The case of five fishermen from Tamil Nadu who were sentenced to death in Sri Lanka on drug trafficking charges has had a happy ending. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa apparently avoided escalation of tensions by commuting their sentence paving the way for the fishermen’s release.
This is an example of every stakeholder coming away with a measure of political gain, following a vexing episode that generated pressures for all sides. Sentencing fishermen to death for smuggling was an exaggerated sentence to begin with. The Narendra Modi government had to contend with restive politicians from Tamil Nadu and anxious voices in the strategic community who saw this as Colombo’s payback for New Delhi’s lobbying on Tamil minority rights—and as Sri Lanka’s signal that it was exercising its own version of strategic autonomy by allowing Chinese nuclear submarines to dock at Colombo.
The Modi government can legitimately represent the outcome as a success after hectic lobbying by NSA Ajit Doval, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and others convinced Colombo that this was not an issue that New Delhi could be seen as climbing down on. A telephone call from the prime minister to the Sri Lankan president reportedly clinched the issue.
The pardon does not, however, entail a loss of face for Rajapaksa. He can very well justify to his own constituency that releasing the fishermen is a symbolic climbdown that enables continued intransigence on the more substantive issue of granting autonomy to Tamils in Sri Lanka. The death sentence to the fishermen has oddly forced New Delhi to expend political capital on this issue rather than on Tamil minority rights over which it has deep differences with Colombo. Given that the Rajapaksa regime dominates all state institutions in Sri Lanka, including the judiciary, one is liable to wonder if the death sentence was a ruse to focus New Delhi’s energies on a highly charged issue at the expense of structural issues like autonomy. Worth noting that after all the heavy lifting in recent weeks, India will be hard pressed to soon push again for Tamil rights. The episode also signals to Rajapaksa’s base at home (and India) that Colombo is not bereft of retaliatory options against a bigger power.
One has to wait and see how strategic games in the Indian Ocean play out. But there is little in the passage of recent events to suggest that Sri Lanka will desist from continuing to draw China further into India’s geostrategic space. The release of the fishermen will please politicians who are keen to publicly welcome them home and claim credit, but it does not resolve contradictions in India-Sri Lanka ties.