Tensions flare, old wounds stare

Friday, April 8th, 2011
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Shamsuddin Ahmed


Fishing in the Palk Strait has brought India and Sri Lanka to a conflict that may lead to trouble. Two Indian fishermen were killed and 136 others arrested last month for encroaching the Sri Lankan water territory. This prompted a strong protest in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Chief Minister M. Karnunanidhi termed it ‘audacious’ on the part of Sri Lanka. His party leaders issuing a threat covertly suggested use of force to ensure their right to fishing in the Strait, just 33 miles at it narrowest point, between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu.


Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was no less perturbed. “This sort of behaviour is not acceptable,” he said on February 14 reacting to the arrest of Indian fishermen allegedly by Sri Lanka Navy. He immediately dispatched his foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, to Colombo with a brow-biting message.


Sri Lankan government remained calm and composed to the provocative statements. Denying involvement of the Navy it said the fishermen affected by the encroachment and plundering of their fish wealth have arrested the Indian fishermen. They were, however, set free within a week. But remaining steadfast in safeguarding the territorial integrity the government imposed strict prohibitions against intrusion of Indian fishermen into the Sri Lankan waters.


The deep wounds inflicted upon Sri Lanka by the LTTE war of insurgency are yet to heal. People have not forgotten that the LTTE was born in Tamil Nadu and nurtured, trained and armed in parts of India, enabling the insurgents to wage a decades-long brutal war. On the contrary, many Hindus in India believe in the myth, depicted in the Ramayana, that Sita, wife of god Ram, had been stolen by Ravana, the ruler of Lanka. She was rescued after a lengthy war. Indian media reports said ruling DMK leaders of Tamil Nadu were appalled that India, which has considerable military prowess, often painted as a power to reckon with in Asia, was vulnerable to persistent attacks from a small neighbour.
<>India and Sri Lanka share a maritime boundary agreement reached on June 28, 1974. According to the agreement, Kachativu, an islet barely 12km off the coast of Tamil Nadu, lies with Sri Lanka. The tiny island is of sheer rock and India found it of no strategic importance. Although Kachativu is Lankan territory, Indian fishermen had been fishing beyond the island where schools of fish are abundant, especially Tiger Prawns. The stretch of Indian waters has nothing but rocks below. Claiming ‘traditional right’ to fish in Sri Lankan waters the Indian fishermen had been regularly breaching the maritime border. Till now, they faced no restrictions. But times have changed. Sri Lanka has now imposed strict restrictions and expressed determination to act against any violation of the maritime boundary agreement.
A consortium of fishermen in Sri Lanka last week submitted a memorandum to the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo demanding immediate stoppage of Indian fishermen encroaching upon their waters. It said nearly 50 percent of Sri Lanka’s revenue in the fisheries sector is lost because of the encroachment. Fish is the third highest contributor to the country’s economy after agriculture and tourism. Around four lakh tons of fish are produced annually. The government planned to raise production to 6.86 lakh tons by 2013.


In matters of trade, Sri Lanka found the first consignment of India’s low standard power sets for its railways under the suppliers’ credit. Suspending the deal this month the communication minister stressed the importance of passengers’ safety, and said they will not hesitate to terminate the contract.


Indications available from Colombo and New Delhi amply suggest the relationship is no longer genial. The discord started widening with Colombo giving the Chinese a project to build its deep seaport, which is designed to be equipped with all naval facilities to the annoyance of India. The port is seen as an extension of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.


END/shamsuddin ahmed

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