In her article “Lessons to learn from Geneva” (April 7, 2012) Nirupama Subramanian’s recollection that “Sri Lanka managed to snatch victory from the jaws of diplomatic defeat” in the voting at the 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution raises questions of judgment, when it was passed with a majority of 11 votes, with 29 voting for, 12 against and six abstentions.
She also recalls the line in the preamble to the 2009 resolution which referred to Sri Lanka’s “commitment to a political solution with implementation of the 13th amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka,” seeing in this reference to the 13th amendment possibly the price Colombo paid for New Delhi’s decision to support the recent United States resolution critical of the country at the UNHRC.
She argues that, “from the Indian point of view, it could have helped to refocus Sri Lanka’s mind on the 13th amendment”… and adds, “India’s constant reminder of this statute irritates Sri Lanka no end. So why does India harp on it? For no other reason than that the 13th amendment remains the only constitutional step ever taken by Sri Lanka towards moving away from a unitary, highly centralised state, to power sharing with the provinces.”
If India’s constant reminder of this statute irritates Sri Lanka no end, there is good cause for such feelings. The amendment which came as a part of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord was shoved down the throat of Sri Lanka. It followed an airborne incursion to northern Sri Lanka by India, and a provocative dropping of “food aid” at a time when the Sri Lankan Armed Forces were on the verge of inflicting a major defeat or possibly ensuring the final rout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), much before May 2009.
I am a supporter of meaningful devolution of power in Sri Lanka. But the conditions under which the 13th amendment came about are not democratic enough to be considered a real solution to the problem of majority-minority relations in this country. It was an amendment thrust on a constitution that was itself thrust upon the people of Sri Lanka, by the late President J.R. Jayewardene, using his 5/6th majority in Parliament at the time. The 13th amendment did not come to a constitution that was drawn up with proper public consultation, as Dr. Ambedkar did in India.
It was on top of this that India, through the arm-twisting of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, thrust the 13th amendment. Even the members of the then ruling United National Party (UNP) who voted for it were bussed to Parliament under heavy escort, to ensure the necessary 2/3rd majority. As she refers to the role of coalition compulsions in India’s decision to vote with the U.S. in the recent resolution, it is also necessary to understand such compulsions in Sri Lanka. The government today is a coalition that is comprised largely of political parties that were totally opposed to both the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the 13th amendment. The opposition to it at the time was led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is the largest constituent of the present coalition.
In addition to this reality of coalition compulsions, there is also Ms Subramanian’s questionable position: “The irony is that the limited devolution envisaged by the amendment flourishes in all other provinces of Sri Lanka, where it has empowered local politicians, but not in the Tamil north or the east at which it was primarily aimed.” Yes, it has “empowered politicians” in other parts of the country where “the limited devolution” of 13A is partly in place, including the east. But it is worth studying if it has empowered the people in the provinces where she sees it “flourish.”
I do share her fear that, in the current context, the Tamil leadership — now beholden more than ever to the extremist mindset of the diaspora that played its part in pushing the 2012 resolution — could end up making radical demands. These may not be an excuse for the Sri Lankan polity to turn down those demands, but would certainly make it very difficult for the polity to manoeuvre for an acceptable position in a very worrisome situation. I do not question the need for proper devolution of power in Sri Lanka, which empowers the people and not the politicians. It must also be devolution not thrust on the country and the people, either by a good neighbour or a desperate political leadership, as it happened in 1987.