Why India and Sri Lanka need to take a closer look at fishing issue, again
Given the complicated approach by the Sri Lankan government, the fishermen’s issue can grow beyond being just a livelihood issue, threatening the already strained bilateral relations
At a time when the Sri Lankan government has sought and obtained Indian help to address the overwhelming forex crisis, the decision to auction 105 fishing trawlers and other vessels from Tamil Nadu and Karaikal enclave in the Union Territory of Puducherry has the potential to rock the same. Already, Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, to pressure Colombo into reversing the decision. Colombo's response will be keenly watched, not only in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere, for signs of normalisation of bilateral ties that had gone askew under the ruling Rajapaksas for long.
For now, EAM Jaishankar has obtained freedom for 56 Tamil Nadu fishermen arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) in recent weeks while negotiating forex aid with Sri Lankan finance minister Basil Rajapaksa. New Delhi also used the occasion to sign an agreement for joint redevelopment of the British era oil-tank farms in the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee that had been delayed for decades. The fishermen’s issue is an even more ticklish and live problem that has been irritating bilateral relations for over a decade, since the end of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka and has the potential to do so into an indeterminable future, if not conclusively addressed.
A new urgency has been added since with multiple protests by Sri Lanka’s northern Tamil fishermen across provincial capital Jaffna, blaming Tamil brethren from India for the death of two of their men in mid-sea clashes. Though over the past years in particular there have been protests of this kind, the one on Thursday, 3 February, at multiple venues, was unprecedented. Tamil parliamentarians, including Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, met the protestors in different venues. It is unclear if the protestors have registered a formal complaint to the Indian government through theirs, as the Tamil Nadu government has been doing all along whenever there are issues involving the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), including the arrest of men and boats — and an unwelcome death of the state’s fishermen.
Given the relative proximity and also the linguistic affinity, fishermen from the Tamil-speaking areas in the two countries used to fish in each other’s waters even long after Independence. They used to settle down in each other’s hamlets, marrying and raising families, when citizenship was not a legal issue. Time was also prior to Sri Lanka’s ethnic militancy and war later on, when young Tamil fishers from the island-nation travelled up to the temple town of Madurai from Indian coastal villages for watching the latest Tamil movie, especially of the late actor-politician MG Ramachandran, on day one, or for making purchases. They also indulged in informal trade of ‘Singapore goods’ in southern Tamil Nadu.
It was only in 1964-66 that the two nations delineated the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS-I). In a unique way, the IMBL accord deviated from the UNCLOS-proposed median-line principle, which left the tiny Katchchativu islet, within Sri Lankan territory. The uninhabited islet was closer to the Tamil Nadu coast and earlier under the Sivaganga principality in British-India, but then the IMBL deviation supposedly ensured that no third-nation could venture out into the shared Palk Bay/Gulf of Mannar waters.
At the time, India too was facing a forex crisis, devalued the rupee and deployed Norway-donated bottom-trawlers and purseine nets, to increase fish catch, exports and dollar earnings. This coincidence led to Sri Lankan fishermen being at a disadvantage, with reports of mid-sea clashes between the cross-coastal cousins becoming not so infrequent. However, the ensuing ethnic war in the island-nation, commencing in the middle of the eighties meant that the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) shut out their Tamil fishers from their seas, especially after the dreaded LTTE launched its fiercely innovative ‘Sea Tigers’ arm. The troubles resurfaced after the end of the war in 2009, and the slow but sure return of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers.
The Indian fishers have lately been facing twin troubles from the Sri Lankan side. Mandated to protect their maritime territory, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) has been shooing away Indian trawlers over-populating their seas, leading to arrests of both men, vessels and fishing gears. Indian lives have been lost on occasions but that has not discouraged fishers, especially from Rameswaram area, to risk out across the IMBL, occasionally arguing that like the fish, they too did not know any artificial boundary at sea. Though at times they have asked for India retaking Katchchativu, if only to make a point, successive governments in New Delhi have always declared their continued adherence to what essentially is an international agreement.
As an aside, former Tamil Nadu chief ministers J Jayalalithaa (AIADMK) and M Karunanidhi (DMK) had challenged the Katchchativu agreement in the Supreme Court, in their personal capacity, citing violation of constitutional procedures in the matter. However, both petitions have now become infructuous following their deaths, respectively in December 2016 and March 2018.
Initially, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen acknowledged the Indian counterpart’s argument that it involved the latter’s livelihood, too. After bilateral talks, both of the fishers and of the governments, the latter also through the official-level Joint Working Group (JWG), failed to find a solution through years, Sri Lankan fishers from the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces have toughened their stand. In recent weeks and months, there have been frequent protests outside Indian missions in the national capital of Colombo and the Northern Provincial headquarters, Jaffna. From mid-sea, there are reports of occasional clashes after the sixties and the seventies, with Sri Lankan Tamil fishers taking on the Indian counterparts.
All of it has led to a piquant situation for the two national governments to handle before things went out of hand. They need to apprehend a China hand from now on in everything involving their fishermen, especially after China’s Sri Lanka envoy, Amb Qi Zhenhong, visited Jaffna in December 2021, rode into the seas closer to the IMBL than any other foreign diplomat, including India’s, and also distributed relief-hampers to local fishermen, among others. It is in this context, some analysts in Tamil Nadu tend to see the hurried Sri Lankan decision to auction the arrested vessels that are detained while the fishermen are allowed to return home after New Delhi’s intervention.
Ironically, the threat to detain and auction arrested Indian fishing vessels flow from a legislative initiative of Jaffna-centred MA Sumanthiran, who moved a private member’s bill in the previous Parliament.
Under pressure from invisible pressure from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), whose international face Sumanthiran was, then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, moved an official bill in Parliament that provided for enhanced penalties, including massive fines for trespassers who plundered Sri Lankan marine wealth.
Incidentally, the Tamil politicians of Sri Lanka otherwise continue to look upon New Delhi to pressure Colombo into yielding to their demands for a political solution to the vexatious ethnic issue, in turn pressured by the Tamil Nadu polity and government. However, they are impervious to the need for a quid pro quo of any kind. While their consternation about letting Indian fishers trade in their waters is understandable, not one of them has appealed to the Sri Lanka government not to auction the arrested vessels and instead return them to the lawful owners in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Incidentally, there is a perception in Sri Lanka that many if not most fishing trawlers risking across IMBL are owned by powerful politicians in Tamil Nadu, but there is no truth in such perceptions.
Wooing ‘em away
For a few years now, the Tamil Nadu government, with assistance from the Centre, has been popularising deep-sea fishing, beginning with Rameswaram fishers, so as to ensure that they could stay away from the tension-ridden waters of Sri Lanka. ‘Cultural issues’ centred on the tradition of Rameswaram fishers staying out in the seas for only one night at a time has proved to be a dampener in the interim but there is a greater realisation in those parts that they needed to stay away from Sri Lankan waters for a multitude of reasons, centred on their safety and security, and those of their vessels and the catch.
Thus, more concerted and imaginative efforts are needed for wooing the Rameswaram/Karaikal fishermen away from the eternal temptations of the Sri Lankan seas with the abundant catch of shore-based shrimps that have an insatiable export market. In the interim, New Delhi would have to talk Colombo into conceding more time for such conversion by south Indian fishermen. Tamil politicians of Sri Lanka’s North especially, including the likes of Sumanthiran should also restrain themselves, not provoke their own fishermen, into taking law into their hands as it comes with possible political fall-outs in Tamil Nadu, which could reverberate in New Delhi, too.
The reverse is happening, instead. In piloting a private member’s Bill some years back, Sumanthiran was still keeping it within the manageable domestic front. Days before the Chinese envoy’s Jaffna visit, Tamil-speaking Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda took up Indian fishermen’s ‘poaching’ with US’ Charge d’Affaires, Martin T Kelly. In more recent days, anti-TNA Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) leader and parliamentarian Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam submitted a memorandum to UN Resident Coordinator, Hanaa Singer.
It happened a day after the TNPF had taken out what was tantamount to an anti-India rally in TNA, stoutly opposing the 1987 vintage Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution on power-devolution for the Tamils, facilitated by New Delhi, which is a dead-letter still. A ‘Tamil nationalist’ with antiquated ideas, Ponnambalam is the chip of the old bloc in Tamil politics, though not very popular, nearer home and overseas alike, but the way he and Minister Devananda are going about it, it could trigger counter-measures in Tamil Nadu, reviving the demand and initiatives for challenging the ‘Katchchativu Accord’ in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
For now, Minister Devananda has claimed that the upcoming auction involves only decrepit fishing vessels abandoned by Indian owners from before 2018, when rules for confiscation of ‘poaching boats’ came into effect. He asked not to ‘politicise’ the issue. Devananda claimed that Tamil Nadu chief minister Stalin has since been updated, and hinted that the latter’s decision to compensate those boat-owners followed this clarification.
During the Cold War era, especially after New Delhi under prime minister Indira Gandhi had out-witted Richard Nixon’s US, which despatched the Seventh Fleet to try and stall Indian military progress in the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971), Sri Lanka became the near-focus for future American strategy, even closer to their naval base in Diego Garcia, also in the Indian Ocean. There were reports of Trincomalee oil-farm tanks going to a CIA front-company, hence the Annexure to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, providing a safety clause to keep predators away.
In the post-Cold War era, given the increasing tensions with land-border adversary China, which in turn has also developed oceanic power projections centred on Sri Lanka in particular, New Delhi cannot ignore Amb Qi Zhenhong’s Jaffna visit. While the Trincomalee deal may have gone India’s way – and there are court cases pending in Sri Lanka – India has to keep a closer eye on the evolving Tamil politics in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. This is because the tired, old Tamil political leaders in the country are refusing to plan for a future without them, thus leading to a vacuum that adventurous nations like China would be happy to exploit.
Already, India had looked askance after China ‘took over’ the southern Hambantota port and territory, targeting the busiest ‘sea lanes of communication’ (SLOCs) in the larger Indian Ocean. If anything, the much-criticised Rajapaksas only invited the Chinese to develop the Hambantota Port on a construction-cum-concession contract. Their India-friendly successors alone handed over Sri Lankan territory to China on a 99-year-lease, and today, it is a strategic reality India is learning to live with.
While increasing Chinese presence in the Tamil North and East is not as much a possibility, it won’t be for want of trying, what with the dragon having bared its fangs with their envoy’s well-timed Jaffna visit. India’s problem is that successive governments in Colombo are offering only piecemeal solutions to New Delhi’s multiple concerns, on the strategic, ethnic and livelihood fronts, the last one concerning fishers from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
This time round, Colombo has excluded livelihood from governmental consideration beyond freedom for the arrested Indian fishermen, that too after repeated requests by New Delhi, even while granting the multi-billion Western Container Terminal (WCT) contract to an Indian corporate group and signing up with public sector entities on the Trincomalee oil-tank farms. This has already flagged consternation in Tamil Nadu, and has potential to strain Centre-state relations on the one hand, and bilateral ties on the other. Given the complicated approach by the Sri Lankan government, represented by the likes of Minister Devananda, and Tamil politicians, of the Sumanthiran and Ponnambalam variety, the fishermen’s issue can grow beyond being a livelihood issue, threatening bilateral relations as bad as the China factor thus far!
The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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