A response to ‘Avoidable crashes’ by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Friday, 23 October 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

If stability, security and prosperity in Sri Lanka are in India’s interest as stated by Prime Minister Modi when he met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, India has to think afresh in keeping with its own policy of ‘neighbourhood first,’ that translates into ‘neighbour first’. If ‘neighbour first’ is to mean anything tangible, India has to free the hold it has on the 13th Amendment, and permit Sri Lanka to evolve a system of government that is more suited to its geography and its cultural roots, as well as to its future

By Neville Ladduwahetty  

In an article published in the Daily FT of 15 October, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka (Dr. J), quotes extensively from an Associated Press report on State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government Sarath Weerasekara’s statement in Parliament. 

The State Minister’s comments made in Parliament were characterised by Dr. J as a frontal criticism of India and Prime Minister Modi. Quoting the State Minister Dr. J states: ‘With disrespectful testiness the State Minister said: “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked our Prime Minister to implement the 13th Amendment although the amendment is an internal affair of this country.”’

Although Dr. J finds the comments by State Minister Sarath Weerasekera disrespectful or frontal, the majority in Sri Lanka hold views that are similar to those expressed by the State Minister. The unbiased truth is that Sri Lanka has been forced to adopt a system of devolution to the periphery wherein not only the unit of devolution but also the powers that are devolved are modelled as in India. 

The inability to fashion a system of Local Government that is of one’s own seeking is the frustration felt among the majority in the country. Over the last nearly 37 years this model has cost Sri Lanka dearly without bringing any tangible benefits to the people in the periphery, particularly for those in the North and East for whose benefit the model was introduced. It was this frustration that was articulated by the State Minister in Parliament.

Admitting to this fact, Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary of India, in his book ‘CHOICES’ states: “On 29 July 1987, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Colombo, India and Sri Lanka came to an understanding that the Sri Lankan government would devolve powers on the Indian model to a new merged Northern and Eastern Provinces to be called North-East province, where Tamils were concentrated, and grant official status to the Tamil language (through the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution)” (p. 130). The 13th Amendment is so Indian in character that significant sections in the 13th Amendment are a direct copy of powers devolved to States in India. 

Under these circumstances, the inappropriateness of a model designed for a territorially large nation state that has a multitude of races, ethnicities, religions and languages to a country such as Sri Lanka is palpable and unworkable. The full brunt of the ineffectiveness of the model to provide goods and services to the people in Sri Lanka’s periphery is the cause for the frustration.

In such a background, for India to keep on insisting on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is bound to have an impact on India/Sri Lanka relations, because what India’s insistence amounts to is a denial of the universal right of the People of the sovereign State of Sri Lanka to exercise its right of self-determination and compel it to live under an arrangement that suits India’s internal interests. Sri Lanka is denied the right to fashion its own model because the central government of India does not want to raise the ire of Tamil Nadu in the event they perceive any revisions to current provisions, however incongruous in respect of the size of the unit and ineffective in respect of devolved powers, as being detrimental to the interests of their Tamil kin in Sri Lanka. Under the circumstances, the advice of Dr. J is to avoid ‘crashes’.


‘Avoidable crashes’

Dr. J advances five reasons why Sri Lanka should avoid ‘crashes’ with India:  First, Sri Lanka is not just “on the doorstep of India” – it is now a member of the Quad. Second, Delhi should not be seen by Tamil Nadu as “abandoning” the Sri Lankan Tamils. Third – Delhi should not risk being perceived as permitting “unilateral redefinition” of a bilateral accord. Fourth – that Delhi should not be seen as a “paper Tiger” by the Quad partners, and the Fifth – that the message brought by President Reagan’s special envoy, Vernon Walters was to “settle it with India”. 

What does all this mean? Is it that Sri Lanka continues to govern itself in the manner it has done ever since the 13th Amendment was introduced regardless of its negative consequences to the entire Peoples of a sovereign State, for the dubious and fanciful reason of protecting India’s image that it is now a member of an elite strategic alliance – the Quad – and that it is not a “paper Tiger” in the eyes of its Quad partners or for it not to be seen by Tamil Nadu as abandoning the Sri Lankan Tamils if it permits “unilateral redefinition” of a bilateral accord? If that is the case, India is being disingenuous in forgetting its own policy of “neighbourhood first”. 

Explaining the concept of neighbourhood first, Amb. (Retd) V.P. Haran at the Central University of Tamil Nadu stated: “Policy of Govt. of India towards neighbours is encapsulated in the phrase, ‘Neighbours First’. This policy priority holds true for almost every country in the world. For, anything that happens in one country will affect the other countries in the neighbourhood. Former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh once said, ‘the real test of foreign policy is in the handling of neighbours’. We often hear political leaders say that India wants a peaceful, prosperous and stable neighbourhood. Reason is simple. This means less trouble for us and will enable us to focus on development, without distraction. Neighbourhood diplomacy is challenging and difficult but one that is satisfying at the end” (14 July 2017). 

The challenge for India is how it reconciles addressing the concerns of Sri Lanka in respect of the 13th Amendment, without Tamil Nadu perceiving it as abandoning the Tamils of Sri Lanka while ensuring a peaceful and stable neighbourhood. Such a neighbourhood is not possible as long as the unit of devolution remains the Province. It was the merged North-East Province under the Indo-Lanka Accord that tempted the Tamils in Sri Lanka to attempt the creation of a separate State. The logic being the larger the unit the greater the demand for political power to the point of even a separate state. Furthermore, as long as power is devolved to such large units in the context of a small country such as Sri Lanka, the temptation for continued instability in Sri Lanka, and consequently in India, is inevitable. 

Referring to this symbiotic dependence for security of their respective countries, Prime Minister Modi during the course of his meeting with Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during his recent visit to India stated: “Stability, security and prosperity in Sri Lanka is in India’s interest, but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean.”

This being the case, for India to persist in devolution to large territorial units such as the province in Sri Lanka which has the potential to threaten Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, is perhaps because of a delusional confidence that threats to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity would in no way impact on India’s own territorial integrity. 


Devolution and security

Commenting on devolution as a mechanism to usher stability Menon states: “Much time has been spent on whether and how to implement the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution passed after the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 which provided for devolution of power. How relevant those arguments of the past are today, is debatable. It shows a paucity of leadership and thought that the same sterile arguments of the last 30 years on devolution and constitutional arrangements continue to dominate the political process, such as it is, between the Sinhala and Tamil political parties” (p. 148). 

On should not forget that the leadership in India too is engaged in the same “sterile” exercise when it insists on the implementation of the 13th Amendment notwithstanding the fact that devolution to provinces has lost its relevance to the Peoples of Sri Lanka including the Tamil people, except the Tamil leadership. It is the credibility deficit between the Tamil people and their leadership that keeps harping on sterile notions of Tamil nation and self-determination for minorities within a sovereign State that is preventing Sri Lanka from focusing on livelihood and wellbeing of all, and in particular that of the Tamil people themselves. By focusing on devolution instead of security, India is losing out on addressing its own vital interests in respect of “maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka and abandoning a geopolitical strategic neighbour to other powers. More than 90% of our foreign trade and most of our energy supplies come along the sea-lanes that Sri Lanka sits astride, and we could hardly abandon Sri Lanka to potentially hostile influences. In effect Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier parked 14 miles off the Indian coast. This is the perpetual dilemma of India’s Sri Lanka policy: we must engage in order to defend our interests in keeping Sri Lanka free of antagonistic outside influences while also trying to prevent the growth of Tamil extremism and separatism that could affect Tamil Nadu. The twin objectives are not necessarily perfectly aligned…” (Ibid, p. 142/143).

An acknowledged fact is that devolution to provinces as a mechanism to address Tamil expectations has failed them and the rest in Sri Lanka as well. 

Peace and stability in Sri Lanka is not possible by catering only to satisfy Tamil expectations. It has to satisfy the expectations of all communities, but not necessarily those of the Tamil leadership.

For there to be peace, stability and prosperity the unit to which subordinate political power should be assigned must necessarily be to Local Governments such as Pradeshiya Sabhas, that are closest to the people. This may not meet the cherished albeit sterile notions of “nation” and “right of self-determination” that have enabled the Tamil leadership to sustain their relevance, but it would certainly meet the expectations of the majority of Tamil people because such notions have not and will not impact on their livelihood and/or wellbeing. 



The challenge for India is how to convince the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and India that India cannot sacrifice its own security and national and strategic interests to satisfy the imagined expectations of Tamils in both countries. Insisting on implementing the 13th Amendment is not going to bring peace and stability to Sri Lanka and thereby to the region. 

If stability, security and prosperity in Sri Lanka are in India’s interest as stated by Prime Minister Modi when he met Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, India has to think afresh in keeping with its own policy of ‘neighbourhood first,’ that translates into ‘neighbour first,’ as stated by former Amb. V.P. Haran. If ‘neighbour first’ is to mean anything tangible, India has to free the hold it has on the 13th Amendment, and permit Sri Lanka to evolve a system of government that is more suited to its geography and its cultural roots, as well as to its future.

In the pursuit of its policy of ‘neighbour first,’ India has to prioritise its security interests over parochial local interests, if India does not want to be seen as a paper tiger in the eyes of its Quad partners. This means as Menon says “remembering what Hannah Arendt said, which makes it clear that the primary responsibility lies in the inter politics of Sri Lanka rather than with international relations or the foreign policy of choices of major powers” (p. 154). 

With all due respect to former Foreign Secretary Menon, the “primary responsibility is not only in the inter politics of Sri Lanka”. 

It is a shared responsibility because it was India that recognised the merged North-East Province as the unit of devolution in the Indo-Lanka Accord. It was such a large unit encompassing one-third of Sri Lanka that gave the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka and India the opportunity to aspire for unrealistic grand designs that have the potential to threaten the security and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka as well as that of India. 

Therefore, even though the 13th Amendment is an “internal matter”, as stated by State Minister Weerasekara, if Sri Lanka attempts to redefine itself unilaterally, it is likely that India would respond in no uncertain terms, because India would not only wish to be seen as not abandoning the Tamils in both countries, but also in order to protect its own image that it is not a paper tiger in the eyes of its Quad partners. 

For India to stand on the sidelines and remind Sri Lanka every now and then to implement the 13th Amendment, is to make a mockery of its own policy of ‘neighbour first’ becomes India was the Godfather of the 13th Amendment. 

Over time, what India bequeathed on Sri Lanka has become the source of frustration for all the communities in Sri Lanka. Unless India takes the initiative to address such frustrations, both India and Sri Lanka as well as the Indian Ocean would become a region of instability. 

Such a situation is not in the interests of the Quad. 

As far as India’s larger geopolitical interests are concerned and for the sake of its own security interests, India has to stay engaged with Sri Lanka in order to defend its interests, even if it means having to sacrifice its internal interests, if India is not to abandon its influence in the region to others.