Colombo. January 14-16 (Weekend Express): In the 1980s, India had assumed the responsibility to protect the minority Tamils of Sri Lanka. But it is in a bind now. Firstly, the Tamil parties have split on what they should request from their guardian across the Palk Strait. Secondly, India has to tread warily in all matters relating to Sri Lanka because it cannot alienate any community in the island nation, including the majority Sinhalese. Any missteps in regard to the majority community could lead to Colombo’s moving further away from New Delhi towards Beijing to the detriment of the former.
A bid at unifying the demands of the Tamils through the formulation of a ‘Common Minimum Program’ failed miserably because the interests of the North-Eastern Tamil parties and those of the Indian Origin Tamils in the Central and Western provinces of Sri Lanka clashed.
India had apparently wanted all Tamils to negotiate together on the basis of a “lowest common denominator” by which it meant the “full implementation” of the 13 th.Amendment (13A) of the Sri Lankan constitution that flows from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. The India-Sri Lanka Accord and the 13A, which had given elected provincial councils a modicum of powers, are the only realistic levers India has vis-à-vis Sri Lanka.
The 13A has not been fully implemented. Some powers, like those on land and police, have not been handed over at all. Many powers devolved by the 13A have been taken away by successive Lankan governments. The 13A is now in danger of being swept away in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s bid to bring about a new, highly centralized, constitution. This worries both India and the Tamil parties.
However, the Tamil parties are divided on the 13A. Those from the Northern and Eastern provinces that are predominantly Tamil, see saving the 13A only as a stepping stone to achieving a federal structure. But the Indian Origin Tamil parties, based in the Sinhalese-majority South, see saving the 13A as the main goal because to them, federalism is a dangerous goal. They fear that the Sinhalese majority, amongst whom the Indian Origin Tamils live, will be livid if federalism is pursued as “the” all-Tamil goal. For the Sinhalese majority, federalism is but a stepping stone to secession.
Abortive Bid for Unity
Towards the end of 2021, the Tami Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) leader, Selvam Adaikalanathan, launched a bid to form a united front of all Tamil-speaking parties for the purpose of seeking a solution to the Tamil political question by using the good offices of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But Adaikalanathan’s attempt failed miserably. The North-Eastern parties, demanding federalism, finally decided to approach the Indian Premier separately with their submission. The parties of the Central and Western Provinces then decided to approach India on their own with their demand for the full implementation of the 13A. But in order not to embarrass the North-Eastern Tamils, they stated that they would lend support to them “from outside.” The North-Eastern parties would be meeting the Indian High Commissioner, Gopal Baglay, on January 18 with a 13-page letter stating their case and seeking India’s help as per the commitments it had made in the India-Sri Lanka Accord and its pronouncements on the Tamil issue in subsequent years.
Conundrum for India
But the million-dollar question is: can India press the Lankan government to adopt a federal constitution when Sri Lankan governments (the present one included) have set their face against federalism, considering it a stepping stone to secession? All that India can press for, realistically and especially under the current circumstances, is the full implementation of the 13A which flows from the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord. The 13A was passed with four-fifths majority by the Sri Lankan parliament and had got the nod of the Supreme Court also. The 13A is therefore on solid ground, giving legitimacy to any Indian bid to press Colombo to implement it.
On the other hand, a federal structure is beyond the Accord, and beyond India’s reach, Prime Minister Modi’s earlier advocacy of “cooperative federalism” notwithstanding. Furthermore, India may not have the moral authority to demand federalism in Sri Lanka while diluting federalism in India itself. The scrapping of Art. 370 of its constitution that had granted autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir State, has disabled India’s moral authority to plead for federalism in other countries.
But even the moral authority to press for the full implementation of the 13A will have to flow from financial, economic or military power. India has no such power over Sri Lanka at the moment. Besides, it is not the sole foreign power with influence in Sri Lanka anymore. China is a very influential factor. It has a strong financial and economic presence in the island nation. That power is growing as Sri Lanka sinks deeper and deeper into an economic mire due to a combination of the effects of COVID lockdowns, mismanagement and wrong decisions. Any extra pressure from New Delhi on Colombo, on any issue, will only result in the latter’s veering more towards China, which is India’s geopolitical rival.
In recent years, New Delhi has taken to placating Colombo and expressing support to the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community to blunt China’s growing influence on the island.
Be that as it may, the North-Eastern Tamil parties, especially the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), feel politically compelled to pursue the goal of federalism. The ITAK was formed in the late 1940s to fight for a federal Sri Lanka. In their letter to the Indian PM, the North-Eastern parties have pointed out that the idea of federalism had been discussed at various times by various leaders and commissions for years. The present Foreign Minister, G.L.Peiris and the LTTE political advisor, A. Balasingham, had agreed, in the early 2000s, that a federal solution would be explored. Prime Minister Modi had himself told the Sri Lankan parliament that he is a believer in “cooperative federalism.”
The Tamils also say that since they had abandoned the goal of an “independent Eelam” and are demanding only federalism, the Sinhalese should go halfway and agree to federalism. But this proposition will not cut ice with the Sinhalese. And the Indian Origin Tamils know this, living as they do, among the Sinhalese. They told the North Eastern parties that the demand for federalism will totally alienate the Sinhalese from the Tamils, leading to a rejection of all the demands of the Tamils.
Given the split among the Tamils, the government of India will have no option but to treat the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North-East and the Indian Origin Tamils as separate categories.
While a tilt towards the Indian Origin Tamils may be tempting, India cannot ignore the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East either. The North Eastern Tamils have good political contacts in Tamil Nadu. And Tamil Nadu politicians have traditionally supported the North Eastern Tamils, and not the Indian Origin Tamils. The former’s long, armed struggle for an independent Eelam has impressed Tamil Nadu politicians. New Delhi cannot brush aside the Tamil Nadu factor. In the months and years to come, New Delhi will have to walk the tight rope on the Lankan Tamil issue.