Photo courtesy of Hindustan Times

The 13th Amendment, created 35 years ago, has once again become a flashpoint after President Ranil Wickremesinghe declared its implementation. Anti-devolution forces have begun gnashing their teeth; those who went into hiding because of mass protests and violence over the economic crisis are using it to resurrect and project themselves as the phoenix rising from the ashes to save the Sinhalese again.

The same propaganda game is being played with the old spin that the country is about to be divided. Nothing could be further from the truth; the LTTE, which fought for a separate Tamil state, threw out the amendment and waged a bloody war against the Indian Peace Keeping Forces with the backing of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. How then can the 13th Amendment, much maligned and objected to by the LTTE, lead to the breakup of the country? If this point of contention were to be deliberated by the South, unnecessary fears can be avoided.  

In the South, many need to try to realize the truth. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was the only one who was adamant on the objective of Eelam. If Prabhakaran had accepted the 13th Amendment and gone along with India, the island’s history would have been on a different trajectory. If Prabhakaran had accepted a federal solution at the Oslo talks and gone along with the peace process, he need not have met his Waterloo in Mullivaikkal.

Given this background, there is no point in debating how the 13th Amendment was introduced in Sri Lanka. The hard truth is that the 13th Amendment remains in the constitution 35 years on despite efforts to usher in a civilizational constitution in the recent past. It is unconstitutional to state that the provisions of the constitution are unenforceable. If this were to be true, one could surmise that the country has governed unconstitutionally for the past 35 years.

Until 1970, no Tamil leader dreamt of looking overseas for a political remedy. Since then, the Tamils had to move towards India due to the South ignoring even minimal legitimate political demands of the Tamil moderates. All doors for negotiations were shut by both the UNP government and the SLFP government that alternately ruled Sri Lanka. The Tamils will inevitably move towards India again if Colombo closes the door.

The South’s view that India imposed the 13th Amendment on Sri Lanka can be challenged. India would not have insisted on a political solution if the Sinhala polity had resolved the Tamil national question within Sri Lanka. Recently, six major Tamil parties wrote a letter to the prime minister of India to intervene in the implementation of the 13th Amendment. It would not have been necessary for the Tamil parties to seek the intervention of the Indian prime minister if Colombo had shown progress in implementing the 13th Amendment.

It was against this backdrop that India’s intervention took place. Apart from this, India’s involvement in Sri Lanka is geopolitically inevitable. As an immediate neighbour and regional power, India cannot remain silent while the country burns. The Sri Lankan Tamils have cultural affinities with the 80 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu. On this basis, India had to intervene in the Sri Lankan political issue directly.

Looking at it another way, the objective of the India-Lanka accord still needs to be fulfilled. One of the main objectives of the accord was to conceive a political solution for the Tamil people who have historically inhabited the North. Such a solution is yet to be perfected. Against this backdrop, India is responsible for pushing for the completion of a bilateral agreement. Tamil political parties fighting for the rights of the Tamils have urged India’s mediatory involvement.

The political significance of the amendment has evolved more than before. So far, India has been the only country insisting on it. However, the amendment has now acquired an international dimension. It has been mentioned in the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council resolution that insists that the government respects local governance including the holding of elections for Provincial Councils and ensuring that all Provincial Councils can operate effectively in accordance with the 13th Amendment.

The amendment has become central in the post-war reconciliation process. The ball is now in the Sinhalese court. Because there have been significant changes in the Tamil political environment since the war ended, Tamil nationalist parties have understood the political realities. Most of them understand the practical difficulties in achieving federalism even though they are chanting it for electoral interests. Due to this, demands for implementing the amendment has increased among Tamil parties.

The Sampanthan-Sumanthiran duo believed a new constitution could be brought in during the Ranil-Maithiri regime; it was the last hope of bringing a federal constitution. During this period, Mr. Sampanthan completely ignored New Delhi. While addressing a meeting held in Colombo, he stated that there was no need to talk about 13th Amendment since we have gone beyond it. The failure of this new constitution-making has once again taught a lesson.

It was from this experience that the constituent parties of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) decided to move away from ignoring the amendment. That later became a letter to the prime minister of India. Many in the Tamil intelligentsia had pointed out that engaging in an effort for a new constitution was futile. Mr. Sampanthan adamantly refused to realize this. Surprisingly, while people like Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne knew the problems, they did not try to make Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Sampanthan aware of the complex challenges of bringing in a new constitution. The Ranil-Maithri coalition was a great opportunity to take the country forward by implementing the 13th Amendment. President Ranil Wickremesinghe might learn from his experiences.

In any case, President Wickremesinghe has returned and woken up to political realities. The Tamil parties have also returned to the same reality. The opportunity has knocked on the door again. If the amendment is to be abandoned to fulfil the wishes of the fundamentalists in the Southern polity, what is next? What is the solution for the Tamil people if the Southern polity refuses to implement the constitutional provision?

A small Tamil faction argues that a political solution for the Tamil people can only be found in Sri Lanka with third party intervention. They completely reject the unitary-based 13th Amendment. Instead, such people argue that a referendum is necessary for Tamil national questions under international monitoring. However, the majority of Tamils want a dignified life in Sri Lanka. If it is denied, then the argument of a minority side will be logically justified. History may answer the question as to what can be expected from those who refuse to give even constitutional provisions to the Tamil people. 

Despite international pressure, Colombo did not try to satisfy Tamil discontent politically in the 13 years since the ending of the war. The ball is now in the Sinhala court to defend the idea of a united Sri Lanka.