IPCS Debate

Sri Lanka and the 13th Amendment: The Arithmetic of ‘Plus’ and ‘Minus’

18 Jul, 2013    ·   4044

N. Manoharan on what constitutes "13th Amendment", "13-plus" and "13-minus"

Many decades ago, Bertrand Russell remarked, “Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.” The arithmetic revolving around the debate on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution seems to confirm this observation. Suddenly there is an intense interest to know what constitutes “13th Amendment”, “13-plus”, and “13-minus”. Definitions are being floated according to the needs and interests of actors in the Island and beyond.

Through the 13th Amendment, Sri Lanka was divided into nine provinces each governed by a Council headed by an elected Chief Minister. It also merged north and east as one province called Northeast Province, and made Tamil an official language along with Sinhala, and powers were divided under three lists (Provincial, Reserved and Concurrent). Since Colombo never implemented all the provisions of the 13th Amendment, there have never been 13, but only “13-minus”.

Police and land powers were never devolved. The provinces, especially the northeast, struggled without adequate financial powers. Then came the de-merger of the north and the east in January 2007, thanks to the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruling. Amendments to the Constitution like the 18th, centralised even more powers in the Executive President, thus eroding the autonomy and integrity of all other institutions, including the Provincial ones.

The recent Divineguma Act that “has entrusted wide powers to the Economic Development Minister to regulate and decide on a wide range of issues including subjects within the purview of the Provincial Councils, with limited checks and balances” is another blow on the Provincial Council system. Ironically, the 13th Amendment benefitted all the other provinces, barring the north. Except for the Northern Province, every province has had a Provincial Council. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that even on paper it was “13-minus”; and, in practice, it was “13-minus-minus”.

One tends to agree that there is no clear-cut definition of “13th Amendment plus”. But, it is difficult to say that there is no clarity of what “13-plus” is all about. The problem, on the other hand, is the existence of more than one meaning. What “13-plus” meant before the defeat of the LTTE differed from what it meant post-Eelam War IV. During peace talks between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka in late 2002, Colombo was not averse to agreeing for a federal settlement that was far beyond the 13th Amendment. The LTTE, however, rejected it. Later, President Rajapaksa appointed the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) in April 2006 to work out a solution that “must be seen to be good and reasonable enough to address the concerns for which great suffering has been endured.” What Rajapaksa meant by this was very clear: the 13th Amendment framework was not enough. The APRC had been working accordingly.

In its interim report, submitted in January 2008, the Committee recommended the “implementation of the 13th Amendment in full”, which meant unimplemented provisions as well. The war had just begun and the LTTE was still a formidable military force. During the height of the war, to get India’s support, Rajapaksa was talking about “13th Amendment Plus One”. The “One”, he had in mind was the Second Chamber, and “Plus” meant whatever the APRC was going to recommend. However, when the final Report (that was said to have gone beyond the 13th Amendment) was submitted in July 2010, the war was already over in favour of Colombo. That explains why the final report of the APRC has so far not been made public. It should be pointed out that if the “13-plus” means the creation of Second Chamber based in Colombo, it is not a “plus”, but “minus” because such a House is not going to address even an iota of Tamil and Muslim minority grievances. It would make things worse instead. Whatever it may be, “13-plus” is certainly not less than “13”. Even a kindergarten child knows this simple arithmetic.

Realistic Arithmetic
It is for this reason that India has been realistically insisting on a two stage process: firstly, implement the 13th Amendment in full; and later go beyond it. New Delhi knows that it is practically difficult to hit the “13-plus” without fully realising the 13th Amendment. The alleged “scepticism” of Shivshankar Menon was actually over the possibility of Colombo making a direct landing on the “13-plus” formula all of a sudden. Even otherwise, can Indian scepticism be taken by Colombo as a positive signal for brushing the so-called “13 plus” under the carpet? It could be minus somewhere and plus somewhere else, but the essence of the arithmetic is to have an arrangement that meets the sentiments and grievances of minority communities and which brings peace and prosperity to the Island.

To follow the rest of the debate, click:
• Sugeeswara Senadhira, "What is ’13 Plus’?", IPCS Commentary #4034
• 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