Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit on 7-8 October to Sri Lanka – his first to the country since he took office in October 2012 – was significant. It came soon after the provincial council elections held on 21 September 2013 in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, the first elections there after decades of civil war.
Although the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) swept the elections, it will not wield much power; the governor of the province, a former major general in the Sri Lankan army appointed directly by the President of Sri Lanka, still has the executive powers.
The already-weak provincial government structure was further weakened by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruling of September 29, which states that powers will remain vested in the central government and will not be passed to the newly-elected provincial councils. The content and immediacy of this judgement – a day after the provincial council elections and the TNA’s resounding victory – can further complicate the process of implementing the 13th Amendment, which was an integral understanding of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. The Amendment contained several clauses related to the devolution of power from the centre to the provincial councils.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has cancelled his plans to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHoGM) in Colombo in November 2013, stating that the Sri Lankan government has done little to improve the situation in the Northern Province. The Canadian government may be trying to appease the large ethnic Tamil population in Canada for future electoral gains. But it is also answerable to questions from the people about allowing transfers of large sums of money from the Canadian Tamil population to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the war in Sri Lanka.
The Northern Province is a post-conflict region. Some effort has been by the Sri Lankan government to address human rights violations and to undertake some rehabilitation work, but there is still little or no accounting of the tens of thousands of people missing or dead during the civil war (1983-2009). In 2010, the Indian government agreed to support the Sri Lankan government in its efforts to reconstruct 50,000 houses damaged during the war; the project is likely to be completed on time, by 2015.
New Delhi will try and push for the implementation of the 13th Amendment as part of its image of working to secure human rights in Sri Lanka, and to satisfy the people and political parties of Tamil Nadu. The TNA, which aims to expand its provincial executive powers, has said it wants to function in a united and undivided Sri Lanka. A minimum requirement for the TNA to secure the rights of the majority of people who constitute the Northern Province will be the implementation of all the clauses of the 13th Amendment, as frequently reiterated by the Sri Lankan government and Parliament.
Last month’s Supreme Court verdict could unfortunately give a new life to armed resistance in the island-nation. Unless the 13th Amendment is implemented, the elected provincial council leaders will not have any real power over the money or land allocated to the provinces. A provincial administration controlled by the central government could bring the situation back to the powerlessness felt by the Tamils, which was one of the triggers of the civil war in the first place.
Colombo’s expectation from Khurshid’s visit is likely to have been a confirmation that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will attend CHoGM in November. The subsequent press statement issued by the Indian government, however, is ambiguous on this front. Former Congress ally and the chief opposition party in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, will oppose Singh’s visit to Colombo. But a boycott of CHoGM is not a productive route for India, whose foreign policy with its neighbours has recently been distorted by state governments manipulating the coalition compulsions of the central government.
India is Sri Lanka’s only major neighbour, and with the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region, it is imperative for the New Delhi-Colombo bilateral relationship to remain close. The Indian government must ensure that India’s domestic squabbles do not interrupt the delicate balancing that the TNA will eventually have to carry out in the first substantial efforts to bring stability to the region. Manmohan Singh’s attendance at CHoGM in Colombo will have to be decided in the national interest, despite party politics in Tamil Nadu. Additionally, India must also use all its levers to ensure a substantial devolution of powers to the provincial councils.
Other initiatives can also help bilateral relations move forward. For example, fishermen from both sides must be allowed to use the narrow Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka without fear of detention; a regulatory body of officials from both nations can supervise this process. Licenses and identity cards for fishermen can be a start. The navies of both countries could work out a mechanism to avoid unnecessary detentions and to ensure better treatment of those detained.
Employment levels in the Northern Province are low. India’s investment in Sri Lanka – such as the deal signed this month on the Sampur Thermal Power Project in Trincomalee in the EasternProvince – can focus on the Northern Province.
The India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, singed in March 2000, increased bilateral trade to $5 billion in 2013 (at par with India’s bilateral trade with Bangladesh), according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, but more investment will build a stronger relationship. India must now take the bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka to the next level and negotiate the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which aims to liberalise trade in services and investments by revising existing agreements on the avoidance of double taxation and investment protection.
With the general elections in India only months away, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has an opportunity to put national interest over domestic disputes and create a legacy of a healthier relationship with a strategically important neighbour.
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy is the Content Manager at Gateway House.
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