The Indian incentive to demerge
INTERVENTION: Last month I discussed the reasons for my
thinking that it is unlikely India would interfere in Sri Lanka as it
did in 1987. I did this in part because over the last few weeks the
prophets of doom, who seem very anxious that this government should be
under threat from everyone and everything, have been insisting, with
little attention to evidence, that India is deeply upset over by what is
going on now in Sri Lanka.
Signing the Accord to combine the North East which is now demerged
My argument was that the two main reasons for India being deeply
upset with Sri Lanka in the eighties, to the point of active
intervention, no longer applied. I was referring first to the
international dimension, Sri Lanka's or rather President Jayewardene's
efforts to present himself as a major player against India in the Cold
War, and second to the internal humanitarian problem, when government
policies could clearly be characterized as anti-Tamil.
Now however, the Cold War is over and, though personally I feel the
Rajapaksa Government could do much more to assert its pluralistic
credentials, the targets of its offensives (unlike in 1981 or 1983 or
the Prawn Farm massacres) are very distinctly Tigers rather than Tamils
Provided the government strives to keep the distinction clear, it may
also hope for Indian sympathy for, if not actions, its reactions towards
Tiger aggression. For, at its simplest, there is yet another reason for
the difference today in the Indian approach, as compared with its
hostility in 1987 to the Sri Lankan Government.
To put it simply, India realizes, after its experience with the
Tigers, whom the Indian army battled with great difficulty from 1987 to
1990, that it has to be wary of a Tamil enclave outside India that could
be hostile to the Indian state.
This fear, ironically, springs from a double reversal of the
situation in the eighties. Then, within India, there was still a danger
of serious separatist movements. The Khalistan enterprise after all came
to a dead end only in 1984, and there was a tendency amongst all
regional parties to see greater autonomy as a possible option.
With massive economic development however, and the realisation that
opportunities nationwide are much greater than the sum of those of the
various individual parts, any politician except in a relatively small
state who spoke the language of separatism would be swiftly marginalised.
The recent pronouncements of Karunanidhi, once a bugbear to the center
in India, make clear how successful India has been in the enterprise of
building a nation.
Conversely, Sri Lanka is still in this respect far behind, and it is
not self-evident that an independent state of Eelam would necessarily be
worse off than at present by virtue of its separation from Sri Lanka.
And, whereas earlier, the various Tamil movements saw themselves as
weak and in need of patronage from India, the independent Tiger
initiatives of the eighties gave them the confidence to stand on their
own, and see this as a destiny that is distinct from India.
More dangerously, from the Indian point of view, Tiger connections
with Tamil Nadu run deep, and a successful Tamil state in Sri Lanka
could rouse similar aspirations in Tamil Nadu, which may not be confined
to marginalized politicians.
Hence the assertion of Karunanidhi that sympathy for the Tamils of
Sri Lanka will not be mixed up with any initiatives that would threaten
the Indian Union.
The wording of that caveat however also makes it clear that no leader
of Tamil Nadu, even as it now stands within a fast-forwarding India, nor
any Indian leaders at the centre, will ignore the problems of the Tamils
of Sri Lanka.
They cannot do that, at the risk of allowing the Tigers and their
friends in Tamil Nadu to rouse a dangerous wave of sympathy. But, unlike
in 1987, their concerns will necessarily be focused on actual problems,
without being diverted to the fulfillment of a different agenda, that
involves undermining the Sri Lankan State.
And, in this context, one of the most important lessons India learnt
in 1987, a lesson reinforced by the regular changes of government within
India itself, is the need in its dealings with Sri Lanka to ensure
consensus, at least to some extent, amongst the various political
The problems it faced with dissidents in the government itself, to
say nothing of the hostility of the SLFP and also of the JVP, led to
tensions which could have been avoided had attention not been
concentrated on bringing the Executive President, who seemed a virtual
dictator at the time, to heel.
Those tensions actually contributed to the strengthening of
anti-Indian movements in Sri Lanka, and hence to the advancement of
backward looking policies, which were in no one's interests then and are
less so now, given the obvious advantages of globalization and
increasing co-operation with regard to trade and investment between
India and Sri Lanka.
Hence the careful attention of successive Indian governments, and
their representatives in Colombo, to deal with all relevant parties, and
attempt to promote consensus, amongst southern forces as well as the
Given all these factors, which I would argue suggest a great
congruence of interests, it is unfortunate that recent news reports
suggest serious incompatibilities between the Indian and Sri Lankan
governments. These have to do with the merger of the Northern and
Eastern Provinces, or rather the demerger that occurred recently,
following the Supreme Court ruling that the merger itself was not legal.
Sadly, that decision, and then the pressures to take appropriate
action, suggested that demerger was a chauvinist priority, and was
against the interests of the Tamils. At the same time there were reports
suggesting that the Indian government would not look favourably upon any
settlement that separated the two provinces.
This in turn led to suggestions amongst the proponents of doom that
Sri Lanka was actively turning to Pakistan and to China since it felt
India was less sympathetic than it could be.
Though obviously it is in Sri Lanka's interests to maintain good
relations with all concerned Asian powers, it would be a pity if it
failed to keep in mind the crucial nature of its relationship with
India. If therefore the Sri Lankan Government sees demerger as a
priority, it should seek to convince India of the need for this. At the
same time India should recognise that opposing Sri Lanka in this
respect, primarily because merger was the culmination of diplomatic and
not so diplomatic activity in the eighties, and hence is seen as a
symbol of the Indian triumph then, is counter-productive if merger is
now not crucial to Indian interests.
The point I made earlier is that the Indian triumph of 1987 needs no
symbols, given the concrete achievement of Sri Lankan acceptance of
Indian hegemony, at any rate with regard to outside players, over the
Conversely Sri Lanka has no reason to regret those aspects of the
Accord, since they simply confirmed realities that President Jayewardene
had been foolish to brush aside.
And certainly the halt to the sort of pogrom the Jayewardene
government had unleashed against Tamils in the eighties should not have
been a matter for regret for anyone, and probably wasn't to serious
politicians except for Cyril Mathew and Jayewardene himself.
But the actual political arrangements reached by the Accord are now
emphatically a matter for regret, given the determination of the Tigers
to exercise absolute control over the combined North-East.
I believe that was a problem from the start, given the diverse
demography of the East and the manner in which two thirds of the
population there were ignored in the merger.
However, it was understandable that India then should have felt that
its own priorities were the Tamils, and that it should have insisted
then on Tamil control of the combined Provinces.
But those were in the days when there were a number of players in the
game, and indeed the Indians rapidly made it clear that they anticipated
control of the region going to their chosen militants who straight away
abandoned terrorism and indicated commitment to the democratic process.
The inclusion then of a Sinhalese (initially Dayan Jayatilleke!) and
a Muslim in the Board of Ministers of the first and only North-East
Provincial Council, even if this was at the behest of Indian High
Commissioner Dixit, made clear India's vision of how the combined
Province would develop.
But the LTTE had a very different vision of how the combined
North-East would develop, made patent by its ethnic cleansing of the
Muslims of the North as soon as it got the opportunity to put its ideas
into practice. Given that no other political force would amount to much
in a combined North East, if the LTTE did ever abandon terrorism and
take up the democratic option, it would make no sense for India to
insist on the merger.
That area would then become a powerful base for Tamil nationalism
that would see its interests as opposed to those of the Indian state,
centred as that is in the north of India.
That is what should be most feared by both countries with regard to
this particular ethnic issue, which is why demerger would make more
sense for India as well as Sri Lanka.
For both countries then to pursue what I see as a distinct congruence
of interests, to develop different focuses for Tamil aspirations in Sri
Lanka, through the establishment of two provincial governments, one
almost exclusively Tamil, the other with a substantial Tamil population
that would work together with Sinhalese and Muslims, would promote
consideration of a range of priorities rather than those based simply on
an exclusivist ethnic agenda.
This would also prevent the emergence in Sri Lanka of a dichotomy
between a Tamil homeland and a Sinhala homeland that would also then
move towards an exclusively nationalist ethos.
This is indeed essential given the large numbers of Tamils in the
rest of Sri Lanka, who would be treated as irrelevant minorities within
the other Provinces on the grounds that the combined North-East was
considered the homeland of the Tamils, where their aspirations could be
fulfilled without impinging on the operations of the other Provinces.
Conversely, a system of devolution based on nine provinces which
would all have diverse populations that all had a stake in the area
instead of being seen as outsiders, would encourage a more open approach
to the whole question of devolution, and make it clear that it is
promoted on grounds of efficiency and responsiveness to people rather
than in terms of nationalities.
In short, it would bring governance in Sri Lanka closer to the Indian
model, where states that originally seemed to display centrifugal
tendencies are now largely united by a sense of nationhood.
Indian acceptance of this however would naturally be subject to
arrangements that actually empower people, as opposed to the hollow
artificialities of the 13th Amendment that was based on the Indo-Lankan
Opportunities for different types of development should be promoted,
within the context of institutions that ensure central responsibility
for security in all its dimensions, financial and legal as well as
Such institutions would help to mitigate the nervousness propagated
in some Sri Lankan quarters about genuine devolution. Without such
nervousness, arrangements should be possible that encourage initiatives
to overcome the great disparities that now exist in human welfare
between the prosperous areas of Sri Lanka and not only the North East
but the North as a whole and the East as a whole.
My argument then is that India should actively promote demerger,
while making it clear to Tamils at large that this is in the interests
of more productive devolution; and, conversely, the Sri Lankan
Government should recognise that it can only go back, or seem to go
back, on what was considered a crucial aspect of the Accord if it goes
much further forward in other respects. If agreement is reached in this
respect, measures could be immediately implemented in all of Sri Lanka
except the North.
Such measures if implemented successfully in the East, under
conditions that now should seem encouraging to both the Sri Lankan and
the Indian governments, may go far to convincing the Tamils of the North
too that they would benefit from involvement in the Sri Lankan polity
instead of remaining isolated with the Tigers.