Chennai: The weird stone barrage by the Sri Lankan Navy on Tamil fishermen from Rameshwaram near the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) on Saturday, brings forth a vexed issue that seems to perpetually escape resolution.
At stake are the lives and livelihoods of thousands of fisher-folk in Tamil Nadu.
That the latest attack happened barely a few days after foreign minister SM Krishna took up with Sri Lanka this sensitive issue, clearly indicates the inflexibility of the Sri Lankan authorities and the helplessness of the local fishing community.
In the latest incident , the Sri Lankan Navy has allegedly pelted heavy stones at the Indian fishing boats near IMBL, damaging about 200 of them. About 600 boats were fishing in the international waters at the time. Following the incident, nine fishermen went missing.
The Sri Lankan Navy routinely fires at Indian boats and captures and even jails Tamil fishermen for allegedly straying into their waters. This time, perhaps to avoid firing, they came armed with heavy stones. The fishermen said that their boats were surrounded by the Lankan naval vessels. The stone-pelting followed soon.
Meanwhile, the spate of attacks, some of which fatal, that has been going on for years intensifies the demand for retrieval of Katchatheevu, a small island of strategic importance that the Indian government had given away to Sri Lanka in 1974.
Under the agreement of the transfer of Katchatheevu, the Indian fishermen can access the waters around the island, but Sri Lanka doesn’t agree to these conditions any more. It swears by its sovereignty over the island and fires at Indian boats whenever they feel their waters are violated.
Why did India compromise on the interests of its own people, ask political parties and civil society in a united voice. They feel it is time to wrest it back.
Besides, the speedy and just rehabilitation of displaced local Tamils and devolution of power, the attack on Indian fishermen, mostly from Tamil Nadu and some from Andhra Pradesh, is a bilateral issue that dominates periodic Indio-Sri Lankan talks. Before Krishna, the foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai also had raised the issue with Sri Lankan authorities. But nothing seems to be working.
The rights and safety of fisher-folks in Rameshwaram, who have been coming under attack from Sri Lankan navy for several years now, is an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu. Immediately after assuming office, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had asked the Centre to take tough action. She also filed a petition in the Supreme Court requesting it to declare the agreement on Katchatheevu unconstitutional.
Political parties across the board are united on the issue. In a statement on Sunday, the CPI leader D Raja had expressed surprise over the timing of the attack. “It’s an irony that the attack has taken place immediately in the aftermath of Krishna’s visit to Sri Lanka,” he said. He also wanted to reopen the 1974 bilateral agreement under which India gave away the island to Sri Lanka. The agreement should be scrapped and discussions should start all over again to find a lasting solution to the issue, he said. The state unit of the BJP also had demanded annulling the agreement since Sri Lanka did not honour its conditions.
In the context of the firm stand of the West Bengal government on the Teesta water issue, activists decry the decision to give away the strategic island without considering the interests of the people of Tamil Nadu.
During the civil war in Sri Lanka, the ground for Lankan attacks was suspected LTTE movement. At present it accuses the Indian fishermen of violation of international maritime borders.
However, overzealous to please Sri Lanka, which is wantonly playing the Chinese and Pakistan cards, India will find it extremely difficult to take a tough stand on Katchatheevu without antagonising the island nation.
The foreign minister, meanwhile, has some reasons to console himself. The Indian fishermen are a lot safer now, they may be better off facing stones than bullets.