Hurt Both Ways, Tamil Nadu Fishers ‘Hit’ Both Ways? – Analysis

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

The recent Indian demarche to Sri Lanka on the continuing arrests and judicial detention of Tamil Nadu fishermen in the island-nation should bring back to memory the October 2008 Joint Statement on the subject. According to this statement, the two countries had “agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL)… keeping in mind the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of the fishermen issue”. However, that is not to be, and today, the Tamil Nadu fishers are threatening to take to the seas as a form of protest.

It should bring to mind the threat from the other side in the reverse, ahead of the annual, 45-day ‘fishing holiday’ in Tamil Nadu last year. A senior Minister in Sri Lanka, Douglas Devananda, had said that he would lead 5000 Sri Lankan Tamil fishers on to the IMBL, so as to bar the south Indian counterparts from ‘violating’ their seas and hitting at their livelihoods. When counter-protests in Tamil Nadu became louder and shriller at the time, it was explained that the threat was aimed at forcing the hands of the Governments in the two countries to urgently negotiate an agreement to the dispute during the ‘fishing holiday’ that would have provided both the time, inclination and opportunity for all stake-holders to sit down and address mutual concerns, meaningfully.

The 2008 Joint Statement had declared that “there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels”. If one were to go by subsequent charges by Tamil Nadu fishermen, firing, allegedly by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), had continued. So much so, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in repeated missives to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drew a parallel between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Despite being a known adversary, Pakistan Navy had never fired at Indian fishers in its waters, she pointed out. Against this, the Chief Minister said that an acknowledged friend as Sri Lanka was firing at Tamil Nadu fishermen.

Almost since the 2008 Statement, there has been a noticeable fall in the number of firing incidents on Tamil Nadu fishers. However, there has been a steady increase in the number and frequency of arrests of Tamil Nadu fishers by Sri Lankan authorities. Lately, there has also been an increase in the number of Tamil Nadu fishers being sent to judicial custody following their mid-sea arrests. At the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, they used to be left off more often than not, after intervention by the Government of India, at different levels. This apart, at least in one case, the Sri Lanka Navy had arrested five Tamil Nadu fishers mid-sea, charging them with drugs-smuggling.

This apart, the earlier reference to Pakistan came with an unintended caveat, which did not get any mention at the time. While it may be true that Pakistan Navy did not fire upon Indian fishers in their waters, those detained by it ended up spending years in prison, often without trial. In the case of Sri Lanka, there was no evidence that their Navy was involved in mid-sea firing episodes of the kind. Conversely, where the SLN had detained tens of hundreds of Tamil Nadu fishermen over the years, they used to be let off at the intervention of the Indian Government on the one hand, and the Sri Lankan missions in Chennai and Delhi, on the other.

It may be uncharitable to link the earlier Sri Lankan position to their perceived dependence on India at the height of ‘Eelam War IV – just as it is improper to link the recent spate of arrests to perception of hostility in Tamil Nadu, or to India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva, twice in a row. Sri Lanka has repeatedly indicated that their putting pressure on the Tamil Nadu fishers is a result of their own Tamil fishermen in the North and the East of the country taking to their traditional trade in a big way, in the months and years after the war. Intermittently, there have been suggestions from sections in the Colombo dispensation that spoke about issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and State security.

A silver-lining yet

Bleak as the present prospects may seem across the Palk Strait, there is a silver-lining yet. The 2008 Statement was issued after a visit to Delhi by Basil Rajapaksa, at the time Senior Advisor to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. During a more recent visit to New Delhi, Basil R, at present Economic Development Minister in his country, discussed the issue with Indian officials. More importantly, he met with a group of Tamil Nadu fishermen, and discussed their problems. Though both sides reiterated their known positions, the visitor did extend an invitation for the Tamil Nadu fishers to Sri Lanka, for discussing the issues with their Tamil counterparts in the North, President Rajapaksa and other Government officials. As may be recalled, earlier this year, Minister Rajapaksa had met with a visiting team of Tamil Nadu fishers in Colombo.

Hopes, if any, on a negotiated settlement to the fishers’ issue flows from an earlier agreement signed by fishers’ representatives from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka in Chennai after the visitors had met with their counterparts all across the coast of the south Indian State. The agreement provided for a specific number of days in the year for the Tamil Nadu fishers to fish in the adjoining Sri Lankan waters. As if in return, the Tamil Nadu fishers promised not to employ trawlers and purse-seine nets, which their counterparts claimed destroys their craft and gear, and is also banned in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Fisheries officials were a part of this team. A follow-up meeting of the kind in Colombo, in March 2011, witnessed participation by Sri Lankan Ministers and Indian High Commission officials, who remained as observers. If the talks did not produce the desired result, it owed mainly to the failure of the Tamil Nadu signatories to enforce their part of the deal, relating to trawlers and purse-seine nets.

In more recent times, other fishers’ representatives from the affected districts in southern Tamil Nadu, who were not necessarily a part of the earlier process, too seem to be veering round to the view that they wanted to settle the issue through negotiations with their Sri Lankan Tamil counterparts. As coincidence would have it, the Tamil Nadu fishers’ representatives met with the State Fisheries Minister K A Jayapal and Chief Secretary Sheela Balakrishnan in Chennai on the very day New Delhi summoned Sri Lankan High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam for issuing the demarche’.

Both episodes occurred even as Indian Parliament had commenced its monsoon session a day earlier. Needless to say, the fishermen’s issue would be high on the agenda of Tamil Nadu political parties in particular in both Houses of Parliament, as has been over the past several sessions and years. It is another coincidence of sorts that the demarche followed Chief Minister Jayalalithaa firing off yet another missive to Prime Minister Singh, demanding that India deployed ‘coercive diplomacy’ against Sri Lanka in the matter. However, the immediate provocation for the demarche was a series of arrest of Tamil Nadu fishers by Sri Lanka Navy, before and after the Chief Minister’s missive.

At their meeting in Chennai, the fishers’ representatives reportedly sought the State Government’s initiative for facilitating their visit across the Palk Strait for the reviving the process of a negotiated settlement. They had reportedly mentioned Minister Basil’s invitation for them, and said that both State and Central Government officials should accompany them during such a visit. Incidentally, it was possibly for the first time that a fishers’ collective of the kind with wide-ranging representation, in terms of geographical, community and political identities from the southern districts involved in mid-sea episodes in Sri Lankan waters, had got together and come up with a proposal for negotiations with their counterparts on the other side. According to media reports, the Chief Secretary “assured the fishers that she would take up the matter with the Chief Minister and do the needful”.

Part of the solution, no more of the problem

Clearly, the Tamil Nadu fishers seem wanting to be part of the solution, and no more of the problem that has affected their lives, limbs and livelihood for long. As news reports mentioned, their suggestions to the State Government now thus included alternatives even while pursuing their demands with their counterparts and also the Colombo dispensation. Acknowledging, for instance, the over-crowding of the Rameswaram seas by the presence of 700 mechanised boats, they wanted facilitation for some of their men to undertake deep-sea fishing by cutting a channel near Dhanushkodi, and possible diversion of others to take up tuna fishing. To this end, they wanted the monthly quota of 1500 litres of subsidised diesel doubled, and also 100 per cent funding for tuna vessels in the first phase.

Yet, the problem of Tamil Nadu fishers involved in Sri Lanka-related incidents is not uniform. There are sub-regional variations, owing to the catch, in terms of species and quantity. For permanent peace in the seas on the fishing front, all these fishers need to engage their counterparts in Sri Lanka, even while involving the Governments in New Delhi and Colombo, and those in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province (when elected in the first-ever Provincial Council polls, scheduled for 21 September). While the Rameswaram fishermen need to talk to their counterparts in Jaffna in the Northern Province, the Nagappatinam fishers are often found in the seas off Trincomallee in the Eastern Province. In recent times, fishers from the Karaikal conclave in the Union Territory of Puducherry embedded in southern Tamil Nadu’s coastal region are also getting frequently arrested in Sri Lankan waters. Yet, a solution to the common issue has to be comprehensive and complete.

Even while hitting out hard at the Sri Lankan Government on allegations of mid-sea firing earlier, and continuing arrests, the Jayalalithaa administration in Tamil Nadu has taken specific initiatives to facilitate diversion of the kind that has since been proposed by the fishers’ representative. The maiden Budget of the third Jayalalithaa Government in the first year, 2011, proposed 25 per cent subsidy for conversion of existing mechanised vessels for deep-sea fishing. Two years later the 2013 Budget has since has doubled the subsidy to 50 per cent, heeding the requests from the fishing community.

However, re-training, which includes a cultural component, needs to be taken up seriously. The Rameswaram fishers, for instance, are not used to be at the sea for more than a night at a time. Deep-sea fishing on the other hand involves days, if not weeks, of the fishers spending their days and nights at sea – and far away from their homes and coast. The State Government also needs to follow up on the 2011 Budget proposal for setting up a chain of cold storage for the State’s fishers, and helping and educating them in marketing their catch overseas, at a time and price that is more advantageous to them. In the absence of any exposure or experience in the matter, they continue to be pawns at the hands of private sector export agencies from neighbouring States – despite their claiming to be in the business for generations and centuries together.

Collateral concerns

Linked to the fishing-related livelihood issue on either side of the Palk Strait is also Sri Lanka’s off-again-on-again reference to concerns about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Not very long ago, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ruled that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard should take steps to try and ensure that Indian fishers did not cross the IMBL, into Sri Lankan waters. Possibly taking its cue from the court order, the Union Territory administration of Puducherry has cautioned fishers that their vessels crossing the IMBL would be fined ` 10,000. Tamil Nadu has no such rule, for now.

Another unmentioned issue, but always linked to the fishers’ problem relates to ‘Katchchativu’. As the General Secretary of the AIADMK party, now ruling Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa had challenged the Centre conceding Katchchativu as Sri Lankan territory under twin agreements in 1974 and 1976. Jayalalithaa moved the Supreme Court in 2008, when she was in the Opposition. Earlier this year, the DMK, which has alternated in power in the State and now in the Opposition, too has moved the Supreme Court on the same issue, as the head of the TESO organisation – which is otherwise engaged in promoting the cause of ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, nearer home. The Government of India has consistently held that Katchchativu, which became part of Sri Lanka after the two nations drew the IMBL for the first and only time, cannot be reopened as an issue. The case is still pending before the Supreme Court.

Yet, given the complexities of the ‘ethnic issue’ in Sri Lanka, and the recurring temptation of political parties and groups in Tamil Nadu to wily-nily end up linking the fishers’ livelihood issue on the one hand and the ‘Katchchativu issue’ on the other, the livelihood angle of the fishers from the two countries has only snowballed into a complicated process. It can become even more difficult if at the end of the September 21 elections in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, ‘competitive politics’ of the Tamil Nadu kind dictates the local mood and methods on the fishers’ issue out there.

As may be recalled, a section of the Tamil fishers’ in Sri Lanka’s North have become more vociferous in recent months, than in the post-war past, attacking and ‘arresting’ their Tamil Nadu counterparts. How, both during the Northern PC polls and afterwards, the Tamil political leaderships in the Province address the local concerns, and weigh it against the independent, yet much larger aspects of the ‘ethnic issue’ remains to be seen.

Though the Tamil Nadu Government and the political parties in the State ended up playing down the episodes, the Centre had to intervene, particularly through the High Commission in Colombo and the Consulate-General’s office in Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s North, to have them freed and their boats returned. In doing so, the Centre acted just as it had done in the case of the arrests by the Sri Lanka Navy, and worked through the Colombo dispensation. It used to be the way New Delhi handled similar issues in the past, when the LTTE had ‘arrested’ Tamil Nadu fishers, in the name of protecting the interests of their own fishers, during the ‘ceasefire period’, post-2002.

The Sri Lankan initiative now taken by Minister Basil R and the favourable response from the Tamil Nadu fishers’ representatives need to be read in this overall context and background. It also needs recalling that in between, the State Government had reportedly been slow in responding to the Centre’s efforts, too, for the Tamil Nadu fishers’ representatives to visit Sri Lanka to revive the negotiations process with their Sri Lankan counterparts. The initiative flowed from understanding at the highest levels of the Governments in the two countries, and also on the agreements reached and reiterated at the meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on fishing issue between them – in which a senior official from Tamil Nadu was invited, and participated in the last two rounds.

As the State fishers have reiterated since, the participation of the State Government is as much critical and crucial for the implementation and/or enforcement of any solution worked out by the two community representatives across the Palk Strait – as that of the Governments in New Delhi and Colombo, and from now on, possibly in Jaffna, too. The right environment for the purpose could however be created only by de-politicising the issue on either side of the Palk Strait, and delinking the same from collateral issues of the ‘ethnic’ kind. It is possibly the message that is now slowly but surely emanating from the otherwise reluctant fishers’ representatives in Tamil Nadu, who want their lives and livelihood protected through whatever feasible means as possible – and not getting them increasingly entangled in what essentially or un-related or quasi-related issues, and not otherwise.

Though they may not have said as much, may be the Tamil Nadu fishers have put their politicos on notice – to sympathise and empathise with them on their cause but not to politicise it too much, as it may have become a hurdle and a hitch, not amounting to support and solutions. This, even as they strive harder, to send out a notice to the Sri Lankan State that their livelihood problems are as real as those of their counterparts across the Palk Strait.

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

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