Will centralizing Modi support Lankan Tamils’ demand for federalism?
Posted on January 31st, 2022

By P.K.Balachandran Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Colombo, January 31 (Counterpoint): The Sri Lankan Tamil parties have sent a letter to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his help to establish a Federal Constitution in Sri Lanka in place of the present Unitary one on the plea that the minority Tamils are not able to realize their aspirations under a centralized, Unitary set up.

It is learnt that they have done this despite advice that they should seek an achievable goal, that is the full implementation of the 13 th. Amendment of the present constitution because it flows from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987.

Despite intense debates in which the parties of the Indian Origin Tamils from the Up country and the Western Province maintained that the majority Sinhala community would never envisage a federal setup because it equates federalism with separatism, the 11 Sri Lankan Tamil parties representing the Northern and Eastern provinces, adamantly stuck to the stand that they would not deviate from their long-standing demand for a federal structure.

India’s Limitations  

But the question that the Sri Lankan Tamil parties failed to ask themselves is whether the Indian Prime Minister can push for federalism in Sri Lanka when India itself is not federal State in the way the United States is. India has been slowly but surely centralizing governance since independence in 1947. And the process has intensified under Modi’s watch.Therefore, the pertinent question is: Can Modi support demand for federalism in Sri Lanka?

Eating into the States’ Share

The Central Indian government has been encroaching on the States’ rights even in regard to subjects assigned to the States by the Constitution. The financial dependence of the States on the Centre arising from asymmetric taxation rights, enables the Centre to dictate to the States. National policies on various subjects are made without systematically consulting the States. Formal and informal institutions set up for consultations are in disuse.

The Communist Party leader, D.Raja, points out in an article in Indian Express that the Planning Commission, a non-political body of experts that drew up policies in consultation with the States and the Union government, has been scrapped. The Inter-State Council has met only once in the last seven years. And the National Development Council has not met at all.

The tenure of the 15th Finance Commission (meant to divide the levies collected by the Centre between the Centre and the States) was mired in controversy and many states expressed apprehensions about the evolving pattern of financial devolution, Raja says. The All India General Sales Tax (GST) has taken away much of the financial autonomy of the States. The country’s federal indirect tax regime has become unitary.

Recently, parliament legislated on agriculture, an item in the State list, to enact the three contentious farm laws, which led to a year-long agitation by farmers in Punjab and a few other North Indian States.  Students in Tamil Nadu have committed suicide over the discriminatory nature of the national examination (NEET) conducted for admission to medical colleges, when education” is a devolved State subject. The right of States to determine the standards required for entry into professional colleges has been violated and sacrificed at the altar of  national uniformity. The principle of uniformity does not recognize  differences in the educational levels prevailing in States in a diverse country like India. Recently, the Centre arrogated to itself the power to withdraw from the States, officers belonging to the All India Administrative Services, thus severely handicapping the States.  

Until the Supreme Court put an end to it, the Centre could sack a State government on trumped up charges under Art.356. Recently, the Centre reduced Jammu and Kashmir State to the level of a Centrally administered Union Territory” citing terrorist threats. New States are carved out of existing States without consulting the affected States. The States have no control over the Central armed forces deployed in their territories. In the border States, the jurisdictions of these Central forces are determined solely by the Centre. The discriminatory policy on citizenship is affecting Muslim and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.         

Constitution is Unitary             

All this has been made possible by the Unitary character of the Indian constitution. The Constitution was drafted between 1946 and 1949, when India was in turmoil. The country was violently partitioned into a mainly Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. There were hundreds of theoretically independent Princely States which needed to be integrated with India. Therefore, the primary concern of the makers of the Constitution was controlling separatism by making the Centre strong if not omnipotent. The Constitution did recognize India’s diversity but it also provided for a Centre with over-riding powers.

During the Constituent Assembly debates, the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, cautioned that it would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central authority which would be incapable of ensuring peace, of coordinating vital matters of common concern and of speaking effectively for the whole country in the international sphere.” Other prominent members of the Assembly also demanded a stronger Union government necessary for India’s survival and political stability, given its vast diversity in religion, language, caste and ethnicity.

The Constitution gives the Union parliament discretion to reconstruct the boundaries of the States. The Union list of subjects contains more subjects than the State list. In case of a deadlock between the Union and the States over subjects in the Concurrent List, the Union law prevails. The Union parliament can also legislate on any State subject under extraordinary circumstances.

The Union Government has power to appoint State Governors and dissolve State governments by proclaiming President’s Rule if it deems fit. Institutions of governance like a single system of courts, all-India public services and integrated audit machinery and election machinery help the Centre exercise power over the States.

When States Can Assert Themselves

However, even as the Indian Constitution is biased in favor of the Union government, States have room to assert their interests under certain political conditions. When the liberal Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister and the Congress was the dominant party, the States enjoyed autonomy because he believed in consultation and consensus and the Congress leaders in the States were men of stature. But when his daughter, the imperious Indira Gandhi, was PM, she brooked no opposition. She held the States on a tight leash, even sacking State governments which did not toe her line.

However, when weak coalition governments ruled India from New Delhi, the States were assertive, especially when they were ruled by opposition parties or regional parties.

Currently, the States are under the thumb of the Centre because the Centre is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which not only believes in Centralization and uniformity, but also has a brute majority in parliament to enforce its will.  

The government in New Delhi is flexing its muscles by using the Centrally-controlled investigative agencies to rein in State leaders who are either from the opposition parties or are from the regional parties. The BJP is also using State Governors appointed by it, to act, not as constitutional figureheads as they are meant to act, but as an arm of the Centre in the latter’s schemes against the States. In Tamil Nadu, Governor R.N.Ravi, who has an intelligence background, started communicating with State government officials bypassing the State Chief Minister, against well-established norms.

This being the case in India, the Sri Lankan Tamil parties’ bid to get the Indian Prime Minister to press Colombo to replace the present Unitary constitution by a Federal one is doomed to fail. The move can only serve one purpose: winning elections. The Tamil voter is still wedded to the demand for Federalism despite dismal failure to get it in 74 years of struggle, both peaceful and armed, and with and without foreign help.

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