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SL merger row poses challenge for India

A judicial verdict axing the merger of Sri Lanka's northern and eastern provinces poses a foreign policy challenge to New Delhi.

india Updated: Oct 29, 2006 11:35 IST

A judicial verdict axing the merger of Sri Lanka's northern and eastern provinces, for the Tamils the most enduring success of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka pact, poses a foreign policy challenge to New Delhi.

This is so since the de-merger, which Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ordered Oct 16, negates the recognition spelt out in the 1987 accord that the two provinces were the historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people.

It was based on that premise that then Sri Lankan president JR Jayewardene, who signed the India-Sri Lanka agreement with then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to merge the north and east into a single unit.

Jayewardene had reservations on the merger as he had to have the support of the Sinhalese, most of whom were against a single northeastern province, which the Tamil Tigers wanted to secede from Sri Lanka as an independent homeland.

So he included in the 1987 agreement a clause that a referendum would be held in the eastern wing to decide if the merger should become permanent or a de-merger should take place.

At the same time, Gandhi promised Sri Lankan Tamils that the merger would in effect be permanent and that the proposed referendum would never be held.

But Jayewardene quietly included a condition in the Provincial Councils Act, the enabling legislation for merging the north and east, that all weapons held by Tamil militants should be given up before a merger can be proclaimed. This condition did not exist in the 1987 pact, and of course the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) never gave up all its weaponry.

The Sinhalese-Marxist JVP party successfully exploited this drawback when it went to the apex court seeking an order against the merger.

As long as no election is held either to the proposed separate northern and eastern provincial councils as sought by the Supreme Court, it would be possible for Sri Lankan President Mahindra Rajapakse to name one person as governor for the north and east.

Precisely for this reason, the JVP is seeking elections to the eastern province. Once that happens, a merger of the north and east would become near impossible.

Even if Rajapakse goes to parliament seeking amendments in the Provincial Councils Act to merge the northern and eastern provinces, either temporarily or permanently, the Supreme Court can be again asked to intervene.

A marriage of Sri Lanka's north and east became a demand for all Tamil groups, the moderates and militants, when it was realized that only a merged unit would allow Tamils to have a major say in the eastern wing.

For decades many Sinhalese have made the east their home, often with the state's backing, quietly bringing down the percentage of Tamil population.

Thus while the Tamils remain an overwhelming majority in Sri Lanka's north, their share of the population has fallen steeply in the east due to demographic changes.

At the same time, the conditions that prevailed during the 1987 merger of the northeast do not exist.

While the northeast was seen then as a historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people, since 1990 the LTTE has ousted a large number of Tamil speaking Muslims from the north.

Relations between the LTTE and Muslims have also soured in the east, so much so that Muslims who once were part of the Tamil militant movement now resent any Tamil domination.

And the fact is whether one likes it or not, the Sinhalese settled in the east of Sri Lanka cannot be wished away.

In any case the LTTE today controls a large of the northeast. But the fact is almost all Sri Lankan Tamils resent the Supreme Court ruling. Many even suspect the government's hand behind the judicial intervention.

The challenge for India will be how to cocktail all these considerations as it responds to a judicial-politico challenge that has further complicated an already complex ethnic question in Sri Lanka.

First Published: Oct 29, 2006 11:21 IST