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Search for the Indian Model

T he Indian model of devolution as a political solution for resolving the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has for sometime been the basis of deliberations in the country. However, the dominant political classes have certain perceptions about the minorities and they are apprehensive that the establishment of power-sharing institutions may lead to unintended consequences.

Search for the Indian Model Jayadeva Uyangoda a part of an external conspiracy to disempower the Sinhalese nation and break-up the Sinhalese nation state. In their view, the first and the final solution to the problem of minority “terrorism” is a military one. They

The Indian model of devolution as a political solution for resolving the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has for sometime been the basis of deliberations in the country. However, the dominant political classes have certain perceptions about the minorities and they are apprehensive that the establishment of power-sharing institutions may lead to unintended consequences.

or about two years, politicians of Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition have been looking for that attractive Indian model. The president, some cabinet ministers and numerous advisors to the government visited New Delhi and other prominent Indian cities in search of this Indian model. These visits were given huge publicity in Sri Lanka. The Indian officials, in the high commission in Colombo and at numerous offices in New Delhi, seemed to have been excited too. After two years of a relentless search, the Sri Lankan government seems to have abandoned the idea. Were the Sri Lankans searching for the John Abrahams, Bipasha Basus, Milind Somans or Madhu Sapres of the new generation? Well, not exactly. They were looking for, or pretending to look for, the Indian model of power-sharing that could be modified for Sri Lanka as the basis for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Now, with the obsession with the Indian model having dissipated, it is perhaps the appropriate time to recall what this model search was all about.

Divergent Perspectives A “political solution” has always been a track that the Sri Lankans have explored ever since the ethnic war began in the early 1908s. But, there has not been any consensus as to how to strategically approach the option of a political solution. The complexities have revolved around four main axes. They are: the necessity or unnecessariness of a political solution, the context and partners in which a political solution is to be implemented, the path to a political solution, and the extent of power that a political solution should grant to the minorities.

On the necessity of a political solution, there have been sharply divergent perspectives. At the far end are the hardcore Sinhalese nationalists and hardcore Tamil nationalists. The hardcore Sinhalese nationalists reject the validity of even a moderate Tamil nationalist claim for regional autonomy. For them, the Tamil claims are have been asking: What is the problem Tamils have that calls for a political solution? Interestingly, political formations that represent this perspective have been influential members of Sri Lanka’s present ruling coalition for the past two years. Meanwhile, the hardcore Tamil nationalist position on a political solution is represented by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which has been fighting a protracted war with the Sri Lankan state for about 25 years. The LTTE’s declared “political solution” to the “Tamil national question” is the establish ment of a separate Tamil ethnic state. Being a mirror image of the hardcore Sinhalese nationalism, LTTE’s version of hardcore Tamil nationalism relies essentially on a military path to achieve its goal.

Those who have been sharing the political solution perspective too have different views about it. Some consider greater devolution (expanding the powers of the existing provincial councils) is necessary to meet Tamil aspirations for self-governance. Some others have developed an argument for a federal solution on the ground that any political solution should be substantial enough to be a credible option to neutralise the LTTE’s claim for secession. There are still some others who think that neither devolution nor federalism, but only administrative decentralisation for economic development, is needed. They interestingly wear Lenin buttons in public and organise May Day rallies for which they wear red shirts. They also have a few ardent admirers in Chennai. Their particular perspective is also quite influential in shaping the thinking of Sri Lanka’s present government.

With whom should the political solution be worked out? From the Sinhalese as well as Tamil sides, there are divergent positions on this issue as well. The LTTE does not seem to believe that any political solution that addresses what they see as political aspirations of the Tamil nation would be possible with the present government in Colombo. Would the impossible be possible with the other Sinhalese

november 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


political parties? The LTTE is deeply sceptical about that possibility as well. As the LTTE has been saying in recent years, particularly after 2003, no political solution is possible with the present Sinhalese political leadership. There is an identical perspective among many Sinhalese political parties with regard to the LTTE.

A Post-LTTE Scenario? Quite a few political parties as well as ideological groups in Sri Lanka, in Sinhalese, Tamil as well as Muslim societies, believe that a political settlement with the LTTE is just not possible. They appear to argue that a political solution would be possible only with Tamil “moderates”, but not before defeating the LTTE militarily. Tamil “moderates” in this construction are those who either hold cabinet positions in the government in Colombo or give votes to the party of the president, whosoever he or she is, to cobble up a parliamentary majority, or even write regular and long petitions to the president pleading for a federal solution once the war is successfully concluded.

Meanwhile, there are some who continue to advocate a political solution with the LTTE through negotiations. Their numbers are now dwindling and few, but they make noises by writing to the local and foreign press. Meanwhile, in the Sinhalese nationalist press, they are often described as acting on behalf of the LTTE or some dia bolical foreign power, or with less harmful consequences, as people with somewhat unsound minds. But there seems to be a general yet unspoken consensus among major political parties in Colombo. It posits that as long as the LTTE is led by its present leadership, no negotiated settlement is feasible, possible or desirable. This has led to the belief among some strategists in Colombo that the present war should at least lead to a change in the leadership in Vanni. Thus, some in Colombo seem to believe that a political solution and peace is possible with the Tamils only in a post-LTTE scenario. A gentler version of the same approach is that a solution and peace might be possible with a postPirabaharan/Pottuamman LTTE.

Rajapakse’s Motivation Where does the Indian model come in this messy state of affairs in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict? It has indeed figured many times.

Its most recent manifestation was when the present government of Sri Lanka establi shed an All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to propose a constitutional settlement to the ethnic conflict. The government of president Mahinda Rajapakse, faced with the prospect of full-scale war with the LTTE, began to prepare the political ground for it by initiating the APRC process. The president and his ministers began to propagate the idea that the Indian system of powersharing was the most suitable constitutional model for Sri Lanka. Their understanding of the “Indian model” went along with the ruling coalition’s position of “maximum devolution within a unitary state” which was popularised during the presidential election campaign of 2005.

For the government, what was attractive in the Indian model was what the government leaders saw as its centralising features along with power-sharing. Then, in touring India, some of them learnt about the panchyati raj system. They soon found that decentralisation to the lowest possible level was more acceptable than devolution to larger units of provinces. When the APRC’s advisory panel came out with a set of proposals for an Indian-type federalism late last year, the president and his Sinhalese nationalist coalition partners immediately disowned it. They reiterated the view that the unit of powersharing in Sri Lanka should not exceed the district, a much smaller unit than the province. When the president’s own party submitted proposals to the APRC early this year, there was a reference to the Indian model only in terms of decentralisation to village units.

Why, then, this big propaganda about the Indian model for months and months? An explanation which is sympathetic to the Colombo government is that president Mahinda Rajapakse sincerely explored the possibility of learning from the Indian constitutional framework, but later succumbed to the pressure of his hardcore Sinhalese nationalist partners in the coalition, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya. The other explanation, which attributed motives to Rajapakse, is that he merely played the game of buying time until his own brother, the secretary of defence, finalised plans and logistics for a long drawn-out war with the LTTE. In this second explanation, talking about the Indian model was a ploy to please the Indian and western governments that have been pressurising the government to develop some minimalist framework of a political settlement while engaging the LTTE militarily.

Alien Concept Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka’s exceedingly difficult journey with the Tamil national question, the Indian model, if we continue to use that expression, had done something positive in the past. It is the Indians, in 1985-86, who introduced to Sri Lanka’s political debate the concept, even the word, “devolution”. The idea of devolution was so alien to Sinhalese political vocabulary at the time, we who were engaged in public political debates had to coin a new Sinhalese word, ‘balaya beda herima’, to convey the meaning of devolution. Then, the provincial councils, established in 1987 consequent to the Rajiv Gandhi-J R Jayewardene accord signed in July that year, essentially followed the Indian constitutional model of power-sharing, along with its centralising features.

Are Sri Lankans, or more specifically the Sinhalese political class, ready to implement a political solution to the ethnic conflict designed along the Indian constitutional framework and political practices? The answer to this question will depend on how one might understand what the Indian model is all about. Indian model or not, there seems to be a fundamental difference between the Indians and Sri Lankans. The Indian political class, with some occasional exceptions, has by and large trusted the ethnic and religious minorities and it continues to do so. It has designed constitutional and administrative structures to empower minorities, because they are not afraid of the minorities. But in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese political class, including its new recruits from the “petty bourgeoisie”, does not trust the minorities. They are mortally scared to empower the minorities. There lies the anomaly with the Indian model.


Economic & Political Weekly november 3, 2007

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