India & Sri Lanka

All at sea: India-Sri Lanka relations turn increasingly fragile

Print edition : January 14, 2022

Family members of fishermen who were detained by the Sri Lanka Navy demonstrating in Rameswaram on December 20. Photo: L. Balachandar

Boats anchored in Rameswaram fishing jetty on December 20 in protest against the detention of fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy. Photo: L. Balachandar

Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp in Puzhal, Chennai. Sri Lanka appears to be keeping the international community guessing about its intentions on refugees. Photo: PICHUMANI K

Indian fishermen crossing over to Sri Lankan waters and the issue of Tamil refugees in India have become flashpoints in an already fragile relationship between the two countries.

Two long-standing issues have added a new dimension to the complicated and fraught India-Sri Lanka relations. The issues are: Indian fishermen regularly crossing over to Sri Lankan waters and adopting bottom trawling method of fishing, which Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen claim ruin their livelihood; and the presence of Sri Lankan refugees in India.

On December 22, a day after the Sri Lanka Navy detained several Indian fishermen, Sri Lankan Minister Douglas Devananda warned that the boats and equipment of Indian fishermen would be seized if they ventured into Sri Lankan territorial waters. He also threatened that such boats would be nationalised by Sri Lanka (and sold).

On December 21, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson, in response to questions about the detention of Indian fishermen, said: “We are concerned at the detention of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu by Sri Lankan authorities between December 18 and 20, 2021. As per our information, 68 fishermen and 10 boats have been taken into custody. Officials from the Consulate General of India, Jaffna, have met the detained fishermen and are providing all necessary support.... They are also arranging legal representation.” He added that the Indian “High Commission in Colombo has taken up the issue of early release of the Indian fishermen and boats with the Government of Sri Lanka”.

On an earlier occasion, in response to a question from this correspondent about what transpires at the meetings on such sensitive issues, an official who had been given the unpleasant task of securing the release of fishermen said: “Nothing much. We plead with them. They give in sometimes quickly, at other times, after a while…. The whole thing is unpleasant for us.”

There has been no indication—going by its actions—that the Sri Lankan state is overtly interested in the welfare of its Tamil fishermen in the north and east. But the issue of Indian trawlers in Sri Lanka is looked at from a national security perspective and a sovereignty standpoint. It is also a political issue, which has the potential to unite the Sinhalese against India and ethnic Tamils in the island—the original ethno-political fault line in the island nation.

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Regardless of their government’s interests, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who spoke to this correspondent said they were fed up with the Indian fishermen, who not only poach in Sri Lankan waters but also end up destroying their nets. An articulate person in the group told Frontline: “Bottom trawling fishing by Indian fishermen is creating problems for the livelihood of fishermen in the north. Sri Lanka has banned trawling because it harms the sea resources to a great extent. Indian fishermen often trespass into Sri Lankan waters, very close to the shorelines of the north and cut the fishing nets and damage the boats of northern Tamil fishermen. From the shores, we can see Indian trawlers. The Sri Lanka Navy is bribed to ignore these acts. Though this has been reported several times, the Sri Lankan government authorities, including Ministers, are maintaining double standards with regard to delivering justice to Tamil fishermen. Even fishermen from Tamil Nadu know that they are trespassing into Sri Lankan waters and harming the fishermen’s livelihood in the north.”

Given the life-or-death situation that the Sri Lankan fishermen face, they have decided to take the law into their own hands. After a particularly horrid incident a few weeks ago in which a few Sri Lankan fishermen lost their catch and nets, they have decided to strike back each time an Indian trawler enters their waters. Said the fisherman: “Now, a group of Tamil fishermen from my locality is going as a group to attack the Indian trawlers trespassing into Sri Lankan waters as the Sri Lanka Navy is turning a blind eye. It is not a healthy thing. These fishermen, after losing lakhs of rupees with the damage and loss of nets, boats, have decided to resort to this.”

Several skirmishes between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have occurred in the past few months, much to the delight of those who have been trying to drive a wedge between the Tamil-speaking people of the north of Sri Lanka and India.

Realising the gravity of the situation, the Government of India dispatched the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu on November 21 in a first-ever visit of its nature, to study the issue and find a solution. In a press release issued on December 1, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said: “On the first day of his visit (21 November), the High Commissioner visited the coastal town of Rameswaram and interacted with the local fishing community on the issues faced by Indian fishermen. Government of Tamil Nadu officials briefed the visiting High Commissioner on the infrastructure and other facilities they had developed for deep-sea fishing in the district. The High Commissioner also utilised the opportunity to visit the old ferry harbour in Dhanushkodi that had catered to people-to-people connectivity between India and Sri Lanka…. In the constructive discussions held with the senior officials of the State government of Tamil Nadu and other stakeholders, it was agreed to facilitate early holding of India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on Fisheries as well as interactions between Fishermen Associations of both the countries. The High Commissioner was informed that a team from Tamil Nadu would visit Sri Lanka for finalising modalities of auction for the unsalvageable Indian fishing boats in various Sri Lankan harbours.”

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The High Commissioner met Chief Minister M.K. Stalin and Fisheries Minister Anita Radhakrishnan, among others, to discuss the issue. It was after this visit that Indian fishermen were held in Sri Lanka again; though a series of issues were flagged at the meeting, it was too early to find and implement solutions. A former diplomat reminded this correspondent that despite the intervention of former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, a lasting solution had remained elusive.

The Indian dilemma

For India, asking Indian fishermen to adapt to deep-sea fishing is much more than a climbdown because it has held that the waters between Sri Lanka and India constitute “traditional fishing grounds” and that boundaries do not matter here. In terms of security, the Indian authorities consider fishermen as custodians of Tamil Nadu’s rather long seashore. After the end of hostilities in 2009, following the end of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), there are more opportunities for undesirable elements to infiltrate India. Fishermen form the first line of defence inasmuch as they are the ones who will identify a local person from a stranger and inform the local police. If fishermen are pushed beyond a point to keep away from the “traditional fishing grounds”, they will not consider the Indian state an ally.

Indian security officials say the problem is compounded by the lack of concern on the part of the Sri Lankan State Intelligence Service (SIS) when it comes to some issues in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The SIS has a disproportionate interest in Tamil Nadu because it considers Tamil Nadu a place for remnants of the LTTE to enter Sri Lanka. But it has not shown equal persistence in handling local threats, such as the regrouping of those trained by the radical preacher Zehran Hashmi, who allegedly masterminded the Easter Bomb attacks in Sri Lanka (See ‘Home-bred terror’, Frontline, July 5, 2019), and has declared a caliphate ‘Vilaya Al Sri Lanka’.

The problem with such lack of interest is that Indian agencies believe that if a terror attack is averted in one place, another place, even another country, could be the target.

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

On the issue of refugees, Sri Lanka has been insisting that the time is ripe for Sri Lankan refugees in India to return, but has not helped them in any manner. In fact, a couple of refugees who returned earlier this year were transported to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya and were quarantined at their expense.

In September 2021, many of the refugees who were to travel dropped out, fearing the new rules in place. Anecdotal evidence also points to refugees who went back to Sri Lanka making their way back to India, often using illegal means.

It is under this circumstance that the Tamil Nadu government, after M.K. Stalin assumed office, took a series of steps to ensure a better life for refugees. This included the setting up of a committee to cater to their welfare (‘Tamil Nadu government announces a slew of benefits for Sri Lankan refugees, including measures to improve conditions in camps’, Frontline, August 27, 2021).

These steps have not gone down well with the Sri Lankan government. Minister Namal Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, noted on Twitter on August 28: “While welcoming #TamilNadu CM. @mkstalin’s statement on #lka [Sri Lankan] refugees, after the end of the war in 2009, then government of @PresRajapaksa [Mahinda Rajapaksa] welcomed back refugees who had fled to TN. According to stats, 3,567 families hv [have] returned back to #lka with the help of UNHRC [actually, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR] facilitation.”

In another tweet he said: “Those who have returned and who require assistance have been provided with houses & livelihoods. Pres @GotabayaR [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] and PM @PresRajapaksa will ensure all refugees who return back are safe in their homeland & can restart their lives.”

Mano Ganesan, former Minister and Colombo MP, responded to Namal on August 29 on Twitter: “Before welcoming refugees from #TamilNadu, let the #GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] settle the internally displaced people [IDPs] living in camps in #Jaffna over decades. Release #SLArmy [Sri Lankan Army] occupied lands in Valigamam north, including Palali area, so that displaced get back to their homes.” He tagged Namal and Stalin. More than a decade after the end of the war, Sri Lankan IDPs still live in camps.

Word play

Sri Lanka appears to be keeping the international community guessing about its intentions on refugees. Resolving “the long standing issue of externally displaced persons” [EDPs] is stated as a mission objective in an internally circulated ‘Integrated Country Strategy for Sri Lankan Missions in India 2021/2023’.

The phrase “externally displaced persons” has shocked those working in the field of refugee welfare because the internationally accepted term is “refugees”. The mission objective says that “the presence of Tamil EDPs from Sri Lanka in India, particularly in the State of Tamil Nadu, gives rise to complications in bilateral relations…. The voluntary repatriation of EDPs through the existing mechanism is slow….Settling the issue of EDPs could prevent fringe elements from dominating the discourse concerning this emotive issue, and thereby create a positive image for Sri Lanka.”

The Government of India is on the same page with the Sri Lankan government on the issue. The 2019-20 Annual Report of the Ministry of Home notes: “The GoI’s [Government of India’s] approach is to discourage the movement of people as refugees, but if any refugees belonging to these categories do come, they are granted relief on humanitarian grounds. The ultimate objective is that they should be repatriated back to Sri Lanka. Relief is given pending such repatriation.” (page 252)

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Sri Lanka wants to use this stated objective to prepare a “comprehensive resettlement plan” and convey it to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. The other “key tasks for implementation” for Sri Lanka—according to the Country Strategy—is to “engage with UNHCR and other stakeholders after a positive feedback from the Ministry of External Affairs” and “engagement with the political leadership in Tamil Nadu to encourage and facilitate a smooth return of the EDPs to Sri Lanka”. The Sri Lankan government is yet to reveal its comprehensive plan.

In September, the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai told a newspaper that on an average 1,000 persons had been returning to Sri Lanka every year until the COVID restrictions took effect. But statistics from Indian agencies and the Tamil Nadu government do not support this claim.

Many stakeholders note that the way forward should be led by the Indian government and the State of Tamil Nadu apart from the Sri Lankan government. Said an official: “Sri Lanka should partner with India and the UNHCR to have a tripartite commission for this process. The United Nations and development partners are needed to provide a comprehensive package for sustainable return and reintegration available for a defined window of time. The refugees who wish to return to Sri Lanka should be able to access rights and services and contribute fully as citizens. Confidence building and facilitating voluntary decision of refugees towards return would be key.” Until this happens, India should follow the M.K. Stalin route and regularise the stay of Sri Lankan refugees in India so that they can live full, dignified and productive lives.

While the issue relating to fishermen is taking up a lot of diplomatic time, refugees are not high on the priority list. Ironically, this diplomatic time is spent on securing the release of fishermen and setting up mechanisms similar to those that failed. The India-Sri Lanka fishermen issue is a livelihood problem with no easy solutions. For now, India wants Sri Lanka to allow the status quo to continue with respect to fishermen, while Sri Lanka, it appears, wants India to hold the status quo in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India.

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But this is not a solution for refugees or fishermen. Many refugees finally see a ray of hope in the Tamil Nadu government’s new steps and believe that they will be treated on a par with Indian citizens. Sri Lanka does not want this process to continue, though many Tamils have lived here beyond a generation. For the Sri Lankan fishermen in the north, in the absence of any continuing state support, to address their livelihood concerns is likely to be a long haul.

At the political level, it is interesting to note that even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has taken up the issue of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. The coming days will witness more political jostling with the Eelam People’s Democratic Party on the side of the Rajapaksas, and the TNA and other Tamil political formations on the other, fighting for the same cause. At some point during this shadow boxing, the TNA, which looks to India and the Indian political leadership for “support for its goal of achieving” a solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic question, will have to condemn the Indian attitude towards “poaching” in Sri Lankan waters.

Therein lies India’s next headache.

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