The Accord offered the best chance to resolve the Tamil national questionbut was undermined by successive governments in Colombo
July 29, 1987 was a watershed in Sri Lanka’s history. That was the day Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord with Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene in Colombo, in which Sri Lanka promised to share power with the Tamil people.
One cannot also forget the attack on the Indian Prime Minister later that day by a Naval Rating at a Guard of Honour. If not for his quick reflexes, the rifle butt that was swung at him would most certainly have cracked his skull. The history of Sri Lanka would have been very different had he not survived that assault, as also the history of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka if Rajiv Gandhi was not assassinated four years later in Tamil Nadu.
The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord itself was unique in that it was a bilateral international agreement between two sovereign nations, where one promised the other that an internal political rearrangement would be made in order to solve the Tamil national question.
It was indeed ironic that a President (Jayewardene) who popularised and deified the concept of “unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka” assured the neighbour as to how he would solve an “internal” political question and then invited the Indian Army into Sri Lanka to help implement the accord. Following on this promise, the Constitution of Sri Lanka was amended, Provincial Councils were created and two of those — North and East — were merged, albeit temporarily, but which lasted for nearly two decades.
Upon the main Tamil political party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), expressing dissatisfaction over the devolution arrangements, President Jayewardene subsequently in November 1987 gave a further written undertaking to India that those areas would be rectified.
That was not followed up since by then fighting had erupted between the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Jayewardena’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, terminated the engagement with India on the strength of direct negotiations with the LTTE, thus ending the role India could play in the full realisation of the principles embodied in the accord.
Although very little mention is made of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in the Sri Lankan government narratives thereafter, every attempt to solve the unresolved Tamil national question has indeed been on the lines of that accord, which theoretically remains in force even today.
The question as to whether Sri Lanka was breaching the agreement arose when the Supreme Court by a judgment in 2006 “demerged” the Northern and Eastern provinces. That still remains a moot question.
Sri Lanka though, for its part, has constantly assured India that a satisfactory power-sharing arrangement would be made. It is noteworthy that it was during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure that no less than three joint communiqués were issued with India, promising to “implement the 13th Amendment to the full and building upon it so as to ensure meaningful devolution of power”. Thus even without explicit mention of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, Colombo at least pays lip service to its obligations under this agreement even now.
A major deviation from the policy of non-acknowledgment of the accord occurred when President Maithripala Sirisena mentioned it as one of the agreements which, if implemented, would have prevented the enormous loss of life in Sri Lanka. He said this in his address to the Sri Lankan Parliament on January 9, 2016 while speaking on the resolution to set up a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Constitution for the country. The other agreements mentioned by him are the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike-S.J.V. Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1965.
One and a half years after that speech by President Sirisena, the Constitutional Assembly is yet to receive even an interim report from the Steering Committee, which is mandated with the task of drafting a new Constitution, although six subcommittee reports were presented in December 2016. A draft interim report was available at the same time, but has been delayed owing to political manoeuvring by different political actors whose main objective seems to be winning the next election and not solving the vexed Tamil national question, which has plagued Sri Lanka since independence and which gave rise to a three-decade bloody war.
The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord gave Sri Lanka the best chance to recover from the devastation caused by the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, when Colombo accepted New Delhi’s good offices to solve this issue. But insincere approach by successive Sri Lankan governments, beginning with the one led by Jayawardene who tried to short-change the principles in the accord by the half-baked 13th Amendment, saw an escalation of the conflict, which has now resulted in the issue being taken to a global level.
The present effort by the Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government is yet the best opportunity to arrive at a local consensus that can satisfactorily solve this issue and set Sri Lanka on a new prosperous path. But that local consensus must necessarily conform to the principles enunciated in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord if it is to succeed. The continuation of India’s “good offices” in this regard is also vital for this success.
M.A. Sumanthiran is President’s Counsel and a Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka representing the Tamil National Alliance