Modi courts Tamil Nadu votes with bottom trawling

Delhi is always conscious of what Indian diplomats called “sub-regional sentiment” at the time our neighbour permitted the terrorist LTTE to train and base in India.

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi [Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images]

Few Lankans would have been surprised that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now campaigning to lead his Bharatiya Janatha Party to ‘threpeat’ its election victories for the third consecutive time, has raked up a long dead Kachchativu issue to win votes in Tamil Nadu where the BJP fared badly at the last two elections. Both Modi and his suave External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, a retired career diplomat, have waded into this issue, blaming the Indira Gandhi Congress government of “ceding” this barren, uninhabited Palk Strait island which only comes to life during the annual Catholic festival which Indian fishermen boycotted this year. This festival is dedicated to St. Anthony, the patron saint of fishermen, in whose honour a shrine stands at Kachchativu.

While it was a Congress government led by Mrs. Gandhi which signed the agreement stating that the islet stood on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary demarcating the two countries, the BJP target is neither Congress nor the Gandhis this time round. The attack is focused on the DMK of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, whose father, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi was aligned with Mrs. Gandhi when the Kachchativu agreement was reached.

Modi and the BJP are looking at winning some votes along the Tamil Nadu coast by dangling a carrot of regaining Kachchativu allowing Indian fishermen who have been poaching in Sri Lanka waters for decades to continue their illegal practices. Apart from poaching, Indian fishermen blatantly and brazenly use bottom trawling methods destroying the marine environment in the seabed. Efforts to prevent these incursions costing fishermen in Sri Lanka’s north dearly have proved futile over the years.

We in Sri Lanka are all too familiar with what has been going on for a very long time. Indian fishermen had carte blanche over these waters during the war when Sea Tiger activity required prohibition of northern fishermen venturing out into the deep sea. That gave Indian fishermen freedom to exploit the fisheries resources of Lankan waters at will. After the war ended the incursions continued. Sporadic arrests on Indian poachers and their craft by the Sri Lanka Navy continue. Offenders are charged in magistrates’ courts, sometimes warned and occasionally imprisoned. Political pressure is applied on New Delhi by Tamil Nadu and Delhi in turn pressures Colombo.

Arrested fishermen are freed and the cycle repeats itself. There has been no effort whatever on the Indian side to prevent their fishermen from crossing the international maritime boundary. India preaches that the issue be treated as “a humanitarian problem.” That seems to mean that Indian fishermen be permitted to plunder a neighbour’s resource at will simply because they have been doing so for a long time.

The forthcoming election period in India will, no doubt, see strident demands for the “retrieval” of Kachchativu by vote seeking Indian politicians. On this side of the Palk Strait, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda has for quite some time been feeling the heat of his northern constituency totally disheartened by Colombo’s impotence to do something meaningful about their predicament. They have long been complaining of losses of catch as a result of the Indian incursions into Lankan waters.

A few days ago Devananda went on record saying he’d told the Tamil Nadu fisheries minister on the phone that the Indian fishing fleet must not be allowed to fish in our waters “under any circumstances” and that a request made by the Tamil Nadu government in this regard could not be granted. He is of the view that Tamil Nadu fishermen could not be allowed access to Lankan waters until a permanent solution, acceptable to both countries, is reached. Meanwhile he is pushing for sterner naval action against Indian poachers. How effective his demands will be is an open question.

It was recently reported that Mr. Sagala Ratnayake, the president’s chief-of-staff and advisor on national security during a visit to New Delhi to discuss proposed connectivity matters between India and Sri Lanka would also take up the long running fisheries issue. Although Ratnyake is back in Colombo, there has been no news on whether this subject was in fact taken up. If it was, both sides appeared to have agreed to maintain a diplomatic silence on the matter. Whether the mandarins in the Indian capital, at the time of the Ratnayake visit, were aware that both India’s prime minister and her external affairs minister were about to make Katchchativu a campaign issue, we do not know. What we do know is that the poaching issue, regardless of Kachchativu, will be a hard nut to crack.

Delhi is always conscious of what Indian diplomats called “sub-regional sentiment” at the time our neighbour permitted the terrorist LTTE to train and base in India. Then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran had a very close relationship with Prabakaran. The Indian center was for long complicit with assistance rendered to the Tigers in India. But for the infamous ‘parippu drop’ in 1987, Operation Vadamarachchi would have ended the terrorist war long before it was actually accomplished in 2009. There is no escaping the reality that Sri Lanka, during the recent economic crunch, is immensely beholden to Indian assistance. India probably will not eventually demand the “return” of Kachchativu though the island was never India’s in the first place. But Prime Minister Modi and his BJP have clearly signaled that they are not above trawling for Tamil Nadu votes on this issue.

Manik De Silva

Manik De Silva is the Editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly published by Upali Newspapers Ltd.

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