The ongoing District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu & Kashmir call to mind a similar exercise in Sri Lanka four decades ago, when that country’s political leadership tried to stanch Tamil demands for regional political autonomy with almost exactly the same kind of local government for which J&K is voting now.
The parallel is especially striking because Delhi wants Sri Lanka to settle the still unresolved Tamil question through an elevated form of devolution. Specifically, it wants Colombo to implement provincial devolution along Centre-State lines under the provisions of an amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution resulting from the 1987 Indian intervention, at a time that it is downgrading its own devolution in J&K to district level local government, a near replica of what Sri Lanka tried but had to give up under Indian pressure.
Sri Lanka offered DDCs as a solution at a time when the Tamil polity was already radicalised. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had come into existence, and the predominant mainstream Tamil party had started getting sidelined because of its failure to extract any concessions from a centralised Sinhalese-dominated polity. Two agreements on devolution remained unimplemented because of competitive politics between the two main national parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLP).
The Federal Party, the main Tamil political entity, remained hopeful of accommodation with the government, but by 1975, separatism had entered Tamil political language. The Federal Party became the Tamil United Liberation Front. In 1976, in what came to be known as the Vaddukoddai Resolution, the TULF adopted the goal of a separate, sovereign Tamil nation, and also outlined the map of Tamil Eelam. It asked Tamil youth “to throw themselves into the sacred fight for freedom”.
Nascent Tamil militancy took that as a green signal. A new, violent Tamil nationalism was born. The TULF fought the 1977 general election on the strength of the Vaddukoddai Resolution, sweeping the parliamentary seats in the north and east, and became the main opposition party in Parliament.
The same election also brought J R Jayewardene (JRJ) to power. He first changed the constitution, centralising political and executive power under an executive presidency so powerful he would joke that the only thing he could not do was change a man into a woman or vice versa. In 1979, Sri Lanka enacted the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, put the police and still largely ceremonial military to tackle Tamil militancy. Politically, JRJ offered TULF the DDCs.
It could be just coincidence that the J&K DDC is almost a replica of the 1980 Sri Lanka model. In the Sri Lankan experiment, other than the directly elected members, the district MPs were nominated to the DDC. A cabinet minister from outside the district headed it. He was appointed by the president, and answerable only to him. In Kashmir, the councils will include MPs MLAs, and chairpersons of Block Development Councils falling in the district. The elected members will elect a chairperson of the council. The additional district commissioner, who answers to the Union Home Ministry, will function as its chief executive officer.
Just as is being envisaged for J&K, the DDCs in Sri Lanka were meant to decentralise the work of “development”, by drafting annual development plans for the district, and taking up local public works.
The big difference is that the June 1981 DDC elections in Sri Lanka were held in the whole country to show it was not about setting up a separate political system for the Tamil districts.
The TULF, under pressure from the expectations it had created, was divided on the issue of participation in the election, but eventually chose to take part. The LTTE called for a boycott. In Jaffna, events in the run-up to voting day on June 4 were an inauspicious augury of what was to come. The candidate of JRJ’s UNP was assassinated on May 24. The government responded by flooding Jaffna with police and army. Two policemen were shot dead a week later in contested circumstances.
Policemen and mobs in civilian clothes went on a retaliatory rampage. Shops and homes were ransacked and torched. The home of Jaffna MP V Yogeswaran was burnt down even as men in uniform stood guard around it. The office of a Tamil newspaper was burnt down. On June 1, there was more violence. Jaffna Public Library, home to an invaluable collection of Tamil literature including original documents and manuscripts, was burnt down. The UNP’s top two Tamil baiters of that period, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake, who had been dispatched by the party to Jaffna, were named by witnesses as instigators of the violence.
Despite the violence, the turnout was huge in the Tamil districts. People voted to keep the UNP out (the SLFP was boycotting) just as in J&K, people have said they are voting to keep the BJP out. In the rest of Sri Lanka, the response was lukewarm. The Sinhalese majority was simply not interested in DDCs.
The DDCs became a reality but they did nothing for Sri Lanka’s relations with its Tamil citizens. The experiment bumbled along until the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom brought India into the equation.
Attempts thereafter by JRJ to dress up and re-offer the DDC proposal in talks brokered by India between the government and Tamil parties went nowhere. Sri Lanka had to bury the DDCs. In 1987, under the India-Sri Lanka Agreement, the Sri Lankan parliament adopted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, with provisions for the creation of provincial councils. This remains the only concession on devolution that the country has made to date. But it failed to implement this in letter and spirit in the Tamil north and east. What followed is well known.
Less than three months ago, on September 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the recently elected Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa held a virtual summit that ended with a joint statement reiterating India’s wish for “equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka” for Tamils and specifically, for the implementation of the 13th Amendment.
Around the same time, the Centre was drawing up plans to hold direct elections to the DDC in its own troubled J&K, a year after stripping the state of its special status, bifurcating it into two Union Territories, and bringing it under the direct control of the Union Home ministry. Two senior ministers in the Modi cabinet have the inside track on why the DDC experiment failed to meet Sri Lankan Tamil aspirations, having been closely involved in the Indian intervention at the time.
Call it double irony, or just another coincidence — Sri Lanka now wants to scrap the 13th Amendment and return to its own 40-year-old DDC proposals.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 12, 2020 under the title ‘Lanka lessons in Kashmir’. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.