Province-based Devolution in Sri Lanka: a Critique
by G H Peiris
December 16, 2020
- 1. Preamble
This article is prompted by the recent announcement that the Cabinet will soon consider a proposal to conduct Provincial Council (PC) elections without delay. The article is intended to urge that the PC system should be abolished and replaced by constitutional devices to ensure: (a) genuine sharing of political power among all primordial, áscriptive and associational groups that constitute the nation of Sri Lanka; and (b) the statutory protection of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity which the PC system, as long as it is permitted to last, will remain in dire peril. The article is also intended to stimulate the memory of those who appear to have forgotten the circumstances that culminated in the enactment of legislation in 1987 to establish PCs. There appears to prevail a measure of complacency among some of our present political stalwarts based on the notion that, with their two-thirds majority in Parliament, and with the 20th Amendment in place, they ought to let the status quo remain intact. This, I think, is quite silly. Apart from the fact that landslide electoral victories tend often to be brittle, those who were at the forefront of empowering the present regime are already reacting with dismay to the decision to re-establish the PCs.
2. Indo-Lanka Accord – the Indian Intervention
It is often forgotten that the government of India employed the most diabolical forms of diplomatic, military and economic coercion a powerful country could conceivably bring to bear upon a supposedly friendly nation with which it shares many cultural traits.
Omitting (for the sake of brevity) the vicissitudinous political career of Smt. Indira Gandhi during the 1970s, my elaboration of the foregoing observation begins with the commencement of her second spell of office as Prime Minister of India (January 1980 to October 1984) in the course of which she made no secret about her intense antipathy towards the JRJ-led government of Sri Lanka. This prompted certain emissaries of the ‘Tamil United Liberation Front’ (TULF) to suggest to her the desirability of launching an armed intervention in Sri Lanka of the type she had so successfully achieved at the “Liberation” of Bangladesh in 1971. That did not happen, probably because the JRJ regime had the backing of the West and the tragic end of her life in 1984. Regarding her malignant imprint on the constitutional affairs of Sri Lanka, however, it is worth citing the testimony of J. N. Dixit, Delhi’s High Commissioner in Colombo when (in his own words) he was “… involved in the most important and critical phase of Indo-Lanka relations; a period during which India’s mediatory efforts reached its peak culminating in the signing of the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 29 July 1987”. (Dixit, 1998: xvi):
“Once Mrs. Gandhi decided to be supportive of the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils on the basis of Indian interests and strategic considerations, the rest of the process which culminated in the Indo-Lanka Agreement and the induction of the IPKF was more or less inevitable”. (emphasis added)
Several reasons, partly conjectural, have been adduced for Smt. Gandhi’s hostility towards the government of Sri Lanka. For instance, She might have been resentful of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy leanings towards the ‘West’, and the reciprocal support which JRJ was attracting in abundance from some of the leading global powers for the mammoth development projects being implemented within the framework of ‘economic liberalization’. Another explanation is that, with the worsening of relations between the Federal government and State governments of Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and West Bengal, Smt. Gandhi placed priority on consolidating her electoral support in Tamilnadu, which meant, among other things, greater concern on the demands of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. My own hunch is that it was a Shakespearian display of “Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned” towards JRJ, allegedly for an absurd insult he had hurled at her in the course of an ‘After Dinner’ speech as the Janatha government’s PM, Moraji Desai’s, guest of honour.
Be that as it may, Smt. Gandhi began to provide clandestine aid (financial, material and training in guerrilla offensives) to groups of Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents, even after it was made public knowledge through prestigious Indian journals. This is the relevant background to an understanding of the disastrous anti-Tamil riot that occurred in Sri Lanka in July 1983.
The riot caused extensive damage to life and property, and a massive displacement of the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the Sinhalese-majority areas ̶ one which included a large outflow of refugees from the country. It disrupted the economy and brought the ‘liberalization’ boom to an abrupt end. It tarnished the image of Sri Lanka abroad, generated a global tide of sympathy towards the Tamils, and attracted international attention and concern towards Tamil grievances. It paved the way for the direct intervention of India (untrammelled by pressures from the ‘West’) in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, culminating in the introduction in 1987 of a massive Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). It also represented a major turning point in the history of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka, with the militant groups and their strategy of armed confrontation and terrorism gaining ascendancy over the older Tamil political parties and their proclaimed commitments to peaceful agitation and protest. The militants became a power in their own right, abandoning their earlier role as the ‘boys’ of the Tamil leadership in the political mainstreams.
Indian Intervention after the Convulsions of ‘Black July’
Smt. Indira Gandhi’s offer to “mediate” in the Sri Lankan imbroglio (pre-empting other global powers from claiming that role) could not have been turned down by the beleaguered President Jayewardene.
The process of mediation commenced with the arrival of the Indian diplomat, Parthasarathi Rao. It took the form of coercing the Sri Lanka government to change its policy of decentralization of ‘development administration’ to devolution of political power and to change the spatial framework for such devolution from the District to the Province, along with an amalgamation of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province. His “mission” ended with the production of documents referred to in subsequent negotiations as ‘Annexure C’ which he took back to Delhi. To what this document was annexed, and whether there were other “Annexures” are not known.
‘Annexure C’, and Sri Lanka government’s own proposals were presented to an ‘All Party Conference (APC) summoned by JRJ at which there was vehement opposition to certain sections of that Annexure. But the government extracted from the APC proceedings a draft Ordinance providing for (a) “a revitalized District Councils” system and (b) the establishment of a Second Chamber, and tabled the drafts for further dialogue with the TULF (the SLFP delegates having withdrawn from the APC). Up to about the end of the year, the TULF leadership maintained that the draft ordinance did form the basis of an acceptable settlement. But, thereafter, in a sudden volte-face, they rejected it outright.
Smt. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh militants on 31 October 1984. Her son, Rajiv was sworn in as PM later on the same day. Critics have maintained that this caused a change in Indo-Lanka relations in the sense that Rajiv tended to be less “imperial” than his late mother in his approach to conflict resolution both within and outside India.
Despite Rajiv’s affable demeanour, the policy transformation brought about by his succession was less tangible than what most observers would have us believe.
(a) the Delhi government made available through the State government of Tamilnadu a grant of US$ 3.2 million to the LTTE leadership; (b) as Lalith Athulathmudali (Sri Lanka’s Minister of Security and Defence) had observed, a leaked RAW document indicated the continuing existence of training camps and bases for Sri Lankan Tamil separatist activists and; (c) despite repeated requests by JRJ, Delhi did not adopt coastal surveillance measures to curtail clandestine movement of people and commodities across Palk Strait.
Meanwhile, the Tamil militants escalated their terrorist onslaught, the most horrendous event of which was the slaughter by LTTE operatives of 148 devotees (most of them elderly women) at the premises of the Sri Maha Bōdhi shrine in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, and another 16 civilians in the course of their retreat into the wilds of Wilpattu on May 14, 1985. There was media speculation that firearms used by the Tigers in this massacre were purchased by the LTTE with the aforesaid Indian grant.
Romesh Bhandari, Rajiv’s Foreign Secretary, initiated peace negotiations between the government and delegates of the secessionist groups at a forum staged in July/August 1985 in the capital of Bhutan, and thus labelled as the ‘Thimpu Talks’. It provided a forum to Tamil militants for worldwide propaganda for their ‘liberation’ demands that were set out as follows (lawyer N. Balendran acting as their spokesman):
“It is our considered view that any meaningful solution to the national question of the island must be based on the following four cardinal principles:
(1) Recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a distinct nationality,
(2) Recognition of an identified Tamil homeland and the guarantee of its territorial integrity,
(3) Based on the above, recognition of the inalienable right of self-determination of the Tamil nation,
(4) Recognition of the right to full citizenship and other fundamental democratic rights of all Tamils, who look upon the island as their home.”
The Sri Lanka delegation response, as presented by H. L. de Silva (recorded in Balendran’s monograph on the ‘Thimpu Talks’) was as follows:
“First, we observe that there is a wide range of meanings that can attach to the concepts and ideas embodied in the four principles, and our response to them would accordingly depend on the meaning and significance that is sought to be applied to them. Secondly, we must state quite emphatically that if the first three principles are to be taken at their face value and given their accepted legal meaning they are wholly unacceptable to the government. They must be rejected for the reason that they constitute a negation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka; they are detrimental to a united Sri Lanka and are inimical to the interests of the several communities, ethnic and religious in our country”.
The collapse of ‘Thimpu Talks’ prompted Bhandari, in barely concealed personal disgust at the arrogance and recalcitrance of Mr. Balendran and his entourage of secessionist militants, to summon follow-up negotiations in Delhi at which he restricted Sri Lanka participation to delegates of the government and of the TULF. At the conclusion of that effort in August 1985 a document named the ‘Delhi Accord’, “initialled” by representatives of the two governments, was released to the media by India’s Foreign Office. It claimed that a measure of consensus was reached on ‘Province’ as the unit of devolution’ and on the powers to be devolved. The Delhi Accord was rejected by the LTTE. By the end of the year, the TULF leadership had also rejected the ‘Delhi Accord’.
Thereafter there was a series of discussions between representatives of the two governments. A. P. Venkateswaran, appointed Foreign Secretary in January 1987, attempted unilaterally to make the ‘Delhi Accord’ more acceptable to the TULF by bringing the Accord offers close to a federal form of government.
Perhaps the greatest betrayal of the trust which the government of Sri Lanka had placed in the Rajiv regime was represented by Delhi’s reaction to the military campaign termed ‘Operation Liberation’ launched by the government on 26 May 1987 in the face of which the Tiger cadres, abandoned their Thalaivar’s bravado, and fled in disarray. An SOS appeal conveyed by the LTTE leadership to Tamilnadu resulted in a flotilla of fishing vessels sailing out in the guise of a “spontaneous” civilian response but, in fact, with the backing of the central and state governments. That maritime invasion was foiled by the Sri Lanka Navy. Thereupon, in a blatant violation of international law and Sri Lanka’s air space, a convoy of Mirage-2000 combat planes dropped 20 tons of food and medical supplies on Jaffna, ostensibly as a ‘mercy mission’, but in reality, a demonstration of what Delhi could do unless Sri Lanka obeys. At the commencement of ‘Operation Liberation’, Dixit informed Lalith Athulathmudali that India would not stand idly by if the Sri Lanka Army attempts to capture Jaffna (K. M. de Silva, 1994: 631).
The JRJ-Rajiv dialogue at the ‘SAARC Summit’ conducted at Bangalore in early 1987; discussions between Indian VIPs like Dinesh Singh and P. Chidambaran and Sri Lanka ministers like Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and A C S Hameed; and, more generally, the enforcement of his will on senior bureaucrats in Colombo by J N Dixit (who, by this stage, had earned for himself the epithet ‘India’s Viceroy’) were among the Indo-Lanka interactions that brought about the signing of the agreement.
What I have sketched above is only the bare outline of how and why the aging President JRJ, nudging 80, succumbed to the ruthless Indian onslaught, disillusioned as he was, by the disintegration of his inner circle of loyalists, the aggressive extra-parliamentary campaign led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and the ethos of anarchy and violence created by the JVP whose oft repeated theme, disseminated through the calligraphically unique poster campaign, was ‘jay ăr maramu’ (‘let’s kill JR’). Soon after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord, the JVP almost succeeded in doing that in a grenade attack on UNP parliamentary group meeting.
Indo-Lanka Accord’: Its Political Backdrop in Sri Lanka
Politics of insurrection gathered momentum in Jaffna at least from about a decade earlier than the signing of the said ‘Accord’ when the mainstream Tamil parties began to pursue a strategy of nurturing insurgent groups and inculcating the notion of Sinhalese oppression (rather than inequities inherent to the mismanaged economy being experienced by all ethnic groups, and the blatant Caste-based oppression endemic to the Sri Lankan Tamil social milieu) being the root cause for their deprivations. It should also be recalled that the benefits of economic buoyancy that ushered in by the policy transformation of ‘liberalization of the economy’ from the earlier pseudo-socialist shackles, initiated by the government elected to office in 1977, were scarcely felt in the predominantly Tamil areas of the north.
It was in the context of intensifying turbulence that the leaders of Ilangai Tamil Arasi Kachchi (ITAK), All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) formed a coalition named the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At its inaugural session conducted in May 1976, the TULF adopted the so-called ‘Vaddukodai Resolution’, the opening statement of which reads as follows:
“The convention resolves that the restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular state of TAMIL EELAM based on the right of self-determination inherent to every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country”.
The concluding paragraphs of that ‘Resolution’ (copied below) should, in retrospect, be understood as epitomizing a formal decision to launch an ‘Eelam War’.
“This convention calls upon its ‘LIBERATION FRONT’ to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation.”, followed by more specific belligerence,
“And this Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth, in particular, to come forward to throw themselves fully in the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not until the goal of a sovereign state of TAMIL EELAM is reached”.
The campaign rhetoric of the TULF was somewhat more vicious than its belligerence at Vaddukoddai.. At a public rally conducted shortly after the formation in 1976 of the ACTC-ITAK alliance with qualified support from Arumuga Thondaman’s ‘Ceylon Workers Congress’, the person who could have been called the ‘First Lady’ of that alliance said in the course of her speech: “I will not rest until I wear slippers turned out of Sinhalese skins”. Unbelievable? If it is, look up the ‘Report of the Commission of Inquiry’ into the communal disturbances of 1977 conducted by a former Supreme Court Judge (a person belonging to the Burgher community), published as Sessional Paper XII of 1980.
The data tabulated below show that the TULF appeal did not get the expected response even from the people living in the ‘North-East’. It is, of course, true that all contestants fielded by the TULF did win their seats in the Northern Province, securing comfortable majorities in the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya; but elsewhere in the province, the margins of victory were wafer-thin. The polling outcome of the Eastern Province probably shocked the TULF leadership and certainly caused widespread surprise, especially since less than one-third of the voters of Batticaloa District (where Tamils accounted for 72%, and the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils 71% the district population) only 32% had endorsed the ‘Eelam’ appeal.
By the early 1980s, several groups had taken control over acts of terrorism and sabotage in the Jaffna peninsula. The violence perpetrated by the insurgents and the retaliatory acts of the security forces reached fever-pitch on the eve of elections to the newly instituted District Development Councils. It resonated in other parts of the country in the form of two relatively brief waves of mob attacks on Tamil civilians, one in 1980 and the other in 1981. The victims included ‘Indian Tamils’.
The economic upsurge in the first 6 years of the JRJ-led government was short-lived, and the political hopes proved to be illusory. The Jaffna peninsula turbulence was perceived by the government as a ‘law and order problem’ ̶ which a police contingent led by a Deputy Inspector General of Police Rudhra Rajasingham, a Tamil officer of impeccable repute, was ordered by the President to “eradicate within three months”. It failed in the face of massive protest campaigns, intensifying guerrilla attacks on government institutions and the security forces, and harsh retaliatory action by the security forces.
The ‘Eelam War’ for which the groundwork had been laid by the TULF was triggered off by the anti-Tamil riot of unprecedented brutality that took place in July 1983. Its damning repercussions were referred to earlier in this memorandum. JRJ reacted by proscribing several parties and incarcerating a few among his more articulate detractors, some, on the basis of barely credible evidence. Yet another blunder by him at this state was the holding of a national referendum in order to extend the life of the parliament (with the 4/5th majority under his command) by another 6 years. Apart from the rampant malpractices that feature this poll, it did look like the fulfillment of his euphoric pledge in the aftermath of his victory to “roll back the electoral map”.
The youth unrest in the Northeast which was mobilized for electoral gain by the TULF began to be replicated in earnest elsewhere in the island in the form of the second wave of insurrection launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP/Peoples Liberation Front). In the economic recession that prevailed, and with the incessant Television displays of unattainable luxury restricted to the lifestyles of a small minority, increasing numbers of youth suffering from “frustration-aggression” were attracted to the JVP fold. By 1985, they engaged in raids for the collection of money and arms, crippling the economy with frequently enforced curfews, and a range of terrorist violence such as intimidation, torture and the murder of persons identified as collaborators of the government.
The Province as a Unit of Devolution
The Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 that introduced a network of 5 Provinces was intended to consolidate British rule over the island which remained tenuous even after the suppression of the rebellion of 1818. The spatial pattern of provinces was changed from time to time until it was finalized in 1889 against the backdrop of the mid-Victorian imperial glory and the absence of any challenge to British supremacy in ‘Ceylon’. The population of the island at that time was only 3 million; and, despite the ongoing deforestation of the Central Highlands, at least about 70% of the island territory was uncharted wilderness.