In the second section of chapter 8 of my book on this subject, I look at how the initially peaceful agitation for devolution turned to violence. This was despite a measure of autonomy finally being granted to elected bodies at local levels during the eighties.
District Development Councils and their Shortcomings
In the 1970s, the various Tamil parties came together to form a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). They fought the next election by asserting the right of Tamil-speaking people to self-determination, with reference in particular to the northern and eastern provinces. Initially, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the party of the Indian Tamils who worked on the plantations in the centre of the country, was also part of the TULF. The TULF won an overwhelming majority of seats in the north and the east in the 1977 election, and emerged as the major opposition party. The constituent parties of the USA, having parted company in 1975, were decimated.
Jayewardene, who was by now the undisputed leader of the UNP, had made much in his election campaign of Tamil grievances, and had promised to summon an all-party conference to resolve these. However, having secured a massive majority of his own, he got carried away by the overwhelming authority he enjoyed. Instead of broad-based negotiations, he engaged in discussions with some representatives of the TULF, while simultaneously trying to undermine their mandate. Thondaman, the leader of the CWC, joined his government and so did some TULF members from the Eastern province.
By this stage, Chelvanayakam and Ponnambalam had passed away. They had lived in Colombo even though their political base was in the north. They had survived into the 1970s and worked to bring their parties together after the promulgation of the 1972 Constitution. But they died shortly afterwards and leadership for the election campaign passed to A. Amirthalingam who was fully based in the north. He did not actively engage in the negotiations with Jayewardene himself, but left them to Colombo-based Tamils, mainly Chelvanayakam’s son-in-law and Thiruchelvam’s son.
The agreement that was finally reached called for the establishment of District Development Councils which had even fewer powers than the District Councils Senanayake had agreed to. The chief executive of the district was to be a minister who would not be elected by the district or the District Council. Instead, he was to be appointed by the president from among the members of parliament. Jayewardene affirmed a principle of not appointing individuals from the district they were supposed to preside over. As a result, the district minister for Jaffna for instance came from the Northwestern province.
The TULF negotiators had produced a dissenting report but the party nevertheless decided to participate in the District Development Council elections of 1981. Some of those who had provided political support previously to the TULF, including the terrorist group which called itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), urged a boycott of the election. They had started terrorist activity in the 1970s but supported the party in the general election. But in 1981 the TULF was powerful enough to ignore their call for a boycott, and actively participated in the first and only election that was held to District Development Councils.
It should be noted here that the SLFP boycotted the election. However the JVP, which had led a revolt earlier against the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, contested the election. It had joined the political mainstream after Jayewardene released its leaders who had been jailed after the 1971 insurrection.
During the election campaign Jayewardene sent Cyril Mathew to Jaffna to run the UNP campaign for the Jaffna district. He launched a campaign of intimidation that included burning the Jaffna Public Library and attacking the homes of TULF MPs. That incident marked the end of the influence exercised by political parties on the Tamils of the north. Over the next few years terrorist groups, in particular the LTTE, emerged as the dominant force in the area. When the TULF tried to contest local elections in the north in 1982 they were ordered to desist and they promptly complied.
The District Development Councils may have helped to resolve some grievances of the Tamils, but the councils ran into administrative roadblocks. Their complete dependence on the central administration for funds as well as the lack of authority to implement decisions in several areas hampered their effectiveness.
Provincial Councils and their Shortcomings
Meanwhile, the terrorist movements were gaining strength, and received support from India. In 1987 Jayewardene finally realised that he had been totally outmaneuvered, and he signed the Indo-Lanka Accord with India according to which Provincial Councils invested with substantial powers were to be established. However, the main thrust of the Accord was to ensure that Sri Lankan foreign policy did not step out of line as far as India was concerned. This was a period when Cold War rivalries badly affected the Indian subcontinent, and some of Jayewardene’s activities had roused Indian suspicions. This was the major reason for Indian intervention and, once their fears were put to rest, they were not as concerned about the details of the devolution package as the terrorist groups were.
The LTTE ended up rejecting the Accord and the Provincial Council established under its provisions for the Tamils. This Provincial Councils was for a combined North-eastern province since the idea of a traditional Tamil homeland comprising those two provinces had been the basis of the TULF claim for self-determination. However, while the Northern province was almost wholly Tamil, the Eastern province had substantial numbers of Sinhalese and Muslims. Though the latter spoke Tamil, they had a distinct identity and did not wish to be subject to Tamil majoritarianism in the way Tamil speakers had been subject to the majoritarianism of politicians representing Sinhalese speakers in the period after independence.
The solution to this problem was a temporary merger of the two provinces, subject to a referendum. It is claimed that Jayewardene promised that such a referendum would never be held. But in the period immediately after the Indo-Lanka Accord there were allegations that members of his government as well as Tamils had begun a process of shifting populations in preparation for the vote. Underlying such allegations was a fundamental question regarding the nature of the devolution package—was it aimed at satisfying nationalist aspirations that had been fuelled by discrimination in the past or was it intended to ensure more effective government for all sections of the population?
In the final analysis, it seems that a desirable solution would be to allot specific powers to smaller local government style units that can deal with day-to-day problems, while larger units such as provincial councils can take policy decisions on matters more related to regional rather than central priorities. This would be in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity discussed earlier. However, given the history of the last half century and the emotional responses the issues have evoked, such an approach will require great effort to initiate, and more trust than now seems available on all sides.
There is another area in which the Provincial Councils Act passed in parliament in 1987 had grave shortcomings. Executive powers are divided into three schedules—those exercised by the centre, those exercised by the province, and those exercised jointly. However, according to the Act, if there is a conflict between central and provincial legislation regarding matters in the third schedule, the central legislation will prevail. This in effect nullifies the idea of a joint list. Also, concepts of national policy and national institutions were introduced in the first schedule without defining their scope. For instance, the central minister could declare any school he or she wished a national school and thus remove it from the purview of the provincial education authorities. Strengthening provincial institutions so that they could respond to local needs would have been difficult in such a context.
Again, while the Provincial Councils were suitable for the making of policy in certain areas where group interests were at stake, for administrative issues smaller units were clearly desirable. The situation in the north-east makes clear the problems caused by legislation that fails to consider all the dimensions involved. For government employees to have to travel to the provincial capital is in some cases more difficult than getting to Colombo. In addition to infrastructural facilities, human capacity in the provinces was also limited. To strengthen this to deal with comparatively large areas is not easy. It would have made infinitely more sense to devolve administrative matters to smaller units. Such a system was envisaged by President Premadasa in the 1990s in his local government reforms . However, he failed to sufficiently clarify and streamline the various areas of responsibility. Suspicions arose therefore that these measures would undermine the powers of the provinces. Also, he did not address satisfactorily the problems arising from the rise of unnecessary layers of decision-making.
Finally, the Provincial Councils Act did not address the question of ensuring adequate representation of the provinces at the centre. Given that, in a united country, whatever powers are devolved, there will remain certain powers at the center, it is necessary to ensure that those are not exercised by a narrow section of society.
Introducing a second chamber with provincial representation might help in this regard. Similarly, the reintroduction of the committee system that maximised participation in executive decisions during the period of the Donoughmore Constitution might also be effective. But since the approach has been the resolution of immediate problems, rather than consideration of underlying principles, such systems, which would provide a comprehensive solution to the various problems, are never considered. Representation in Sri Lanka has been formulated by blind adherence to custom, rather than consideration of questions that arise in the light of the particular problems to be resolved.