The first meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan premier Mahinda Rajapaksa after the latter’s landslide victory in last month’s parliamentary election showed up starkly the differences between the two neighbours on a key issue that has dogged the bilateral relationship. It also showed how little India can do to change this. Since 1988, India has wanted Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment of its Constitution to devolve political power to the Tamil dominated areas in the north and east. The amendment came out of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord and remains the only constitutional measure that gives the Tamil minority a smidgeon of autonomy within a unitary constitution. But the paradox is that while the second tier of devolved provincial councils came up across the island-nation, the minorities-dominated north and east (earlier North-East), from where the demand for asymmetric devolution first arose, did not get these elected councils until some years ago, and then too, with curtailed powers. Now there is talk in Colombo of abolishing the amendment altogether.
The meeting of the premiers ended predictably. As noted in the joint statement, Prime Minister Modi called on the Sri Lankan government “to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka”, and urged it to take forward “the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the 13th Amendment”. Rajapaksa noncommittally “expressed the confidence that Sri Lanka will work towards realising the expectations of all ethnic groups, including Tamils, by achieving reconciliation nurtured as per the mandate of the people of Sri Lanka and implementation of the constitutional provisions”. The Sri Lankan leader went on to issue a separate statement in Colombo that made no mention of the Tamil issue.
It is as if both sides now know they must pay lip service to Sri Lanka’s yet unresolved Tamil question, while being aware that it is a charade that isn’t going anywhere. Colombo knows its proximity to Beijing rattles Delhi. The Modi government has not been able to get any of the infrastructure projects agreed upon in July 2017 moving. Joint statement mentions offer no guarantee that the situation on the ground in Sri Lanka will change, either for Tamils or for the projects. The Rajapaksas, who speak the language of militaristic Sinhalese nationalism, are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Despite strong cultural links, the challenges in the relationship with Sri Lanka are a test case for Delhi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy.
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