FM India

Photo courtesy The Hindustan Times/AP

A society or state that demonstrates repeated violent convulsions over a fairly prolonged period such as decades does so because of a deep underlying problem. In the case of Sri Lanka this is the problem of the relations between the Sinhalese, Tamils and the state or to put it another way, the problem between the North and South or centre and periphery.  A problem of this sort is usually classified as a Nationalities Question or an ethno-national or ethno-regional question.  Insofar as it has a territorial dimension, it cannot but require a solution that is also has a territorial aspect.  In order to resolve the issue of the permanent political alienation of the Tamil people of the North of Sri Lanka, an alienation that had been aggravated to one of active armed antagonism, it is necessary to reform the state so as to provide the North with a moderate though irreducible measure of political and economic autonomy, calibrated carefully so that it is of a centripetal rather than centrifugal nature. Provincial devolution and more specifically the 13th amendment is the only bridge across the island’s North-South fault-line.

If a society does not engage in the necessary reform by its own internal process, it either self destructs through rupture or decay, or invites external agency which imposes such reforms.

While Sri Lanka’s victory in 2009 addressed one vital dimension of the problem, that of an armed separatist challenge, a secessionist war reunified our state and returned to it our natural borders, it cannot have resolved or even addressed the underlying problem. It has cleared away a basic obstacle to the resolution of that problem, namely the secessionist-terrorist armed force, opened up space and bought us time for its resolution.

The problem however remains and if unresolved it is likely to invite external intervention. If aggravated by the unilateral abrogation or drastic diminution of the 13th amendment as recommended by the JHU, NFF and BBS, that likelihood is greater.

Given the current and evolving balance of forces in the concentric circles of Sri Lanka’s immediate and far flung environs, we stand in danger of losing our present borders. If we persist with a paradigm and in a policy of Sinhala Buddhist domination, we stand in danger of being shrunk to precisely the contours of those areas in which the Sinhala –Buddhist constitute a majority and shall be shorn of our periphery by external agency, reducing our state to a position it has retreated to for not insignificant periods of its history, to some point that is not coextensive with our borders as an island.

The young SWRD Bandaranaike’s central contention, one may say central theoretical contention, of 1925-26 was correct. He said that he knows of no country which has a heterogeneous population that has prospered with a centralised form of rule. I would add the caveat that there are such countries, but they survive and prosper because of (a) the equality of citizenship and the separation of church and state, or (b) the supplementation of such equality and secularism, such lack of privilege for any one language, ethnicity or religion, with a measure of autonomy at the periphery or (c) the balancing off of any degree of privilege with a measure of autonomy at the periphery.  This is why SWRD negotiated the Pact with Chelvanayakam, following the Sinhala Only legislation a year earlier. He understood that having sundered the social and political contract that underlay the Soulbury Constitution and the governing perspective of DS Senanayaka, he had to balance it off, by the compensatory move of a measure of regional autonomy which however remained within a non-federal state (the Soulbury commission having correctly rejected the federal model). This trade-off could not be effected due to the agitation in the South and the unhelpful political stance of the Federal party. There was a third reason. As A Sivanandan was to note in passing in a major essay in Race and Class, the powerful Left parties, which were to lash Bandaranaike with strike action later, did not throw their considerable weight in support of the B-C pact. The abortion in the face of protest of the B-C pact of ’57 was one of Sri Lanka’s tragic ‘lost opportunities’ to use the title of a book by Kethesh Loganathan (murdered by the Tigers), which sums up our post independence story.

The international community includes global public opinion but primarily consists of the global interstate system. Sri Lanka has forfeited the support of important members of the Non Aligned Movement who supported us in 2009 and who DO NOT have a Tamil Diaspora. That erosion could have been forestalled had Sri Lanka retained the support of India, which is the most important ‘ swing state’ as far as Sri Lanka’s fate is concerned in the international arena and whose attitude is significantly determined by our commitment to and progress in the political resolution of the Tamil Question. To put it bluntly and at the risk of some caricature: the 13th amendment swings India, India swings the Non Aligned and may well swing or neutralise the BRICS.

All the Tamil leaders who stood against the Tigers – those of the PLOT, EPRLF, EPDP and TULF (Mr Anandasangaree) stand precisely for province based devolution. Prabhakaran however went to war against it and the ‘Tiger agents’ (based mainly in Tamil Nadu and the West based Diaspora) are vociferous in their rejection of the 13th amendment with the same derision that the JHU-NFF displays, only for the opposite reasons.

The Serb nationalists regarded Kosovo as part of their ancient historical heritage; indeed as most sacred to Serbian Orthodox Christianity. When President Milosevic attempted to explain this to US Representative Richard Holbrooke, the latter’s answer, famously was “I don’t give a damn what happened over half a millennia ago; we’re living now.”  The world doesn’t care about competing historical claims. It does care, increasingly, that the Tamil problem seems to have been going on unresolved for decades. Frankly, the Tamils look a heck of a lot better in the eyes of the world than do the Sinhalese right now, both as high achievers (White House Award winner Prof Sivananthan) and victims. Time is not on the side of the Sinhalese. If we don’t replenish our ‘soft power’, and the Sinhala hawks continue with their recidivism, an effective enough global consensus may crystallize in favour of divorce, with our friends sitting on the fence as they did in 1987.

None of this is purely speculative. We had a narrow shave in 1987. Some of us don’t seem to have learned the lesson. The next time someone comes in, they won’t leave and they’ll have some multinational or multilateral fig-leaf. Given the military balance, we won’t be able to force them out. The JHU-NFF –BBS and the opinion-leaders of the Sinhala hawks don’t seem to live in the same period of post-Cold War history that the rest of the world does, in which states (not solely Yugoslavia) have been broken up or have broken up before our eyes and new ones have been recognised. India has withstood all these trends.

The Sinhala hawks seem dangerously unaware that when Georgia, its military beefed up by NATO assistance, attempted to unilaterally tear up the peace agreement with Ossetia and South Abkhazia, Russia intervened. Those areas are no longer part of Georgia. The Sinhala hardliners are also oblivious to the fact that when Serbia challenged the independence declaration of Kosovo, the International Court of Justice opined that secession did not violate the fundamentals of international law.

Most pertinently, the Sinhala neoconservatives seem ignorant of the area of academic specialisation of one of the members of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts’ report (the ‘Darusman Report’) on Sri Lanka, Prof Stephen Ratner of the USA. His speciality is the issue of borders of new states and one his arguments is that when a pre-existing parent state triggers secession by unilaterally abrogating the autonomy of an existing province and leading eventually to the creation of a new state, the borders of the new state are or should be on the basis of prolonged possession and should constitute the boundaries of that pre-existing province the autonomy of which was unilaterally abrogated.  (‘Drawing a Better Line: Uti Possidetis and the Borders of New States’, Steven R. Ratner, the American Journal of International Law, Vol. 90, No. 4 Oct., 1996, pp. 590-624).  Surely the dangers of unilateral abrogation of provincial devolution, the 13th amendment and in effect the Indo-Lanka Accord should be obvious.

When the far more powerful military of a superpower, the Soviet Union, was unable to hold that multinational state together, India has stayed united. It must not be taken to mean that the Indian model has kept that country free from secessionist violence or border conflicts. The evidence however shows that these violent conflicts have been manageably contained and often dampened. What is remarkable is that unity has been sustained in the face of such enormous diversity, precisely by accommodating such diversity. The “idea of India” (as Shashi Tharoor among others have put it), transcending such multinational and multi religious diversity and cross border influence has been a striking achievement, in stark contrast to the failure to generate fealty to an idea of Sri Lanka outside of cricket matches and an idea of being Sri Lankan which is not a synonym for Sinhalese or Sinhala Buddhist. India has a greater percentage of Hindus than Sri Lanka has of Sinhala Buddhists and yet, it resisted the temptation, despite the partition and emergence of Pakistan as an Islamic state, despite the murder of Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic, of declaring itself as anything but secular. It is the combination of (a) a unifying vision of India, (b) quasi federalism (linguistic regions/states), (c) secularism, (d) democracy, (e) the retention of the English language at the upper reaches of the state apparatus, education and the parliamentary process, supported by the might of the Indian armed forces that has kept India together in the face of all odds, and the breakup of both empires and multinational states. In short, it is India’s soft power together with its hard power, and not its hard power alone or pre-eminently, that is the secret of India’s unity and consolidation as a nation.

The ideological tribe of Sinhala supremacists live in a mental universe of ‘Sri Lankan exceptionalism’, as distinct from a justified notion of Sri Lankan specificity. Therefore, not merely any notion of universality but any recourse to comparative politics (pioneered by Aristotle) has to be abandoned!

What then is the bottom-line strategic equation? Permit me to quote a scholar from the faculty of the London School of Economics, Prof Peter Lyon:

“Geopolitically, the rise of new strategic bases will promote the rise of India, as it is this power, more than any other state, which is leading this base building process. Unsurprisingly, the India bases are more ambitious and almost certainly will be more potent, than those of other littorals. In the long run, they likely will serve a function—both militarily and symbolically—analogous to such past or present US bases in Pearl Harbour and Corregidor, ‘strategic bastions’ that were key markers in America’s march to regional and ultimately global power’. (‘South Asia and the Major Powers in the Early 21st Century’, 2004).

However, in the contrasting strategic perception of the Sinhala hawks, India could strike us from any one of its long–standing bases and therefore the opening of a brand new base in Tanjavur Tamil Nadu, together with the stationing of its most lethal warplane, is of no relevance whatsoever to Sri Lanka and should not enter our calculus; not even when China and Pakistan exist not to the south of India but to its East and West, and India already has a naval airbase in the South from which it can monitor the sea-lanes.  It may be safe to speculate that these Sinhala neoconservatives will dismiss as profoundly irrelevant, a little detail that  caught my attention, namely that in his remarks at the opening of the new air-base, India’s Defence Minister MK Anthony found it necessary to make a passing reference to Sri Lanka.


Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is a member of the International Expert Group (INTEG) of SECURITY INDEX, a Russian Journal on International Security; the ‘academic and policy quarterly journal’ of the Russian Centre for Policy Studies, Moscow-Geneva-Monterrey.