stage and prompts a needless boycott call by the powerful Tamil National Alliance.
What is needed for the whole of Sri Lanka to be reassured that the roots of Eelam secession have been well and truly uprooted. Only then can a more dispassionate debate about the future of political devolution take place. That is something Indian diplomacy should keep in mind as it prepares to flex its muscles in Colombo. For purely domestic reasons India can’t afford to be partial towards only one community.

The writer is a senior journalist

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