IPCS Debate

Sri Lanka and the 13th Amendment: Reconciling Differing Viewpoints

08 Jul, 2013    ·   4025

N Manoharan deconstructs the differing standpoints that exist on the issue and the critical road ahead

Number 13 is generally considered unlucky. In the Sri Lankan case, it is more than true. The 13th Amendment to the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution, an offshoot of Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987, has got mired into controversy since day one. It has become more contentious now. The issue is the existence of different points of view on the 13th Amendment citing different reasons. Four standpoints are conspicuous, at least for the time being, based on “nationalistic”, “aspirational”, “practical”, and “scientific” arguments.

Total Repeal
At one end of the spectrum are those who stand for the total repeal of the 13th Amendment. Sinhala hardline parties like Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), National Freedom Front (NFF), and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are advocates of this viewpoint. To them, Provincial Council system “does not suit” a country like Sri Lanka. It is, in fact, a divisive mechanism. The system, to them, was not indigenous, but was “forced on Sri Lanka” by external forces like India. Unfortunately, a strong section of the government, led by the President’s brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, subscribes to this viewpoint.

Internal Self-Determination
At the other extreme are those who concur with the view that the 13th Amendment should be rolled back, but should be replaced by a separate nation for Tamils, at least based on “internal self-determination”. Until the LTTE was there, it stood for nothing less than a separate Eelam. But, in the post-LTTE Tamil polity, none talks of separation, not even those parties that were considered the political fronts of the LTTE. Only a small section of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and certain political parties of Tamil Nadu keep the separation slogan alive for obvious reasons. The proponents argue that Tamils “deserve” it because of the sacrifices involved and because of the separate ethnic identity. Interestingly, as long as the separatist view was dominant, especially with the help of an armed component, those who are now at the forefront demanding the scrapping of the 13th Amendment were totally out of the devolution discourse.

13th Amendment Plus
Then, there are those who stand for the retention of the Amendment, but with requisite value additions. This is what is famously known as the “13th Amendment Plus” framework. Most of the Tamil parties of Sri Lanka and the government of India favour this as the “practical” solution to the ethnic question. The Tamil parties of the island think that since they are presently in a weak position, the 13th Amendment could be a starting point. This position is even shared by the pro-government Tamil party Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). For India, as one of the signatories of the 1987 Accord, this is the viable option at any point in time, with or without the LTTE. In hindsight, India’s position has been consistent and seems acceptable.

13th Amendment Minus
Yet another section stands for diluting the 13th Amendment as the “scientific” option. Termed as the “13th Amendment Minus” framework, this is the latest among the four viewpoints. The main proponent of this standpoint is a dominant section of the present UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The argument is, since whatever limited police and land powers that are vested with the provinces were not practically implemented, the move now is to devolve only those implementable portions. In the words of an incumbent Sri Lankan minister, “In practice we are giving provincial councils more police powers. But in theory, one can say they will have less powers.” The crucial question, however, is who was responsible for the non-implementation of the 13th Amendment? Not the Provinces. One may also be tempted to ask, what is the guarantee that even the proposed amended version would be implemented in full?

Looking ahead, reconciling these differing views is the need of the hour. It is indeed a challenging task because even the current Rajapaksa regime is divided and confused on the exact status of the 13th Amendment. The major issue is the lack of political will to look beyond immediate political gains. In the long-term interests of the country, a consensus, at least broadly, is required on the subject. Only the government of the day is in a position to do this. Indeed, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) has been set up to review the entire gamut of provisions in the Amendment. But, main actors like the principal opposition party, UNP (United National Party), and the dominant Tamil entity, TNA (Tamil National Alliance) have refused to be part of the PSC process. While the UNP is sceptical of the outcome because of a lack of clarity in the government, the TNA sees the process as a political gimmick to hoodwink the international community, especially India. The onus of allaying their apprehensions lies solely with the President and his government. Mahinda Rajapaksa has to decide whether he should be remembered as a politician or as a statesman. On its part, New Delhi should go beyond just making statements and giving assurances that “the 13th Amendment should not be diluted and Sri Lanka should go beyond the Amendment to ensure meaningful devolution of powers.” The international community is the only hope.

To follow the rest of the debate, click:
• N Manoharan, "Reconciling Differing Viewpoints", IPCS Commentary #4025
• V Suryanarayan, "Welcome Changes in India’s Policy", IPCS Commentary #4022
• V Suryanarayan, "Tamil Disenchantment", IPCS Commentary #4012