Prelims cum Mains

Sri Lankan Constitution Issue

In News

  • After the Rajapaksas’ win in the November 2019 presidential polls and the August 2020 general election, the spotlight has fallen on two key legislations in Sri Lanka’s Constitution.
  • These 2 legislations are-
    • 19th Amendment
      • It was passed in 2015 to curb powers of the Executive President, while strengthening Parliament and independent commissions.
    • 13th Amendment
      • It was passed in 1987, which mandates a measure of power devolution to the provincial councils established to govern the island’s nine provinces.

About: 13th Amendment

  • It is an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, signed by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayawardene.
  • Purpose
    • The purpose was to resolve Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict that had aggravated into a full-fledged civil war.
    • Its objective was design a power sharing agreements between the Centre and the provinces were made.
    • Sri Lankan civil war was between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which led the struggle for Tamils’ self-determination and sought a separate state.
  • Main Provisions
    • The 13th Amendment led to the creation of Provincial Councils.
    • It assured a power sharing arrangement to enable all nine provinces in the country, including Sinhala majority areas, to self-govern.
    • Subjects such as education, health, agriculture, housing, land and police are devolved to the provincial administrations.
  • Status of Implementation
    • The provincial administrations have not made much headway because of restrictions on financial powers and overriding powers given to the President.
    • In particular, devolution of land and police powers, part of 13th amendment, has not been implemented so far by any Sri Lankan government.
    • Their reasoning is that if police powers were handed over to the provincial councils, it would simply lead to politicization of police work. 
    • Initially, the north and eastern provinces were merged and had a North-Eastern Provincial Council, but the two were de-merged in 2007 following a Supreme Court verdict.
    • Since all the provisions were not implemented, it is called as 13 Minus.

Controversy around 13th Amendment:

  • The 13th Amendment carries considerable baggage from the country’s civil war years.
  • It was opposed vociferously by both Sinhala nationalist parties and the LTTE.
  • Opposition by Sinhala Nationalist Parties
    • They thought it was too much power to share with Tamil community.
    • A large section of the Sinhala polity, including the leftist-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which led an armed insurrection opposing it, saw the Accord and the consequent legislation as an imprint of Indian intervention.
    • Though signed by the powerful President Jayawardene, it was widely perceived as an imposition by a neighbour wielding hegemonic influence.
  • Opposition by Tamil Community
    • The Tamil polity, especially its dominant nationalist strain, does not find the 13th Amendment sufficient in its ambit or substance.
    • However, some including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which chiefly represented the Tamils of the north and east in Parliament in the post-war era until its setback in the recent polls, see it as an important starting point, something to build upon.

Significance of 13th Amendment:

  • Till date, the 13th Amendment represents the only constitutional provision on the settlement of the long-pending Tamil question.
  • It is an important measure of devolution of powers to Provincial Councils.
  • It is considered part of the few significant gains since the 1980s, in the face of growing Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism from the time Sri Lanka became independent in 1948.

Recent Demands for Abolition of 13th Amendment:

  • Many ministers like influential Cabinet ministers in the current government and a few state ministers have openly called for the abolition of provincial councils after the new government took charge.
  • They deem the councils “white elephants”, and argue that in a small country the provinces could be effectively controlled by the Centre.
  • The opposition is also from those fundamentally opposed to sharing any political power with the Tamil minority.
  • However, all political camps that vehemently oppose the system have themselves contested in provincial council elections.
  • The councils have over time also helped national parties strengthen their grassroots presence and organisational structures.

Stand of the Rajpaksa Government:

  • Neither President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has commented on the Amendment so far.
  • During Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s two terms as President, for a decade from 2005, he gave several assurances to implement the 13th Amendment and go even beyond its provisions, popularly referred to as his promise of “13 plus”.
  • The conduct of the historic Northern Provincial Election in 2013 was a welcome step, but his government was reluctant to part with land and police powers. 

India and 13th Amendment:

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi has referenced the Amendment more than once, especially during high-level bilateral visits.
  • After the new government led by the Rajapaksa brothers was formed in Sri Lanka recently, India once again expressed hope that the new government in Sri Lanka will realise the aspirations of the Tamil community in the island nation.
  • But observers in Sri Lanka wonder how far India can go on the Tamil question, amid growing geopolitical insecurities.

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