Why is India inviting Sri Lankan Fishermen?

By Bandu de Silva

Will India allow Indian Groups to go to neighbouring countries like Pakistan and China to discuss issues impinging on bi-lateral relations?

Whatever the reason may be, Chief Minister Jayalaliha Jeyram had a point when she expressed reservations on the proposed meeting of Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen which matter was earlier reported in The Hindu of 29 December 2013. Her reservations were, ostensibly, on account of her assertion that her concerns went beyond the issue of fishermen, and involved the issue of Tamil Nadu’s sovereignty claims over the Kachchativu island which is at the centre of the dispute. (The Hindu).

Quite right! Sri Lankan government should take a leaf from her and object to any such meeting between fishermen taking place, if such talks are going to impinge on Sri Lankan sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction [including security issues] over the Kachchativu island or the internal waters one mile west of Kachchatitivu  which was agreed under the 1974 Agreement where Sri Lankan fishermen were expected to fish without hindrance.

Government Should Disclaim

The government should immediately disown the second The Hindu report before it gains ground which stated that “Sri Lankan and Indian official sources said a meeting between fishermen on both sides would go a long way in finding a solution to their grievances against each other and prevent arrests.”  This is obviously, a plant as one would not expect any Sri Lankan official to make such an assertion on a vitally sensitive issue without the approval of the government. This itself appears to be a move to coerce Sri Lankan authorities to fall a prey to the Indian ploy now being worked out to nibble at the 1974 bi-lateral Agreement reached between the two countries which has been hailed as an internationally significant agreement under the Law of the Sea regime.

Agenda not defined

What is more disturbing is the agenda or lack of one. This report speaks of a limited objective for the talks, i.e., finding a solution to the grievances [of fishermen]against each other and prevent arrests. This depends on who the Sri Lankan fishermen are to be invited? Are they only the fishermen from the North? It cannot be so if the arrest of Sri Lankan fishermen by the Indian Navy are to be included in the talks as they are the fishermen from south Sri Lanka who are often arrested for entering into India’s economic zone waters.

How could Sri Lankan fishermen from the North help find a solution to the arrests of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters around Kachchativu and elsewhere when the problem is one created by the Indian fishermen  alone, by  entering and fishing in Sri Lankan waters? The grievance is on the part of the northern fishermen largely whose marine resources are taken away by large scale fishing by South Indians using destructive bottom trawling. What they can do is to ask their Indian compatriots not to invade their legitimate fishing ground where the Sri Lankans expected to fish freely after the signing of the 1974 Agreement.

A Political farce

Above all, the talks have no prior agenda indicated. They are then a political farce –a move by the Congress partner, the DMK, which will only serve the purpose of giving some publicity to counter Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s much publicized support for Tamil Nadu fishermen and just a pretext to show that the emotional issue caused by the arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy is being addressed. As far as the southern fishermen of Sri Lanka are concerned who are under arrest or would be arrested on their way to international fishing grounds using Indian economic zone waters, including innocent passage, accidentally or not, there is no solution offered here. Nor is there any solution to problems caused to Sri Lankan fishermen in the South and the East of Sri Lanka by Indians invading their fishing fields off Kalpitiya, Chilaw and Negombo, Mullaitivu, on the other side.

Initiative needed on India’s  side

The problem is primarily created by Indian fishermen. As far as avoiding arrests is concerned, what is needed then is the initiative on the part of the Indian government as well as that  of Tamil Nadu to educate the Indian fishermen to keep to the Indian side of the Palk Bay and not to transgress Sri Lankan waters in the Bay or in other areas. The Indian fishing boats have navigational equipment to determine their position and any mistaken intrusions are very unlikely. What is taking place is intrusion by not one or two stray boats but by hundreds of them, if not by thousands which put to sea, with impunity, and with political patronage provided by political elite from the centre as well as Tamil Nadu. That is the crux of the matter.

The solution to Indian fishermen being arrested is then one entirely in the hands of the Indian side. The Indian Navy, as a disciplined force, is seen doing its duty by warning fishermen to be on the Indian side of the demarcating line but the thrust is lost in the greed of Indian fishermen and the political support they receive.

Significance of The Hindu Report

According to The Hindu report of 29 December 2013, DMK Parliamentary leader, Mr. T.R. Baalu who led a delegation of Tamil Nadu fishermen to New Delhi, has said that “a  meeting between fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka to find a permanent solution to the continuing attack on Tamil fishermen by Sri Lankan Navy will be held by third week of January next year….”. The report also says that the Prime Minister told the DMK Parliamentary Party leader [T.R. Baalu  him] that he had asked External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to organise a meeting by third week of January, possibly on January 20. This is very significant because it points to the Centre which was more or less silent on the issue earlier, is now seen moving away to a pro-active role.

A subsequent The Hindu report, however, says the January 20th date is in doubt as New Delhi is studying reservations expressed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalita Jeyram. That confirms that the centre is increasingly getting involved.

Signs of a Weakening India

Why  the Indian government did not disclose its hand earlier, could be understood in the context of problems arising out of India wanting to go back on  an important bi-lateral agreement which she signed with a neigbouring country being viewed as harmful to India‘s standing as a trustworthy nation when it comes to respect for bi-lateral agreements. It is now a sign of a weakening India despite all claims of a nuclear powered nation, and a rising economic and political giant in the region and in global context. It is a sign of the weakening Centre moving in the peripheral direction of an-ever-becoming – strong Tamil Nadu, no doubt with general elections in view, where the Congress’s fortunes are seen to be much in doubt, but in a wider extent, India becoming a victim of what one may describe as “St Gilan principle”, the centre in a federation loosing its domineering character. That has also its adverse implications like growing sense of nationalism at the peripheral level and even prospects of disintegration.

Trust building in India as Bi-lateral Partner

Trust building between bi-lateral partners is a very important thing in foreign relations. However, trust building between India and her immediate neighbours has not been one of India’s strong points in the past as much as at present. India has problems with all her neighbours with common borders, subscription to the principle of ‘peaceful settlement of disputes,’ which was one of India’s declared core principles in foreign policy in the past. (Swaran Singh in Lok Sabha on 23 May 1974, explaining the Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement). The indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement of 1974 alone was one which was hailed as an exemplary occasion when that principle was applied by India.

Other declared principles like ‘Pancaseela,’ ‘Non-Alignment’, ‘Indian Ocean Peace Zone’ (IPOZ), each have had their happy days in India’s foreign policy record, no more than temporary markers in the final analysis, and have rolled away one by one, out of India’s record of dealings with her neighbours. In Afghanistan where India once aligned herself with the Soviet invasion casting away all pretenses of adherence to commitments to NAM, she is now one with the US and western allies there. “Indi- Chini-Bhai-Bhai”, of the early 1950s became “Indo-Chini Hai-Hooi,” after the Tibetan issue irrupted even before the Indian Ambassador R.K Nehru left Beijing where his wife went round at diplomatic receptions clinging glasses with everyone around for the “Bhai-Bhai.

The former Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, J.N.Dixit, put it unabashedly when in the height of India’s brinkmanship in Sri Lanka which he and a small group of self-seeking coterie round young Rajiv Gandhi helped to promote, (sober advisors were pushed out)  when he said “There are no permanent friendships ….there are only permanent interests”. That summed up India’s Sri Lanka policy as much as that with other neighbours during the latter half of Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s rule.

Raising Doubts

Raising doubts over India being a trustworthy partner is something that anyone closely familiar with the history of negotiations over the Indo-Ceylon problem is familiar with. India systematically disowned its citizens in Sri Lanka, the migrant labour, through the introduction of the new Constitution of 1954. Meanwhile, India was facing a different situation in Burma (now Myanmar) where the Ne Win government showed the door to several hundred thousand Indians. The Indians had simply to leave even without any way to take away their accumulated assets.

Sri Lanka’s problem was mere proximity. She could not follow such a line even if she wished. So India played hard on Sri Lanka while facing the reality in Burma, which country with its China backing and the corridor it provided to insurgents from Assam and Nagaland transiting to training camps and arms depots outside India. After signing the 1964 Agreement with Sri Lanka, for which Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike deserves credit in the circumstances then prevailed, when India, like the proverbial iron- smith was hammering on the pliable steel with double vigour, Prime Minister Bhadur Singh went begging to Rangoon asking the Ne Win government to allow the repatriation of at least some assets to the Indians leaving the country. He was followed by Premier Indira Gandhi to  Rangoon.(Prof. V.P.Dutt: Foreign Policy of India).

W.T.Jayasinghe, former Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary, a very correct Civil Servant of this country, as J.N.Dixit wrote, [[and I agree with an over forty years of very close association with him officially and personally], reminding Prime Minister Bandaranaike of the fiasco after Dudley Senanayake-Indira Gandhi talks in London in 1969, a knowledge of which was denied by the Indian officialdom. (Jayasinghe: Kacchativu, 2003, Stamford Lake, p.93). In view of this unpleasant experience of the country with Indian way of dealings, Jayasinghe made sure that what he discussed with the Indian government was recorded in the form of exchange of letters.

TNA’s Silence

There is also the question why the TNA and the NCP Council has not raised the issue of the adverse effects on the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resulting from the Indian fishermen’s intrusion on the Sri Lankan waters of the Palk bay round Kachchativu. The loss is said to run into over Rs.600 million annually. This may be an un-confirmed figure but the loss to fishermen of the peninsula, who are a neglected community, both socially and economically, can be colossal. Whether or not this is because of Vellala domination of Northern politics will be given attention in sequence.

This also exposes the hypocrisy of the TNA and its Chief Minister who are silent on Indian fishermen’s intrusion but far more worried about Sinhalese businessmen encroaching into the North.  Curiously, in 1911, Ponnambalam Ramanathan memorialsed the Governor in 1911 through his famous Memorandum on behalf of the Jaffna Committee requesting the extension of the railway to Jaffna saying that the people of Jaffna want to come to the south for trade. He even wrote that they had already colonized up to Anuradhapura even without a railway! Hlarious indeed!

Ramifications on Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987

Till recently, when President Rajapaksa ‘s government succumbed to Indian pressure and permitted the holding of NCP polls – a point now repeatedly emphasized by the Chief Minister Wigneswaram of NPC and also by others, but as I wrote the President conceded it because of false fears of India raising objections to the holding of CHOGM in Colombo and thereby preventing him the opportunity of assuming the leadership of CHOGM for him for two years,- the Indian spokespersons [though not at a higher level] and their local lobbies were trying to impress on the Sri Lankan government on the repercussions of non-adherence to the July 1987 Accord.  Consequently, the Rajapaksa government seemed to vacillate on its proposed moves to abrogate the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which brought about the implementation of provisions of the indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.

No Parallel

There is no parallel between the 1974 Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime boundaries Agreement and the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. The former was an agreement signed in the wake of emerging principles under the Law of Sea regime and in the spirit of historical claims of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachchativu island which was recognized, as much as in consideration of friendly relations between two neighbouring countries sharing historical ties. Indian External Affairs Minister Minister Swaran Singh, in his statement to the Lok Sabha on 23 July 1974 remarked:” On the basis of dispassionate examination of the historical records and other evidence, and keeping in mind our policy and principle of peaceful settlement of disputes, I feel confident that the Agreement demarcating the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay, will be considered as fair, just, and equitable to both countries.…”

In contrast, the Accord of July 1987 was one which pertained to an internal situation in Sri Lanka over which India claimed a close [political] interest. It belongs to the category of those “unfair treaties” which the Furher imposed on the Baltic states prior to WW II, it having been concluded under the threat of an Indian invasion of the island, a demonstration of which manifested itself when  two Indian Air Force transport planes escorted by two missile carrying Mirage jets with orders to resist any opposition, dropping sealed packages carrying the logo of the Cawnpour Ordnance factory over Jaffna as well as over LTTE held Dharmapuram area. (Patrice Claude, Le Monde Correspond on Board the transport plane. The contents were not shown to the journalists though claimed by the Indian government as Claude and the Washington Post correspondent wrote).

The crux of the matter was that Indian lobbies and interested Sri Lankan parties were trying to instill fear into the minds of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his advisors that the abrogation of the 1987 Agreement by Sri Lanka would have serious repercussions. Not the way if one thought how India ignored the UN General Assembly Resolution over holding a plebiscite on Kashmir to decide the State’s future.

Analogy of Jammu-Kashmir

Before we proceed to discuss the issue of the invitation to the Sri Lankan fishermen, a point that comes to my mind is if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or the Indian government would permit Jammu-Kashmir Muslims to visit Pakistan if invited by Pakistan for talks over common issues; or if the Nepali-Indian businessmen were to be invited by the Chinese government for talks in Beijing or Lhasa over their trading rights in Tibet? Though the corresponding situations may vary in detail, and no military confrontation has ensued here, the challenge and potential threat imposed to Sri Lanka’s sovereign rights over her territory and its waters and to her security by large scale intrusion by Tamil Nadu fishing boats, is something which cannot be taken lightly.

Not a bilateral Problem

Returning to our main theme of discussion, the issue over fishermen under discussion is not a bilateral problem which has anything to do with Sri Lankan fishermen, except that, on the one hand, they are deprived of their livelihood of continued fishing not only by mass scale intrusion by Indian fishermen into their legitimate fishing ground but by destructive fishing methods employed by them, and on the other hand, some Sri Lankan fishing boats have been found straying into India’s territorial waters or inside India’s declared economic zones  in the Mannar Bay or the Andhra coast have been apprehended and are incarcerated in Indian prisons. It is but a case of Indian fishermen fishing with impunity in Sri Lanka’s internal waters, not by mere accident, but by design, using trawlers and destructive bottom sweeping trawling methods. That is with hundreds, if not thousands of South Indian fishing crafts putting out to the sea daily to fish within Sri Lanka’s maritime boundary around Kachchativu island, Mannar Bay and Mullaitivu seas, not excluded.

This intrusion is being done with impunity with both centre politicians like Chidambaram, Baalu and Tamil Nadu politicians, both in the State government’s coalition and in the opposition lending moral support to the South Indian fishermen. Chidambaram even stated once that fish go where fish is. That is like saying in the “Kallathoni” (illicit immigrants) days of early 1960s, [unemployed starving South Indians went to Sri Lanka where there was employment and land, or even in colonial days they went to work as plantation labour or scavengers.

How true, nevertheless? How India respects the sovereignty of her neighbours and their sensitivities, if Chidambaram’s remarks are to be taken seriously?  This is not, then, a simple fishermen‘s issue.

India’s “Peoples-Peoples contacts” Slogan

The raison d’Etre for the Indian government for inviting Sri Lankan fishermen  to India seems not only hilarious in this context- it could have been understood if the Indian government as part of its now flaunted slogan of  “peoples-to peoples-contacts” as an India’s former Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, declared during her visit to the Vanni in Sri Lanka. This slogan appears to be increasingly applied in the Sri Lankan context, because it gives an opening to pursue India’s project in the Tamil dominated North.

That ‘peoples-to-peoples contact’ seems to be a Trojan Horse and a one way affair to be invoked, however, only when it suits India, not in dealing with the situation in Kashmir or Tibet, or even in Tamil Nadu where Sri Lankan sportspersons playing matches or Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting there are not welcome and even beaten up.

Despite the much flaunted talk of ‘p-p contacts’, Sri Lankans still have to queue up for visas at the Indian High Commission office and at Indian Consulates, in contrast to Sri Lanka, in the spirit of SAARC resolutions, has exempted Indians from obtaining prior visa at Sri Lankan consular offices in India before visiting the island. That is the reality. Some of these Indians coming here on visa-free visits are even found engaged in illicit itinerant cloth trade and engaging in other employment including agricultural labour.

The ‘peoples-to-peoples” concept [then] has insidious manifestations even of a “corrupting” and “subversive” nature from a political angle, as manifested itself in former West and East Germany which finally resulted in the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Hitler also used it to build his Sudeten German idea and it is manifest now closer home in Tamil Nadu politics. It is now being applied to some degree in the Koreas but not so successfully. This will be gone into in more detail in sequence.

The Boundary Issue

How is that India or Tamil Nadu government is trying to make a bi-lateral issue over fishing rights for Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay inside the territorial sea within the Sri Lankan side of the median line?  The median line was negotiated and accepted by both sides through the 1974 bi-lateral Agreement signed between Premier Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, after New Delhi cleared the terms of settlement with the State Government in Tamil Nadu by May 1974.  As Indian External Affairs Minister, Swaran Sing told the Lok Sabha on 23 July, 1974, it was an agreement reached after extensive research of historical and other records by India’s experts, and every available piece of evidence collected from various record offices in India, as well as abroad…. The  question had necessarily to be dealt with as part of a larger question of the boundary in the Palk Bay so as to eliminate the possibility of any further disputes on similar matters in these historic waters. On the basis of dispassionate examination of the historical records and other evidence, and keeping in mind our policy of peaceful settlement of disputes, I feel confident that the Agreement demarcating the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay, will be considered as fair, just and equitable to both countries….”

Maritime Boundaries Agreement 

To delve into a bit of what transpired then, maritime boundaries were fixed by India and Sri Lanka following the Law of the Sea regime. Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachchativu island was confirmed. During the negotiations over Kachchativu, looking at Tamil Nadu’s own claim over the island (no sovereignty which but rested with Sri Lanka), Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike wrote to her Indian counterpart in diplomatic language [reminding of the obligation of the government of a small neighbor to be mindful of sensitivities of its own people] but conveying a very terse message:

“Mindful as I am, in the light of past experience, of the possible reaction in Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka’s assertion of sovereignty, you will appreciate that I am bound to take into account the sensitivities of my own people and their reaction to any act of mine that could be interpreted as relinquishing an established right over any part of the territories of a small country like ours, a country that currently needs every available resource, to sustain the life and aspirations of its people. It is for these reasons that, after careful consideration of the suggestions made, and after consultation with my Ministers, I have concluded that it would be difficult to us to accept any of these ….

However, Mrs.Bandaranaike, “with a view to amicable settlement” as she said,  proposed a compromise approach to consider the demarcating line [of the maritime boundary] approximately 7 ½ miles to the west of Kachchativu, so as to concede to India an area of sea and sea-bed, and their resources, which would be negotiated between the two countries and embodied in an agreement. She disclosed that even such a solution could give rise to public criticism, but she expected to canvass opinion further and prepare in advance to answer such questions as may be raised.

In the official discussions which followed attempts were made by Indian officials to use not Kachchativu but Delft and even Jaffna itself as the baseline.  This was going back on what the two Prime Ministers were getting close to consider Kachchativu island as the baseline, with Sri Lanka asking for the median line to be drawn 7 ½ miles west of it. Mrs.Bandaranaike was adamant and refused to consider the India’s revised position as emerged from officials’ discussion. However, she pointed out that after discussing the matter with her Ministers, ‘our territorial jurisdiction to the West of Kachchativu could be reduced from 7 ½ miles to 3.5 miles, [thereby], conceding to India an area approximately 84 sq miles, together with its living and non-living resources.”

It was on this basis that the 1974 bilateral Agreement between India and Sri Lanka demarcating the maritime boundaries in the historic Palk Bay was proposed by Sri Lanka. It meant India abdicating any claims it had over the island of Kachchativu and India gaining 84 sq. miles of sea areas as her internal waters.

As a gesture, the Sri Lankan government agreed to Indian fishermen coming to Kachachativu island for drying their nets, mending their sails, and boats and resting. For this purpose frontier formalities were waived. Indians coming to the festival of the Church of St. Anthony were also exempt from visa formalities.

However, as the Indian officials began to insist on allowing the line to run  half a mile  west of Kachchativu, which Sri Lanka rejected on the ground it would not allow neither the proper utlisation of resources at Kachchativu, nor shipping maneuverability, the two Prime Ministers had to resume talks at a personal level. Finally, it was agreed that the line should be drawn one mile west of Kachchativu which meant India gaining a further 40 sq miles of sea area west of Kachchativu. Indian officials’ attitude was to restrict Sri Lankan use of the island, confining sovereignty over it to a mere formality, if not a farce.

 The Problem Now

The problem now is that besides the Tamil Nadu government raising the issue of sovereignty over Kachchativu island which both sides agreed under the 1974 bilateral Agreement on Maritime Boundaries lay with Sri Lanka, (Madras Mail, 20 March 1974 reported the Attorney General Niren De saying that “in balance, sovereignty over the island rests with Sri Lanka,”) over which India consulted the then Tamil Nadu government and cleared the terms, (Jayalalitha Jayeram was then part of the governing Tamil Nadu government) its political elite as much as Tamil Nadu representatives in the Centre, like the Ministers Chidambaram and Baalu, as said earlier, are encouraging the intrusion by Tamil Nadu fishermen into what was agreed as Sri Lanka’s internal waters inside the line of agreed boundary  demarcation one mile west of Kachachativu.

This is then not a simple case, as already pointed out, of Indian fishermen accidentally venturing into the Sri Lankan side of the maritime line but one of gross violation of the 1974 Agreement and the sovereignty of the neighbouring  country which has ramifications on security of the small nation,  with publicly announced political patronage, this time seen to come from Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh himself, who, reportedly, conveyed the message to DMK Party leader T.R.Baalu “to organize a meeting by third week of January…. [with Sri Lankan fishermen].

The proposal for present Talks: Erosion of Sri Lanka ‘s Sovereignty 

The background to the proposal for the proposed talks between the fishermen on both sides is not very clear. A subsequent report in The Hindu says “the meeting on January 20 remains uncertain as the Centre is examining conditions placed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha for it.” Jayalalitha it would seem, has insisted that the talks should be ‘without prejudice’ to her stand on Tamil Nadu’s claim for Kacchativu.

This is the beginning of moves which can have an eroding effect on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachchativu and the agreed boundary line one mile west of this island which has been agreed under the bi-lateral Agreement of 1974. There is more than a fishery issue here as Jayalalitha ‘s own reservation indicates. For her it goes beyond that to the reclaim sovereignty of Tamil Nadu on Kachchativu. So it is for Sri Lanka. The present government should recall Mrs Bandaranaike’s words that she was much concerned with safeguarding Sri Lanka’s interests by being conscious of the sensitivities of the people of the whole island and should not permit a lapse to take place through default or negligence, or being complacent with sweet-sounding words of Premier Manamohan Singh, who not so long ago promised former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, almost patronizingly, that India would look after Sri Lanka’s interest, but was seen within almost a week going to officially inaugurate the Sethu Samudra project.

No Business for Fishermen to Decide

There is no business here for fishermen from both sides to transact which would not impinge on the issue of boundaries of the other’s internal sea area in the Palk Bay and elsewhere. If the Indian fishermen could arrange a deal with Indian fishermen which stops protesting over Indian fishermen fishing in the Sri Lankan waters around Kachchativu, which is the main point of contention, the  Indian authorities could even cite such peoples-to-peoples arrangements in favour of Indian fishing in Sri Lanka waters. Such possibilities, however, which  go to establish prescriptive rights eventually, as it happened over the 1921 fishing line of 7 ½ miles west of Kachchativu, which went by default, because it was not implemented on the part of Sri Lanka, impinge on Sri Lanka’s sovereign use of her waters and present a problem at government level.

Such a situation as created by  ‘peoples-to-peoples’ arrangements, as exemplified by the German case, has its multiplying effects on other areas of activity and this is one to be watched in the present Sri Lankan Tamil project pursued by Tamil Nadu. It can expand to a whole host of economic activity even of the nature which gave rise to the European Common Market and the European Union. In economic terms, such developments may not be bad altogether, but the problem is its distinctive racial characteristics as projected by Tamil Nadu. If it embraces the entire island, it is something that may need to be looked at more positively.

Sri Lankan Sacrifices Overlooked 

The Maritime Boundaries Agreement of 1974 also deprived Sri Lankan fishermen especially, the Negombo fishermen and others from the south of their traditional fishing grounds in the Wadge Bank where they went chasing Paraw fish. Resulting from Sri Lanka abdicating this traditional rights in respect of the  Wadge Bank, Sri Lankan fishermen were permitted to carry on traditional fishing for three years subject to an maximum intake of 2000 tons and transit access to other [international] fishing grounds and India agreed to supply 2000 tons of choice fish to Sri Lanka at a concession price. These provisions have since fallen into abeyance and Sri Lankan fishing boats proceeding to international waters are intercepted by the Indian Navy and are languishing in Indian prisons while their families are living a miserable life in the absence of their bread winners.

Weakness of Sri Lankan Organisational structure 

In contrast to South India, at an organizational level, there is no strong organization or lobby to support the hapless Sri Lankan fishermen. The Fishermens’ Cooperative Societies in the North or South do not enjoy the same clout and patronage that Fishermen of Tamil Nadu do. One has never heard any voice being raised in Sri Lankan Parliament on behalf of Northern fishermen by the Vellala dominated Tamil Parliamentarians, though an occasional reference is made to southern fishermen.

Even there, it is only through Indian media sources that one learns that so many Sri Lankan fishermen, mostly from the south, languishing in Indian prisons. The Hindu reported a figure of 213 Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian jails obviously with their boats. That is more than Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody.

At a technical and entrepreneur level, the Sri Lankan fishermen lacked mechanized boats at the beginning. This was one reason why the South Indians with their more sophisticated boats and equipment began to intrude into waters around Kachchativu which were rich in prawns. Indian fishermen have exploited this situation.

Why is this total lack of interest and attention and absence of a public outcry here on the fate of our fishermen? That is another matter. A meeting of Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen cannot solve that problem or that of Indian fishermen in custody here. The authorities on both sides should educate the fishermen on the need for observing boundary limits and the need carry equipment to gauge their positions. Instead of what we see on the Indian side, as stated earlier, is political patronage given with impunity to engage on illicit fishing activity, except that the Indian Navy seems to be warning the fishermen to keep to the Indian side of the demarcating line. Not a word is heard about using destructive trawling methods. There is no such encouragement seen on the Sri Lankan side. The total lack of interest in this community’s activities is perhaps, the encouragement to transgress boundaries.

What should be Done

What should engage both sides in the interest of protecting the common living resource is to arrive at an agreement to put an end to bottom trawling methods used by Indian fishermen. Such an initiative could even slow down the objection to Indian fishing within the Sri Lanka side of the one mile west of Kachchativu.

Just calling for meetings between the two groups of fishermen without a clear agenda can not only lead to a threatening interference on the sovereign rights of Sri Lanka, but also one which could have multiplying effects. Already, India’s present reported moves to invite Sri Lankan political parties which pursue an anti-Sri Lankan government programme, prominent among which are reported invitations to TNA and the Chief Minister of NPC, who himself has been making hostile statements against the government, to India for talks, point to that multiple effect. Would the Congress government appreciate it if the Sri Lankan government inviting Chief Minister Jayalalitha who follows an anti-Congress agenda?.

As I remarked on earlier occasion, when Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao came here with an invitation to the President of this country to visit India, she was seen distributing invitations also to Rauf Hakim and Sivanesan Chandrakanta, a former Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and others thereby making a mockery of the Protocol sanctity of the official purpose for which she came.  That could not be just a goofy blunder by this former top Indian diplomat, but its message of the way India was treating the Head of State of this small country was quite clear.

That is not a friendly attitude towards a neighbouring country. I  may use what the former President of the Swiss Federation, an exemplary Democracy, told me when I met the opposition member of the Bundes, not by arrangement but by reason of his barging into my hotel room,: “You have met our Opponents.” He was even threatening to declare me ‘Persona non-grata”. That is how states react. In this case, over the proposed meeting of fishermen on the two sides, as Jayalalitha did, the government of Sri Lanka is well advised to lodge its protest.

Strategic Significance

Intrusion by Indian fishing craft was halted during the LTTE’s sway in these seas but a problem of new dimensions involving the security developed when the LTTE encouraged Indian fishermen supporting their clandestine activities of smuggling arms petrol and diesel and other products prohibited to be imported to the North and the East. This new dimension of security concern is now uppermost in the minds of Sri Lankan security forces and the stringent adherence to search by the Sri Lankan Navy could be the result of this development.

In conclusion

In conclusion, one may ask, if India’s foreign policy is going backwards, with present demonstrations of creeping weakness at the centre, to dispose of its constitutional obligations to manage the country’s foreign relations. That is a conclusion which one could arrive at by comparing what External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh told the Lok Sabha in his statement made on 23 July 1974., and the situation today. India ‘s policy of “peaceful settlement of disputes” he spoke of, did not include confrontational attitudes of dispatching thousands of Indian fishing crafts daily to the neighbouring country’s inland sea and to deny the people there of valuable marine resources and a livelihood.

Did Swaran Singh miscalculate the true nature of Indian polity with a Utopian sense he may have envisioned, and misread its underlying Kautilyan nature? Under Rajiv Gandhi with a self –promoting breed of advisors like J.N.Dixit, did Indian policy start its downward slide from early Utopian heights for Dixit to declare what was quoted earlier as the whole-mark of changing emphasis in Indian foreign policy?

That is what Sri Lanka has been subjected to by India since the happy days of good relations during Mrs Bandaranaike’s time. That is forgetting the early attitudes towards the issue of Indians in Sri Lanka. The short interlude that followed Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by the LTTE was only a temporary phase. Under Manmohan Singh  the policy of “permanent interests” has been having its field day, whether it is closing India’s eyes over the defeat of the LTTE, something which was unthinkable for India in the 1980s, Sethu Samudram, Geneva, and  CHOGUM, all being clear manifestations of a similar trend. That is speaking only about relations with Sri Lanka. Looking at things from India’s eyes, can Sri Lanka alone be made responsible for the drift in Indian policy? Historians alone can determine that.

[The writer was Sri Lanka’s senior diplomat under President J.R. Jayewardene accredited to several European countries including France and under President R. Premadasa, was one of his top Foreign policy advisors and first Resident Ambassador to Iran].



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