Democratic elections have their own dynamics in addressing longstanding grievances and healing the wounds of conflict. Elections in Punjab effectively ended militancy there and elections in Jammu and Kashmir have restored peoples’ faith in grassroots and Parliamentary democracy. The recent elections to the provincial assembly in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province give hope and optimism for healing the wounds of decades of bitter ethnic conflict.
Braving intimidation and threats from the Sri Lankan Army, people turned out in large numbers to give the once-separatist Tamil National Alliance (TNA) a sweeping mandate to form the provincial government in Northern Sri Lanka. More importantly, the TNA has shown great wisdom and foresight in nominating the eminent jurist and highly respected former Supreme Court Judge, Canagasabapathy Vigneswaran, as their candidate for chief minister. While a staunch supporter of the rights of Tamils, Justice Vigneswaran is not an ethnic fundamentalist—his family has marital ties bridging the Sri Lankan ethnic divide. Joining him with a massive mandate is the leading woman activist, Ananthy Sasitharan, who described her sweeping victory as an “expression of the awakening taking place among the Tamils”.
While international and SAARC observers were all praise for arrangements made by the Sri Lanka’s Election Commission for holding free and fair polls, concern has been voiced about attempts by the army to play favourites and intimidate TNA candidates, like Sasitharan. But what has been of particular significance is the refreshing change in the TNA on its approach to the ethic issue. Its spokesman Sumanthiran rejected separatism and reaffirmed commitment to a united Sri Lanka, where Tamils can live in freedom and dignity. Justice Vigneswaran has made it clear that he does not share objections of others about PM Manmohan Singh attending the Commonwealth Summit.
Colombo has not devolved police and land powers to the provincial authorities, even after the elections, as required under the 13th Amendment. President Rajapakse and all Commonwealth leaders should be advised that the non-implementation of the 13th Amendment fully, by withholding devolution of powers on police and land, is a breach of past understandings, which would only exacerbate the communal divide in Sri Lanka. One also hopes that given its role during the recent elections, the intrusive presence of the Sri Lankan Army in Northern Province is moderated, so that it does not adversely affect the constitutional functioning of the provincial government and assembly. It would be also useful if Dr Manmohan Singh could visit Jaffna, to assess the effectiveness of Indian development and rehabilitation projects and meet Chief Minister Vigneswaran, while returning to India.
The 1974 and 1976 Indo-Sri Lanka agreements on Kachativu were arrived at after examining historical data and provisions of international law, including the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas. Dutch records published in 1726, several official Dutch maps and the “Triangulation in India and Adjacent countries Report” of 1915 show Kachativu as located in the Jaffna Taluk and belonging to Ceylon. This was also reflected in communications between the Surveyors General of Ceylon and India in 1910 and subsequently in legislation in Ceylon in 1941. The Supreme Court will inevitably take time rule on the Kachativu issue, now pending before it, as it involves complex issues of constitutional and international law.
Justice Vigneswaran has bluntly asserted that fishermen from Tamil Nadu, using big trawlers “came early into Sri Lankan waters, caught all the fish and left the (Sri Lankan Tamil) people high and dry”. He added that the Tamil Nadu CM “has a crucial role in addressing the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters”. The fisheries issue can be best addressed if Sri Lanka and India jointly approach institutions like the Asian Development Bank to finance modernisation of the fishing fleets of fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, to enable them to undertake lucrative deep sea fishing.