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India’s Prime Minister Urges Constitutional Amendment in Sri Lanka to Safeguard Tamils

Political stability, not the 13th Amendment, is the key to security of India’s southern borders, analysts say.

Colombo — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is backing the full implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution that would allow power-sharing for the Tamil minorities of the island state.

“The Indian prime minister was keen on having a discussion with our party soon after the general elections. However, given the present predicament, we cannot say if the discussion would take place any time soon,” said R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance.

Sampathan said Modi asked him to set up a meeting after he addressed the issue of the Tamils in Sri Lanka during a virtual summit with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sept. 26.

The 13th Amendment aims to create provincial councils in Sri Lanka to extend self-governing rights. The Amendment was supervised by India as a part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed between the two countries in 1987 to grant devolution to the provincial councils in northern and northeastern Sri Lanka.

Accordingly, the Provincial Councils Act 1987 was created, mandating the merger of the north and northeastern provinces, which have 14 percent of the country’s population The merger specified surrendering of all arms in the area of conflict to make it valid, according to Section 37(1)(b) of the Act.

The Sri Lanka Supreme Court ruled the merger illegal in 2006, until the conditions of surrendering were fulfilled.

Though the Act has been mentioned in the Constitution, the right to amend or discard land laws is in the hands of the country’s president.

“Despite the fact that land rights are listed in the provincial list, the second appendix to the document gives the control to the president directly,” said Dharshan Weraduwage, an attorney in the Supreme Court. “While the provincial council can take up matters related to land issues, the final consent is in the hands of the president.”

The 13th Amendment has always been a contentious issue. While on one hand it safeguards the interests and identities of minority Tamils in the Sinhalese-majority nation, certain sectors in Sri Lankan politics view it as an Indian imposition. Talks within the government have been held to abolish the system and centralize power in the hands of the president.

While Modi’s attempts to initiate deliberations with the Tamil National Alliance might be seen as a welcome step for the Tamils, the underlying reasons remain unclear. However, Sri Lanka sits at a crucial geopolitical location in the Indian Ocean region and is a vital cog in India’s foreign policy.

Political leaders from the Tamil community in Sri Lanka have written to Modi stating that the Amendment has fundamental flaws and requires attention.

“India wants to have all kinds of possible cooperation with its neighboring countries in matters regarding security. It is serious about dealing with threats emerging internally or externally in the Indian Ocean region,” CV Wigneswaran, a member of parliament from the northern Sri Lanka city of Jaffna, said in a letter to Modi. “India wants to address the issue of full implementation of the Amendment for the betterment of Sri Lanka. If problems persist in Sri Lanka, it will be a concern for India.”

Most Sri Lankans think the country does not require that kind of provincial autonomy over land and police, but the Tamils continue to insist on autonomy.

“Such autonomy highlighting a separate police force is not required for 2.8 million people.It could lead to the rise of small entities within the province,” said Weraduwage.

Political and international relations analysts have mixed opinions about India’s interest in the island nation. While they may concur with India’s efforts to fully implement the Amendment, there are uncertainties over the benefits to India.

“India has been trying to get the amendment fully implemented after the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 ,” said Sanjay K Bhardwaj, professor of South Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Wigneswaran believes India was afraid of self-determination movement in Sri Lanka as it would have given a fillip to the separatist ideologies in Tamil Nadu.

“India failed to adequately differentiate between the movement for the language rights in Tamil Nadu and the struggle against the genocide by the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This provided little room for the 13th Amendment to be implemented in a meaningful way,” Wigneswaran said.

He sees Modi’s interest in the full implementation of the amendment as an opportunity to gain control over the region through a chief minister who belongs to the Tamil community. He said that it is difficult for India to build trust with the Sri Lankan government, which is largely Sinhalese.

“Whatever friendly moves India may take, whatever loans and concessions it might grant, Sri Lankan governments would never be loyal to India. They would always see India as biased in favor of the Tamils,” he said.

The northeastern region is important to Sri Lanka because of its natural harbor. Further, the eastern province has the third largest deep-sea natural harbor, at Trincomalee, which is also strategically located.

Bhardwaj does not see India’s attempts to implement the Amendment as a viable solution to securing its southern borders. He believes an end to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is more important to India, which lost one of its prime ministers in the past for his involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war.

“I don’t think keeping northern Sri Lanka firm would protect India’s southern borders. The security of southern India would be ensured only if the Sri Lankan government is cooperative. Implementing the Amendment itself will not help. Political stability within the island will make India’s southern borders more secure,” said Bhardwaj.

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Judy Isacoff.)