Has India Changed Stance on Sri Lanka From “Building on”13th Amendment to “Going Beyond it?


“Somewhere over the rainbow…” – The Wizard of Oz

Three vital questions arise from Prime Minister Modi’s recommendation that Sri Lanka goes beyond the 13th amendment. The first is: has India changed its stance? The second is: if beyond 13A, ‘where to?’ The third is: ‘why?’

New Delhi’s stance in the post war period was early and full implementation of the 13th amendment and “building on it”. Now Mr. Modi urges us to “go beyond” 13A. There is a crucial difference between “building on” and “going beyond”.

“Building on” is a vertical increase while “going beyond” is a horizontal one. The latter is not “stretching” the 13th amendment; it is a framework other than the 13th amendment.

It is understandable to suggest “building on” the 13th amendment. Veterans of the negotiations of 1987 will recall that there were “residual issues” which President Jayewardene agreed would be resolved at a later date, but were not because they couldn’t be, with a war on and a two-thirds majority lost.

If these residual issues were resolved, then the 13th amendment would be built on, because the architects of the accord did not envisage a framework other than the 13th amendment; one that went “beyond” it.

What would “building on” the 13th amendment have looked like? It would have entailed re-opening negotiations on the concurrent list. It may have also entailed an upper house, a Senate. (President Rajapaksa was amenable to both, but after Mr. Wigneswaran’s public pronouncement that Prabhakaran was a “great hero”, not so much). Swaps of the powers in the concurrent list and the construction of a Senate, i.e. ‘building upon” the 13th amendment so as to address the “residual issues” is as far as we should have gone and been requested to go by Prime Minister Modi.

Instead we have been asked to go beyond the 13th amendment, but where to? Mr. Modi, a most intelligent man, dropped a heavy hint in his address to the Parliament– a hint that was promptly picked up by the TNA and the international media. An AFP report reads:

“…Modi told the Sinhalese-dominated parliament in Colombo that “cooperative federalism” was working well in India and suggested it could be a model for Sri Lanka too…India has long supported greater autonomy for the minority group, but Suresh Premachandran, a Tamil lawmaker from Jaffna, said Modi’s comments were the strongest in a long time. “He is going to be very welcome after the powerful message he sent,” Premachandran told AFP.” (‘India’s Modi to visit Sri Lanka’s Tamil heartland’, Lakruwan Wanniarachchi, AFP, March 14, 2015)

The Hindu noted the same point:

“…Commenting on the Indian Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament earlier on Friday, TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said Mr. Modi made an “excellent speech” with a strong case for greater devolution in a manner that was not “overbearing”. “I am firm believer in cooperative federalism,” Mr. Modi said in his address.” (‘Be Patient with Sri Lankan Government: Modi to Tamil Leaders’, Meera Srinivasan, the Hindu, March 14th 2015)

Now to the ‘Why’ question. When, by Prime Minister Modi’s own admission, the 13th amendment has not been fully implemented, what could make him think that it is at all necessary to go beyond it? It is necessary or advisable to go beyond something or some point, when that has been proved inadequate, i.e. when its potentials have exhausted themselves. When the full potential of the 13th amendment has not been experienced, on what basis could it be thought necessary to go beyond it? Is that not a matter to be raised, if at all, at a subsequent stage? And should it not emerge from a national i.e. Sri Lankan consensus at least in parliament if not in society at large?

Given the spillover of Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue into India, our Tamil Question has long been an “intermestic” one (to use Dr. Kissinger’s coinage about issues at the interface of the domestic and the international) rather than a purely domestic concern. Therefore, one cannot realistically take exception to the Indian Prime Minister’s references to it. However, those references should be general and not publicly prescriptive.

Mr. Modi should be hailed for his commitment to India’s (quasi) federalism and moving it in a fuller federal direction is entirely an Indian prerogative. However, he doubtless knows that many societies, especially in the Global South and most especially within Asia, have preferred not to opt for ‘cooperative federalism’, and to remain precisely within the parameters of the unitary state while devolving power in a manner that makes way for limited local autonomy while avoiding the dangers of centrifugalism and/or irredentism.

The model of state—the state structure– is entirely a sovereign national decision. If it is not, what is or could be?

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