Indo-Sri Lanka Accord

Thirty years of soul-searching — the lasting legacy of 1987

Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan
President J.R. Jayewardene signing the historic accord in July 1987.

Then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene signing the historic accord in July 1987.  


The most significant contribution of the much-maligned Indo-Sri Lanka Accord has been the restructuring of the island nation’s postcolonial state

Jayadeva Uyangoda

Thirty years have passed, not so quietly, since President J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in July 1987. The accord’s story has become part of history in India as well as Sri Lanka. However, has Sri Lanka’s politics changed since the advent of the accord? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

In Sri Lanka, the most important political change since 1987 has been the total military defeat and demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The accord was one of the early attempts to bring Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war to an end by means of a political-constitutional solution. On his part, Rajiv Gandhi thought that a political solution in Sri Lanka on India’s initiative would not only resolve the island nation’s ethnic conflict, but also ensure a role for India in shaping the political trajectories of a post-war Sri Lanka. This thinking was subtly reflected in the accord’s clauses as well as annexures.

The accord had two immediate objectives. The first was to end Sri Lanka’s ethnic war by persuading the Tamil militant groups to lay down their arms and then join the so-called political mainstream. The second was to alter the constitutional and structural framework of the Sri Lankan state and offer regional autonomy to the minority Tamil community through devolution of powers. The two objectives have been met with only partial success.

The Tamil militant groups, with the exception of the LTTE, agreed to follow the political path opened up for them. The LTTE rejected the accord, and returned to war not only with the Sri Lankan state, but also with the Indian state. Within four months of the accord’s signing, India — its sponsor — became a direct party to the war, demonstrating the utterly unforeseen twists and turns in Sri Lanka’s politics of civil war.

And the war went on and on till May 2009 when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa achieved the seemingly impossible — a unilateral war victory by decisively defeating the LTTE. And that happened, contrary to the dominant narrative in Sri Lanka, with the support and blessings of many parties — like India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, the European Union (EU) the United States (U.S.) and the UN. Amidst disbelief and euphoria, Mr. Rajapaksa claimed personal credit for achieving ‘the first success’ in the global war against terrorism. And that seems to have effectively and permanently ended the ‘political-solution’ approach to the ethnic conflict — an approach that guided the drafting of the accord in July 1987.

The second objective of the accord required a constitutional amendment. The 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution was passed by Sri Lankan Parliament in November 1987. The new law, which closely followed the Indian constitutional model of power-sharing, created a system of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka’s nine Provinces. Though rejected by the LTTE as an inadequate solution to the Tamil national question, the 13th Amendment at least restructured, de jure, Sri Lanka’s postcolonial state, which had remained unreformable in the direction of pluralism and multiethnicity.

This, in retrospect, is the single-most significant and lasting contribution that the much-maligned pact has made to Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics. The 1987 system of devolution was created on the basis of a set of important assumptions, as clearly articulated in the text of the accord. These included: a) Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and multicultural society; (b) Tamil demand for secession is not politically tenable, though understandable; (c) regional autonomy is the best alternative both to a unitary state and separation; and (d) Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict can be best managed by political means, grounded in the acknowledgement that the ethnic minorities have legitimate political and other grievances and aspirations.

Quite interestingly, a powerful outsider had to use some coercion to convince Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ruling class that reforming the state, reflecting these assumptions, were the key to Sri Lanka’s political unity and nation-building. And its acknowledgement, though without much conviction, is perhaps the most important positive contribution which Jayewardene made — he made many negative ones — to Sri Lanka’s politics.

So, what has happened to Sri Lanka’s Provincial Council system since November 1987? It has been a story of many twists and turns. In the merged ‘North Eastern Province’, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the most leftist among Tamil militant groups, formed a coalition after winning the first Provincial Council election, only to be confronted with a rigid, unsympathetic and evasive political class and bureaucracy in Colombo. The despair led the EPRLF to declare a unilateral declaration of independence and its members then retreated to India for political asylum. Provincial Councils continued in the Sinhalese-majority Provinces, seven in all, where there was no demand for devolution. Confined to these seven Provinces and caught up in a powerful ideological paradigm of a centralised unitary state, the entire system of Provincial Councils found new political reasons for their existence other than regional autonomy.

Two of them stand above others. The first is that the Councils, contrary to the original intention of the law, became institutional extensions of the Central government and the ruling party in Colombo. Second, they evolved into institutions through which political corruption and patronage politics got decentralised and democratised. Even the Northern Council, which was formed anew after the war in 2013, and run by a Chief Minister of the Tamil National Alliance, has not been able to reverse this institutional paralysis. C.V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Minister, defying his own party’s wishes, has succeeded quite well in not being able to find any imaginative breakthrough in the exercise of providing regional autonomy to the people in the North. Thus, in the Northern Province, ‘devolution’ means ‘no devolution’ and more debate on why there is ‘no devolution’.

Since July 1987, there have been significant changes in Sri Lanka’s politics. The ethnic civil war has ended, and there is no armed insurgency threatening the state. Insurgency led by the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP) too was defeated as far back as in 1989. In fact, the JVP has re-invented itself as an effective parliamentary party. Authoritarian regimes have come and gone. Attempts at re-democratisation have been made and have partially succeeded. A new generation of political leadership has emerged with conflicting visions for the future of Sri Lanka.

Amidst all these changes, there is one constant. It is the resistance to reforming the state, and the state’s failure to become truly pluralistic and multiethnic. This is despite popular support for such reforms and pledges made by political leaders to win elections. Thirty years since the accord, Sri Lanka is fast losing momentum to bring constitutional reform, yet again.

The most important legacy of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord is perhaps the set of assumptions, outlined above, that guided the accord and the 13th Amendment.

Jayadeva Uyangoda recently retired as professor of political science, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo


The Accord offered the best chance to resolve the Tamil national question but was undermined by successive governments in Colombo

M.A. Sumanthiran

July 29, 1987 was a watershed in Sri Lanka’s history. That was the day Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an accord with Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene in Colombo, in which Sri Lanka promised to share power with the Tamil people. One cannot also forget the attack on the Indian Prime Minister later that day by a Naval Rating at a Guard of Honour. If not for his quick reflexes, the rifle butt that was swung at him would most certainly have cracked his skull. The history of Sri Lanka would have been very different had he not survived that assault, as also the history of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka if Rajiv Gandhi was not assassinated four years later in Tamil Nadu.

A unique accord

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord itself was unique in that it was a bilateral international agreement between two sovereign nations, where one promised the other that an internal political rearrangement would be made in order to solve the Tamil national question. It was indeed ironic that a President (Jayewardene) who popularised and deified the concept of “unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka” assured the neighbour as to how he would solve an “internal” political question and then invited the Indian Army into Sri Lanka to help implement the accord. Following on this promise, the Constitution of Sri Lanka was amended, Provincial Councils were created and two of those — North and East — were merged, albeit temporarily, but which lasted for nearly two decades.

Upon the main Tamil political party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), expressing dissatisfaction over the devolution arrangements, President Jayewardene subsequently in November 1987 gave a further written undertaking to India that those areas would be rectified. That was not followed up since by then fighting had erupted between the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Jayewardena’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, terminated the engagement with India on the strength of direct negotiations with the LTTE, thus ending the role India could play in the full realisation of the principles embodied in the accord.

Getty Images

Getty Images   | Photo Credit:


Although very little mention is made of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in the Sri Lankan government narratives thereafter, every attempt to solve the unresolved Tamil national question has indeed been on the lines of that accord, which theoretically remains in force even today. The question as to whether Sri Lanka was breaching the agreement arose when the Supreme Court by a judgment in 2006 “demerged” the Northern and Eastern provinces. That still remains a moot question. Sri Lanka though, for its part, has constantly assured India that a satisfactory power-sharing arrangement would be made. It is noteworthy that it was during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure that no less than three joint communiqués were issued with India, promising to “implement the 13th Amendment to the full and building upon it so as to ensure meaningful devolution of power”. Thus even without explicit mention of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, Colombo at least pays lip service to its obligations under this agreement even now.

New Constitution

A major deviation from the policy of non-acknowledgment of the accord occurred when President Maithripala Sirisena mentioned it as one of the agreements which, if implemented, would have prevented the enormous loss of life in Sri Lanka. He said this in his address to the Sri Lankan Parliament on January 9, 2016 while speaking on the resolution to set up a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Constitution for the country. The other agreements mentioned by him are the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike-S.J.V. Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1965.

One and a half years after that speech by President Sirisena, the Constitutional Assembly is yet to receive even an interim report from the Steering Committee, which is mandated with the task of drafting a new Constitution, although six subcommittee reports were presented in December 2016. A draft interim report was available at the same time, but has been delayed owing to political manoeuvring by different political actors whose main objective seems to be winning the next election and not solving the vexed Tamil national question, which has plagued Sri Lanka since independence and which gave rise to a three-decade bloody war.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord gave Sri Lanka the best chance to recover from the devastation caused by the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, when Colombo accepted New Delhi’s good offices to solve this issue. But insincere approach by successive Sri Lankan governments, beginning with the one led by Jayawardene who tried to short-change the principles in the accord by the half-baked 13th Amendment, saw an escalation of the conflict, which has now resulted in the issue being taken to a global level. The present effort by the Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government is yet the best opportunity to arrive at a local consensus that can satisfactorily solve this issue and set Sri Lanka on a new prosperous path. But that local consensus must necessarily conform to the principles enunciated in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord if it is to succeed. The continuation of India’s “good offices” in this regard is also vital for this success.

M.A. Sumanthiran is President’s Counsel and a Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka representing the Tamil National Alliance

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Printable version | Dec 14, 2019 6:43:30 PM |

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