Last week marked the 25th anniversary of a controversial agreement officially known as the ‘Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement to establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka’, more commonly called the Indo-Lanka Accord. In a few months, we will mark, though not necessarily celebrate, the 25th anniversary of the 13A (the 13th Amendment to the Constitution) and the creation of Provincial Councils in the country.
That India forced this system of administration on Sri Lanka is not just history; it continues to be a thorny issue between the two countries. For 25 years, however, the Northern Provincial Council for which the Accord was primarily signed, was not to be while the rest of the country was saddled with a ‘Made in India’ piece of legislation nobody else wanted.
Suggestions have been made that it was time that 13A was completely revisited. India, meanwhile, continues to press for the full implementation of 13A, but not so much for the remaining provisions of the Accord, some of which are now pass and irrelevant.
The Accord came against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s post-1977 free market driven open economy that seemed to have riled India which was economically struggling with its anti-US socialist policies. India viewed Sri Lanka’s pro-West stance with great suspicion, and a tinge of jealousy. Today, roles are reversed with India bending over backwards to do business with the West, the US in particular.
Very few such bi-lateral accords remain without any sort of revision for so long. A Defence Co-operation Agreement between the two countries also fell through with no known reasons given. The belief on this side of the Palk Strait at the time was that it was because of New Delhi’s worries that it would upset the Tamil Nadu lobby, whose political support was crucial to coalition governments in India. The ‘war’ with the LTTE was raging in those years and domestic political compulsions would have priority over good neighbourliness or the global war on terror.
The Government is hamstrung by India’s persistence for the full implementation of 13A, and the call for elections to the Northern Provincial Council. We have said this before, and say it again, the reason for this demand is patently clear. India would like an unofficial eighth union territory under the control of its proxy, the TNA (Tamil National Alliance). The ‘doosra’ they bowl can be seen even before the delivery.
What New Delhi’s policy makers have missed out is the affinity most Sri Lankans have for India. But they seem to be squandering this natural goodwill by their parroting of unpopular calls. Worse, in their perspective would be that the vastly increasing influence of China in this country is being reluctantly accepted as a result.
Prior to revisiting 13A and the Indo-Lanka Accord, the Government might well consider holding a Referendum to ascertain the views of all Sri Lankans on 13A, the Accord and the Provincial Council system.
The 1978 Constitution had a progressive provision in Article 86 that stated that “A President may submit to the people by Referendum any matter which in the opinion of the President is of national importance”. This was one of the salutary clauses that the J.R. Jayewardene administration introduced. But the clause acquired a terrible reputation because it was misused by that Government to extend the life of Parliament without going for a general election. The purpose was to retain the five-sixth majority that the Government had at the time circumventing the need for a parliamentary poll.
A referendum of the people was never carried out thereafter. In many advanced democracies, such a move is frequently implemented. It is considered the ideal – a democracy where the people’s views are ascertained more than at elections and on a specific question.
Rather than waste public funds on holding staggered elections to Provincial Councils as the Government is doing right now mostly to prop up the its image as one having the continued support of the people, the more worthwhile exercise would have been to test public opinion on 13A, the Indo-Lanka Accord and the Provincial Councils.
The will of the people must prevail, and the Government must heed public opinion in this country. It would also come in handy in telling those foreign governments, which keep asking the Government to do this and that, that in a democracy one cannot go against the will of its people. Should the majority of the people so desire to continue with 13A, the Accord and the Provincial Councils, then the Government is duty bound to proceed to enforce them in a proper and systematic way. Right now the Government is doing neither; not implementing those Indian hand-me-downs, nor throwing them out of the window.
Even the Indo-Lanka Accord made provision for a referendum of the people of the Eastern Province after the temporary merger of the North and East Provincial Councils. Successive Sri Lankan governments ignored this for more than two decades and neither did India insist on it.
The Supreme Court later struck down the merger as unconstitutional and therefore such a referendum is now no longer an issue. However, the point is that even then, a referendum of the people was envisaged and drafted into the Accord. The question now is why a referendum of the whole island cannot be held on what is a nagging issue of national importance.