By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham/Daily Express
Last month Sri Lanka marked a dubious milestone, the 35th anniversary of the communal pogrom of July 1983 (Black July). As was to be expected, there were a plethora of articles in the mainstream and alternative media from political observers, academics and analysts on one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history, focusing on violence unleashed by the J. R. Jayawardene led United National Party (UNP) government, which led to big brother India directly intervening in the affairs of the country, which in turn led to the signing of 1987 Indo – Lanka Peace Accord.
The latter paved the way for the introduction of the provincial councils system in Sri Lanka.
Many glossed over this development, but was overlooked by most was the arduous process of the negotiations between Sri Lanka and India in the aftermath of Black July and the players who were instrumental in laying the ideological foundation for the concept of devolution in a country alien even to the idea of a power sharing mechanism.
Needless to say, the Indian government had its work cut out convincing President Jayewardene, who held strong views on almost all issues related to the national problem principally the acceptability of devolution of power. The onus of convincing JR was on Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy (GP), India’s first special envoy who went on to play a crucial role in the initial phase of negotiations with the Sri Lankan government. Parthasarathy’s contribution to the process was immense, and revisiting it is important, especially for the benefit of today’s generation unaware or uncaring of the history of the attempts made to find a durable political solution to the ethnic questions.
Parthasarathy’s comments about the immense difficulties he faced and how tiring it was to deal with the Sinhala leadership were indicative of the uphill task the whole process was at the initial stages, and even later.
This difficulty is well captured in an article titled ‘The Constitutional Gamble and the Idea of Sri Lanka”, by political analyst and Ambassador Designate to Russia, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, where he refers to a comment by Parthasarathy, on his meeting with the senior Buddhist clergy at the main temples in Kandy, as suggested by President Jayewardene. GP came to the realization that a political settlement of Tamil question was going to be almost impossible.
When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi offered Indian mediation between the Sinhala and the Tamil leaders in the aftermath of Black July, it was necessary that the special envoy tasked with the complex effort of mediating peace not only be a skilled diplomat sensitive to the geopolitics of the region, but also a legal expert capable of dealing with the complexities of the constitution and the challenges of carving out a unit of devolution in the Sri Lankan context.
Additionally, the special envoy also had to understand the domestic politics of India and be capable of commanding the confidence of political opinion within Tami Nadu.
For the Indian Prime Minister, Parthasarathy met the criteria to a “T”, and it didn’t hurt that he had her complete confidence and was frequently consulted by her on controversial issues of domestic and foreign policy. Another bonus, this one a lesser known fact, was that Parthasarathy had many friends, his Cambridge associates, within the political elite of Sri Lanka included Communist leader Pieter Keuneman, Raju Kumaraswamy and Esmond Wickremesinghe, the father of the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The complexities and the potential pitfalls in the task ahead for Parthasarathy were tremendous. The events of July 1983 had so deeply polarized the two communities that possibilities of ethnic reconciliation seemed nil. Parthasarathy had to first familiarize himself with the events of the dark days and the devastating toll before he could offer any advice himself.
His first task was to meet and patiently listen to perceptions, fears, anxieties and obsessions of government leaders as well as those in the opposition. He moved easily with the leaders of the old left. On the Tamil side, however, Parthasarathy quickly became the focal point of hope and anguish.
He advised both parties and constantly pushed them to explore and recognize the limits of their political options. ‘Struggle’ and ‘negotiate’ was his advice or response to those who stubbornly adopted extreme or fundamentalist positions on the process of negotiations.
While he frequently counselled restraint, he was distressed by the escalating violence and the incalculable suffering of the civilian population. Inevitably he developed a special relationship with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leadership, engaging with them intellectually, while remaining emotionally detached.
Parthasarathy’s substantive contribution, however, was in negotiating a set of proposals for devolution of power to regional councils, popularly known as ‘ Annexure – C ‘.
At that time it was reported that Parthasarathy completed this exercise within a span of four months, extending from August to December 1983, over several meetings in Colombo and New Delhi with President Jayewardene. He brought to the table all the skills of a consummate negotiator in mediating between the Tamil political leadership and the Jayewardene government.
Reportedly, President Jayewardene had readily conceded many of the elements of the scheme put forward by Parthasarathy, but the unit of devolution remained intractable.
The then government was wedded to the notion that the ‘district’ should be the basic unit of devolution, and even a proposal to permit districts within a province to combine into larger units was considered too radical a concession to the Tamil demand.
Later, during Jayewardene’s visit to New Delhi in December the same year, Parthasarathy mobilized the support of Indira Gandhi to present the case for a single linguistic region. Jayewardene, unwilling to agree to a solution that would erode his base of support, however accepted a compromise – Annexure C – that would confine regional councils to provincial limits.
At one stage of the discussions at Ashok Hotel in Delhi, Jayewardene is said to have asked Parthasarathy: “Where do I sign? ” and that latter had responded that it was not an agreement and no signatures were needed.
Annexure – C was to be submitted to the All Party Conference (APC) which was summoned in January 1984. Unfortunately, giving into the mounting criticism from Sinhala nationalist organizations, Buddhist groups and some opposition parties, Jayewardene distanced himself from Annexure – C and denied any responsibility for its contents. Needless to say the APC was a failure.
When negotiations started again in New Delhi in early 1985 Parthasarathy’s role in the negotiating process came under scrutiny. This was due to two factors; primarily the Tamil political leadership had become increasingly dependent on the Indian special envoy for guidance and advice, which progressively began to alter the Sinhala perception of his role. The second factor was that Parthasarathy had become a victim of bureaucratic and political intrigue in New Delhi post Indira Gandhi.
Parthasarathy was deeply pained by this situation and his role was being progressively eclipsed. The result was a setback with tragic consequences within New Delhi’s decision making process.
Much water has flowed since the days of the India-Sri Lanka Accord. But there can be little doubt that much of the credit for laying out the constitutional foundation of a multi-ethnic polity must go to Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy.