COLOMBO: India will not be pressing Sri Lanka to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single Tamil-majority, Tamil-speaking province as envisaged by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, the Indian Foreign Secretary S.Jaishankar told the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) here on Monday.
He was reacting to a demand made by the leader of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) Suresh Premachandran, that India should honor its promise to keep the North and East united. It had even said that it would not allow a referendum to be held on the issue. When the united province was de-merged in 2006 by a Supreme Court order, India did not protest saying that it was for the Sri Lankan government to appeal against the judgment. India had clearly lost interest in the issue. Its interests lay elsewhere in Sri Lanka.
Jaishankar told Premachandran that much water has flown down the bridge since 1987 and as the situation has changed it will be better for all concerned to make use of the various windows of opportunity which have opened up recently with the change of regime in Colombo and secure the rights of the Tamils.
He argued that it would not be wise to hold every other matter hostage to one issue – the merger of the North and East.
However, he added that India would not mind if the Tamils kept the issue alive and kept it on the table for talks with the Sri Lankan government.
Premachandran had highlighted the issue of the merger of the North and East partly because it had been the main theme of the Ezhuga Tamil rally held recently in the Eastern town of Batticaloa. Premachandran is a key member of the Tamil Peoples’ Council which organized the rally.
The merger of the North and East is considered important by the Eastern Tamils because it helps them face the Muslims who tend to dominate them economically and politically. If the East were to be merged with the North, the Tamils will be in an overwhelming majority and can run the province as per their wish, and also bargain with Colombo more effectively for more powers.
But the Muslims are opposed to the merger as their proportion would be reduced from 35 % to 12%. At any rate, successive Sri Lankan governments have been against a merger as they fear that a strengthened and united Tamil province will be in a better position to secede from Sri Lanka. It was to destroy the unification of the North and East wrought by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 that some Sinhalese and Muslims, enjoying tacit government support, challenged the merger in the Supreme Court and got a favorable verdict in 2006.
Premachandran pointed out that India has a moral responsibility to ask the Sri Lankan government to re-merge the North and East as it is part of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. If the Accord is still valid, every part of it should be deemed to be equally valid and implemented, he argued.
He recalled that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had solemnly promised that the merger would remain and that the proposed referendum would not be held. He also recalled that the EPRLF had fully cooperated with India on the implementation of the Accord, and like the Indian Peace Keeping Force, had lost many men in the fight against the LTTE which opposed the Accord. India has a moral responsibility to keep its promise and persuade the Sri Lankan government to re-merge the North and East, Premachandran said.