Colombo, November 30: In a brief discussion between India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan here on Sunday, the two sides talked about the economic development of Sri Lanka, including the Tamil-speaking North and East, in the background of the contemporary health-related challenges, the Indian High Commission said in a short statement.
Details of the development programs discussed were not given in the official release, nor was there any indication that the reported bid by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government to repeal the 13 th.,Constitutional Amendment (13A), which gives the provinces a modicum of autonomy, had come up during the talks.
However, political sources told Daily Express that the 13A case was discussed. But both sides had agreed to keep it under wraps given the political sensitivities about the matter in Sri Lanka.
A source in the TNA said that the talks between Sampanthan and Doval were “very cordial and very constructive.” In the field of development of the North and East, stress was put on setting up a mechanism by which there could be “meaningful” development answering the felt needs of the people, who are suffering from deprivation due to the war. Employment generation and the participation of local people in drafting and delivering development programs would be key components of the projects, the source said.
It is obvious that India is more keen on the economic development of the Northern and Eastern Provinces given the obvious difficulties in persuading a sovereign government to yield to foreign pressure on domestic political issues like the constitution and devolution of power.
On a visit to Colombo, the present Indian Foreign Minister, Dr.S.Jaishankar, had told TNA leaders that they should pay attention to development issues while demanding devolution of power and not hold development hostage to political goals.
The need for economic development in the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces cannot be over-emphasized. The Tamils had a chance to develop the Northern province when the TNA was in power there for a full term. But the Provincial Council headed by TNA Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran, cared little for development saying that a political solution based on maximum autonomy should come first.
“Putting development before a political solution is arrived at is like putting the cart before the horse,” Wigneswaran used to say.
The provincial administration under Wigneswaran used to send back, unspent, a good deal of the developmental funds given by the Central government in Colombo. The Chief Minister’s plea was that the developmental plans sought to be funded by the Center, were not chalked out with the consent of the provincial council.
13 th. Amendment
Doval might only have been partially interested in discussing the fate of the 13A because India’s concerns and priorities have changed over time with changes in geopolitics brought about by China’s ingress into Sri Lanka. But Sampanthan would certainly have raised the issue as it is of great concern to the Tamils. The Tamils also insist that having acted as a midwife in the birth of the 13A through the India-Lanka Accord of 1987, India has a moral responsibility to see that it remains in the statute book.
Furthermore, the Tamils are hanging on to a joint statement issued after the last Modi-Gotabaya Rajapaksa talks in New Delhi which said: “Prime Minister Modi called on the Government of Sri Lanka to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka, including by carrying forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the 13Amendment to the Constitution.”
The Tamil minority genuinely fears that the Sinhala-nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa government will repeal the 13A since it is seen as being a divisive system. In the view of the Sinhala majority, with whose overwhelming support the Rajapaksas came to power, provincial autonomy is nothing but a stepping stone to secession. In fact, the present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had once said that he would not allow the Tamils to get at the negotiating table what they could not get by waging war – namely a separate independent “Tamil Eelam” in the North and East.
However, it is noteworthy that during his Presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa did not abolish the 13A. As he once explained, the Sinhala political class had begun to see the provincial councils as avenues of political mobility and therefore, they could not be wished away. The provincial councils were in-between the local Pradeshiya Sabhas and the national parliament, a political stepping stone as it were. As provincial councillers and ministers, politicians get to enjoy official power, political clout and prestige, which they would loathe to give up.
But the Tamil fear that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a different kettle of fish who will take drastic measures. He is a military man, a former Lt.Colonel, with very definitive views on issues. To add to the Tamils’ anxieties, the President appointed Adm.Rtd Sarath Weersekara, a known opponent of the 13A and provincial councils, as Minister of Provincial Councils. And Adm.Weerssekara has been firing salvos at the provincial council-system describing them as bottlenecks and a drain on the country’s scarce financial resources.
However, many believe that President Gotabaya will not abolish the 13A and that the appointment of Adm.Sarath Weerasekara as Minister of provincial councils and the license given him to denounce the 13A, are meant to keep his Sinhala nationalist constituency happy. According to the Colombo-based leader of the Indian Origin Tamils, Mano Ganeshan, the Sinhalese may not want democracy for the Tamils, but they certainly want it for themselves. Therefore the provincial councils will remain.
If the government was keen on abolishing the provincial councils, it would not have allocated a huge amount of money to the Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government in the 2021 budget. The nine provincial councils have been allocated a total of over Rs. 338 billion, of which around Rs. 279 billion will go towards recurrent expenditure and around Rs. 58 billion towards capital expenditure. The provincial councils are among the top recipients of budgeted funds.
India would like the TNA to cooperate with the Sri Lankan government to make the maximum use of the funds allocated to develop the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern provinces.
(The top picture is that of Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, Tamil National Alliance leader)