Indo-Lanka ties in stormy waters

The arrest, remanding and subsequent release of the rising star of Tamil Nadu politics, the daughter of the state's Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, across the Palk Straits and the arrest, remanding and subsequent release of as many as 136 Indian fishermen caught poaching in Sri Lankan waters this week should come as no surprise.

Tamil Nadu's 'politricks' seem to have had their match this time round with their Sri Lankan counterparts learning a trick or two from them. For nearly four decades, the politics of Tamil Nadu has been intrinsically woven with the ethnic politics of its southern neighbour, but this week's flare-up was anything but ethnic; for once it could not be exploited that way -- it was purely politico-economic.

Chief Minister Karunanidhi's daughter was protesting the 'citizen arrest' of Tamil Nadu fishermen by their angry Sri Lankan counterparts. Despite several 'shots across the bow', and two fishermen being killed, the poaching continued unabated. True, there are no markings on the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) that divides the economic and territorial waters of the two countries, but caution, if any, was also thrown to the wind. Reports suggest the Indian fishermen were also misled and given the 'go-ahead' to go yonder and reap the harvest. The Sri Lankan fishermen acted within the law, and exercised their rights this time. If a trespasser were to enter another's property, the owner has every right to use reasonable force to subdue him. And it has happened on both sides of the invisible boundary; hundreds of Sri Lankan fishermen have been arrested and remanded in India.

The protest by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) headed by the Karunanidhis was to be expected. Elections to the Tamil Nadu state assembly are in April and the party's electoral standing is flagging. Its theatrics were also displayed in May 2009 during parliamentary elections in India which coincided with the Sri Lankan Security Forces' final assault on the LTTE. The DMK's positioning as a key ally of the ruling Congress Party and the coalition Government in New Delhi has given it a disproportionate bargaining lever, far greater than its electoral strength and vote bank. So much so, it tried valiantly to defend one of its cabinet ministers from arrest for a huge telecom scam. Opposition parties had to bring their Parliaments to a standstill until the Prime Minister relented and had the Minister arrested and remanded.

Sri Lanka's political and diplomatic relations with Tamil Nadu took a nosedive only after around 1982 when the Tamil separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka was on over-drive. It is ironic that it was the same Karunanidhi who in 1974 permitted two Sri Lankan police officers to fly into Chennai (then Madras) and take away a frontline leader of the movement for 'Eelam' (a separate state in north and east Sri Lanka), Kuttimani in hand-cuffs. He had been arrested by the Tamil Nadu police under the Indian Explosives Act and the Passport Act for trying to smuggle 20,000 detonators to Sri Lanka.

But by May 19, 1982 when the Tamil Nadu police arrested then 28-year-old LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, another rebel leader Uma Maheswaran along with two others over a shoot-out at Pondi-Bazaar in Madras, the political climate had changed drastically. The foursome had been charged under the Indian Explosives Act, the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code before the Court of the Second Metropolitan Magistrate in Egmore, Madras. The Chief Minister then was M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and though Sri Lanka's IGP Rudra Rajasingham himself went across to bring the foursome back, the head of the Tamil Nadu police, K. Mohandas had asked what his Sri Lankan colleague's brief was. The IGP had retorted: "Now, don't treat me like a 'podian' (small boy in Tamil). I have come to take these b--gers back"; but take them back he couldn't.

The late Mr. Ramachandran and Mr. Karunanidhi were competing for the hand of these Sri Lankan terrorists. Though the late PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran had even admitted to having even shot at Tamil Nadu policemen in the incident, the political stakes were so high for the rival politicians, they let the foursome free, on the grounds there was no extradition treaty between the two countries. But then, there was no such treaty even when Kuttimani was sent back to face trial in Sri Lanka. There was a glimmer of hope that these fractured relations would be mended to a pre-1982 era status soon after the defeat of the LTTE when a Tamil Nadu all-party delegation which included Mr. Karunanidhi's parliamentarian daughter visited Colombo for talks. Unfortunately, neither side built on this ground-breaking visit, and Sri Lanka's foreign relations pundits and policy makers must carry much of the blame for this lapse.

The current issue has all the ingredients that could sour Indo-Lanka bilateral relations again. The soft-spoken Indian Prime Minister demonstrated rare anger at a rare press conference when he said that "this kind of behaviour is not acceptable among neighbouring countries". Clearly he was not properly briefed, for otherwise, here is a Head of Government saying stealing other people's property by trespassing is in order as long as they are our people. The remark was a serious public comment challenging the sovereignty, integrity and independence of Sri Lanka. Discussions are now on to reach a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on fishing in these troubled waters. The question being asked, at least on this side of the Palk Strait, is whether this is to undermine and lead Sri Lanka further away from a previous (1974) agreement between the two countries which sections of the Indian Establishment seem to rue.

Recent pressure by India to establish a Consulate in Jaffna is a case in point. Successive Sri Lankan Governments studiously avoided the issue, but this Government succumbed to the pressure. The complaint by the local Magistrate at Point Pedro that the Indian Consulate General got in touch directly with her over the remanding of the arrested fishermen deserves condemnation as his conduct was unbecoming of a diplomat. In this space (May 2010), we warned the Government of the pitfalls of permitting the opening of such a consulate. Is this only a harbinger of the interference to come?
A fortnight ago, the Indian Foreign Secretary was in town in the aftermath of the shooting of the two Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. She was, no doubt, entitled to complain. The Indian PM has also gone on record saying it was a "strong demarche" (diplomatic language for a strong warning).

The Joint Statement issued after her visit was revealing. This newspaper (Feb. 6 issue) referred to its subtle departure from the agreement reached at the highest political level in 1974 on fishing rights with the introduction of the words "bona fide fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL)" taken from a previous 2008 Joint Statement on Fishing. This Sri Lankan Government has allowed, wittingly or otherwise, the Indian Government to bring the 2008 Joint Statement to the fore overriding the 1974 summit agreement.

There was nary a word in that Joint Statement earlier this month about the attack on the Sri Lankan-run Maha Bodhi centre in Chennai. That attack was in retaliation for the killings of the fishermen, an attack in which a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk was injured. It was sheer cowardice on the part of the Sri Lankan side not to have had that recorded in the Joint Statement as well.

The 1974 International Maritime Boundary Line was the outcome of lengthy discussions between successive Sri Lankan Governments and then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi. A book published by a one-time Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka (and dedicated to the incumbent Foreign Secretary) gives a detailed account of those negotiations -- how meticulously legal experts and senior officials from the External Affairs Ministry argued Sri Lanka's case, and at a political level, Prime Ministers Dudley Senanayake and Sirima Bandaranaike took it up. Sri Lanka was sensitive to the needs of Tamil Nadu but never did these officials and political leaders waver from the national interest.

The book describes the theatrics of Tamil Nadu even then and how legal experts and political analysts from the India's south tried to argue a bad brief over Indian claims for the island of Katchchativu off Sri Lanka's northern coast. In the midst of what is a renewed thrust by India to establish a footprint in these waters, the book ought to be recommended reading for policy makers at Temple Trees and officials of the External Affairs Ministry on how their illustrious predecessors conducted national affairs. In the meantime, the Sri Lankan Government must ensure that the boiling waters of the north don't spill over to a full blown diplomatic spat and political fallout. There needs to be brain, finesse and most importantly, spine in ensuring that the national interest prevailed in calm waters and that there was smooth sailing in the relations between the two countries.

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