India pats Devolution Package to make Sri Lanka do more



By M.R. Narayan Swamy

New Delhi, January 27, 2008 (IANS) India's surprise decision to hail a truncated Sri Lankan devolution package is aimed at slowly pushing Colombo on to the path of power sharing to end decades of ethnic conflict.

Most Tamils in Sri Lanka have been taken aback by New Delhi's pat for the package that was unveiled this week in Colombo recommending full implementation of the 13th amendment of the constitution of 1987. That amendment, following the India-Sri Lanka peace accord signed two decades ago, set up provincial councils in the island nation so as to devolve power from Colombo to the regions to dent the country's unitary character.

Many provisions of the constitution amendment were never fully implemented, angering Tamils and Muslims, the two main minority communities in a country where the Sinhalese form the overwhelming majority.

But the devolution package authored by a panel with members from almost all political parties disappointed most people, Tamils included, because it had been expected to suggest sweeping changes in the system of governance.

And though that did not happen, India, Thursday hailed the devolution report as "a welcome first step" if it contributed to a final settlement acceptable to all communities "within the framework of a united Sri Lanka".

Indian officials here see the devolution proposals as "a definite step forward" but are not oblivious to its limitations and the fact that it does not go far in meeting the political aspirations of the Tamil community.

The Indian establishment feels that if it were to rubbish the package just because it is not revolutionary, there would be no movement towards a path that ultimately leads to genuine power sharing.

"We are not looking at what has not been done or what could have been done," an informed source told IANS. "The fact is what has been suggested is a definite step forward, not a step back."

New Delhi appears to have concluded that far too much has happened since the 1987 accord that led to the deployment of Indian troops in Sri Lanka and the later bruising war with the Tamil Tigers.

Accordingly, it is giving the impression that it is ready to jettison some of its earlier views, including that Sri Lanka's Tamil-majority north-eastern province must remain a single entity - a long-standing Tamil demand.

Sri Lanka has split up the two wings and refuses to merge them.

India is today not averse to elections in the east, a multi-ethnic region the Sri Lankan military now dominates, and a separate interim administration for the country's overwhelmingly Tamil north, parts of which the Tigers hold.

The fear here seems to be that if India were to shun the latest devolution package, however unattractive it may be to many Tamils, Colombo might simply sit back and do nothing to devolve power to the provinces.

India is also very clear that its conditional support to the devolution package should not be read as an endorsement of all that is going on in Sri Lanka, where unending fighting has led to thousands of deaths since late 2005.

The Indian government believes that genuine peace will return to Sri Lanka only when it undertakes political reforms that make the minorities feel that they are equal partners in the country's governance.

The latest devolution package, the official feeling here goes, is a small step in that direction but nevertheless a welcome first step.

(Courtesy: Indo-Asian News Service)