The death sentence awarded by the Colombo high court to five Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu on drug trafficking charges promises to complicate the India-Sri Lanka relationship further. India reacted sharply to the verdict, categorically pronouncing the fishermen as “not guilty” while declaring that it would do its best to bring them back. This is a particular knotty issue to tackle given the various stakeholders in both countries and it has the potential to create bilateral stresses from time to time. Both countries are already not seeing eye to eye over Sri Lanka’s decision to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock at Colombo. Policymakers need to be sensitive to the views of the other side and avoid full blown public recriminations.
The issue of Indian fishermen being fired on or arrested by the Sri Lankan navy for straying beyond maritime boundaries inflames passions in Tamil Nadu and frays bilateral tempers. Indian Tamil fishermen insist on operating in their ‘traditional’ domains which conflict with Sri Lanka’s understanding of legal boundaries — which it feels complied to enforce owing to depleting fishing stocks on its side. Colombo has hence been regularly detaining fishermen and releasing them after New Delhi’s intervention. The death sentence is a new twist which is bound to generate political effects in Tamil Nadu, where actors like the BJP are seeking to make fresh inroads. The risks of misperceptions between India and Sri Lanka are real. Colombo will expect India to respect the integrity of its judicial process while New Delhi is liable to believe that the Mahinda Rajapakse government can nudge the courts, given the family’s complete dominance over Sri Lankan state institutions.
Relations can sour if India sees the verdict as Colombo’s leverage to counter India on other issues. India tried to mend ties this year by abstaining on a US-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that called for an international probe into alleged war crimes during Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE in 2009. But New Delhi and Colombo still differ substantially on the degree of autonomy granted to provincial councils governing Sri Lankan Tamil populations in the north. South Block has the unenviable task of balancing between Chennai and Colombo while casting a wary eye on Beijing’s ambitions. These are tensed times for India and Sri Lanka.