Originally Published 2014-07-19 12:17:04 Published on Jul 19, 2014
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, apart from writing to the Prime Minister, could also consider touching base with fellow Chief Ministers for facilitating such early release of 'innocent' Sri Lankan fishers in their prison, from time to time.
Sri Lanka fishers' row: 'Fast-tracking' problem, not necessarily solution?
"Briefing newsmen after the bilateral talks between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Sri Lankan counterpart, Prof G L Peiris, India's official spokesman Syed Akbaruddin had this to say of the fishers' row involving the two countries, on Friday, 11 July 2014:

"Both Ministers discussed this at some length and felt that there needs to be a longer-term solution to this problem. External Affairs Minister thanked Prof Peiris and the President of Sri Lanka for having adopted what is a 'fast-track' approach towards repatriation of Indian fishermen who are taken into custody by Sri Lanka."

As Akbaruddin pointed out further, "In fact during the course of this year, 805 Indian fishermen have been repatriated or are being repatriated to India so far. They were in custody and have been released through this fast- track approach?If one were to try and take those who have been repatriated since the new government came into power on 26th of May, it is I think, 249. These 249 include 37 who have been released today. We are making arrangements for their return."

According to the MEA spokesman, "The numbers that we are talking of this year are much larger than any in the last five years. We did a tabulation of numbers since 2009, and we found that the numbers that have been released so far this year are the largest that have been in the last five years."

Does it mean that the number of Indian fishers from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry being arrested in Sri Lankan waters too have increased over the same or a slightly extended period? And does it mean that the detention and imprisonment of Indian fishers and their vessels by the Sri Lankan authorities to discourage their violating their seas has not served their overall purpose?

Does it indicate that the 'fast-track' approach for the release of Indian fishers arrested in Sri Lankan waters has only encouraged them to violate those waters with greater immunity than already?

The truth lies in between. Violations have never stopped, or have reduced in numbers, so to say, other than during the 45-day official fishing-ban period imposed along India's east coast, and during periods of weatherman's alert over impending storm.

Only the number of detentions has kept varying from time to time, season to season, year on year - mostly based on the effectiveness of the Centre's intervention at a given point.

However, the Centre's intervention has helped in effectively reducing - almost to the point of non-existence - the attacks, allegedly by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) personnel, on TN/Puducherry fishers, since late 2008. That was when Sri Lanka acknowledged it as a 'livelihood issue', as against a 'security concern' for the nation.

Not as simple as it sounds

The 'fast-track' method for double-quick release of arrested Indian fishers in Sri Lankan waters has been in place for close to a decade - coinciding with President Mahinda Rajapaksa assuming office in late 2005.

Intent on maintaining good-neighbourly relations with the Indian neighbour, particularly Tamil Nadu, its people and government just across the Palk Strait, the Sri Lankan Government put in place - or, rather, allowed itself to evolve -- the 'fast-track' method. An alert from their Indian offices, more so in Chennai and/or a request from the Indian High Commission would do the trick - or, so it seemed.

Lack of reciprocity, and contradicting political stance on related and not-so-related 'ethnic issue' by successive Governments in Tamil Nadu have not helped matters - or, at least on occasions. The Sri Lankan Government would not have answers to queries from within on one political statement from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister of the day, a resolution by the State Assembly, or some such thing.

Delays then would become inevitable, yet manageable. Yet, as spokesman Akbaruddin quoted Minister Sushma as acknowledging with thanks, President Rajapaksa and/or her own counterpart Peiris in particular had interceded on more than one occasions.

At times, Peiris had come under criticism from fellow-Cabinet Ministers for such intervention, but he is not known to have given up doing it.

Ports and Fishers Minister once upon a time, President Rajapaksa was reported to have left standing instructions for his people to take the liberty of bothering him wherever and whenever if it concerned Indian fishers detained in Sri Lankan waters.

On occasions, such intervention at the highest levels in Sri Lanka had coincided with Indian festival seasons like Diwali, when the fishers, otherwise found to be 'innocent' were freed early, so as to facilitate their being able to join their families in time for the occasion.

Ironically, on such occasions too, the local media in Tamil Nadu had shied away from publicising the fact even when brought to their notice by Sri Lankan officials stationed in Chennai - through briefings. Even Press releases on such occasions had been discarded from newspaper pages.

'Insistence', not 'innocence'

Of course, it was/is not always as simple as it sounds. Indian diplomats in Colombo and Delhi, not to leave out Tamil Nadu officials in Chennai, have at times had to burn the midnight oil to have the arrested fishers released from Sri Lankan prisons.

More often than not, the Sri Lankan authorities had no hesitation to the idea of releasing 'innocent fishers' with no visible or obvious intent of indulging in anything illegal. Yet, delays would become unavoidable, owing to political or administrative reasons.

The same cannot be said on this side of the Palk Strait. In Tamil Nadu, freedom for 'innocent' SL fishers was seen more as a necessity to have their fishers freed from Sri Lankan prisons. In other Indian States, the indifference of the local administration, despite constant and reported nudging from the Centre, was/is palpable.

It was not over 'innocence', but more on 'insistence'. This has acquired a pattern that occasionally Sri Lanka too seems to resort to the method, for political and other reasons. Then the job of the Indian interlocutors would become more than double - as no one on the other side would come up with an official reason for the detention and/or delays in releasing the detained fishers.

So consistent has this route become that possibly Indian diplomats in Sri Lanka may have spent more time and energy negotiating and facilitating the release and transportation of arrested Tamil Nadu fishers than on regular government-to-government business. Whether it has undermined the quality of their work, and also their inherent capacity and requirement to counter, contradict and challenge their Sri Lankan counterparts on other issues of larger Indian concern is however unknown.

Internal contradiction

What is known however is the internal contradiction within the Indian system. This relates to the fact that Indian fishers arrested in Sri Lanka are mostly from the Tamil-speaking region, while those Sri Lankan fishers detained in Indian waters belong to the majority Sinhala community in the South.

The kind of 'competitive politicking' for arrests and release thus become germane to fast-tracking the release after the arrests. This has nothing to do with the larger 'ethnic issue' in Sri Lanka, or the Indian/TN position on the same. Instead, it relates to the Indian 'federal structure' that the Tamils in Sri Lanka want for their region.

On the one hand, Tamil Nadu is crying foul over the Sri Lankan detention of local fishers and demanding their early release and return home. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, for instance, just two days before the Sushma-Peiris talk in Delhi, a judicial court in Kakinada levied a fine of Rs 15 lakhs on 41 Sri Lankan fishers and their eight trawlers for similar violation of Indian waters.

The break-up worked out to Rs 25,000 for each fisherman and Rs 60,000 for the vessel. Earlier this year, too, when Sri Lankan courts began imposing fines on Indian fishers, it had been preceded by an Andhra Pradesh court imposing such 'hefty fines' on Sri Lankan fishermen and boats.

In a few cases earlier this year, court-ordered freedom was available to some Indian fishers 'admitting' to their guilt of trespassing into Sri Lankan waters and using vessels and gears that are banned in that country, also for their own fishers, ethnicity and area of catch no bar.

On most other occasions, freedom for the arrested Indian fishers has literally been for the asking - though the time-gap may have differed from 24 hours to two or three months, even.

This is also not the case with SL fishers arrested in Indian waters by the Coast Guard and handed over to the coastal State nearest to the immediate waters.

Given that the Indian Coast Guard has no powers to detain Sri Lankan violators on land and the Centre has not reserved for itself the right to prosecute them - or, free them, after formal court clearance - different States have applied different time-lines and yard-sticks.

This means that Andhra Pradesh, Odhisa, Andaman and Nicobar, and lately, Karnataka, too, that figure in the list of Indian States that detain SL fishers are in no great hurry to prosecute the case or release the arrested fishers.

As the State affected by arrests in Sri Lanka waters, Tamil Nadu had put in place a system for early clearance for 'innocent' Sri Lankan fishers, handed over to it, after ascertaining their 'innocence'. But over the past two years, the State Government has been slackening on this front.

All this has meant that the Sri Lankan Government too (independent of whoever is in power) keeps coming under constant pressure from the families and associations of their fishers detained in Indian prisons, by different State Governments.

Now, with the Kakinada court ordering hefty fines (which the detained fishers and boat-owners paid without batting an eyelid) could imply that for political reasons, if nothing else, the Sri Lankan Government might be compelled to ask its own courts to follow the Indian lead.

There have however been indications from Tamil Nadu fishers/boat-owners that they too might not be wholly unhappy about the 'fine-system', compared to the impounding of their boats.

However, Sri Lankan authorities have since indicated an unwillingness to adopt the method, as they say, the Tamil Nadu boat-owners would readily pay up the fines, and return to their waters - fish and destroy the catch for the future.

Livelihood issue, still

At the Delhi discussions, spokesman Akbaruddin said, "Both Prof. Peiris as well as the External Affairs Minister felt that this needs to be addressed as a issue of livelihood and we need to work on solutions on a longer-term basis."

Akbaruddin readily conceded that "there is no solution right now available on this but as a gesture that the Sri Lankans have been releasing these fishermen, External Affairs Minister thanked him (Prof Peiris) for this."

True as the observation, even a beginning to any beginning could be attempted only after Indian States, particularly TN, began fast-tracking the release of SL fishers who are cleared as 'innocent' by their security agencies.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, apart from writing to the Prime Minister of the day, and releasing the same to the media almost simultaneously, could also consider touching base with fellow Chief Ministers inside the country, for facilitating such early release of 'innocent' Sri Lankan fishers in their prison, from time to time.

With Andhra's Chandrababu Naidu and Odhisa's Naveen Patnaik being on the good books of CM Jayalalithaa could help - at times more than writing to PM Narendra Modi - at least as far as the release of arrested Tamil Nadu fishers in Sri Lanka goes.

The 'long-term solution' can follow - but will have to wait, until the 'right climate' had been created, both in the north and the south of Sri Lanka. Despite Indian fishers too coming from the common stock, in Sri Lanka's Tamil North, it is still about 'livelihood issue' which the two Ministers underlined in the larger, long-term context.

In the South, it's still about 'fast-tracking' the release of 'innocent' Sri Lankan fishers detained in Indian prisons - without trial, bail or imminent freedom, unlike the case with their Indian counterparts in Sri Lankan prisons.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter) "
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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