Indian foreign policy on a political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has been consistent for close to three decades. The Indo-Lankan accord of 1987 led to the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, recognising Tamil as an official language and devolving power to the provinces — two longstanding demands of the Tamil minority. Since then, India has consistently called for the full implementation of the amendment and meaningful devolution.
A year after his election, President Maithripala Sirisena has initiated a constitutional reform process to address the question that has haunted the country since Independence. Even as Indo-Lankan relations are going through a major transformation after the regime change in Colombo, it might be time for Indian foreign policy to depart from its long engagement grounded on the 13th amendment and support a far-reaching constitutional reform process. Will External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, visiting Sri Lanka this week, break India’s silence and welcome the possibility of a constitutional transformation?
Indian engagement with Sri Lanka escalated on the political front following the J.R. Jayawardene regime’s alignment with the US in 1977. India got entangled in the civil war, gave refuge to fleeing Tamils, and suffered the failed IPKF mission. It was constrained by a security approach to contain the LTTE, particularly after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Over the last decade, particularly in the post-war years, India has emphasised economic engagement. However, Indo-Lankan relations focused on economic integration will not only be shaped by the political leadership in Colombo leaning towards India but also by the local and international pressures affecting the consolidation of the new government.
Following the defeat of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, the West, led by the US, has moved closer to Colombo to counter China. US and European engagement with Sri Lanka has always focused on security and human rights. Most Western capitals and their embassies in Colombo have little understanding of the history of state-building and the devolution debate. They do little more than support junkets for officials and NGOs to study federalism and governance models in places like Switzerland, Canada and the UK. It’s the transitional justice process linked to the UNHRC resolution of September 2015 that has dominated international engagement with Sri Lanka in recent months.
This is where a shift in Indian policy supporting constitutional reform could go a long way for sustainable peace. Economic relief for the long-suffering war-torn population, the release of lands taken by the military and of prisoners languishing under the Prevention of Terrorism Act have to be dealt with urgently. However, the broader process of wartime accountability for human rights abuses has to be preceded by a political solution that recognises the historical grievances of the minorities and addresses the root causes of the conflict. Here, India’s vocal support prioritising a constitutional solution can be an effective check on the West’s narrow and skewed approach, which has shifted from “war crimes” pressure on the Rajapaksa regime to a “transitional justice” engagement with the new government. Without a political solution, the transitional justice processes will be hard to sustain.
The constitutional reform process is bound to face the test of disruptive political forces — of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and separatist Tamil nationalism. Enshrining a progressive new constitution requiring a referendum amounts to defeating nationalist and polarising forces. The credibility of the new constitution will depend on whether the country is able to remove the unitary conception of the state, which centralises power in Colombo, while also ensuring safeguards against separation. Under a unitary constitution, the bureaucracy, judiciary and even educationists function with a centralised mindset alienating people on the periphery.
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An extensive body of work on constitutional reform includes a vibrant devolution debate and the constitutional bill defeated in the parliament in August 2000. Such proposals sought fiscal, land and police powers for the provinces; a single structure of governance at the district and village levels, eliminating the parallel structure of the central government; and checks on provincial powers to ensure the rights of numerically smaller minorities. The failure to find a political solution was in part due to the LTTE’s belligerence and its suicidal politics, and in part the nationalist manoeuvres and rivalry between the UNP and the SLFP, undermining the two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary for constitutional amendments. Currently, the absence of the LTTE and a national government consisting of the UNP and SLFP have created a golden opportunity.
Nevertheless, the war-torn people continue to live in a state of alienation. The integration of the war-affected, mired in a deep economic crisis, requires a credible process of development and devolution. Unfortunately, the Northern Provincial Council, led by Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran has given devolution a bad name through administrative inaction and an extreme Tamil nationalist discourse.
Indian engagement in a constitutional solution has to rise above the vicissitudes of the political process in Sri Lanka. India has to allay Sinhala fears of regional hegemony and commit to principled support for democratisation and minority rights. With an SLFP president, a UNP PM, a TNA opposition leader and the Muslim leadership all having embraced a robust constitutional process, there may not be a better time for Indian foreign policy to shift its vision and weigh in with its diplomatic capital to support the constitutional solution.
The writer is a political economist based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka