By N Sathiya Moorthy
At a meeting with European Union (EU) envoys recently, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa reportedly said that some provisions of the much talked-about India-facilitated 13th Amendment to the Constitution were ‘impractical’ and political parties should put their heads to find ways out. In specific, short of denying ‘police powers’ to Provinces (in this case, the Tamil-majority North), he also openly proposed mandatory recruitment of police men from every district up to a certain level, to give all ethnicities due representation.
President Gota has a point – and also none. He has a point, especially in the context of ‘police powers’ after new ethnic divisions entering the body politic and society under BBS first and even more so after the ‘Easter blasts’ last year. Today, the three-way division among ethnicities is complete, more than in the nineties, when the LTTE alienated the Tamil-speaking Muslim community in the North and East through planned ‘pogroms’ of the kind that alienated the Tamils from the Sinhala majority and the Sri Lankan State more than any time in the past.
The Muslims were shocked into silence and numbness when the LTTE targeted them, their psyche is now tuned to suspect, and at times hate the other two communities – the Tamils in social and political terms in the way they treated them, post-Easter blasts. In the multi-ethnic East and also in capital Colombo, polarized policing of the 13-A kind may not work, yes, but then has it worked just now?
If ‘ethnic polarization’ of the police is the reason for the Rajapaksas and other Sinhala majority parties and leaders not wanting to share police powers with the Provinces. The reference is to the Tamils, and now maybe Muslims, too, if they go back to their post-13A demand for a separate political entity, the kind of Union Territories in neighbouring India, some of them with multiple enclaves embedded in different States, as with the southern Puducherry, then Pondicherry).
It is here that Gota R’s proposal for district-wise recruitment might come a cropper. At best, it could face the political fate of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s ‘Standardisation Policy’ in education, which actually provided opportunities even for Eastern Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims for entry into the northern Jaffna University, but proved to be a political disaster, if only over time. But there is more to it.
At a time when President Gota R has appointed a committee to investigate abuse of police powers by the previous Government and his own brother Mahinda Rajapaksa lost power in 2015 presidential polls owing also to similar charges, there is no evidence to the ‘impartiality’ of the uniformed civil services even if managed exclusively by the federal Government in ‘distant’ Colombo. The experience of the past 70-plus years since Independence is that every Government has used, misused and abused the police force for political purposes.
In his years in office, President Mahinda would cite the neighbourhood Indian federal case, to argue how a provincial police could arrest him at the diktat of the provincial government, if there were political motives. In Sri Lanka, there is no need for a provincial police force to do that. Even a unified police force is ready to oblige, only that the political leadership is too civil to order the same – but only as yet. The way the previous Government played around with the alleged Rajapaksa corruption and high-handedness in office while in power, without taking any of them to the courts would be proof enough in this context.
Conversely, going by the same Indian experience, there are more in-built provisions within the Indian scheme, to ensure that such abuse of police powers by the States/Provinces do not recur in Sri Lanka. The wholly-forgotten Tissa Vtiharana Committee working on a constitutional solution to issues of power-sharing with the Tamils and the Provinces under the Mahinda regime toured across the world to study various policing models, but not India – even when the President himself was talking about it, every other day.
Otherwise, too, even as the LTTE was fighting the IPKF in post-Accord Sri Lanka, and later the nation’s armed forces all over again until liquidated in 2009, successive Governments had diluted 13-A in content, more than form. Thus, they created ‘National Schools’ and ‘National Hospitals’ and also hijacked the road transport sector, all of them otherwise falling under the purview of the Provinces (Tamil or not) under 13-A.
The Executive and/or the Legislature can undo it, if the leadership has the will. It will fall short of a new Constitution, on which the TNA still has its sights, but which is unlikely to happen any time soon. For that to happen really, not just the polity but also the people need to be able to have faith and trust in one another, as ethnicities. At a time when there is no mutual trust among the polity, or even within ethnicities, the question of a new Constitution can be a distant dream or at best a hope.
The TNA lost its chance in real terms when they walked out on the Mahinda Government, over the UNHRC issue. At the time, the Sinhala heart-land would have eaten out of his hands, Mahinda fresh from the imagery as the liquidator of the LTTE. Post-2015, he has still retained the Sinhala heart-land vote-base for sure, but has not regained that kind of an imagery for the Rajapaksas to regain the lost self-confidence from those days.
More recently, President Gota flagged the idea of creating tri-lingual schools across the country, to ensure that all communities knew both Sinhala and Tamil, apart from English. It would bear fruits over the next couple of decades, not immediately. Other things being equal, that alone could be the ideal, medium and long-term solution to one aspect of the larger canvas of ethnic issue.
A motivating factor could be to have exams in all three languages for the Grade-5 nation-wide Scholarship examinations, with due preparations, say five or six academic years from now. In due course, it can go all the way up to O-Level and A-Level, where alone the real and positive impact will begin to be felt, and all across the country.
After all, all, the Mahinda Government had collaboration with Indian State institutions to impart tri-lingual training scheme to teachers in Sri Lanka through its own institutions. The Gota dispensation can consider taking it forward, creating the right condition for linguistic equity as a step towards ethnic equality, even if in a limited way, to begin with.
TNA ‘ready’ to work…
Participating in the parliamentary debate for President Gota’s maiden address, TNA’s R Sampanthan opened up after a break on the Rajapaksas’ front, and declared that they were ready to work with President Gota to work out a political solution to address the aspirations of his Tamil community. Directly and indirectly, he also responded to President Gota’s public claims that he won his elections near-exclusive on the majority Sinhala votes (as the minority Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils overwhelmingly voted for his defeated rival Sajith Premadasa).
Talking about the Tamil vote, Sampanthan said: “You cannot capture their vote with the help of henchmen…. You will only capture their vote with the support of people who understand the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people, their civilisation, their traditions, their language, their culture, their dignity and their self-respect. Those are fundamental. Therefore, we are prepared to work with you. Let us join together and bring peace and prosperity to this country.”
It may not be too late in the day, and Sampanthan’s is a well-said statement, but only in parts – the part where he has expressed willingness to work with this Government. As for the Tamils voting overwhelmingly against Gota than casting a positive lot in favour of rival Sajith, he owns up the TNA’s role in it. Gota was a man behind the scene as Defence Secretary to President Rajapaksa reportedly did not approve of the TNA talking to the Government delegation on specific aspects of constitutional reforms on the one hand and to the western powers on the other, and over a UNHRC draft on alleged war-crimes, which they had not subscribed to.
The Rajapaksas may be yet to reconcile to the fact of TNA parliamentarian M ASumanthiran claiming that they were behind the US moving the UNHRC resolution, and may continue to be reminded of the same every six months, now beginning March, when the UNHRC gets to discuss Resolution 30/1. Possibly for the first time, Sumanthiran, representing the TNA, also appeared at an Opposition UNP news conference in the party’s headquarters Sri Kotha, to condemn the arrest of some Opposition parliamentarians, by the Gotaraj police force.
It was possibly for the first time in years, if not decades, that the TNA was joining a majority Sinhala party news conference as a participant, that too at the other’s headquarters. That news conference was about a distant car accident in which then JHU Minister and party leader Patali Champika Ranawaka was allegedly involved. The TNA did not react when the previous UNP Government re-opened a near-similar case against fellow Tamil parliamentarian (of the ‘henchman type?) just weeks before the presidential polls.
Of the other two Opposition ex-Ministers to be arrested after Champika Ranawaka, Rajitha Senaratne became more i(in-)famous than already when as the self-appointed Opposition spokesman during Elections-2015 claimed that brothers Gota and Basil had escaped the nation on the night of the presidential poll results. Raman Ratnayake, now famous for the ‘Raman tapes’, is facing the music for recording his conversations as a Deputy Minister, with PM Wickremesinghe, judges and police officers, where he is said to be on record, telling them how harshly to handle the Rajapaksa cases – and reportedly admonishing some of them.
Diaspora and the debt
Yet, in talking about the nation’s ‘debt-trap’, where the entire revenue would fall short even for servicing the State’s loans, Sampanthan spoke like a statesman-politician, despite not in power. As the leader of the Tamil masses, he did attribute it to decades of war, in turn caused by the ‘wanton?) failure of successive Governments to honour previous commitments to the community.
Even if willing, Diaspora Tamils cannot be expected to pay up all the debts of the Sri Lankan State, war or no-war. But they can still hope to help their people – and by extension the nation, though the reverse may have been the ideal situation, instead. They can then create jobs for their own people, and the rest of ‘em, too, and the Nation would then be indebted to them, even more. For this to happen, the TNA and the Tamils back home should begin seeing the opportunities nearer home rather than blaming it all on the post-War Governments and use it as an excuse to have their left-over dear-ones come to their European and Australian homes, in the false name of ‘political refugees’ though they could be ‘economic refugees’ at best.
Sampanthan safely did not say what went wrong with the Tamil’s side of the commitment, going beyond and before the LTTE times. He forgot or at least forgot to mention how only three after signing the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact in the fifties, Tamil ‘Gandhi’ S J V Chelvanayakam told his followers in Eastern Batticaloa that it was “only the first step’. He did not explain what that future steps were, with the result, Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike was persuaded to believe that SJV was talking only about the ‘Tamil Arasu’ or ‘Tamil (separatist) government’, which formed the part of the title of the ITAK party that he had founded only years earlier.
More importantly, statesman-politician Sampanthan did not say what the TNA was ready to do to help this Government, or any other Government, to tidy up the debt issue. The one and possibly the only way to their doing it is to convince the West to climb down on the UNHRC process for good, without using as a ‘political tool’ for regime-change and arm-twisting with powers-that-be in Colombo.
Such a course could take the post-war Tamil message to the Sinhala masses over the head of the majority/’majoritarian’ Sinhala polity, Sri Lankan State and the Gota presidency, too. From the Gota camp, yes, a step back on the National Anthem issue that the new President reopened only recently, and greater faith in the Tamils and also the Sinhala Provinces in terms of police powers and the rest may be a starter. After all, no Province or no Tamil in the post-Prabhakaran era handed over Sri Lankan territory to a foreign power in the name of development, nor did they hand over unhindered possession and enjoyment of the same for a hundred years, as only the ‘Big Two’ Sinhala parties have done.
Like his predecessors from the past decades and following in the footsteps of Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and now Gotabhaya R, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardene (otherwise new to international diplomacy and politics) too chose India as his maiden destination in office. Under President Mahinda, then Foreign Minister (re-designated External Affairs Minister, as in India, for the time), Rohitha Bogalagama made a brief stop-over at New Delhi only hours after assuming office, and en route to Germany to meet an international commitment of his predecessor and the Sri Lankan State.
Between then and now, the two nations have steadily and surely worked towards expanding the width of their bilateral ties, to include trade, investments, skill development and post-war rehabilitation, etc, etc. This means that bilateral ties are not held hostage to single-issue affairs like the ‘ethnic cause’ or a second issue in the ‘China factor’. This should not be understood, or wantonly misunderstood as the other two not weighing with India any more – and that starts with the Tamils, who have been evasive in their India relations in recent years, and effusive as never before in their Western ties from the UNHRC days!
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)