Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka was hailed as the first bilateral visit by an Indian Head of Government after 27 plus years. This is other than the attendance of Indian Premiers for a SAARC summit. In 2013, the then Indian Premier even boycotted the Commonwealth summit (CHOGM) held in Colombo. Of [...]


After Modi: Political chips for the fish


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka was hailed as the first bilateral visit by an Indian Head of Government after 27 plus years. This is other than the attendance of Indian Premiers for a SAARC summit. In 2013, the then Indian Premier even boycotted the Commonwealth summit (CHOGM) held in Colombo.

Of course, the last such bilateral visit of an Indian Prime Minister is best forgotten — except that it was a watershed in this country’s contemporary history which left its stamp on the way the country is run up to date. That was the visit of Premier Rajiv Gandhi to sign the so-called Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987.
The country, under a curfew; a beleaguered President arm-twisted into signing an Accord; it was a textbook case of Indian hegemony in the region — the Indira Gandhi Doctrine as it was called then. The visiting Prime Minister, Rajiv, her son, was given a ‘parting shot’ by a naval rating at what was meant to be an honour guard for him.

Premier Modi came to a country where a different atmosphere prevails. The anti-Indian feeling in the country has dissipated — but though the people of this country may have forgiven to a point yet certainly not forgotten — partly thanks to the previous Government’s over-indulgence with China, the controversial 1987 Accord remains in force.

That Accord is being implemented selectively. Provincial Councils were created under that Accord causing a drain on the economy. Much has been said over the usefulness of this system of devolution, but no Government has had the courage to bring in an alternative, more home-grown system of devolution. On the other hand, India’s concerns expressed in the Accord over, for instance, American influence over Sri Lanka is passé, with India itself now on bhai-bhai terms with the United States of America.

However, it is a welcome sign to see the tri-colour Indian national flag flying (instead of black flags) for the Indian Premier visiting the country this week alongside the Lion flag — with the hope that there will be a period of good relations between the two countries. Premier Modi’s itinerary was planned to give a message to all Sri Lanka that he is not minority-centric — his visits to Anuradhapura in addition to Jaffna being the positive signals.

As we have said before, India is the second motherland for most Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka, India’s immediate neighbour on its southern flank and one of its friendliest neighbours of all – through thick and thin. The one major irritant in recent years has been the issue of poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. The visiting Indian External Affairs Minister took up cudgels with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister over an ill-advised remark he made to a Tamil Nadu television channel bent on whipping up animosity towards the Colombo Government irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue of poaching.

This, however, saw the Indian Minister concede that what was happening in the seas of the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar inside Sri Lanka’s territorial waters was an illegality. There is no shred of evidence to argue in International Law that what the Indian fishermen are doing is even remotely justifiable. Instead, the Minister asked that it be seen as a humanitarian issue which is exactly what the Sri Lankan fishermen are asking for.

Unlike the poor Sri Lankan fishermen in the North and East who are being deprived of their livelihood, the Indian fishermen are part and parcel of the multi-million dollar fish export industry of the state of Tamil Nadu. This is not a case of small-time fishermen coming all the way so brazenly into Sri Lankan waters — it is not a case of fishermen straying into Sri Lankan waters — these fishermen come in big steel plated trawlers with GPS systems fitted so they know where they are going — and sweep the ocean floor with their nets. The Indian Minister’s argument falls flat on all counts.

Asking the Fishermen’s Associations to thrash out a solution to this continuing saga is absurd, to say the least. For the Sri Lankan Government to acquiesce to this step on the suggestion of the Indian side is naïve. Though it was agreed to by the previous Government, the new Government in Colombo is merely carrying on with this modus operandi in finding a solution. That is the easy way out.

We will surely see insidious moves now to ‘buy up’ the leaders of the Sri Lankan unions with cash offers and scholarships for their children. Surely the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be placed in the hands of Fishermen’s Associations. At long last, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has woken up from its slumber. However long it adopted a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ policy on this issue that hit its voters so hard for so long, the TNA could not maintain its deafening silence. One only hopes the TNA raised the issue with the visiting Indian Prime Minister when he went to the Northern Province yesterday. The armada of Indian fishing boats poaching in Sri Lankan waters do not cross the International Maritime Boundary Line on weekends. Had Premier Modi visited the North on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday — the three days of the week they make their incursions — it would have been a good idea to have taken him out to sea as the sun set to see for himself what his people were up to.

Unless the Northern Province is ‘annexed’ to India, its land and its sea remain with Sri Lanka. The gross illegality and violation of the human rights of the Sri Lankan fishermen of the North and East can only be rectified by India. Honouring international borders is an argument India is only too familiar with and advocates very strenuously in its own North West, North and North East.  The Indian Prime Minister has called for a long term solution to this crisis but unless there is an immediate stop to this poaching, the marine environment that is being raped now, will be dead in the long term.

He has deftly called for the countries of the Indian Ocean to band together — effectively leaving out China from the equation — to ensure the security and wellbeing of the zone. Surely then, the onus is on India to do the right thing when it comes to the livelihood of its neighbour’s citizens too.

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