Like releasing trussed parrots in captive cages to appease the rage of heaven and placate the gods, the Lankan Government has now resorted to releasing Indian fishermen captured poaching in Lanka’s territorial waters by the boat load to pacify the wrath of India in the hope that such action and willingness to free those caught [...]


Lanka frees small fry as Jayalalithaa fishes for Katcha


Like releasing trussed parrots in captive cages to appease the rage of heaven and placate the gods, the Lankan Government has now resorted to releasing Indian fishermen captured poaching in Lanka’s territorial waters by the boat load to pacify the wrath of India in the hope that such action and willingness to free those caught flouting international laws of the seas will assuage the ire of Tamil Nadu and invoke the Central Government’s amenability to ease strained ties and sympathise with Lanka’s refusal to countenance UN demands for a war probe in a more tolerant and understanding light.

Jayalalithaa meeting Modi

Such is the genuflection paid to this nation’s closest neighbour India that for merely abstaining to vote against the US sponsored resolution which in practical terms meant sitting on the fence, hearing the SOS, denying help and watching Lanka drown in the international human rights’ swirl, the Indian Government had the pleasant surprise the following morning to learn that Lanka had, freed 15 Indian fishermen in her custody as a gesture of professed gratitude. Never mind that she did not throw a lifeline. That was Lanka’s Thanksgiving present to India for, at least, not pushing her into the river.

The day Narendra Modi took oaths as India’s new prime minister a further 15 fishermen were released again as a goodwill gesture. Some of these Indians were not being held for illegal fishing but had been charged with drug trafficking offences, had been arraigned before Lankan courts and were in remand awaiting trial. Indian newspapers reported on the jubilance of their families in Rameshwaram in Tami Nadu when they received the unexpected good news that their loved ones who had been charged with the serious international crime of drug smuggling and who they had expected to see jailed for several years, had been suddenly released — an unexpected bonanza of goodwill courtesy of the Lankan Government as a means of strengthening Indo-Lanka ties.

What should have been an ice breaker to thaw the long settled frost at the maiden Modi-Mahinda twenty minute meeting, became instead a pressing issue when Modi harpooned on the Lankan Government’s position on the rights and welfare of the Indian fishermen, not forgetting to also use the occasion to flex his new found power and influence and to weigh upon the Lankan President the serious and urgent need for the full implementation of the 13th amendment and beyond.

On Tuesday morning as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa awaited to meet Prime Minister Modi with her litany of complaints against Lanka, the Government, in yet another act of goodwill, released a further batch of 29 Indian fishermen nabbed on Sunday, hoping perhaps to impress upon Modi that, whilst the Lankan Navy executes their duties efficiently, the prerogative of pardon is exercised generously.

International diplomacy does indeed demand such gestures of goodwill to be made. Negotiations over the vexing issue of Indian fishermen brazenly fishing in Lanka’s waters should not and cannot be allowed to flounder upon the rocky point of a few fishermen being held in Lankan custody. But with the Navy’s Indian catch of the day being thrown back into the water to fish again, and with remaining stocks being depleted due to the outflow of goodwill, the Navy may have to be ordered to double their efforts to provide the Government with a surfeit of goodwill to toss over the 22 mile Palk Strait stretch. For the signs ominously bode that Lanka will need it in ample measure in the days ahead.

For Tamil Nadu firebrand, the irrepressible Jayalalithaa is on the war path. And this time, she is armed with a cause more potent than the ones she championed earlier, which has all the potential of turning into a major crisis that no amount of Lankan goodwill can defuse. She has nailed her war colours to the mast of Tamil Nadu’s fishing boats and, now that the Eelam dream has faded and barely creates a ripple of interest, found in a barren 250 acre good for nothing block of land in the middle of the Indo-Lanka sea, another cause, this time more potent, with more nationalistic appeal, to raise her patriotic standard. She is demanding the central government of India to take the isle of Katchatheevu back from Lanka, by hook or by crook.

Jayalalithaa’s latest refrain namely the demand that the isle of Katchatheevu, ceded to Lanka in 1974 under a treaty signed by the then two prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Sirima Bandaranaike, be retrieved by India is nothing new. In fact she has sung the same old song earlier. But she has sensed that this time around the timing is correct and in her favour to press her demand and emerge as the guardian saint of Tamil Nadu fishermen.

On Tuesday morning when Jayalalithaa with flower bouquet and silken shawl in hand greeted Modi at his Southern Block Office in Delhi, she handed over a lengthy memorandum of requests which in the main consisted of expressing concern over the welfare of Lankan Tamils and of calling the Central Government to sponsor a UN resolution condemning the genocide in Lanka and to hold those responsible accountable, to hold a ‘Tamil only’ referendum in Lanka to decide on a separate state for Tamils in Lanka. She also demanded the Indian Government to restore the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen in Tamil Nadu to fish in Lankan waters and to retrieve the Katchatheevu isle from Lanka’s ‘sovereign embrace.

“Forty one times I have written in the last three years to three Prime Ministers,” she declared in her memorandum to Modi,” on 76 arrests and 67 incidents on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. These incidents have caused unrests among my people in Tamil Nadu. It is a national issue since any attack on an innocent Indian is an attack on India.”

Appealing to the Indian Government to take action to prevent injustices being waged upon Tamil citizens of another sovereign nation is one thing. Demanding the Central Government to take immediate action to prevent attacks on its own citizens by a foreign government’s naval force, while fishing in what they consider to be their own traditional fishing waters is quite a different kettle of fish.
This time Jayalalithaa is not playing her oft played tattered card of her Dravidian race but the Hindutva trump of being Indian as the Tamil Nadu Tamil fisherman most certainly are., India’s own citizens, her own kith and kin. And she is calling upon the government of India to discharge the first duty of any government: defending the nation’s territorial integrity and protecting the lives and property of its citizens.

Decrying the previous Congress Government’s response to the many appeals addressed to it for strong diplomatic action as having been to no avail, she declares in her letter to Modi, “I hope that there will now be a decisive shift in the Centre’s stance under your leadership and that India will now take necessary steps to find a lasting solution to this vexatious question. The resumption of abductions and detentions by Sri Lanka had sent shock waves among the fishermen right at the beginning of the fishing season today, after a 45-day fishing ban. We hope that the firmness of India’s response would ensure that such instances do not recur hereafter.”
So there you have it. She has thrown down the gauntlet to Modi and has challenged him to make good his word, to walk the talk. She has exploited his sworn pledge to being a committed Hindutva, the cultural creed that encompasses Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and any other caste or faith that holds India as their Motherland, Fatherland and Holy Land, an ideal which lies at the root of Modi’s power base and which his party the BJP strongly advocates and follows, as evidenced by its manifesto promise to build the controversial Temple of Rama in Rama’s legendary birthplace Ayodhya at the spot on which is presently sited the five hundred year old Moslem Babri Mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Babur,
The renewal of the demand by Jayalalithaa for India to reclaim Katchatheevu from Lanka comes at a time when India has demonstrated her resurgence as the region’s superpower. After more than a decade ruled by a turbaned Sikh in turn controlled by a Italian nanny who placed her family before her adopted country, the India Government had appeared to the world as a weak and vacillating power subject, with a thread bare majority in the Lok Sabha, to the caprices of her regional states.

The magnificent oaths ceremony staged on May 26th at Rashtrapati Bhavan changed all that. The new image of India that was blatantly projected was one that brooked no nonsense. Not from her own states and certainly not from her neighboring nations. The theme song aired was ‘India is SAARC, SAAARC is India’, like the old Congress Party slogan ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’. It was clear the domestic line had been turned international.

The argument put forward by Jayalalithaa and other Indians in a nutshell is that Katchatheevu historically belonged to India. It was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 unconstitutionally since no Indian had the right to cede Indian territory without enacting appropriate legislation. As such it was also not ratified. The disputed treaty itself recognises the right of the Tamil Nadu fishermen to fish in the Katchatheevu waters as they are the traditional fishing grounds of Tamil Nadu fishermen and have been so used by them for centuries. Today it is the source of their main livelihood. When they exercise their traditional right, which transcends international law since it is an exception to the equidistance rule used to demarcate coastal nations’ territorial waters, they are fired upon by the Sri Lankan Navy and arrested for illegal fishing and trespass. Jayalalitha and her ilk charge that the Government of India looks askance while this national scandal takes place and demand the Government act immediately by retaking the once ceded Katchatheevu.

Though Jayalalithaa may have missed the Modi bus this time, it will be folly to underestimate the pull, power and perseverance of this Tamil Nadu siren who created a record in her state when the party she leads won 37 out of 39 seats at the polls. Though Modi does not need her support in the Lok Sabha, remember that he, for all the talk of a landslide win, commands no majority in the Rajya Sabha and may well need Jayalalitha’s support to make up the necessary numbers. Time and time again she has shown that she cannot be silenced. That she will give full echo to the raucous roar of her 70 million Tamil voters. It’s a noise even Modi will be hard put to ignore and will do so only at his peril.

Today India is on a high. Having discovered her own importance as South Asia’s superpower and unabashedly demonstrated it two weeks ago at Modi’s Coronation Ball, is the new India under the new Hindutva leader going to tolerate naval attacks on her citizens by a small neighboring country on her front door and thus risk transgressing her primary obligation to its citizenry and expose the hollowness of her highfalutin super nation posture?

At the moment Katchatheevu is not an issue between the Indian and Sri Lankan Government. It is still primarily confined to one between Tamil Nadu and the Central Government. But the signs are that, with Jayalalithaa coming out with all guns firing, it will soon escalate to a major crisis which will sour already strained Indo Lanka ties. Thus it is imperative that the External Affairs Ministry maps out a strategic course of action to counter Tamil Nadu moves to create a major dispute. Or else Lanka may awake, sooner than thought, to find another Falklands on her sea shore with a contingent of Indian troops occupying Katchatheevu. What then?

In the meantime,, with the demand made by an Indian state for the return of the Katchatheevu isle ceded forty years ago by her then prime minister Indira Gandhi to Lanka, let us brace ourselves to the possibility and pray to the devas that India, in one of her boorish mood swings, will also not think of demanding the return of the priceless gift sent to Lanka by a great Emperor of India through his daughter, weeks after sending through his male offspring the incomparable doctrine of India’s Greatest Son on a full moon night in the month of Poson exactly 2320 years ago this Thursday.

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