In his interview with The Hindu (Sept. 11), Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has agreed to discuss the 13th Amendment (13A) with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is ruling the Northern Province. He has also spoken about the issues of fishermen and alleged fears about China, making the assertion “India has nothing to worry about from China in Sri Lanka. Until I am here, I can promise that.” It is understood that for the first time, Mr. Rajapaksa told an Indian Prime Minister — in this case, Mr. Narendra Modi — during his recent meeting in New Delhi that police powers will not be devolved to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), clearly rescinding from 13A plus. In spite of this, he has held that India-Sri Lanka relations are “very strong.”
This sentiment was endorsed by the chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Committee for Strategic Action, Dr. Subramanian Swamy, at an international seminar in Colombo last month. He elaborated: “This is not the old government … with Prime Minister Narendra Modi it is a new beginning in India-Sri Lanka relations.” An air of optimism and expectancy was palpable following Mr. Modi’s invite to President Rajapaksa to his inaugural, India’s abstention at the Geneva Human Rights Council after two consecutive votes against Sri Lanka and the massive electoral mandate in favor of Mr. Modi which frees it from deference to Tamil Nadu. Colombo’s biggest but latent insecurity emanates from the 65 million Tamils, a mere 19 kilometres across the Palk Strait. Sri Lankans keep an inventory of Tamils worldwide. Dr. Swamy, who is the darling of policy-crafters and the military in Colombo, is a frequently heard and quoted voice touching the right chords, like making light of Tamil Nadu’s politicians, stressing the centrality of national interest over narrow provincial political pressures. He suggested that the Indian policy of non-interference makes devolution Colombo’s business, with police powers being devolved over time.
No one can cavil at Dr. Swamy’s foreign policy formulation except over its nuanced variation from the government of India’s latest diplomatese: India was committed to engaging Sri Lanka in full implementation and going beyond 13A Plus as promised by Mr. Rajapaksa earlier (several times over). During his brief visit to New Delhi, Mr. Rajapaksa was told by Mr. Modi to implement 13A in full, as pledged, but firmly expressed difficulty in devolving police powers. To reiterate the point, several Sri Lankan Cabinet ministers and leaders — this includes Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris in Parliament and at the Colombo defence seminar, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa to the media, and the President himself to foreign correspondents in Colombo — have reiterated that police powers will not be delegated. The Tamil Central Minister from Jaffna, Douglas Devananda, whom the LTTE tried to take out 13 times, has played an old tune, one composed by Mr. Rajapaksa, that a political solution to the minority question has to be found from within, expressly rejecting 13A.
The rationale for rejecting police powers ostensibly is the fear of a resurgence of the LTTE and the rise of Islamic terrorism. While many counter-insurgency experts, including Ms. Sara De Silva of Kotelawala Defence University and Mr. Devananda have ruled out the revival of insurgency, a shoot-out in the Vavuniya jungles in April this year between three LTTE cadres and security forces suggests that some sleeper cells may be surfacing. The Sri Lankan Army is ambivalent about the revival of the LTTE. “Some Muslim groups,” according to the country’s second most powerful leader after the President, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, “have begun to engage in activities that go far beyond self-protection and are linked to global terrorist organisations.” The recent Buddhist-Muslim riots in Colombo have alienated large sections of Sri Lankan Muslims that could lead to their further radicalization.
Hands off or intrusive?
Sri Lankans want to know this: will India leave Sri Lanka alone on the implementation of 13A, as Dr. Swamy and others have advocated, or will its “engagement” be intrusive? After the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE, enabled by India’s help and strategic non-interference — a fact admitted by Mr. Rajapaksa in the interview — and the economic and trade activism of China, the geostrategic reality has altered significantly in Colombo’s favor. So is the Modi government prepared to let go the sacrifices of the Indian Peace Keeping Force and commitments made to the Tamils on genuine power sharing?
With no usable leverages, India may have to live with 13A minus police powers, provided the devolved powers are actually implemented on the ground. According to several Sri Lankans I met in Colombo in August, the problem is that the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneshwaran’s authority is circumscribed by the military governor, (retd.) Major General Chandrasiri, and he has very few devolved powers that are implementable. Mr. Peiris and other Ministers have been saying that “the Chief Minister should stop whining and asking for more powers and instead get on with exercising the authority vested in him.” A senior government of India official pointed out that no one in authority is telling Colombo that the 13th Amendment has not been implemented in letter and spirit, instead of being distracted by the non-delegation of police powers.
While Sri Lanka’s intention over the future of 13A is clear — status quo till the next presidential election in 2016 or earlier — India’s options are both unclear and limited. It can either to go along with Colombo’s go-slow on actual implementation and further devolution, or keep pressing Colombo to removing impediments in the active functioning of the NPC. Mr. Rajapaksa had promised Mr. Wigneshwaran (and according to reports, the Japanese Ambassador in Colombo) that the military governor would be replaced by a civilian when his term expired, but he was reappointed for another term. Chief Secretary Wijeyaluckshmi Ramesh has a conflictual relationship with her Chief Minister and is in court over her transfer.
The highly emotive and politicised fishermen’s issue is a big distraction for the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Rather than be engaged in promoting strategic issues, officials are preoccupied in pleading for the release of Tamil Nadu fishermen, which is construed by Colombo as doing India a favor. New Delhi has to tell Chennai to prevent its fishermen from crossing the maritime boundary. A Jaffna Tamil told me this: “As there are no fish left on our side, please impose a three-year moratorium till we repopulate the area, and then allot fishing permits but ban the use of trawlers.”
Colombo is probably testing New Delhi’s tolerance threshold on devolution and strategic access to China currently defined in commercial terms. A recent contract to a PLA-run Chinese company for the construction of an ammunition storage dump in Trincomalee had to be rescinded when India flagged it as a violation of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Mr. Peiris used to keep reminding his countrymen on the activities of foreign entities in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s that led to Indian intervention. The elimination of the LTTE has erased those memories. In Mr. Modi’s embrace of the neighbourhood, a rising Sri Lanka will prove a tough nut to crack. But Colombo knows its red lines.
(Gen. Ashok K. Mehta was GOC South, IPKF, and follows events in Sri Lanka closely.)
This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. Click here to go to the original.