Photo: India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (left) and Sri Lanka President JR Jayawardene (right) signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 29, 1987. - Photo: 2017

Sri Lanka: Multi-Ethnic East Cannot Meet Tamil-Majority North

By Sugeeswara Senadhira*

COLOMBO (IDN) – Immediately after announcing the temporary merger of the North and East in July 1987, the then Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene, in a surprising policy dichotomy, declared that he would canvass against the merger during the proposed referendum to be held in the East by December 31, 1987. Fortunately or unfortunately, the said referendum was never held, and it was routinely postponed annually by gazette notifications.

The issue of merger of the Northern Province and Eastern Province surfaced once again in February 2017 when Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reportedly rejected the suggestion made by the Sri Lankan Tamil politician Suresh Premachandran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for Indian intervention in re-merging the two provinces.

There is no surprise in a Sri Lankan Tamil politician openly demanding an intervention from India on an internal issue of Sri Lanka as the temporary merger was enacted by the Jayewardene regime due to India’s insistence; and was incorporated into the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 29, 1987 and the conditions stipulated in the two letters exchanged by President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Single Unit

What is surprising is, a seasoned diplomat like Jaishankar leaking out to the Indian media, that India would not be pressing Sri Lanka to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single Tamil-majority unit. New Delhi seems to be giving two messages here – one to the TNA, that they will have to deal with the Government of Sri Lanka now and India’s earlier policy of forceful diplomacy on the ‘Tamil issue’ is no longer in practice.

The second message is to the government that India’s prime interest is economic relationship. In other words, India wants to see the proposed economic projects are expedited and would not come down heavily on the Tamil issue.

This position of India may be a far cry from the ‘Indira doctrine’ of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, under which the Tamil militants were trained and the so-called ‘in and out swift surgical method’ adopted by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. However, the policy elucidated by Jaishankar should not be misread as an attitude of indifference or a negative policy. Colombo will have to play its cards carefully as barring Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and two short-term PMs – Inder Kumar Gujral and Chandrashekar – no Indian PM succeeded in winning the confidence of the neighbours.

What Suresh Premachandran wanted was that India should honour its promise to keep the North and East united. According to Tamil politicians, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi promised them that New Delhi would not allow a referendum to be held on the issue. But Premachandran and many other Tamil politicians have forgotten or deliberately refuse to acknowledge the Sri Lankan Constitutional position. The North and East were merged temporarily, subject to a referendum in the East. However, before the issue of referendum came up, the united province was de-merged in 2006 by a Supreme Court order. This verdict was given by a full-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Sarath N Silva on an appeal filed by the two political parties Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

At that time there was no protest from India. New Delhi said that it was for the Sri Lankan Government to appeal against the judgment. India had clearly lost interest in the issue. Its interests lay elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

Giving clearly a one-sided point of view, Premachandran told Jaishankar that the Tamil people may not accept a political solution without the merger, and that they might continue agitating. He said that his party, the EPRLF, which is a partner of TNA, had fully cooperated with India on the implementation of the Accord, and like the Indian Peace Keeping Force, had lost many men in the fight against the LTTE, which opposed the treaty. India has a moral responsibility to keep its promise and persuade the Sri Lankan Government to re-merge the North and East, he said.


Is he talking for himself and his party the EPRLF, or is he voicing the opinion of the TNA? Premachandran cannot be speaking on behalf of the TNA as his views were disowned by other TNA MPs, on many occasions in the past.

What is more interesting is what the Indian Foreign Secretary told the TNA MP. Jaishankar told Premachandran that much water has flown down the bridge since 1987 and as the situation has changed it will be better for all concerned to make use of the various windows of opportunity which have opened up in January 2015 with the change of government in Colombo and secure the rights of the Tamils.

It is obvious that India is fast losing its patience with the Tamil politicians who still insist on political solutions without trying to get the best possible economic benefits to the Tamil people by utilizing the development projects offered by India and many other countries to the North and East. Indian diplomats were very unhappy that Chief Minister Wigneswaran refused to attend the Jaffna Trade Exhibition, which was attended by many Indian entrepreneurs. The CM did not think it was necessary to participate in the meetings organized by the Indian Chambers in Jaffna.

The combined majority of Muslims and Sinhalese in the East are opposed to a merger with the North. The merger of the North and East is considered important by the Eastern Tamils because it helps them face the Muslims who tend to dominate them economically and politically. If the East is to be merged with the North, the Tamils will be in an overwhelming majority and can run the province as per their wish and push the Muslims into an insignificant minority. The reason for the Muslims to oppose the merger is that their proportion would be reduced from 35 per cent to 12 per cent in the combined province.

While India expresses its displeasure to the Tamil leaders of the North and East for their outdated demands, it is quite pleased with the progresses made by the upcountry Tamils, once known as the Indian Origin Tamils. Jaishankar held fruitful discussions with a group of their representatives led by Mano Ganesan, Leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA).

Ganesan disclosed to the media that Jaishankar conveyed to him that India will give special consideration to the Indian Origin Tamils in view of their special needs and also their willingness to involve in mainstream politics in Sri Lanka. By stating this, India is telling the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders too to cooperate with the Sri Lankan and Indian Governments.

With all these utterances of Jaishankar, the question that jumps to one’s mind is how about the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Can India openly get involved in a ‘merger or no merger’ of two provinces in this country, which definitely is an internal issue? India may not be following ‘parippu’ (dropping of dhal by Indian Air Force in Jaffna) diplomacy of naked aggression of Sri Lankan airspace, but as somebody said, sovereignty is an umbrella for protection and not to wave it around disturbing other umbrellas, especially the bigger ones.

‘Sugeeswara Senadhira heads Sri Lankan President’s media division. This article first appeared in Ceylon Today. It is being reproduced after minor amendments by INPS Southeast Asia director and correspondent Kalinga Seneviratne to suit an international audience. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 March 2017]

Photo: India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (left) and Sri Lanka President JR Jayawardene (right) signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 29, 1987.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top