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ground zero
Lanka fishing for trouble on Tamils
Raj Chengappa

Raj ChengappaWhen I met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a reception at Hotel Waldorf Astoria in New York recently I asked him what he would discuss with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who he was scheduled to meet the next day on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. He didnít put trade with India on top of the agenda or the pressure Modi was likely to bring to bear with regard to speeding up the reconciliation and rehabilitation process with the defeated Sri Lankan minority.

Instead he surprised me when he mentioned that he was concerned over deep-sea trawlers from Tamil Nadu operating in the contested Palk Straits waters between Rameswaram and Jaffna and said he would take up with Modi the problem it was causing.

In May this year, the Sri Lankan Navy had arrested 29 Indian fishermen operating trawlers clandestinely in Sri Lankan waters near Katchatheevu, an islet in the Palk Straits, which had been ceded by India in the Seventies. As a goodwill gesture Rajapaksa ordered the release of the fishermen but the Lankan Navy refused to return the confiscated trawlers.

Rajapaksa had fishermen on his mind foremost when he met Modi in New York.
Rajapaksa had fishermen on his mind foremost when he met Modi in New York.

Rajapaksa explained to me that the trawlers, mostly made in Norway, were used by Tamil Nadu to fish in deep-sea waters, which was considerably depleting the fish and affecting spawning. The Lankan President was concerned that within a decade there would be no catch for Lankan fishermen. He pointed out that Tamil Nadu fishermen had already wiped out much of the marine life in Indian waters within two decades with the use of such trawlers and were now poaching in Lankan waters. Sri Lankan Tamils living in Jaffna, and who were dependent on fishing as a livelihood, were deeply concerned. They had reportedly petitioned the Sri Lankan government to take action against such Tamil Nadu fishermen.

The next day when he met Modi he did raise the issue of Tamil Nadu trawlers and the problems they were causing. He said that he would continue to release innocent Indian fishermen involved only in fishing but as a policy the Sri Lankan government had decided not to release the confiscated trawlers. On his part Modi expectedly raised the reconciliation process with the Lankan Tamils and asked the President to engage with the relatively moderate Tamil National Alliance.

If Rajapaksa seized the opportunity to keep highlighting the problem of Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay, it was because it has become one of the key strategies being unfolded to drive a wedge between Tamil Nadu and the ethnic Lankan Tamil population in the Northern province.

For years, Tamil Nadu had provided moral, emotional, financial and even territorial support to Lankan Tamils in their fight with the Lankan government for equal rights and for greater autonomy. The rise of the LTTE and its chief, the late V Prabhakaran, had much to do with many Tamil Nadu political parties supporting their cause. Even after the LTTE was decimated, Tamil Nadu continued to back the rump Lankan Tamil groups and demanded that the devolution of powers that Rajapaksa had promised be implemented.

Now Rajapaksa has cottoned on an emotive issue that directly affects the livelihood of Lanka Tamils, and his government appears to be drumming it up to pit Tamil against Tamil. Action that he took against Tamil Nadu fishermen has already received wide support among Lankan Tamils. The game plan appears to spur the growing disaffection that Lankan Tamils have over Tamil Nadu on the fishing issue.

The current standoff over the Sri Lankan High Court giving five Tamil Nadu fishermen the death sentence caught for smuggling drugs on the Lankan high seas may not be directly linked to all this. But it has put the Indian government in a bind. The Tamil Nadu government has alleged that the drug peddling charge was a frame-up and wants the Modi government to act firmly and have the fishermen released. Several Tamil Nadu parties charged the Ministry of External Affairs with neglect and allowing the case to reach a terminal stage without intervening earlier.

The Ministry of External Affairs clarified that it had already spoken to the Sri Lankan government on the issue on several occasions but the court process had not permitted amnesty at that stage. The Indian government is likely to appeal to the Lankan Supreme Court this week to have the death sentence commuted to a prison sentence and then it would use an existing treaty between the two countries to have Indian prisoners with jail sentences sent back to India to serve the sentence.

The last word though has not been said or heard, either on this or that of Tamil Nadu trawlers fishing in troubled waters.






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