Has the 1974 maritime boundary agreement between India and Sri Lanka been negated by the two governments in the light of the October 2008 agreement on poaching in the northern waters?
This question has arisen in diplomatic quarters following the recent visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to Colombo to discuss issues related to poaching in Sri Lankan territorial waters by Indian fishermen, two of whom were shot dead recently for intruding.
The killings triggered protests in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu with attacks on the Maha Bodhi Centre in Chennai and the issue being taken up at the highest levels in New Delhi with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.
Allegations that the Sri Lanka Navy was responsible for the killings of the Tamil Nadu fishermen were hotly denied by the Navy.
In the joint statement issued after the Rao visit, the two countries have relied on the contents of the 2008 October agreement that refers to an International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and “bona fide fishermen crossing the IMBL”.
Previously the terminology insisted upon by the Sri Lankan side has been “fishermen straying inadvertently into each other’s territorial waters”.
The subtle change in terminology hides the fact that the Indian fishermen are poachers, points out a foreign affairs analyst.
The 2008 October Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangement followed a visit to New Delhi by Basil Rajapaksa, the then presidential advisor.
The Indian Government has brought that agreement to the fore and ignored the 1974 agreement that was signed between the governments of Sirima Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi at the time the Katchchativu island dispute was resolved in Sri Lanka’s favour.
In the 1974 agreement between India and Sri Lanka, Indian fishermen were permitted to land at Katchchativu to “dry fishing nets” and participate in the Church festival when held there.
The introduction of the words “bona fide fishermen” has permitted continued intrusions into Sri Lankan waters where the catch is reported to be better than those available in the Indian side of the IMBL, these analysts point out.
A political leader in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province dismissed the Karunanidhi protests as “the usual orchestrated theatrics” to pressurise the Indian Centre to make a case for his demands against Sri Lanka. He said that there were nights when as many as a thousand Indian fishermen were poaching in Sri Lanka’s northern waters.
According to the Joint Statement released on Monday, the next meeting of the Joint Working Group on Fishing would be convened at an “early date” which would, inter-alia, address “various issues relating to fishing by the two sides”. The Group is also expected to address the proposed Memorandum of Understanding on development and cooperation in the field of fisheries.