Thirty years of soul-searching — the lasting legacy of 1987
Thirty years have passed, not so quietly, since President J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in July 1987.
The accord’s story has become part of history in India as well as Sri Lanka. However, has Sri Lanka’s politics changed since the advent of the accord? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’
In Sri Lanka, the most important political change since 1987 has been the total military defeat and demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The accord was one of the early attempts to bring Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war to an end by means of a political-constitutional solution. On his part, Rajiv Gandhi thought that a political solution in Sri Lanka on India’s initiative would not only resolve the island nation’s ethnic conflict, but also ensure a role for India in shaping the political trajectories of a post-war Sri Lanka. This thinking was subtly reflected in the accord’s clauses as well as annexures.
The accord had two immediate objectives. The first was to end Sri Lanka’s ethnic war by persuading the Tamil militant groups to lay down their arms and then join the so-called political mainstream. The second was to alter the constitutional and structural framework of the Sri Lankan state and offer regional autonomy to the minority Tamil community through devolution of powers. The two objectives have been met with only partial success.
The Tamil militant groups, with the exception of the LTTE, agreed to follow the political path opened up for them. The LTTE rejected the accord, and returned to war not only with the Sri Lankan state, but also with the Indian state. Within four months of the accord’s signing, India — its sponsor — became a direct party to the war, demonstrating the utterly unforeseen twists and turns in Sri Lanka’s politics of civil war.
And the war went on and on till May 2009 when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa achieved the seemingly impossible — a unilateral war victory by decisively defeating the LTTE. And that happened, contrary to the dominant narrative in Sri Lanka, with the support and blessings of many parties — like India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, the European Union (EU) the United States (U.S.) and the UN. Amidst disbelief and euphoria, Mr. Rajapaksa claimed personal credit for achieving ‘the first success’ in the global war against terrorism. And that seems to have effectively and permanently ended the ‘political-solution’ approach to the ethnic conflict — an approach that guided the drafting of the accord in July 1987.
The second objective of the accord required a constitutional amendment. The 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution was passed by Sri Lankan Parliament in November 1987. The new law, which closely followed the Indian constitutional model of power-sharing, created a system of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka’s nine Provinces. Though rejected by the LTTE as an inadequate solution to the Tamil national question, the 13th Amendment at least restructured, de jure, Sri Lanka’s postcolonial state, which had remained unreformable in the direction of pluralism and multiethnicity.
This, in retrospect, is the single-most significant and lasting contribution that the much-maligned pact has made to Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics. The 1987 system of devolution was created on the basis of a set of important assumptions, as clearly articulated in the text of the accord. These included: a) Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and multicultural society; (b) Tamil demand for secession is not politically tenable, though understandable; (c) regional autonomy is the best alternative both to a unitary state and separation; and (d) Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict can be best managed by political means, grounded in the acknowledgement that the ethnic minorities have legitimate political and other grievances and aspirations.
Quite interestingly, a powerful outsider had to use some coercion to convince Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ruling class that reforming the state, reflecting these assumptions, were the key to Sri Lanka’s political unity and nation-building. And its acknowledgement, though without much conviction, is perhaps the most important positive contribution which Jayewardene made — he made many negative ones — to Sri Lanka’s politics.
So, what has happened to Sri Lanka’s Provincial Council system since November 1987? It has been a story of many twists and turns. In the merged ‘North Eastern Province’, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the most leftist among Tamil militant groups, formed a coalition after winning the first Provincial Council election, only to be confronted with a rigid, unsympathetic and evasive political class and bureaucracy in Colombo. The despair led the EPRLF to declare a unilateral declaration of independence and its members then retreated to India for political asylum. Provincial Councils continued in the Sinhalese-majority Provinces, seven in all, where there was no demand for devolution. Confined to these seven Provinces and caught up in a powerful ideological paradigm of a centralised unitary state, the entire system of Provincial Councils found new political reasons for their existence other than regional autonomy.
Two of them stand above others. The first is that the Councils, contrary to the original intention of the law, became institutional extensions of the Central government and the ruling party in Colombo. Second, they evolved into institutions through which political corruption and patronage politics got decentralised and democratised. Even the Northern Council, which was formed anew after the war in 2013, and run by a Chief Minister of the Tamil National Alliance, has not been able to reverse this institutional paralysis. C.V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Minister, defying his own party’s wishes, has succeeded quite well in not being able to find any imaginative breakthrough in the exercise of providing regional autonomy to the people in the North. Thus, in the Northern Province, ‘devolution’ means ‘no devolution’ and more debate on why there is ‘no devolution’.
Since July 1987, there have been significant changes in Sri Lanka’s politics. The ethnic civil war has ended, and there is no armed insurgency threatening the state. Insurgency led by the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP) too was defeated as far back as in 1989. In fact, the JVP has re-invented itself as an effective parliamentary party. Authoritarian regimes have come and gone. Attempts at re-democratisation have been made and have partially succeeded. A new generation of political leadership has emerged with conflicting visions for the future of Sri Lanka.
Amidst all these changes, there is one constant. It is the resistance to reforming the state, and the state’s failure to become truly pluralistic and multiethnic. This is despite popular support for such reforms and pledges made by political leaders to win elections. Thirty years since the accord, Sri Lanka is fast losing momentum to bring constitutional reform, yet again.
The most important legacy of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord is perhaps the set of assumptions, outlined above, that guided the accord and the 13th Amendment.
Jayadeva Uyangoda recently retired as professor of political science, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo.