What A Way To Keep 13-A ‘Relevant’

What A Way To Keep 13-A ‘Relevant’

By N Sathiya Moorthy  

Not many seemed to have noticed that the day President Ranil Wickremesinghe met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on 21 July exactly a full year had elapsed since his taking over formal charge after being confirmed by Parliament.  But no one, at least in the country, missed out on the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil pogrom full forty years back, in 1983. With that also came India’s involvement / intervention in the ‘ethnic issue’, which has since refused to go away despite the elimination of LTTE terror and the end of the violent phase.

This time round, as through the past years and decades since 1987, when leaders from the two nations met, they talked about the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, derived from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, again signed on another day in the same month, 29 July, to be precise. And thereby hangs a tale.

At the joint news conference at the end of wide-ranging talks at Delhi’s Hyderabad House, PM Modi had to say this of the ethnic issue and intended solution: “We hope that the Government of Sri Lanka will fulfil the aspirations of the Tamils. Will drive the process of rebuilding for equality, justice and peace. Will fulfil its commitment to implement the Thirteenth Amendment and conduct the Provincial Council Elections. And will ensure a life of respect and dignity for the Tamil community of Sri Lanka.”

President Wickremesinghe responded thus: “I also shared with him the comprehensive proposal I presented this week for furthering reconciliation, power sharing through devolution and the multiple elements of the Northern development plan. I have invited all party leaders in Parliament to work towards consensus and national unity on these measures. Thereafter the Government will place the relevant legislation before Parliament.” To be heard in northern Jaffna and wherever Diaspora Tamils had tuned in their ears to Delhi, Wickremesinghe added for effect: “Prime Minister Modi has expressed his solidarity and goodwill in these endeavours.”

Fallacious argument

In the run-up to the President’s India visit, at least four Tamil groups, including a civil society combine, shot of missives to PM Modi, for pressuring Wickremesinghe into yielding Tamils, their due. Of the four, two, including the civil society group, stopped with demanding full and immediate implementation of 13-A (and of course provincial council polls to facilitate the process). The Tamil Democratic Alliance, the residual TNA minus the mainstay ITAK, was the other.

Of the remaining two, ITAK under erstwhile TNA boss R Sampanthan wanted 13-A now, but leading up to a ‘federal solution. The oldest of them all, the Ceylon Tamil Congress (CTC) and Alliance would settle for nothing less than federalism. The two are convinced that there can be no meaningful devolution under the existing unitary system.

The Tamils can have any number of arguments to demand power-devolution that addresses their legitimate aspirations within a unified Sri Lanka. But to argue that they could not get it under a unitary scheme but only under a federal system is fallacious. It requires a leader with a massive parliamentary majority and popular support outside to do it. A leader with similar backing can also deny it, either through legal and constitutional amendments, or even without any.

Post-war, the Tamils had their opportunity when President Mahinda Rajapaksa opened talks with the TNA, which was the dominant political grouping of the community with demonstrable parliamentary and popular support. They refused to acknowledge that as post-war Sinhala/ Sri Lankan hero, Rajapaksa was the best bet that the Tamil community had for decades and generations to come.

Mahinda promised 13-Plus, 13-Plus-Plus, etc, and the negotiations also went forward, though haltingly. The hiccups owed to past suspicions each side had about the other, but still they managed to sail through.

They lost the game from the beginning when the TNA insisted that the Government should talk only to them, and none else, including the Sinhala-majority parties whose backing was required to convert promises into policies, that too in the form of constitutional amendments and new pieces of legislation, where required. Then came the UNHRC threat, and a TNA leader went to town, declaring that it was because of their pressure that the US of A was doing what all it was doing.

No Government in Colombo could have stomached it and stayed on in power. Mahinda snapped the talks, and unceremoniously so. Yes, his leadership also dumped the report of the Tissa Vitharana Committee on power-devolution for all minorities in the country. Yet, in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community, the talks with the TNA were progressing well, until it broke down on externally-located extraneous provocation.

Two sets of demands

The Tamils have two sets of demands. One is on power-devolution, which pre-dates the ethnic war and the end of the LTTE. The other flows from the war and pertains to war crimes and accountability issues. Both have become the alternate hobby horses of multiple Tamil political parties, social groups and Diaspora organisations. When the Government is up to one thing, they would demand progress on the other, knowing full well that it was not possible under the prevailing politics in and of the majority Sinhala community, especially involving the majoritarian groups that are loud and vociferous.

It is thus that at the Tamil political party confabulations called by President Ranil just a couple of days before his Delhi trip, the TNA especially wanted near-exclusive focus on power-devolution, with which alone, yes, India is concerned. Possibly in a provocative way, Wickremesinghe had put the topic at the bottom of the agenda-points that his office had shared with the participant-MPs from all sides of the SLT community.

So, when he talked about more recent land-grabbing by Sinhala-Buddhist groups in the Tamil areas, accountability mechanisms, as sought by the UNHRC on the Tamils’ behalf, Sampanthan, typical of him, on such occasions said at the top of his voice that they could not be cheated one more time. It is anybody’s guess why he or other participants could not have sought a reprioritisation of the agenda-points, even if the original one had reflected the Government’s current mood on power-devolution.

It almost ended the confabulations, but then whatever he said about power-devolution and 13-A, President Wickremesinghe reportedly repeated to PM Modi in Delhi. That the Government needed all-party parliamentary support to grant Police powers promised under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and 13-A, and was willing to bring forward facilitating legislation to transfer more subjects from the Concurrent List to the Provinces List, etc.

It is not unlikely that Ranil does not want Police Powers, or even other Powers for the Provinces. As Prime Minister under President Maithripala Sirisena (2015-19), he had played along with the Tamils, the TNA in particular, on a new Constitution Assembly. After their cohabitation went sour, Ranil dependent on the TNA for parliamentary majority – yet, the latter did not make the right demands at the right time.

Suddenly, they became more of Sri Lankan nationalists than all those Sinhala nationalists. Why the TNA leaders overnight became more of Sri Lankan nationalists than even the Tamil nationalists that they were supposed to be and wanted the world to believe them to be.

Anyway, when Wickremesinghe as PM proposed a Constitution Assembly, the TNA did not have a problem with a collective decision at the time. But post-war, Mahinda sought an all-party decision to ensure that 13-Plus did not go the 13 way, the TNA would have none of it. They would not even allow the Rajapaksas to bring other anti-Government Tamil parties on board.

Shifting the goal-post

Today, there is no TNA worth the name. Even the ITAK leader of the one-time TNA has weakened beyond redemption. Wickremesinghe, more than any other Sinhala leader, knows it, understands it. Maybe, it is time for him to negotiate with the Tamils from a position of relative strength. After all, he needs to be seen as a ‘strong leader’ than his predecessors, by at least some section of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, if not hard-core majoritarians.

The irony is that full 40 years after the ‘Black Friday’ (yes, 23 July, which was just yesterday) and ‘Black July’, and 37 years after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 13-A remains just 13-A, and on paper. By not implementing it, full or half, the Sri Lankan State and the majority Sinhala polity, have kept it ‘relevant’ as a talking-point, not only with the Tamil polity but also the neighbouring India.

The Tamils too have kept it alive, by changing their stands and demands from month to month, year to year, season to season. Come September, and the UNHRC goes into session, they will forget 13-A and power-devolution, and would harp onto war crimes, human rights violations and land-grabbing, new and old.

Who then said that Mahinda alone kept ‘shifting the goal-post’ when it came to negotiating power-devolution with the Tamils, especially post-war?

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


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