26 September, 2023


Provincial Devolution Or Ethnic Unilateralism?

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

My thanks to Prof GH (‘Gerry’) Peiris, a scholar for whom I have considerable respect, for his critical engagement (‘Should Sri Lanka persist with Province-based Devolution’, The Island Midweek Review, May 15th 2013) with my extended remarks on devolution and the provincial councils made at a seminar of the Liberal party (‘Northern Provincial Council: The Devolution Debate’). This is perhaps the most serious political topic and issue for public –policy debate and decision-making in the current stage of Sri Lanka’s history; a debate that will sharpen over the next few months.

Prof Peiris summarily dismisses two of the points I have critiqued, as non-existent and therefore pretty much misleading and irrelevant. Let me address that opening argument before I deal with the substance of his critique.

If Prof Peiris were to read the papers more often he would find, even recently in the pages of this one, arguments against the 13th amendment and often against provincial devolution as such, and counterproposals for alternative structures and systems to replace it, based entirely on the grounds of economic development, administrative efficacy and empowerment of people irrespective of ethnicity. The case for reversion to district level devolution or the identification of the ‘pradesheeya sabha’ as the optimal unit of devolution rests on this ostensibly non-ethnic perspective. It is such a perspective that I identified and rejected as failing to grasp the nettle.

As for the second point, namely that the 13th amendment and provincial devolution were superfluous since they had arisen as a response to the LTTE insurgency which had now been decisively put down, such views were encountered by me with some degree of consternation, in statements made sporadically by officialdom at the highest levels in the post war years; statements which were also a source of embarrassment when raised by senior officials, diplomats and scholars in the locations in which I spent the past several years. The fact that this dismissal of the need to persist in provincial level devolution has since been replaced, often in the discourse of the same officials, by a warning about the persistence of the LTTE, has to be taken up with them, not me.

This brings us to Prof Peiris’ main contention. Sadly, to make it, he has followed up an accurate quotation of what I said with a convenient avoidance of my main points.

Contrary to those who claim that provincial devolution was exclusively the product of coercive Indian intervention and reject it on that basis, the points I made and continue to make are the following:

(1) The case for, or issue of, provincial level devolution long antedated such intervention or even the eruption of the Indian factor

(2) That case derives from the need for political coexistence and cohabitation between the Sinhalese and Tamils on this island, given domestic geopolitics and those of the external environment

(3) Had existing proposals for and promises of provincial devolution been implemented, there would not have been a coercive Indian intervention in 1987 and

(4) The Indian factor should not be an argument against provincial devolution because it continues to have salience, is enhanced due to the US-Indian strategic condominium and will in fact loom larger still, in the run-up to and the aftermath of next year’s Indian election due to the militant mood in Tamil Nadu.

(5) While there is a danger of implementing the 13th amendment (my critique of Mr Sampathan’s speech at the ITAK convention last year and my debate with Mr Sumanthiran on internal self determination demonstrate that I am hardly unaware of this danger), the far greater danger on balance, i.e. the danger of external coercion/intervention which can roll-back our military victory and yield a Tamil Eelam or greater Tamil Nadu, is posed by the unilateral rollback/non-implementation/gutting of provincial devolution.

Prof Peiris addresses none of these. Instead he traces the role of India in the post July ’83 years, in pushing Provincial devolution. Prof Peiris’ recounting not only does nothing to contradict my arguments; it evades some of them and underscores others.

His perspective would be accurate if the issue of provincial devolution had been limited to the post-July 1983 years of Sri Lankan history, or to put it more unkindly, the ethno-nationalities issue (the Tamil issue) had been restricted to the post-July ’83 years.

Far from this being the case, as I have pointed out, it was young SWRD Bandaranaike who lucidly argued in 1926 (perhaps influenced by the debate on Ireland when he was a student in Britain), that he knows of no country which is as non-homogenous as was Ceylon, to have achieved success under a centralised form of rule.

At least one famous progressive observer and perceptive well wisher of Ceylon had also made the point, with an eye to the problems of coexistence between Sinhalese and Tamils in an independent Ceylon. In his memorandum ‘on the demands for reform of the Ceylon Constitution, presented to the Labour party, in November 1938, Leonard Woolf wrote that “Consideration should also be given to the possibility of ensuring a large measure of devolution or even of introducing a federal system on the Swiss model”.

SWRD’s and Leonard Woolf’s were no eccentric assertions within or about Ceylonese politics. Prof Michael Roberts’ excellent anthologies as well as subsequent research by Prof Kumari Jayawardana have brought into focus the strong case for regional autonomy or federalism made by the country’s communist movement ( the Ceylon Communist Party and its trade union confederation the CTUF), at its conclaves from 1944-1947 and in its representations to the Soulbury Commission.

Most crucially, we have the case of the Bandaranaike–Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957, which with its provision for the amalgamation of the regional councils (a unit closer the district and smaller than the province), made for large unit devolution; actually provincial devolution. Thus it is clear that the project of provincial level devolution far antedated and was therefore hardly derivative of Indian intervention. Prof Peiris has evaded that argument.

My additional point was – and it is hardly original—that if the B-C Pact had been implemented, the Indian intervention 30 years later is exceedingly unlikely to have occurred.

This is also my point with regard to the Political Parties Conference of mid-1986, which Prof Peiris helpfully embeds in the matrix of India’s robust Sri Lanka diplomacy of the post-July ’83 years, most specifically from the Parthasarathy facilitation/mediation and annexure C of 1984. Prof Peiris’ attribution of causation is slightly tendentious however. It is difficult to dismiss that conference as a mere fig-leaf or rubber stamp of the agreement arrived at in Delhi in December 1985 on the province as unit of devolution when those who called for and participated in it, namely the moderate or pluralist democratic Left as led by Vijaya Kumaratunga, belonged to a progressive political tradition in which such devolution had long – if not always consistently—been advocated.

Though Vijaya was of a different generation, his explicit advocacy of provincial devolution in the form of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact, including in the pages of this paper, antedated the December ’85 agreements between HW Jayewardene and the Indian officials. Since the proceedings of the PPC were transparent, recorded and published at the time – with televised interviews of the participants conducted on Rupavahini by Prof Tilak Ratnakara– the evidence of deliberation hardly supports a version of a rubber stamping by puppets, of documents produced by or in India.

Prof Peiris conveniently evades my more central argument, namely, that had the agreements announced at the PPC of mid-1986 or at the APC of 1984, which were primarily domestic processes, been implemented, there would have been no opening for Indian intervention in mid 1987. Put more sharply, had Operation Liberation of 1987 been preceded by the 13th amendment, it would have been far less likely that Indian intervention would have taken place to abort it, and that amendment would not have had to be shoved down our throat as an outcome of a humiliating intervention. The presence of the 13th amendment and the promise to implement it was a crucial factor in securing Indian support for, at least in neutralising Indian objections to—our final thrust against the Tigers in 2009. The abolition or terminal weakening of provincial devolution, which would be an ethnically unilateral process, risks the return of India, this time in strategic alliance with a USA  that is increasingly critical and a global civil society increasingly hostile  to Sri Lanka, to its dangerously adversarial/interventionist stance of the latter half of the 1980s. If there is external intervention this time around, it may prove ineradicable. To my mind it is hardly a risk worth taking.

For a Realist, the only circumstances in which the unilateral abolition of provincial level devolution would be conceivable would be if the Sinhalese had been alone on this island or this island had been alone on the planet. Neither is the case.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Provincial Councils are a by-product of the INDO-LANKA AGREEMENT. The Agreement was necessitated when India blatantly violated the national sovereignty of Sri Lanka. A miscalculation by the then JRJ Government that India would remain idle when the Operation Liberation was waged. The Political diplomacy between India and Sri Lanka was unique this time when the Rajapakse Administration waged an all out war against LTTE. That credit must go to Rajapakse Administration. The political equation has dramatically changed with the advent of Chinese strategic influence in the Region. We can no longer ignore the calls of International Community and India for a political solution. It would be a terrible miscalculation if the 13th amendment was repealed without consulting India. Perhaps a solution can be found by fine tuning the 13th Amendment in a way that would not one day lead to secession of our country. There is a formidable pro-separatist lobby overseas and governments counter moves are far below the threat. They seem to be gathering strength. Government must be ready to confront the thereat. We need to resurrect our friendship with USA, UK and the West. A unified and a holistic approach is required to neutralize the pro-separatist lobby overseas while at the same time a lasting political solution should also be articulated in SRI LANKA which could be seen from overseas as being “a credible solution”. The internal political and economic situation also adds to the woes of SRI LANKA. There is a serious erosion of rule of law and all these add up to the credibility of the governments performance. Government must listen to the learned and moderate views as expressed by Dr. Dayan Jayathileke and other public spirited individuals.
    SRINATH FERNANDO, Freelance Journalist, Political Lobbying & Government Affairs Consultant, Member – American Association of Political Consultants.

    • 0


      “Rajapakse Administration waged an all out war against LTTE. That credit must go to Rajapakse Administration.”

      My elders tell me that in early 2005 the Indians persuaded Chandrika to prepare for all out war against LTTE and provided all types of military assistance. Rajapakse continued what Chandrika had already started.

      “The political equation has dramatically changed with the advent of Chinese strategic influence in the Region.”

      It is India’s problem and not ours.

      “There is a formidable pro-separatist lobby overseas and governments counter moves are far below the threat. “

      What do you consider as pro-separatist threat? Threat comes from within, undemocratic Sinhala/Buddhist monolithic nation building process and not from outside.

      “Government must be ready to confront the thereat. We need to resurrect our friendship with USA, UK and the West.”

      Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi were very good examples, one time close friends of the West, did some very good dirty work for them, ended up in the hands of lynch mob.

      Friendship with the West, China, Russia, Pakistan, India means nothing to people, probably end in tears.

      The only way forward is to reconstitute the state, restore democracy bring war crimes and crime against humanity to closure by a credible independent investigation covering the period from 5th April 1971.

      All cosmetic changes will prolong misery.

      You can be tough on threat but don’t forget you have to be tough on the causes of threat which didn’t start with pro-separatist lobby overseas.

      • 0

        “You can be tough on threat but don’t forget you have to be tough on the causes of threat which didn’t start with pro-separatist lobby overseas.” – how sane your words!

      • 0

        Native Vedda

        Your elders must have been a very wise bunch.

        They certainly brought you up with a very high degree of wisdom. In certain areas of life.

    • 0

      Sri Lanka mortgaged its sovereignty the day it started losing its moral right to govern a multi-communal nation. The moral right to rule this country was gradually forfeited by all political parties, starting with that of the UNP headed by D.S. Senanayake. According to Dr. N.M. Perera, DS moved to disenfranchise the Indian plantation workers. Because he feared that they will increasingly support the LSSP. Can there be any greater immorality, given the motive?

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

      • 0

        Dr RN, you are simply accepting that Dr NM was correct in what he said. Of course, he will have said something that was more palatable to his LSSP. People make the mistake of thinking that because Dr NM was a learned man – with a double doctorate and so on – that he was some sort of genius who was all knowing and omniscient. He wasn’t – as we all were to realise after he became Finance Minister under Mrs B and was shown to be as flawed as anyone else who had occupied that position. Nor can we forget the manner in which he turned back on the Trade Unions with whose support he rose to power. The fact is the Indian workers who were caught up in that disenfranchisement were those whose position had not been determined, who were born in India and had not established a long enough residency in the country to warrant being given citizenship. Dr RN is probably unaware how Indian labourers recruited to work in the plantations simply came from India and went back there as if they were travelling between two towns in the same country, during the days before independence. There are very good, solid and even moral grounds to support what Mr DS Senanayake did. So, let’s get this straight. Dr RN, you say a lot of sane things but you also make some less well thought out statements.

    • 0

      It is a positive thinking but the question is how you are going to find a solution by fine tuning 13th amendment in a way that would not one day lead to secession of our country? Firstly, It is wrong to create that impression by saying 13th amendment or regional/provincial devolution of power may lead to secession. When you all talk about our country you all look at it in a Sinhala perspective and always ignore the Tamil perspective. It is important to explain the Sinhala masses that why the call for the secession came and the failure of our governments to treat Tamils as equals in this country because the country belongs to both Tamils and Sinhalese. You must ask the question: Did the Tamils had the security or protection from our governments which is responsible for protecting all citizens? Not only Sinhalese but Tamils should have to have the confidence that they will be save under a United Sri Lanka. We have to have the trust with Tamils and it is necessary to devolved powers to the region where they should feel that they are safe and they are part of this Nation.

      • 0

        I am ready to fight for equality for all. I am sure millions of Sinhalese are as well. There is work to be done in that area.

        Sinhalese nationalism will not diasppear. But, can be kept in check.

        Most Sinahalese just fear the disintergration of Sri Lanka. If extreme ethno Tamil nationalists, gain a foothold. It is not an unreasonable fear. And should be dealt with properly. By removing all loopholes and stepping stones to future claims of secession.

        Sri Lanka’s success will be based on our efectiveness in keeping racists on both sides under control. And by defeating them ideologically.

        Racists have destroyed so much of Sri Lanka. Should never let them do it again.

        • 0

          Ben Hurling

          “Racists have destroyed so much of Sri Lanka. Should never let them do it again.”

          They are in power and continue to destroy whatever is left in this land.

          What are you going to do about it?

  • 0

    Dr. Dayan, I largely agree with you, however unless we raise the bar on the quality of people who could apply for public office, no matter how right the model of devolution it will fail. Our Pradeshiya Sabha and provincial councils has become the ideal habitat for all sorts of criminals. Isn’t it a tragedy when even for the lowest ranked government job they need at least some sort of educational qualification but not for any public office in our country?

  • 0

    With opportunistic Tamil Nadu politicians in the north and Tamil Elam focused Tamil Diaspora supported by politicians who are dependent on their votes and political funding in the west, it is political suicide to have the Northern Provincial Council election, giving it the legal right over Police & Land Powers. The threat from the north and west is now further strengthened by a threat from the South, with the foothold gained by USA in Maldives. USA is focused on expanding their sphere of influence in the region. They like to have a puppet government in Sri Lanka. They are not incapable of turning the Arab Spring into a South Asian Tsunami!

    The second aspect is the poor quality of the Provincial politicians. A 19th Amendment to remove Police & Land Powers from Provincial Councils should also include measures to improve the quality of the candidates, such as a minimum quota for women and some suitability criteria to prevent drug and illicit liquor dealers, people with allegations of rape, murder Etc from contesting any election.

    • 0

      Its all in the vulture eaten culture of the people.
      You cannot change the genes of the Sinhalese who originally came from Bihar and later went to bed with Portuguese sailors- so the name and religion.
      Look at Indian parliament- almost half those MP’s from all parties have a criminal record.
      Look at the difference in cultures of the English against the French and Spanish Portuguese when it comes to extra marital affairs- the English conceal while for the others its natural etc.

  • 0

    bit confusing while reading it as – post July ’83 years

    and again “the post-July 1983 years of Sri Lankan history,” ????????

  • 0







  • 0

    Dayan I very much like to add the following historical facts to your argument,
    ”The Donoughmore Constitution of 1928 first introduced the idea of Provincial Council as a form of Sub- National Government in Sri Lanka-A second-tier Government at the Provincial Level to facilitate co-ordinated regional development and offer opportunities for participation in the process of governance.

    The State council in the Year 1940 passed a resolution requesting
    Mr SWRD Bandaranaike, the then minister of local Government to bring in legislation for the establishment of a second- tier government.

    Mr Bandaranaike submitted a comprehensive report on the powers and functions of the second- tier Government.The state council wanted district rather than the province as the unit of devolution.Mr Bandaranaike has submitted a Draft District Council bill to the first Parliament in 1947- it was not proceded, the nation seems to be busy otherwise.

    The Election Manifesto of MEP and the Throne Speech of 1956 contained provision for the establishment of Provincial/regional Councils and people overwhelmingly voted for the election manifesto that included Sinhala only to be the official Language and establishment of Provincial council/ Regional councils.

    Nobody in sri Lanka opposed to this idea at thet time.

    But in 1957 when SWRD and SJV had talks for a settlement, before commencement of the talks,Mr Bandaranaike was reported to have told
    Mr Chelvanayagam thst He could not consider any changes to the Sinhala only Act, but requested Mr Chevanayagam to explore ways and means of accomodating Tamil demands within his Reginal Council proposal and the result is the famous Bandaranaike and Chevanayagam Pact.

    But when the pact was announced all hell broke and that was the end of consensun on devolution and an ethnic dimension was given to the devolution.

    The rest was history

  • 0

    Dear All,
    Just to clarify that. I am for a lasting political solution where Sinhalese, Tamils and other Minorities could live with dignity. When I said “our country” I did not mean Sinhalese, I meant all of us who are born and brought up in Sri Lanka. I don’t subscribe to view of ultra nationalist at all. I worked for a well known Tamil Organisation in Colombo and I never felt that I was working for a Tamil organisation and the owners of that organisation has now built an empire.They treaed everybody equally. There have been a large number of Tamil Physicians before 83 but there is only handful now.
    I am genuinely concerned about PRO-SEPARATIST Lobby the Tamils fringe groups ( equivalent to ultra nationalist on this side) who are trying hard to carve out a separate area for Tamils and they are in close touch with some of the governments of the countries of the west with whom RAJAPAKSE ADMINISTRATION is not in good terms. This locus standi could be manipulated by the SEPARATIST LOBBY for its advantage.

    • 0


      The Tamils were “closely connected” to a section of Western establishment until they were guided to bury themselves in Mullivaaikkal. The West very well knew how to keep friends close and enemies closer. During the last leg of the war West kept Tamil Diaspora closer.

      Had West seriously considered punishing Rajabakses they have had all the wherewithal with which they could stopped the war, killings and reversed it in favour of LTTE. It didn’t happen and the West, Vaiko, KP, Nedumaran, Seeman…………….Diaspora (inadvertently/foolishly of course) gave VP a long rope with which to hang himself at his convenience.

      India and West wanted stability in this island at any costs. With the support of 30 countries and at a colossal human cost they won the war for Rajabakse and his Sinhala/Buddhists.

      Some months ago GL went to Washington town, met with Hillary and other high ranking US officials. GL and the government are maintaining a deafening silence of the talks. What did Rajabakse sell and barter for impunity from war crimes and crimes against humanity? Was there a Washington consensus imposed on GL and Sri Lanka?

      As long as India is around the corner there is no threat of separation. The only way Tamil Diaspora could manage that would be to relocate subcontinent India beyond Mars.

      • 0

        N.V.”As long as India is around the corner there is no threat of separation”

        China wants Tibet back (because of ground water) and India wants Pakistan (because of gas lines from Iran). Neither country can be bribed or taken for a ride by US because of past experience. Right now India will never vote along with the US on multicultural issues (SL vote was a surprise).
        If India gets back Pakistan either by war or negotiation with US due to South China Sea need of US then India is free to think the hitherto unthinkable. This is the lingering problem created by our former colonisers the Poms of US/UK and its supporter the Zionist Jews after winning WW2 with the assistance and lives of its colonies.

        As you said before “cosmetic changes will prolong misery”. Yes.

        • 0


          “China wants Tibet back (because of ground water)”

          China is a peace loving country,
          a piece from Russia,
          a piece from Pakistan,
          entire country from Taiwan,
          islands from Japan,
          a piece from Kazakhstan,
          a piece from Kyrgyzstan,
          a piece from Tajikistan,
          a piece from Afghanistan,
          a piece from Vietnam,
          ……………and a large piece of India.

          It is known as middle kingdom China’s peaceful rise.

          “India wants Pakistan (because of gas lines from Iran)”

          Are you sure India want Pakistan? Do you know anyone visiting Pakistan a tourist? Why the hell India wants Pakistan? It is like committing suicide many times over. I know Hindians are stupid and mad even they would not contemplate the idea of annexing Pakistan.

          Please advise the Pakistanis to relocate somewhere near USA which I think is Pakistan’s mother country.

          India and USA are on the same mode in saving Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    I don’t understand all this fear-mongering that the devolution of power to a provincial council in the North will lead to secession articulatedf by G.Peiris and others like Gunaekere etc published in the Island.Such secessionist programs, if any, will be easily crushed by Sri Lanka’s heroic standing army since they will be standing in Jaffna for a long time.In fact the GOSL has built a garrison state in the North and will be able to keep its inhabitants in a condition of fear to be able mount any serious challenge to its auhority.
    I am sure Gerry Peiris,Gunasekere and others of their ilk know this only too well.It is clear then that the only reason they are opposed to the elections in the North is a kind of visceral hatred of the Tamil people as whole – a feeling that is all too common among many of Sri Lanka’s cognoscenti.Some people in the world –for example America’s white supremacist — the emotional frisson of hating another group of weaker people cannot be resisted even if it involves putting the whole country in peril.

  • 0

    IF the government does not proceed on the devolution path,the north will seperate one day just like singapore,kosovo,bosnis,timor and south sudan.

    The east will not separate with the north but will eventually do so much later into another separate state or will get amalgamated with the north.That is because when the north seperates silanka will lose the control of the vital palk strait through with men and supplies can be easily brought down to the north.

    The choice is yours devolution or separation.Nehru took the correct path of devolution and even after 60 years there is 25 ethnic and linguistic groups threaded together by devolution into one country.

    Srilankan leaders took the opposite path of centralization and we came within a whisker of losing a third of the country and half the coastline.If we continue on the path of centralization history will repeat and the Jaffna Kingdom will be formed again one day.Then history will repeat further back into the 10 century of Chola invasions and the east and even more will get swallowed up by the north.Dr.Dayan can see the danger ahead though his compatriots can’t.

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