Fish and diplomacy

When the war ended in 2009, it inadvertently led to the birth of another, far less violent, international war, that between India and Sri Lanka; specifically South India and Sri Lanka. The warring was over fish. Indian fishermen had fished in Sri Lankan waters with impunity while the Sri Lankan Government was fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In fact, it is said that they were on good terms with the LTTE and therefore faced no obstructions in poaching. 

However, following the end of the war in May 2009, they had to contend with a new reality; that Sri Lanka’s waters were out of bounds. It appears that this is an adjustment that is taking them over a decade to make, as even now there are regular accounts of Indian trawlers, large boats that use wide, cone-shaped nets to catch fish, straying across Sri Lankan maritime borders, despite numerous warnings and arrests by the Sri Lanka Navy over the years.

Things took a deadly turn recently, with the news that four Tamil Nadu fishermen died after their fishing trawler collided with a vessel belonging to the Sri Lanka Navy. Initially, the Indian fishing trawler sank and the four Indian fishermen went missing. Later, the Sri Lanka Navy found their bodies during a search and rescue operation and handed them over to the Indian Coast Guard at the International Maritime Boundary Line.

India last Thursday (21) lodged a strong protest against Sri Lanka over the death of the fishermen, saying the Sri Lankan Government should take steps to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. The issue also led to protests by fishermen in Tamil Nadu, resulting in Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E.K. Palaniswami announcing compensation of INR 1,000,000 each for the families of the fishermen. He even charged that the Sri Lankan Navy is destroying the livelihood of fishermen from Tamil Nadu. With the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections coming up, the Central Government of India is unlikely to ignore the pleas of Tamil Nadu, despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi generally being less attentive to the State compared to a Congress Government due to his strong Hindu support in other parts of India. 

It is clear that India is not genuinely keen on putting a stop to their fishermen poaching from Sri Lanka. It is also unlikely the country will make the issue of the arrests of fishermen a reason to damage its relationship with Sri Lanka, which has gained added importance over the past 15 or so years with the entry of China as an alternative to India as the leader of South Asia. However, if fishermen end up dead, it will be hard for the Indian Government to ignore the issue and would produce strongly worded statements such as the one they sent Sri Lanka last week. 

In Sri Lanka, the Government appointed a committee to provide a permanent solution to the fish-based conflict. However, the Sri Lankan Government must play a delicate diplomatic game here, despite India being in the wrong by encroaching upon Sri Lankan waters. It must manoeuvre itself into a position where it can protect its Northern fishermen’s livelihoods without antagonising India, especially with its economy so precariously placed. The Government must ensure that India tells its Southern fishermen to respect Sri Lanka’s borders and fish within their own, and to provide solutions to its fishermen’s problems which lead them to cross into their neighbouring country’s waters. If this is achieved, it would be an absolute diplomatic triumph, but such a favourable agreement is unlikely to come cheap. It will be interesting to watch what the Government offers India in return for its co-operation in keeping out Tamil Nadu fishermen from Sri Lankan waters.