Originally Published 2015-04-24 00:00:00 Published on Apr 24, 2015
The Tamil National Alliance, heading an elected Government in Sri Lanka's Northern Province, have shocked well-wishers in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, with its tough stand on the fishers' issue between Colombo and Chennai.
TNA joins Colombo to pour cold water on Tamil Nadu fishers' proposals

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), heading an elected Government in Sri Lanka's Northern Province, have shocked well-wishers in India, particularly southern Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, with its tough stand on the fishers' issue. After joining hands with Sri Lanka's central government, now its senior leader M A Sumanthiran has moved a Bill in the Sri Lankan Parliament, seeking to effectively enforce the existing ban on bottom-trawlers and destructive nets for all fishers in the nation's seas - but the target, needless to reiterate, is the Indian fishers.

The impact of its current moves, on the fishing front, on the ground in India is more than what the TNA might have been able to gauge. That's because the TNA's current position, and that of its government, have come almost at a single-shot, giving the fishers, political parties and the Governments in Tamil Nadu and Puduchery little time to absorb surprises of the kind, often injected in accelerated dosages, to absorb and prepare themselves for more of the same. The worst confused and/or demoralised could be the Tamil Nadu BJP, which in an all-time ill-advised move, took pride in TNA identifying it as its 'sole regional partner of sorts' in India, and is now organising a meeting for a 100-plus strong group of Rameswaram fishermen, with the party's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in end-April at Delhi.

Adding to the Indian surprise is the time and venue the TNA chose for the purpose. A party delegation headed by TNA leader, R Sampanthan, made its position clear in requested talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, on the return of their fisher representatives from the third round of talks at Chennai, India, in March. According to media reports, the delegation included TNA parliamentarians, Suresh Premachandran and Selvam Adaikalanathan, and also NPC Fisheries Minister, N Deniswaran. It was possibly the first time, a TNA delegation was sharing table-space with the top brass of the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN).

Earlier, ahead of President Sirisena's maiden overseas visit, to India, in February, he had consulted NPC Chief Minister, Justice C V Wignesaran - in the company of Governor, H M G S Palikakkara, where for the first time officially, the TNA made its position, known. Though MPs like Selvam Adaikalanathan had made weak statements and infrequent statements on the subject, TNA's 25-point May Day declaration of 2014, charged the Tamil Nadu fishers with 'robbing' the livelihood of their North Sri Lankan counterparts. The fishers' issue also found a mention in the resolution of the national conference of the ITAK leader of the TNA, in Vavuniya later in the year.

Politics across Palk Strait

Apart from real-time livelihood issues that they had encountered all along, the provocation for the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers on this score may have come also from the way the negotiations were reportedly conducted at Chennai. The inexplicable introduction of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's name in the concluding joint statement as its 'guiding spirit' of sorts, however brief, did not go down well with many, it is said. There were also reported issues about the Indian (read: Tamil Nadu) fishers' initial demands for incorporating what essentially was a pre-prepared list of demands as a part of the joint statement. In the end, it was added to the joint statement as a list of demand - for whatever it was exactly worth.

The efforts of the Tamil Nadu fishers' representatives at the talks were reportedly focussed as much on projecting the State Government's efforts and that of the ruling AIADMK leadership, as arguing their own livelihood issues. Back home in Sri Lanka, the TNA too is under pressure to retain the 'home-coming' fishers constituency, whose cause is 'genuine' and whose vote-share too is substantial to be ignored any more. The fishers used to be identified mostly with the EPDP of then Minister Douglas Devananda, but all that is changing since the TNA's successful Northern Provincial Council polls of 2013.

It's also true that unlike their land-based brethren, the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers, affected by the decades-old ethnic war, have not got even words of solace, particularly from the TNA. It's another matter that the party has not given even a feeble call for removing the 'high security zones' (HSZ) on the sea while being vociferous about the HSZ-related issues on the land side. One reason could be that the HSZ on the seas is not being enforced any more whereas cultivable land and house properties are in continued possession of the armed forces.

Direct talks and more

After talks with the TNA delegation, President Sirisena is reported to have told his Foreign Ministry to try and work out direct negotiations with the Tamil Nadu Government. Predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, citing his past experience as Fisheries Minister, too had tried in vain for such communication - both on the fishers' problem and the ethnic issue. It's not clear if the Sri Lankan Government wanted the negotiations to be upgraded to the government(s)-level, indicating that the fishers' level talks remain frozen.

However, the Sirisena Government has to decide for itself if it would encourage similar talks between the Tamil Nadu/Puducherry governments from India and the TNA-led NPC administration from the Sri Lankan side, if it came to that. The 'Centre-State relations' in India on such matters are fairly well-defined, even on a Concurrent List subject as 'Fishing'. For an island-nation, Sri Lanka has Fisheries Minister in many of the nine Provinces, but all rights and responsibilities continue to rest with the Centre.

For long, the Government of India has been holding official talks with the TNA as a political party, and at the highest levels, but only on aspects of the 'ethnic issue', and not on the fishers' problems. So have there been official-level contacts with the TNA-led NPC administration. It can thus be embarrassing for the Government of India, both inside the country and also in Sri Lanka, when the TNA seems to be toughening its stand on what could be the most ticklish of all bilateral issues (at times including China and the ethnic concerns).

The Tamil Nadu unit of the ruling BJP at the Centre may have an additional cause for embarrassment. Having stayed away from the 'competitive Dravidian politics' of Tamil Nadu, unlike their moderate predecessors and also the LTTE since the Eighties, the TNA has been deliberately befriending the TN-BJP, ignoring the latter's Congress counterparts, per se, particularly since the conclusion of 'Eelam War IV' in May 2009.

While the focus of those discussions had almost always been the TNA's position and demands on the ethnic issue, the fishers' issue was never possibly discussed, either. Even otherwise, campaigning for the 2014 parliamentary polls, BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi and also senior leader Sushma Swaraj, expected even then to occupy a senior ministerial position under a party dispensation, committed themselves to the TN fishers, on their problems. Now Minister of External Affairs, Swaraj also launched a 'Kadal Thamarai' ('Sea Lotus') constituency-specific campaign in Rameswaram, deriving from the BJP's election symbol, 'Lotus'.

Climb-down to no avail?

The third in a series, with the promise of one in May - as the local media in Chennai (alone) claimed - the Chennai talks were noticeable for the Indian fishers' mood to climb-down and negotiations, also possibly on the guidance of 'Puratchi Thalaivi Amma', Jayalalithaa. Even as the State Government's pre-talks statements seemingly refrained from controversies pertaining to the 1974-76 Katchchativu-linked Accords on the IMBL, the fishers' joint statement too did not make any reference (as has also been the case in the past).

At the talks, the Indian fishers reduced from five to three years, the time they required for converting their destructive bottom-trawlers into deep-sea vessels, cut down the 125-day annual fishing in the Palk Strait to 83, and fast-tracking withdrawal of nets and other gears, banned in the two countries, based on what already has been achieved in the recent past. While sulking and silent at Chennai, the Sri Lankan fisher representatives' toughening stand on return home may have poured cold waters on the current efforts to find a via media, and an interim one at that.

It's also unclear what the Sri Lankan Government's views, if any and if official, on the reference to Jayalalithaa in the fishers' joint statement is, and how it has put their fisher representatives - and possibly the TNA, too - on the defensive nearer home. This is more so when the Jayalalithaa-sponsored 'Katchchativu case' is pending before the Indian Supreme Court. Linked to the case are real issues on the IMBL-Katchchativu front, where only the national governments in the two countries can arrive at a decision, even if interim as the Indian fishers' demands are.

In between, governments in India - Centre, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry - have to demonstrate to their own fishers, and in turn all counterparts in Sri Lanka that they are serious about the 'deep-sea fishing' alternative, and work had begun on this score in right earnest. The Indian fisher representatives having begun to acknowledge the destructive nature of 'bottom-trawling' with banned nets in public - and on local TV channels - the time may just be right for the Centre to fast-track the initiatives on all fronts, which have thus far rested mostly with the Tamil Nadu Government and leadership.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

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

Read More +