Fishing in troubled waters
Incidents of Indian fishermen
poaching in Sri Lankan waters have been increasing recently.
This happens usually off the Northern coast of Sri Lanka.
This is an area in which fishing was banned during the war
period. The end of the war saw the Northern fishermen taking to
fishing in a big way due to the lifting of the restrictions. In
such a background poaching Indian fishermen are likely to
encounter resistance from local fishermen.
It was a few weeks back that local fishermen had surrounded
the intruding Indian fishermen, apprehended them and handed them
over to the authorities. Subsequently they were produced before
Courts and legal proceedings instituted according to the law of
It is the only course of action open to the authorities.
Unfortunately it caused a big stir in Tamil Nadu and even the
central government of India was moved into making statements
decrying the detention of the poachers.
Also a huge cry was made in Tamil Nadu alleging the Sri
Lankan Navy of killing Indian fishermen in mid-sea. The Sri
Lankan Navy has rightly denied these allegations as satellite
images do not show the presence of the SLN in places where
clashes were reported to be happening.
These developments were subsequently handled at top levels of
the Governments of both countries. It has eased the tension that
was building up. The visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama
Rao and the release of the Indian fishermen in custody by Sri
Lanka and the release of Sri Lankan fishermen who were being
detained in Chennai helped to diffuse the tension.
It is now time to dispassionately look at the issue and work
out a permanent solution that would guarantee the non-recurrence
of such unpleasant incidents. It is not only Indian fishermen
that stray into Sri Lankan waters but also Sri Lankan fishermen
who stray into Indian waters.
This is all the more important since there are forces in both
Sri Lanka and in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu who have a
vested interest in soiling the good relations that exist between
Sri Lanka and India. The forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu is
the single biggest factor that has made politicians there to
whip up anti-Sri Lankan sentiments in a bid to outshine one
another in a bid to enhance their vote bank.
Traditionally these rivals used the ethnic conflict in Sri
Lanka to whip up anti-Sri Lankan sentiments to gather votes.
However, since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi the issue had
become a non-starter in Tamil Nadu. Even at the height of the
last phase of the humanitarian occupation of the Security Forces
against the LTTE which coincided with an election in Tamil Nadu,
the Sri Lankan factor was not prominent as shown by the results.
Thus having seen the deflation of the Sri Lankan ethnic issue
as a propaganda tool Tamil Nadu politicians have started to fish
in troubled waters by capitalizing on the confrontations between
the fishermen of the two countries in isolated instances.
Nor are those fishing in troubled waters confined to the
Indian mainland. There are some here across the Palk Straits
too. The Opposition wants to blow up the issue and paint a
gloomy and desperate picture of Indo-Sri Lanka relations.
These relations, however, have withstood bigger constraints
since they are built on centuries of friendly engagement in the
fields of economics, politics, culture and history. It should be
remembered that our two countries have a common civilizational
There are already established mechanisms that could deal with
the issue. As the two countries agreed during the visit of
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao recently the Joint Working
Group (JWG) of the two countries would meet in early March to
work out a permanent and humanitarian solution. In the meantime
both governments have advised their fishermen not to cross the
International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between the two
countries. Perhaps the JWG could agree upon a system of joint
patrolling of the IMBL among others.
The two countries should also investigate whether there are
third parties interested in escalating tension in the Palk
Given Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical location and the
rival geo-political interests of various world and regional
powers in the Indian Ocean zone it is essential to remove all
irritants in Indo-Sri Lanka relations on the fishing issue.