June 05, 2020
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Trouble In Fishing Waters

Colombo treads carefully after Karunanidhi's charges of Lankan harassment of Indian fishermen

Trouble In Fishing Waters

THE Sri Lankan government is once again on guard. In its efforts to prevent the Tamil separatist war in the north and east of the island nation from becoming a major political issue in Tamil Nadu once again, Colombo is showing great sensitivity to the concerns of both Chennai and New Delhi in dealing with the issue. "Our strategy is to be sensitive to Tamil Nadu's concerns but deal with New Delhi to iron out problems," a senior Lankan Foreign Ministry official told Outlook.

But this does not seem to have satisfied Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. In a series of speeches in recent weeks, he has criticised Sri Lanka for harassing Indian fishermen fishing in Sri Lanka's northern waters. But Colombo sees this criticism as efforts by the chief minister to appease his own constituency rather than the beginning of another anti-Sri Lanka campaign in south India. For his part, Karunanidhi has also asked Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral to speak to the Sri Lankan government about the 'atrocities' being perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Navy on Indian fishermen. He warned recently: "If the attacks continue, there will be dangerous consequences in Tamil Nadu."

Eight Indian fishermen have been killed in the last six months by the Sri Lankan Navy, four of them in December alone. But a Sri Lankan Navy official noted: "Our aim is not to stop Indian fishermen from fishing in our waters. Our problem is separating the genuine fishermen from those who are engaged in smuggling goods to the LTTE and in transporting refugees on behalf of the LTTE from our north to south India. The smuggling of goods to the LTTE is a major concern for us while transporting refugees to Tamil Nadu can create problems for India."

He said three fishermen died when the navy fired at some boats on the landing path of the air force planes in Palali, the main air force base in the northern Jaffna Peninsula. "The planes fly low over the sea before landing to avoid anti-aircraft missiles and can be shot down with small arms fire from boats. So we have to keep the path clear for the air force. Usually Indian fishermen don't fish in this area but once in a while, either by accident or by design, boats drift towards the landing path. We cannot physically check them because a number of navy crafts that did that in the past have been blown up by LTTE boatmen pretending to be Indian fishermen," he explained. The Sri Lankan air force has lost two transport planes due to rebel missile attacks and another was shot down by rebels from boats. The problem is further complicated by the sheer numbers.

The Sri Lankan navy says it counted 5,000 Indian fishing boats fishing in northern Sri Lankan waters in November alone. Attracted by the lure of tiger prawns in the north and northwestern seas of the island, Tamil Nadu fishermen often cross over to Lankan waters. The poaching increased tremendously once the Sri Lankan government banned fishing off the north in the mid-'80s to counter rebel movements both from Tamil Nadu as well as from the north to the east of the island. As a matter of fact, these rich fishing grounds have been a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Lankan navy for the last three decades. According to V. Suryanarayan, Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, the root cause of the prevailing tension is a conflict of interests. Says he: "On the one side are the governments of Colombo and New Delhi, which in the spirit of good neighbourly relations concluded the maritime agreements of 1974 and 1976 ceding Kachchativu to Sri Lanka. On the other are the Tamil Nadu fisher-men who will not give up their means of survival which they have enjoyed for several centuries."

But the attack on fishermen is bound to create a range of problems providing fodder to the cannons of political groups of various hues—from extreme Tamil nationalist ones to those who would like to raise the LTTE bogey to destabilise the DMK regime. Hence, as a senior DMK leader clar-ifies, while the party is against the attacks, it does not want to get embroiled in the discursive politics of the island state. "We are the only party to be dismissed twice because of Delhi's manoeuvres," he claims. "We want the Lankan issue to be strictly an internal matter with no spill-over effect whatsoever. The warning (Karunanidhi's statement) is to reiterate our holistic stand on the crisis."

And Suryanarayan points out that the attitude of the Sri Lankan Tamils on this crucial issue is not sympathetic to Tamil Nadu fishermen. "I have not come across any statement, either from the militants or moderates, expressing even an iota of sympathy for the fishing rights of Indian fish-ermen," he observes.

As for the Indian fishermen currently in Sri Lankan custody, an Indian High Commission official in Colombo put the number at 45 and says steps are being taken to get them released. "If they are arrested for smuggling, then the Sri Lankan authorities take steps to prosecute them. If they have been arrested for merely entering Sri Lankan waters then they are generally released," the official says.

Adds the former Sri Lankan high commissioner to India, Stanley Kalpage: "This is a tricky problem to solve. Colombo is concerned about the smuggling and the transportation of refugees while New Delhi and Chennai are concerned that mistaken attacks on Indian fishermen by the navy can create a volatile situation in Tamil Nadu. At the same time, Tamil Nadu cannot stop the fishermen from fishing in Sri Lankan waters because that would affect their livelihood. Both sides will have to be sensitive to each other's problems." However, the incidents have so far not soured relations between the two countries. "Our relations with India at present are in very good shape. There is a continuous dialogue between us and Delhi and Chennai on ironing out these problems," says Nihal Rodrigo, additional secretary at the Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

And a senior Foreign Ministry official in Colombo told Outlook that the issue was discussed by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar with the Indian foreign and home ministers when he was in Delhi in December. "There is an understanding in New Delhi that we are doing the best we can to solve this problem. But at the same time, they are cautioning us not to allow the situation to get out of hand," he said. He said the issue was also discussed briefly when Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was on holiday in India in December, paid a courtesy call on the Indian Prime Minister. "We are not too perturbed by Karunanidhi's statements. He has to take his constituency into account. We understand that he cannot keep silent. We have taken note that, unlike in the past, his emphasis on the ethnic problem stems from a concern for the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka rather than support for the LTTE," he added.

In fact, Lankan officials feel that Karunanidhi has taken a "mature approach" to the problem, saying that when the first fisherman was killed, Chennai agreed to have the funeral in Sri Lanka. "We flew down the family to Colombo as we were concerned that the funeral being held there would ignite passions and Chennai agreed.

The other two were buried in Tamil Nadu but there were no major problems," the official pointed out. He said Tamil Nadu is also handling the problem of the influx of refugees well: "The situation is under control now but we are keeping a close watch so that things do not get out of control."

Relations with Tamil Nadu is a highly emotive issue in Sri Lanka. For centuries the Sinhala Buddhist majority has feared that an axis between the minority Hindu Tamils living in the north and east of the island and the massive Tamil population in India would overwhelm them. The fear, ingrained in the Sinhala psyche after waves of invasions by successive Chola kingdoms, resurfaced in the '80s when Tamil separatist rebel groups established themselves in south India to launch their separatist campaign which has killed close to 60,000 people so far. No wonder Colombo and New Delhi are keeping their fingers crossed.

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