Tamil Nadu fishermen trespass into Sri Lankan waters to largely poach paraw (blacktip trevally), prawns, sea cucumber and conch shells. Last week, 136 of them became a prized catch themselves. Lankan Tamil fishermen intercepted them and hauled them over to the police.
The vigilante move and the release of the Indian fishermen in two days though they were remanded for two weeks in jail again focused the spotlight on the festering issue of fishing in choppy Palk Strait; a month ago two Indian fishermen were allegedly killed by the Lankan navy. About the government’s denial of the killings, an Indian diplomat said it could hardly be expected that authorities will admit to killing unarmed men.
The arrest and remand were read by some as a message from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to New Delhi — jail term could have been longer if the government did not lobby the country’s independent judiciary.
At the same time, the early release gave an opportunity to the press to harp on how India, the neighbourhood bully, pressurised Colombo to free them; how Indian diplomats tried to coerce a Jaffna magistrate. It’s a different matter that attorney general Mohan Peiris said that the “issue wasn’t that serious’’ and it could be worked out “government to government.’’
What’s more serious, is the frequency with which Indian fishermen were intruding in Lankan waters, impacting the livelihood of some 22000 families (around 80000 people) in Jaffna who depend on fishing.
“They have destroyed the fishing habitat in their waters by bottom trawling (sweeping the seabed) and now want to fish in our waters. It is not acceptable,’’ Jaffna-based S Thavaratnam heading an association of 117 fishermen’s’ union, said. On Monday, fishermen wearing black bands, held a silent protest in front of the Indian Consul General’s office there.
Questions were being raised about the timing of the increased incidence of incursion; suspiciously close to the Tamil Nadu assembly elections. Attacks on or arrest of Indian fishermen could indeed a whip up a pre-electoral frenzy along coastal constituencies, leading to more incursions and incidents. But that could only help Sri Lanka’s new powerful patron, who has no such bilateral issue to tackle, to tighten its net of influence on Colombo.