Sri Lanka’s Minister for Economic Development, Basil Rajapakse’s visit to New Delhi on Thursday for what is described as “regular high level consultations” comes shortly before a scheduled meeting of a Parliamentary Select Committee for Constitutional Amendments on July 9.
The 13th Amendment is likely to be on the top of the agenda when Basil, who is the younger brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and advisor to the president, meets Indian leaders in New Delhi.
The Indian government has made it clear its strong opposition to any changes being made in the 13th Amendment in an uncharacteristic, sharp statement from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.
The 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution was enacted by the Sri Lankan government after the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement of 1987 and provided for setting up provincial councils with the devolution of certain powers to the councils.
Sections with the ruling party in Sri Lanka and its allies in the government have called for either repealing or removing some of the provisions of the Amendment. The Parliamentary select committee was constituted recently to discuss changes to the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution.
The prime minister had expressed dismay over reports that the Sri Lankan government was planning to make changes to key provisions of the amendment before provisional elections are held later this year in September.
While meeting a delegation of Tamil members of Parliament from Sri Lanka belonging to the Tamil National Alliance on June 18, Singh said that he was deeply concerned about the welfare and well-being of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.
According to a spokesperson of the external affairs ministry, it was noted during the meeting that “the proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th amendment."
“The changes would also be incompatible with the recommendation of the lessons Learnt and reconciliation commission, set up by the government of Sri Lanka, calling for a political settlement based on the devolution of power to the provinces,” he said.
Ever since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, Rajapakse’s government has been assuring India of its commitment to implementing, not only the 13th amendment but even “13th amendment plus” implying an even more generous devolution of powers to the provincial council. However, the merger of the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces into one province which was undertaken under the Amendment was annulled by the Supreme Court with the government making any attempt to appeal against the court order.
Rajapakse’s reluctance to implement the provisions of the amendment has been a sore point in his government’s ties with India. For the Sri Lankan Tamils, it has aggravated their suspicions about Rajapakse’s intentions on a political reconciliation.
The Sri Lankan government is against granting “police and land powers” to the councils. The Parliamentary Selection Committee on Constitutional Amendments will hold its first meeting on July 9, but as yet it has only 18 members from the ruling party and its allies.
Neither the main opposition party, the United National Party nor the Tamil National Alliance, Sri Lankan Muslim Congress or the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna have nominated members for the PSC for various reasons.
The Sinhala dominated provinces have had provincial councils for over two decades while the de-merged eastern province has had a council for a few years, but a provincial council for the northern province is coming up against apprehensions and prejudices.
The ruling party is opposed to devolving powers over the police and land to the Tamil National Alliance. The radical Sinhala sections have always disliked the 13th amendment which they claim was foisted on the Sri Lankan government by India as part of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord.
But the Rajapakse government’s reluctance to take steps towards political reconciliation, even those suggested by the government-appointed the lessons learnt and reconciliation commission is another matter of concern.