By Kalinga Seneviratne
A recent skirmish has highlighted a widely unnoticed fishing war that has been going on for two years in the Palk Straits, a stretch of sea about 30 km long, that separates India’s Tamil Nadu state from Sri Lanka’s northern province that was plagued by a civil war for over 30 years. The southern state of Tamil Nadu is often at daggers drawn with the central government in New Delhi.
The latest flare-up occurred on February 24, 2013 when Tamil Nadu politicians and media accused the Sri Lankan Navy of attacking Indian fishermen in the area while the Sri Lankan Navy and the media in Colombo claimed there was a mid-sea flare up between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen and when the Navy arrived it was already settled.
Indian reports said quoting unnamed Tamil Nadu fisheries officials that the Sri Lanka Navy men surrounded the fishermen’s boats beat them up and took the GPS equipment. They also alleged that the Navy cut the fishing nets and threw their catch into the sea.
This incident had occurred near Katchatheevu Island which was acceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian government in the 1970s when the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Sri Lankan counterpart Sirima Bandaranaike had a close relationship. Tamil Nadu politicians have never accepted that decision because they claim that it was made without consulting them.
Since the war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state ended in May 2009, Tamil Nadu politicians, especially Selvi J Jayalalithaa after she became Chief Minister in May 2011, has regularly attacked the Sri Lankan government alleging human rights violations of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. But the irony is that today the Tamil fishermen in Sri Lanka see the Sri Lankan Navy as their allies in the battle against Indian fishermen stealing their fish from Sri Lankan waters and Jayalalitha as their enemy.
Nirupama Subramaniam, an Indian journalist who was based in Colombo from 1996 to 2002 covering the country for the Indian Express now writing as a columnist for the Hindu says: “When Tamil Nadu politicians raise the pitch against the Sri Lankan government’s perceived atrocities on the Tamils in that country, they invoke popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu, saying Tamils here are hurt and angry at the way their brethren across the Palk Straits are being treated.”
In the column republished in Colombo Telegraph, she adds: “But that sympathy is nowhere evident on an issue that truly hits the Sri Lankan Tamils where it matter – their livelihoods. In fact, it is an issue on which Tamil Nadu actively works against the interests of fellow Tamils across the Palk Straits.”
A major livelihood
Fishing is a major livelihood of the Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka and since the war ended in 2009, they have been free to fish in Sri Lankan waters without any restrictions. During the war period they were allowed to go only one km into the sea because of regular skirmishes between the LTTE Sea Tigers and the Navy and arms supply activities across the Palk Straits. Since the war ended, the government has given them new boats and with improved road access to other parts of the island, greener pastures have been opened up for the Tamil fishermen in the north.
In November 2012, Sinnaiya Thavaratnam, President of the Northern Provinces Fisheries Alliance during an interview with this correspondent referred to the Sri Lankan Navy as “our navy” three times and he complained that the Sri Lankan government was not giving enough support to the Navy to chase away Indian fishermen from Sri Lankan waters because of political pressure from New Delhi. “Indian fishermen are fishing in trawlers with big nets. So our catch is badly affected,” he complained.
“We need to stop Indian trawlers fishing in our seas – once that happens it will take 3 to 4 years to restore the fish resources for us to catch,” he estimates. “Navy is trying to protect our resources but the Sri Lanka government is not giving them enough support,” he lamented.
In September 2012, India’s Hindu newspaper said that records obtained from the Indian government indicated that between January and June 2012, Indian trawlers crossing into Sri Lanka numbered 20,662. Fishermen from Jaffna have been urging their Navy to chase the Indians out and in one incident in February 2011, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resorted to direct action, rounding up more than 100 Indian fishermen, and handed them over to their Navy.
In recent months, a number of similar clashes have taken place, which Tamil Nadu politicians have described as Navy harassment of Indian fishermen. According to the Hindu newspaper, Jayalalitha has written some 12 letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticizing him for being soft on Sri Lanka.
Tamil Nadu fishermen allege the Sri Lankan Navy beats them up, humiliates them, even foists smuggling cases on them. In October Jayalaitha told the Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai during a meeting in Chenai that New Delhi should view the attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy “as an act of provocation and aggression against India by Sri Lanka, similar to firing across the borders by neighbours such as Pakistan and China,” according to a report by the Hindu.
On January 24, 2013, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse said that Sri Lanka will initiate a dialogue with the Indian Government to resolve once and for all the issues connected to illegal fishing and trespassing into each other’s territorial waters by fishermen of both countries. He told the General Fisheries Federation which represents all fisheries organisations of the country that the government was determined to make the fisheries sector one of major arms of the economy with maximum possible assistance to fishermen from the government.
“It is heartening to see that a large number of fishermen have come from the North and East. They were the most affected at the hands of separatist terrorism,” the President noted in his speech. “The fisher families inherited an extremely cruel living as many of their members were forcibly recruited by the Tigers and subsequently killed. As a result, the fishing industry in the North-East suffered a heavy blow with their production drastically depleted. But today they have the opportunity of going out fishing without fear or restrictions and they get plenty of government assistance.”
On January 28 India’s Minister of State in Prime Minister’s office V Narayanasamy said India and Sri Lanka were close to clinching an agreement on drawing a fishing boundary in the Palk Strait that would put an end to recurring attacks on fishermen from both sides. “The proposed agreement is in final stages. Both Indian and Sri Lankan Governments have agreed to the boundary proposals,” he told reporters.
“One of the main livelihoods of people in Northern Sri Lanka is fishing. As people have gone back to their homes, this is what they have expected to do to earn a living – go out in a boat and come back home with a decent catch,” notes Nirupama Subramaniam. “The Sri Lankan Navy is no longer the villain it was in the war years. But Sri Lankan fishermen in the North find they have a new enemy. It’s the hundreds of boats that put out to sea from the Indian side daily, sailing into Sri Lankan waters as if they belong there.”
In effect she argues that if the Tamil Nadu government is really interested in the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka it should help to resolve the problem rather than politically escalating the situation.