In the midst of Sri Lanka’s mention of ‘licensed’ fishing as a way out of continuing bilateral tensions on this score, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have prioritised the State’s concerns once again. In her letter, CM Jayalalithaa said that the ‘frequency’ and ‘magnitude’ of ‘abduction’ of Tamil Nadu fishers in Sri Lankan waters have gone up in recent times. Clearly, she wants a halt to the arrest of Tamil Nadu fishers by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and a return of boats, even for negotiations on ‘licensed’ fishing were to commence.

Sri Lanka, by announcing that ‘licensed’ fishing by Indian fishers as among the options and declaring that it would ban ‘bottom-trawling’ through legislation, has put the ball back in the Indian court (or, waters?), for finding a ‘negotiated solution’ to the vexatious issue the ‘before year-end’. In turn, it should boil down to greater and more visible efforts by the governments in India to encourage deep-sea fishing in a big way, and faster than the Centre seems to be acting on a five-year-old initiative of the Jayalalithaa Government.

Taking off from where the earlier Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had left as far back as in 2003, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi recently told The Hindu that ‘licensed’ fishing was an option. A parliamentary statement of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself contained the catch-line that it had to be minus bottom-trawling, the only favoured way of the Tamil Nadu fishers. The New Indian Express has since reported that Sri Lanka was willing to consider granting 250 ‘licences’ even for bottom-trawlers from India (read: Tamil Nadu), if only it would help slash the numbers down from a whopping 3000, as claimed by Colombo.

Blowing hot and cold at the same time, PM Wickremesinghe recently told Sri Lankan Parliament that the fishers’ issue was impacting on bilateral relations. He added that there was no question of Sri Lanka going to war with India on the issue. It was obviously a half-jest statement, but was also true, considering that senior members of the predecessor Rajapaksa regime had invoked ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ as among the causes for Colombo opposing Indian fishers in Sri Lankan waters.

At the same time, Wickremesinghe added that the Indian fishers could not be allowed to destroy the marine ecology. The interests of the Tamil fishers of the country’s Northern Province too would have to be protected, he added. Thus, there would not be a solution without taking the Northern Tamil fishers into confidence, the Prime Minister reiterated. Translated politically, it could also mean that the Government would lend all moral, political and legal support to the Tamil fishers of the Northern Province to protest more than already being done against their brethren from across the Palk Strait.

Wickremesinghe commended Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliament member M. A. Sumanthiran’s pending ‘private member’ bill to ban bottom-trawling in Sri Lankan waters. The TNA is the official Opposition in Parliament and has an absolute majority in the Northern Provincial Council, headed by Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran. Sri Lanka has been effectively enforcing the ban on local fishers through an Executive Order. The Sri Lanka Navy’s (SLN) intervention against the Indian fishers are mostly over the violation of the nation’s ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’, and especially without valid ‘travel documents’.

A parliamentary legislation would give the executive ban on bottom-trawling more teeth. It would be more so if and when passed unanimously — which seems to be the case on this one. It could also empower the Sri Lankan State — as much politically as legally — while negotiating with the Indian Government/fishers, or in international fora, if it came to that, before or after the ‘year-end’, the tentative deadline now fixed by the Prime Minister in his parliamentary intervention.

Sumanthiran had moved the draft bill originally a year ago, but it lapsed after the dissolution of the earlier Parliament, leading to fresh elections. PM Wickremesinghe stated that the re-introduced Sumanthiran bill would be notified by the Fisheries Ministry, and enforced.  With the The New Indian Express now reporting that the Government might consider granting 250 ‘interim licences’ to Indian fishers, it remains to be seen how far would the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition would back any initiative of the kind.

Wickremesinghe also said that the Government would free Indian fishers caught (bottom-trawling) in Sri Lankan waters, but would not release their boats. The idea, originally enforced by the erstwhile Rajapaksa Government, was/is that the boats are owned by relatively rich people and that the arrested fishers are only employees. The differentiation had to be made, and the logic seems to hold good to date in Sri Lanka.

The logic seems to be that the detention and the consequent ‘nature’s way’ of decay and destruction of the arrested boats would discourage Indian fishers not to cross into Sri Lankan waters. In this, successive Sri Lankan governments have had the vociferous backing of the Northern Tamil fishers and their political outfits, more especially the TNA, which otherwise seeks Indian/Tamil Nadu support on the ‘ethnic issue’ all the time.

Mutually competing

Post-poll last year, the government of President Maithiripala Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe has encouraged parliamentary debates on the ‘fishers issue’. It has been a constant and mutually-competing practice for Tamil Nadu’s ‘Dravidian’ parties in Indian Parliament and also the State Legislature. The Rajapaksa regime seemed to have carefully kept the contentious issue out of parliamentary debates and public discourses — even when strains had begun developing on the UNHRC and China fronts.

Yet, there is unanimity in Sri Lankan political, bureaucratic and social views on the fishers’ issue, especially when it concerns southern Tamil Nadu, owing to the latter’s collective/competitive stand on the ‘ethnic issue’ first and ‘accountability probe’ since. If anything, there is mutual competition among the various Sri Lankan stake-holders — Sinhalas and Tamils, both inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic — on the fishers’ issue, among other bilateral concerns involving India.

At the government level, the present position is similar to that of the Rajapaksa regime’s, but expressed with greater finesse and equal depth. It’s no different in the case of the TNA. The TNA’s Northern Provincial Council, as also the party’s organisational wings, have passed resolutions in this regard. The TNA’s continual effort at seeking legislative teeth for what essentially was the position flagged by erstwhile EPDP Minister, Douglas Devananda, under the Rajapaksa rule, too is a display of political refinement and depth at the same time.

As Minister, Devananda had declared that he would lead a protest in the Sri Lankan waters to block Indian trawlers. He later explained it (away?), saying his intention was to draw the immediate attention of the government leaderships on both sides of the Palk Straits, to find an early solution to the issue, which was otherwise beginning to affect Tamils-Tamils relations in the two countries.

As an aside, Devananda is facing a revived ‘murder case’ in Tamil Nadu’s capital of Chennai dating back to the eighties, now being conducted through tele-conference. More recently, Northern Province’s TNA Chief Minister Justice C. V. Wigneswaran has asked Devananda’s EPDP Leader of the Opposition, Thavarasa, to present much of the Tamils’ devolution case to a sub-committee of the Constituent Assembly nearer home.

Precedents elsewhere

When the chips are down and negotiations, if any, were to commence on the ‘revived’ proposal for ‘licensed fishing’ is taken up for negotiations, the Sri Lankan Government’s proposal for granting licensed fishing could raise as many questions as it seeks to find answers to others. It could also flag other issues, both within India, especially Tamil Nadu, and also viz political parties within Sri Lanka.

The reported proposal to grant 250 licenses for trawler-fishing would imply two things. One, it acknowledges the Sri Lankan ‘sovereignty’ over the waters that the Tamil Nadu Government, divided polity and fishers, claim are ‘historic waters’, over which they had ‘traditional rights’ to fish. From an internal Sri Lankan perspective, there could be political and bureaucratic opposition to opening up ‘Sri Lankan waters’ for fishing to Indians ‘contesting’ the claims — and also from a ‘security angle’ and on ‘sovereignty’ issues.

There are however precedents elsewhere, particularly in the post-colonial era, to which the India-Sri Lanka fishers issue could be traced. From an Indian governmental perspective, any solution based on give-and-take of the kind would need to be considered in the context of fishers’ issue that the nation faces with other nations in the region — namely, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Maldives, among others.

Sri Lanka, in turn, could want to use the negotiations to lay down other conditions that have not possibly been mentioned in any past negotiations. Agreements of the kind between other nations have laid down the number of licences with periodic review and re-negotiations, and strict enforcement of other conditions. These conditions include verifiable quantities of fish that could be caught in other nation’s waters — acknowledged as such — and authorisation for the latter’s marine forces to throw extra catches into the sea, and detain and/or destroy the boats, and arrest the fishers on board. All these conditions too have been enforces, elsewhere.

For starters, however, India and Sri Lanka can look back at the 1974 agreement on the first-time drawing up of their International Maritime Boundary Line in the ‘shared seas’ from the past. The Indian accession of the tiny Palk Strait islet of Katchchativu is well known and much talked about. However, the agreement also provided for India getting the ownership of what is known as the Wadge Bank, south of Cape Camorin, the land’s end — including three-year permission for ‘licensed’ fishing by Sri Lankan boats, up to a fixed quantity, for three years.

Katchchativu issue

Going beyond any contemporary Indian reference to the Wadge Bank, if and where required, Sri Lanka might now seek to link any solution to an acknowledgement of the Government of India’s position on the ‘Katchchativu issue’ by the Tamil Nadu State and its polity. Irrespective of parties and leaderships in power at the Centre, the Government of India has consistently stood by the 1974 agreement, stating that the Katchchativu islet belonged to Sri Lanka.

It has also been notified as such by the two countries together under the internationally-binding UNCLOS (UN Conference on the Law of the Seas), and there can be any unilateral withdrawal or changes, even if imposed by local courts and/or courts. In effect, it would mean that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa would have to review her pending Supreme Court case, challenging the 1974 agreement in her personal capacity when she was in the Opposition. Relatively recently, DMK rival M. Karunanidhi, too, had filed a similar petition in the Supreme Court.

Needless to point out, the Catholic Diocese of northern Jaffna, Sri Lanka, initiated renovation of the St Peter’s Church on the Isle, with help from Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), just ahead of the heated 16 May State Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu — as if to send more than one message from across the Palk Strait. Now, ruling BJP’s Union Minister of State for Surface Transport, Pon Radhakrishnan, representing the Kanyakumari constituency in Tamil Nadu in the Lower House of Parliament, has argued against linking Katchchativu to the fishers’ issue. The party and the Minister had taken a different view during the long run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Needs clarity

It’s unclear as yet if the Sri Lankan proposal/offer of ‘licensed fishing’ would apply only to the Rameswaran fishers on this side of the Palk Strait — or, would also cover Nagapattinam and Karaikkal fishers, who are arrested fishing in Sri Lanka’s eastern waters, off Trincomallee and beyond. Already, the Tamil Nadu Government has fixed a ‘token’ system for Rameswaram fishers going out into the sea — for reasons of avoiding overcrowding and also Sri Lanka-related security concerns.

If the Tamil Nadu Government and fishers accept the possible ‘licensing conditions’ and the reported numbers laid down by the Sri Lankan administration, then they would also have to pick-and-choose those from among the nearly 800 token-holders for being allowed into Sri Lankan waters. It is not unlikely that the Rameswaram fishers might accept alternate-day or week fishing among themselves. It could still leave the Nagapattinam, Karaikkal and fishers from other parts in the seas.

For now, the Tamil Nadu government, polity and fishers have not reacted to the Sri Lankan proposal for ‘licensed’ fishing. With the monsoon session of Parliament already on, MPs from the State have flagged the issue in both Houses. In the coming days, the State Government’s reaction and that of the divided polity to the Sri Lankan proposal on the one hand and the arrests on the other too remain to be seen in the Budget session of the Tamil Nadu Assembly.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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