Friday, February 18, 2011

Differing perceptions across the bay

Only hours after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said he was taking a "serious view" of the arrest of fishermen from Tamil Nadu who were at work close to the Sri Lankan shores, another batch of 24 fishermen was taken into custody in the same area. Dr. Singh said at his meeting with television channel editors in New Delhi on Wednesday: "Yes, fishermen have been taken into custody. We\'re taking up the matter with the Sri Lankan government. We take a serious view of this." He was responding to a question on the detention of 112 fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.

Meanwhile, the message from Colombo was clear: Sri Lanka will assert the right to safeguard its territorial waters, and its sovereignty is non-negotiable.

India is still holding on to the bilateral October 2008 agreement as the preferred dispute redress mechanism; it has tried to solve the problems arising from the detention of its fishermen based on this.

The joint declaration issued at the end of the recent visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was also anchored on the October 2008 agreement.

But for Sri Lanka, that agreement is part of another era, and it wants to rework it substantially. In 2008 it had made political sense for Sri Lanka to sign that agreement; and it makes political sense now to demand its revision in tune with the ground realities post-May 2009, after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

India has had a different opinion on this, and hence has not responded to the new Sri Lankan need. Indian fishermen, mainly those from Tamil Nadu, have been fishing in Sri Lankan waters for a long time. Some of them have also been smuggling clothes, utensils and consumer goods to Sri Lanka, and alcohol to India. These fishermen always come in large groups, and hence are usually not threatened by the local fishermen. Moreover, the Indians\' boats are faster than those of the Sri Lankans.

The killing of an Indian fisherman in January 2011, in the first such incident in two years, was a turning point. For once, the Indian government was able to offer the proof that Sri Lanka demanded: Ms Rao handed over to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa the autopsy report of the fisherman and the results of the ballistic tests done on the boat involved. The conclusion was that the bullets were the Sri Lankan Navy\'s standard issue.

After the subsequent joint statement, the story took another turn: Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen were "arresting" Indian fishermen off the coast. The Indians, with their bigger and faster boats, do not usually attempt to flee when they see the Sri Lankan fishermen at a distance. But there was no escape as the Sri Lankan Navy choreographed this particular show. The incident that took place on the evening of February 16, too, saw a similar drama unfold, according to Indian officials. Sri Lankan fishermen "arrested" the Indian fishermen.

The Sri Lankan government and its officials have maintained that in such instances local fishermen are protesting against the presence of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. The Indian side has tended to dismiss this argument, contending that the Sri Lankan fishermen in the northern parts, who have not been involved in fishing for over three decades, do not have the wherewithal to engage in as much fishing as the Indians can.

The other Sri Lankan argument is that fishermen are always territorial and have traditionally not allowed 'outsiders\' to fish within what they consider their waters. There have been instances of Tamil and Kerala fishermen fighting each other in the Arabian Sea; there have also been instances of Tamil Nadu fishermen "crossing over" to waters off Andhra Pradesh and engaging in fisticuffs in the Bay.

When this is how fishermen react even within a country, Sri Lanka cannot sit back and watch when there are routine transgressions of the International Maritime Border Line. There certainly cannot be a case made out for Indians to be allowed to fish in the Sri Lankan waters, let alone near the Sri Lankan coastline — however rich in fishery resources these may happen to be. Also, for Mr. Rajapaksa, domestic political compulsions do not allow for any leeway being given to India on this issue at a time when the local body polls are nearing.

Tamil Nadu also will go to the polls in just over two months, and leaders cutting across political parties are baffled at the sudden Sri Lankan posturing. The fact that the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen "arrested" their counterparts from Tamil Nadu is conveniently missing from the rhetoric of most politicians: they blame the heavy-handed "Sinhala" state for the atrocities.

The elections to the Lok Sabha in 2009 — held just as the last of the Tigers were being captured or killed in the Sri Lankan north — showed that the Sri Lankan question is not really uppermost in the minds of the people of Tamil Nadu. But this time round, the captured and the killed are not citizens from another country with only a linguistic affinity to the people of Tamil Nadu; they are fishermen from Tamil Nadu. And this can make the difference between victory and defeat along the coastal constituencies across five districts in Tamil Nadu.

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