By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Prime Minister Modi is much admired and rightly so as a charismatic, strong, visionary Asian leader. His visit to Sri Lanka and his speeches here could be said, at first blush, to be a triumph for India’s ‘soft power’ projection. The thing about ‘soft power’ however, is that it is uneven, and one must draw the distinction between how it works at the level of the elite and how it works or fails to at the level of the masses. Prime Minister Modi’s public pitch in the presence of Sri Lanka’s President, for “the early and full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond” may not have been the best conceivable projection of soft power, at the level of the Sri Lankan masses.
True, he and his predecessor have said the same thing to President Sirisena and his predecessor. But it is one thing to say this at bilateral meetings and another to (a) say it in public (b) on your first visit to a neighboring country (c) in which the matter is regarded as a contentious internal issue and (d) your own country’s involvement and the reaction it has generated have been complex to say the least.
A despicable and dangerous Genocide Resolution was passed by the elected Northern Provincial Council and handed over to the UN’s Jeffrey Feltman by Chief Minister Wigneswaran. This act alone should have caused the dissolution of the Northern Provincial Council –while retaining, not abrogating the 13th amendment. “Early and full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond it” would only reward such treacherous anti-national conduct, give the impression that the Sri Lankan state is susceptible to this kind of contemptible pressure from Northern ultra-nationalists and most dangerous of all, transfer more power to those who have clearly shown a lack of moderation, responsibility and loyalty to this country. It is not for this that our soldiers fought and died.
Of course Prime Minister Modi’s remark was precise and parsimonious. Not for him was the boorish hectoring that Prime Minister David Cameron engaged in on his visit to Sri Lanka’s North during the Commonwealth summit. Then again, the majority of Sri Lankan people would take note that China’s leader, President Xi Jing Ping made no remarks whatsoever of a potentially contentious or intrusive nature on his recent visit to Sri Lanka.
On the eve of visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi to Sri Lanka, the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council who is hardly an angry young man or wild-eyed radical, expressed the long held view of the ‘moderate’ Tamil nationalists, that the 13th amendment is no solution and indeed the unitary state form is no solution as well. He does not argue for the full implementation of 13a or even for 13 Plus, but precisely for a new start line, somewhere beyond the 13th amendment and the unitary state itself.
The transcript of correspondent Meera Srinivasan’s interview with Chief Minister Wigneswaran as published in The Hindu, yields some crucial insights. The Chief Minister opines that “…Thirteenth Amendment can never be the final solution…We would recommend to him that it is time to reconsider the 13th Amendment, which was a fall out from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and to replace it with a more dynamic system, which would ensure maximum power sharing for the North and East…Under our unitary constitution there is no chance of our performing the way Hon’ Modi performed…Especially the inadequacies of the Thirteenth Amendment would no doubt be understood by him. His visit and understanding would be very vital in the ultimate finalization of our constitutional problems.” (The Hindu March 12, 2015)
Mr. Wigneswaran attempts to turn the issue of devolution into a trilateral negotiation between New Delhi, Colombo and Jaffna, which is precisely the mistake that fuelled the backlash in the South and catalyzed the dissolution of the Northern Council by President Premadasa in 1990. He urges that “…There should be talks among the Indian Government, Sri Lankan Government and the NPC, without taking refuge under protocols…” (Ibid)
For a former member of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, the Chief Minister shows a disconcerting capacity for contradicting himself—and advancing contradictory arguments- within a single paragraph when he says that:
“…We expect him to take cognizance of the evolution and changing contexts since the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 particularly taking into consideration the historic communication late TULF Leaders Amirthalingam and Sivasithambaram and present TNA Leader Sampanthan had addressed to the then Indian Prime Minister, late Shri Rajiv Gandhi on 28 October 1987, pointing out how hollow and inadequate the 13th Amendment promulgated by the former Sri Lankan President J R Jayawardene had been and sought the then Indian Government’s intervention on behalf of the Tamils of North East Province of Sri Lanka…In my opinion, the situation prevailing in North-East Provinces in SL today is almost akin to the context that prevailed then, meaning July 1987!” (ibid)
So is the context “changing” or is it “almost akin” to the context that prevailed in July 1987? If it is the former (“change”), what are the new factors—in the wake of a decisive military defeat, mind you– that would make for qualitatively enhanced devolution? If the perception is the latter (“continuity” with ’87), there is a serious lack of grasp of manifest reality. This is a problem of collective mentality; a problem of social psychology.
Whichever it is, the Chief Minister recalls a quintessential continuity of the stance of moderate Tamil nationalism, namely that the 13th amendment, which was in point of fact the best deal that Delhi could secure for the Tamils of Sri Lanka under conditions far more favorable to the latter, was simply not enough even at the get go, in ’87 itself. So the problem was never that successive Sri Lankan administrations did not fully implement the 13th amendment. The 13th amendment making for provincial semi-autonomy was seen as inadequate before it had been tried out! The critique of the 13th amendment was a priori! How is that even possible? That is because it didn’t correspond to the collective political self-image of the northern Tamil community. What we have therefore is a permanent political condition and mindset, that of hyperinflation of Tamil expectations.
What will be the outcome of the long, continuous Arunachalam-Wigneswaran Tamil project? In order to retrace the trail of causation, let us revisit Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s founding statement of the Ceylon Tamil League, in 1922: “…It has far higher aims in view, namely to keep alive and propagate these precious ideals throughout Ceylon, Southern India and the Tamil Colonies, to promote the union and solidarity of Tamilakam, the Tamil Land. We should keep alive and propagate these ideals throughout Ceylon and promote the union and solidarity of what we have been proud to call Tamil Eelam…All this requires heavy outlay of money for which I trust the Tamil Community, and especially its wealthier members here and in the Federated Malay States, will contribute liberally.”
What are the implications for this island and its ethnic majority the Sinhalese of a project that explicitly links Ceylon, Southern India, the ‘Tamil colonies’ and the ‘Federated Malay Tamil states’? Is this not a global strategy of marshaling the global Tamils not merely to countervail natural Sinhala preponderance on the island but also to hegemonize and dominate them? Is it not to create a global Tamil bloc with and for the Ceylon Tamils, that vastly outnumbers the Sinhalese, is capable of bringing overwhelming weight and force upon them, rolling back their natural status as the majority on the island—their only home base? Is this not a strategy of swamping and politically burying the Sinhalese under a globalized, demographic and geopolitical ‘human wave’?
Will the trajectory not be to return to the colonial social compact? Will it not be to install a de-nationalized elite in power in Colombo (wearing a native mask), backed by a multinational power consortium led by the West in which the Tamil Diaspora has an electoral stake-holding? Will it not be to cut the island off from its staunch allies, the Eurasian powers China and Russia, which enhanced the island’s autonomy? Will it not be to make Sri Lanka dependent on precisely those external powers—or an axis of such external powers– which have a large embedded Tamil population, indigenous or expatriate? Will it not be to weaken the strong, moderately centralized Sri Lankan state through the 19th amendment? Will its final outcome, visible on the horizon, not be to reduce the Sinhalese to a subaltern status (to use Gramsci’s term) in their own land?