Letters

Letters to the Editor — October 3, 2020

Almost forgotten

May 27, 1964 is a day that sent shivers through every Indian then, desperate to imagine the future course of the nation; it was the day India’s first Prime Minister and a towering personality, Jawaharlal Nehru, breathed his last. It was, in short, a Himalayan task to fill the void created. Lal Bahadur Shastri happily dispelled the misgivings of every cynic and proved a strong man, with his qualities of firm conviction, honesty, simplicity and sincerity (Editorial page, “The Prime Minister India almost forgot”, October 2). Steering the country through difficult times — internally, on the food front, and externally, in a war with Pakistan — he emerged as the nation’s little strong man. Agriculture was given its due and the farming community had new vigour and life. Unfortunately, his sudden passing in Tashkent remains a mystery.

Seshagiri Row Karry,

Hyderabad

India’s second Prime Minister shone on the basis of his simplicity, integrity, patriotism and intelligence. It is unfortunate that though he shares his birth date with Mahatma Gandhi, October 2, there is no mention of him on what is a gazetted holiday. Shastri was a leader who cared for the country and humanity; it is sad that those who work selflessly for society are rarely remembered.

A.L. Agarwal,

New Delhi

The article reminded me of another personality long forgotten. Recently, the Defence Minister while in Russia to attend the 75th Anniversary Victory Parade among other official meetings, mentioned the services of Dr. Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis to the Chinese during World War II. I would have been happier had he also mentioned the services of a scientist of Indian origin (who became a citizen of Soviet Union), Dr. Kolachala Seetha Ramayya, to the Soviet Union. A luminary in the field of tribiology (it was also called chemotology, or the chemistry of motors), he was educated in the U.S., at Chicago and Cornell. In the 1930s, responding to a call by the then USSR to build its petrochemical industry, he was offered a top spot at the Petrochemical Institute in Moscow. He was also associated with the Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute. He developed a kerosene fuel for battle tanks which proved a big factor in the Soviet battle against the Germans in World War II.

S.R.S. Sastri,

Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh

Tamil national question

In his interview, “‘Rajapaksas must honour their past commitments to India and the world’” (‘World’ page, September 19), Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman and Jaffna MP M.A. Sumanthiran correctly identifies that to resolve the problems faced by TNA’s constituents, broad-based support from the other communities including the majority Sinhala Buddhists is essential. In this light, it is worth noting that the Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, has mentioned the present Rajapaksa government’s willingness to allocate funds for development projects in the Northern and Eastern provinces in amounts disproportionately higher compared to their shares of the population to make up for the missed development during the prolonged civil war. Mr. Sumanthiran is right: the government needs the blessings of the other communities to enact such programmes. However, it should also be noted that it is the very political behaviour of the TNA during the Wickremesinghe government (2015 to 2019) that undermined any support that could have been earned from other communities to further the TNA’s agenda. It was partly due to this factor that the TNA could not fulfil the promises given to the Tamils in the North and the East. As a result, the general election of 2020 saw a massive erosion of TNA’s vote base. I feel Mr. Sumanthiran has not yet captured the sentiments of the communities of Sri Lanka other than his own constituents in Jaffna district. So, he has failed to realise how his own party is responsible for its lacklustre electoral performance. I wish to lay out three points on how the majority community viewed the TNA’s digging of its own grave.

Protector of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe: the TNA received concessions from the Wickremesinghe government — the biggest one being the “Leader of the Opposition” post following the 2015 August general election, after having won only 16 out of 225 parliamentary seats. This was arranged despite the plea of a 54-member group led by Mahinda Rajapaksa to be recognised as the rightful opposition. The technical fact that this Rajapaksa-led faction contested under the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), whose leader President Maithripala Sirisena and 41 MPs supporting him were part of the governing coalition was utilised to dismiss their claim.

Consequently, the TNA enjoyed privileges including a disproportionate say in the Constitutional Council enacted by the 19th Amendment to the constitution, its appointments, and even an undeservingly long speaking time in parliamentary debates. In return, the TNA protected the Wickremesinghe government despite the promise Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, the then Leader of the Opposition, extended to the majority community that he would represent all citizens of Sri Lanka who opposed the sitting government.

The TNA’s crypto-ally relationship with the Wickremesinghe government did not sit well with the majority population, who voted against the ruling coalition during the 2018 February local government election. Much worse, the TNA was perceived to be actively supporting the indifferent attitude of the Wickremesinghe government towards national security, to the fury of the majority.

Inefficient in serving the needs of the constituents: the TNA had a golden opportunity to deliver much-needed development to its constituents as it assumed the power of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in 2013 and had a substantial say in the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) upon the change in national government in 2015. As the ruling party of the NPC, it engaged in a constant tug-of-war over the separation of powers with the Governor and the national government, even after the 2015 election of a national government favourable to their cause. It lost sight of the significant work it could do through albeit the limited powers of the provincial council to uplift the standard of living of its constituents. Unfortunately, a massive proportion of the funds allocated to the provincial council by the central government had been returned without being utilised for productive public purposes.

Worse still, the TNA lost the purity of its mandate by the revelations of alleged corruption and wrongdoing against a couple of its Provincial Ministers, and accusations against the Chief Minister that he tried to cover up and downplay such allegations. The alliance was marred by constant infighting resulting in the eventual breakup with key personnel such as Arumugam Kandiah “Suresh” Premachandran, the leader of Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), and C.V. Vigneshwaran, the former NPC Chief Minister.

Sections of the majority community including the civil society activists who had set an optimistic expectation of the TNA’s approach to governance — that it would uphold greater values of public service compared to the perceivably sub-standard politicians rampant in the Sinhala-majority areas — have been left dismayed by this dismal report card. The TNA’s behaviour has even reinforced the theory propagated by certain elements of the Sinhala Buddhist community that the well-being of the average Tamils is secondary to the need for the power of the Tamil elite who have historically exploited the caste-based divisions in their society for political benefits.

Trickery: Mr. Sumanthiran, on behalf of the TNA, meticulously contributed with his legal expertise to the drafting of the 19th Aamendment to the constitution in 2015 as well as the subsequent new constitution the Wickremesinghe government intended to adopt. Although he was officially not a member of the ruling coalition, he was a prominent public face of such constitutional reforms, with constant appearances in media to defend their content. This engagement provided an opportunity for the non-Tamil citizenry to assess the TNA’s motivations.

The essence of the 1978 Second Republic Constitution of Sri Lanka is a presidential system of governance. The 19th Amendment violated this foundation by creating an alternative silo of power around the Prime Minister to compete with that of the Executive President. Regardless of whether the people favour a presidential or a parliamentary system, the deliberate weakening of the established structure of the government is unacceptable. It resulted in a nasty power struggle between the President and the Prime Minister which eventually contributed to the 2019 Easter Sunday Bombings through the failures of the security-intelligence apparatus. Mr. Sumanthiran, in his defence, later acknowledged the design failures of the 19th Amendment by stating that it was meant to be an interim arrangement until the new constitution was introduced.

However, the majority community would not accept the fiasco created by the 19th amendment as an inadvertent one, especially after seeing the trickery employed by TNA to justify the provisions of the new constitution backed by them.

For example, Mr. Sumanthiran lobbied against the current constitution’s article which states that Sri Lanka is a unitary country — in which only the national body has legislative powers — being included in the new constitution. At the same time, he insisted on refraining from mentioning explicitly that it will be a federal country, in which both national and provincial bodies have legislative powers. Instead of unitary or federal, the eminent lawyer Sumanthiran proposed to include legally ambiguous terms such as “united”, “undivided”, and “indivisible” that do not indicate which body has the powers of legislation. This episode precipitated a deep mistrust within the majority community — even among those who had been genuinely sympathetic toward its demand for a federal country — toward the TNA, in the backdrop of its constant advocacy for implementing transnational judiciary procedures on Sri Lanka’s internal matters. If the new constitution is neither unitary nor federal, will the TNA demand for a confederacy, a step very close to secession, for the Northern and Eastern provinces through a transnational judiciary procedure? The majority community has historically loathed foreign interventions in domestic affairs, and they are aware of the TNA’s potential ulterior motives.

What is next for the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s North and the East? In summary, the TNA’s servile and incompetent approach turned off the majority community — even those who had been sympathetic to their cause –— from actively championing to resolving the grievances of the TNA’s constituents. Interestingly, aside from the majority community, a significant section of the NE Tamils too saw through its game. As a result, the TNA could not retain the level of support it sustained in the general elections of 2001, 2004, 2010, and 2015 as the leading alliance in the North and the East. In 2020, out of the 29 parliamentary seats in the Northern and Eastern provinces, the ruling party led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and its affiliates have won 11. Other Muslim parties have won seven seats, while the ultra-nationalist Tamil parties have won two. This has left Tamil National Alliance with only nine seats from district-wise proportional allocations. In my view, the plurality support enjoyed by the governing party and its allies has opened an avenue for the people of the North and the East to work hand in hand with the sitting government for the first time since 1965. Whether the government would make full use of this rare opportunity and how TNA would react to such endeavours remain to be seen.

Aravinda Karunaratne,

Athens, Georgia, U.S.

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