India-Sri Lanka Talks: Amidst Constitution Concern, Modi Calls for Safeguarding Tamils' Rights

Following Rajapaksa's efforts to remove provisions of the Sri Lanka constitution that put shackles on presidential powers, India has been concerned if the 13th amendment, which introduced devolution of power to provincial councils, will be honoured.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday asked Sri Lanka to fully implement the 13th amendment as Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa asserted that the aspirations of Tamils will be met as per the electoral mandate and “constitutional provisions”.

On Saturday, the Indian and Sri Lankan prime ministers held a virtual bilateral summit. This was the first formal meeting between the two leaders after Rajapaksa was elected with an overwhelming majority in August’s parliamentary elections.

After the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) secured an unprecedented landslide win, Colombo moved full steam ahead in starting the legislative process to remove provisions of the constitution that put shackles on presidential powers.

The Sri Lankan cabinet also quickly set up an experts committee to draft a new constitution. There were concern among observers that the main aim of this exercise was to remove the clauses in the constitution introduced by the 13th amendment, especially with ministers asserting that those provisions need to be eliminated.

According to the joint statement issued after the virtual summit, Modi called on Sri Lanka to “address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka, including by carrying forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka”.

The 13th amendment, which introduced devolution of power to provincial councils, was a result of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord.

Also read: Explainer: Why India Is Worried About the Implications of Sri Lanka’s 20th Amendment

The joint statement noted that Rajapaksa’s response was that Sri Lanka will strive to meet expectations “of all ethnic groups, including Tamils, by achieving reconciliation nurtured as per the mandate of the people of Sri Lanka and implementation of the Constitutional provisions”.

Indian government sources claimed that specific reference to Tamils, reconciliation and “the constitutional provisions” in the joint statement was a clear signal from Rajapaksa that provisions of the 13th amendment will not be diluted.

During the summit, India announced a grant assistance of $15 million for promotion of Buddhist ties, which will include renovation of monasteries, cultural exchanges, reciprocal exposition of sacred relics and supporting the clergy. “​It was agreed that the Indian side would facilitate the visit of a delegation of Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka in the first inaugural flight to Sacred City of Kushinagar,” said MEA joint secretary (Indian ocean region) Amit Narang.

In the talks, Narang said, Rajapaksa made a special mention of the Jaffna cultural centre built with Indian funding. “The centre is almost ready and Rajapaksa extended an invitation to Prime Minister Modi to inaugurate it”.

While some of India’s key development projects, like East Container terminal, have run into trouble, the joint statement only states that Modi expressed confidence that Sri Lanka “will take early and decisive steps for their early implementation in accordance with existing understandings and in mutual interest of both sides”.

Narang stated that India has received a request for bilateral currency swap arrangement worth around US$1 billion which is under discussion. This is in addition to the $400 million currency swap facility provided to Sri Lanka to deal with the economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also stated that technical discussions on Colombo’s request for deferring payment for debt to India are still going on. Prime Minister Rajapaksa had made this request during his last visit to India in February this year.

The senior MEA official also pointed out that Rajapaksa made a special mention of support given by Indian Navy and Coast Guard in controlling the engine fire on MT New Diamond that was carrying a crude oil cargo of 270,000 metric tonnes.

Besides, the two leaders also expressed satisfaction on the robustness of the security and defence cooperation. “They agreed to continue and further strengthen the mutual cooperation on personnel exchange and training, maritime security cooperation and India’s support to Sri Lanka in the spheres of defence and security”.