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The Indian incentive to demerge

Politics & People by Dr. Rajiva Wijesingha 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 in general.


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.

Important lessons

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 forces.

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 Tamils.

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.

Chauvinist priority

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 region.

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 Accord.

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 military.

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.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Villa Lavinia - Luxury Home for the Senior Generation

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