Troubled waters

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Fishermen from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu attending the annual festival of St Anthony's Church on Katchativu. Photo: REUTERS

KEHELIYA RAMBUKWELLA, Sri Lanka’s Media Minister and government spokesman, may have spoken too soon. Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted him as saying on May 19 that Colombo was pleased that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had lost her bargaining power with the Narendra Modi government at the Centre because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had secured a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha elections held in April and May.

The Minister further said: “A powerful government in Delhi is good for us. Whatever decision the Centre takes, it will be without any undue influence from States like Tamil Nadu…. We are happy that there is a very strong government and that the Prime Minister-elect does not have to depend on any other party for his majority. This means that even if Jayalalithaa has won 37 seats in Tamil Nadu, she will not be in a position to influence the Centre.”

On the same day, Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne issued a veiled warning to India on the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen fishing in the Palk Bay. The news agency quoted him as saying: “If anyone tried to exploit Sri Lanka’s fishing resources, we will resort to international mechanisms available to tackle this issue. Modi has lost in the southern States [a reference to the BJP’s poor performance in Kerala and Tamil Nadu]. If Modi thinks, he should win over Jayalalithaa, then we might see the same policy on the fishing industry. ”

Senaratne’s comments came against the background of a logjam in Colombo on May 12 in the second round of talks between Tamil Nadu fishermen and their Sri Lankan counterparts. The first round was held in Chennai on January 27.

The Jayalalithaa government is priding itself on its victory in two important issues relating to water—one, the Supreme Court’s directive to the Centre to gazette the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on the sharing of the Cauvery waters by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and, two, its verdict in favour of Tamil Nadu in its feud with Kerala over raising the height of the Mullaperiyar dam. If there is one issue the resolution of which Jayalalithaa would like to take credit for, it is the fishermen’s issue.

As a Colombo-watcher put it, there are five issues relating to Sri Lanka that will prove to be major challenges for the Modi government. They are: the stand-off between Tamil Nadu fishermen and their Sri Lankan counterparts over the former fishing in the island’s waters and the attacks on and arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy; the allegation of war crimes against the Sri Lanka Army in the final stages of its war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009; devolution of powers to the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka; the [re] merger of the Eastern province of the island with the Northern province, which the Tamils consider their traditional homeland; and demilitarisation of Sri Lanka’s North.

Colombo has not delivered on its promise to New Delhi to devolve powers to the Tamil areas. The merger of the Eastern province with the Northern province, subject to a referendum in the East, which was a cornerstone of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayewardene in 1987, has been undone.

The Indian government had been accused by a section of people in Tamil Nadu of diluting the United States-sponsored resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2013 against Sri Lanka’s “human rights violations”. In March this year, India abstained from voting on a UNHRC resolution approving an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes.

It is against this backdrop that the fishermen’s issue gains importance. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue did not figure high on the campaign agenda of the regional parties in the State. The parties, however, criticised the Manmohan Singh government for its “inaction” in putting an end to the attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen.

At the heart of the problem, which has been suppurating for the past 32 years, is the ceding of Katchativu, an islet located in the Palk Strait 12 kilometres off Rameswaram, to Sri Lanka in 1974 by the Indira Gandhi government and the rise of Tamil militancy in the island nation in the early 1980s. When India ceded the island to Sri Lanka, the median in the international waters was drawn in such a way that Katchativu fell in Sri Lankan waters ( Frontline, April 22, 1994; November 4, 1994; April 11, 2003; April 6, 2007). But the agreement between New Delhi and Colombo protected the “traditional rights” of Indian fishermen to fish in and around the waters of Katchativu and to dry their nets on the islet. It also permitted pilgrims to participate in the annual festival held by St Anthony’s church in the islet since 1939.

The abundance of prawns in the waters beyond Katchativu attracts fishermen from Rameswaram in Ramanathapuram district and Pudukottai and Nagapattinam districts of Tamil Nadu. Between 1983 and 2009, during the period of Tamil militancy, the Sri Lanka Navy killed more than 250 Tamil Nadu fishermen, injured several hundreds, damaged their boats and nets, and looted their catch. With the collapse of Tamil militancy in the North and the East of the island following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, the fishermen from the island’s Northern province, mostly Sri Lankan Tamils, and Tamil Nadu fishermen started competing for the fish catch off Katchativu. This led to a stand-off, with Tamil Nadu fishermen insisting that the Palk Bay was their traditional fishing ground.

During her election campaign, Jayalalithaa repeatedly targeted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government for not taking steps to prevent the Sri Lanka Navy from arresting Tamil Nadu fishermen. At Ramanathapuram (the epicentre of fishermen’s protests against such attacks), she referred to the petition she had filed in the Supreme Court against the ceding of Katchativu without the approval of the two Houses of Parliament. But the UPA government, she noted, told the Supreme Court that Katchativu was “never a part of India”. Modi flagged the issue in his election speeches in Chennai on April 13 and Ramanathapuram on April 17. He said just as the island’s navy targeted Tamil Nadu fishermen, Pakistan’s navy attacked fishermen from Gujarat (Modi’s home State), and that “the weak government at the Centre” had failed to protect these fishermen. If voted to power, the BJP would protect the fishermen belonging to both States, he said.

On May 16, when it became clear that the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was heading for a landslide win in the State, Jayalalithaa assured voters that she would implement all the promises made in her party’s manifesto. The AIADMK had promised to “take action to urge the Sri Lankan government to put an end to the illegal arrest of innocent Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy”. The manifesto had said, the party would take “necessary action to create a congenial atmosphere for talks between the fishermen of Sri Lanka and India, so as to protect the interests of fishermen of Tamil Nadu”. It promised to ensure that the International Court of Justice in The Hague punished all those who “committed war crimes and genocide against the Tamil minorities during the internal strife in Sri Lanka…”. The AIADMK is also “determined”, the manifesto said, “to move the United Nations to take action and render justice to the Tamils in Sri Lanka and for holding a referendum amongst the Tamils in Sri Lanka and displaced Sri Lankan Tamils across the world for the formation of a separate Tamil Eelam”. On Katchativu, the manifesto assured voters that the party would take all steps to retrieve the islet.

Other parties, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi, have also demanded that a referendum be held in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka and among the Tamil diaspora on the formation of a separate Tamil Eelam.

However, just as the Congress ruled out any support for Eelam, the BJP has maintained it will not countenance its formation. Senior BJP leader M. Venkaiah Naidu said in Bangalore on March 23 that there was no question of supporting the founding of Tamil Eelam because the BJP was not for the vivisection of the island nation. He made it clear that “if any solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem has to be arrived at, it should be within the framework of the concept of a united Sri Lanka”. The same day, he said in Chennai: “As far as the BJP is concerned, we are for maintaining the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka and for a solution within the constitutional framework of that country. If you support the demand for a separate nation, it will have its repercussion in your country.”

According to Colombo-watchers, the remarks of Rambukwella and Senaratne are bound to harden Jayalalithaa’s stance on the fishermen’s right to fish in the Palk Bay.

The second round of talks between Tamil Nadu fishermen and their counterparts from northern Sri Lanka failed because the island’s bureaucrats insisted that the Indian fishermen should not cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), informed sources said. Besides, the island’s fishermen demanded that the Indian fishermen stop bottom-trawling in the Palk Bay.

“If Tamil Nadu fishermen cannot cross the IMBL, why hold the talks at all?” an Indian fisherman asked. “For decades, we have been fishing off the coast of Katchativu. We will continue to do so,” he asserted.

“A Central government that had been blaming the State for the impasse is gone, and the fishing community is looking to the new government for a solution,” said fishermen leaders U. Arunalandham, P. Sesu Raja and N.J. Bose ( The Hindu, May 19, 2014).

T.S. Subramanian

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