New Delhi: Last month, a group of Tamil and Muslim parties from Sri Lanka had sought India’s intervention to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government for full implementation of the long-pending 13th Amendment to its Constitution.
The amendment — which has been part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution for nearly four decades — proposed the establishment of a provincial council system and devolution of power for all nine provinces of the island nation, in an attempt to resolve ethnic conflict.
However, successive governments have not implemented the amendment, putting a strain on bilateral ties with India.
In mid-December 2021, several Sri Lankan MPs representing the Tamil and Muslim parties from the North and East of that country had reached a consensus to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government to implement the amendment even as they want India to be a party in the process.
This meeting happened days after the Chinese envoy to Sri Lanka, Qi Zhenhong, undertook a high profile visit to the Tamil-dominated northern province last month in an unprecedented move, cosying up to a minority community that has traditionally had close ties with India.
— Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka (@ChinaEmbSL) December 16, 2021
How the amendment came into being & what it’s all about
The 13th Amendment became part of the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka as a direct result of Indian intervention in 1987, under the India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord.
Signed in July 1987 between then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and then Sri Lankan president J.R. Jayewardene, the accord was aimed at resolving ethnic and civil conflict. At the time, Sri Lanka was in the middle of a civil war between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had sought a separate state.
Sri Lanka is a unitary country with all powers concentrated in the centre. The objective of the India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was to find a way to devolve political powers to the then Northern and Eastern provinces that comprised Tamil-dominated areas of the country. Hence, the 13th Amendment was introduced.
The 13th Amendment led to the creation of ‘Provincial Councils’. Under this, the Sri Lankan government had committed to a power-sharing arrangement to enable all nine provinces in the country, including Sinhala majority areas, the right to self-govern.
Once implemented fully, the provincial councils will have the right to self-govern over issues such as education, health, agriculture, housing, land and police.
Hurdles in implementation
The amendment has never been implemented because of the overriding powers given to the President.
The minority Tamilian community in Sri Lanka, which has been facing several challenges over increasing Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism, sees implementation of this amendment as the constitutional power they have to settle their issues. While they also feel that the amendment is less in actual substance, they do see this as some sort of a beginning towards settling the Tamil question.
However, Sri Lanka sees the implementation as an imposition by India in its internal affairs. The amendment was vehemently opposed by both the Sinhala nationalist parties as well as the LTTE.
Currently, there is a deadlock over the issue even as voices, mostly of Sinhalese nationalist parties like Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), National Freedom Front (NFF), and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), continue to call for scrapping the amendment.
In an interview to ThePrint, Sri Lanka’s envoy to India Asoka Milinda Moragoda had said that there is a deadlock in Parliament regarding the delimitation process, which has to be resolved and that might require a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
India urging Sri Lanka to implement amendment since 2009
India has been urging Sri Lanka to implement and enforce the amendment ever since the country’s war with Tamil separatists ended in 2009.
In November 2019, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had visited India for the first time after taking charge. However, the sticky issue of the amendment was sidestepped, even as both sides vowed to reset ties.
Subsequently, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar followed by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla also urged the Sri Lankan government to adhere to the commitments made by them on the reconciliation process by way of meaningful devolution under the 13th Amendment during their visits to that country.
India has even raised the issue at the multilateral forum.
Last February, while New Delhi abstained from voting on a UNHRC resolution in Geneva that called for punitive actions against Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes committed during its decades-long civil war, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Indra Mani Pandey stressed that Tamil rights must be respected by Colombo.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)