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Curious death of an Indian fisherman

world Updated: Apr 12, 2011 15:52 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

The conflict between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen is refusing to die down. Instead, the death of another Indian fisherman this month made it clear that if this conflict wasn't tackled it could continue to rattle diplomacy between the two countries; even in a week when the country was slipping into a relaxed holiday mood around the Tamil and Sinhala new years.

More than the death of Xavier Victor - his three compatriots are still missing - the issue of family members coming to Jaffna to complete the final rites caused a ripple. The Sunday Times newspaper, the largest selling English daily, said immigration laws were flagrantly flouted as the relatives entered Lanka without visas. "Lanka ignores violation of immigration laws" was the lead headline. Suspiciously, the cause of death is not clear.

Worrying phone calls were exchanged between Indian diplomats and Lankan authorities including defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and Sri Lankan navy (SLN) officers.

As it emerged, clearances were obtained from the defence ministry for the relatives to be brought to the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) before being escorted to Jaffna by the SLN.

It's been a norm between India and Sri Lanka to waive off formalities in such cases when relatives have the soul-wrenching job of traveling to a foreign land to identify a dead family member. In July, 2009, rules were waived after six Indian fishermen were found dead in Lankan waters.

It's exactly what doesn't happen between India and Pakistan in context of straying fishermen. A simple exchange of correspondence between Islamabad and New Delhi about details of arrested or dead fishermen takes six months.

Incidentally, there have been more cases of Indian fishermen dying in Lankan waters though fishermen from here have been found straying hundreds of miles away along the Andaman and Orissa coasts.

In spite of an understanding between New Delhi and Colombo to waive formalities on humanitarian grounds, the conflict between two largely Tamil-speaking fishermen groups remain unresolved. Colombo wants poaching by Indians to stop overnight and that the arrangements should reflect post-war realities. New Delhi says the poaching should stop but it will take time to change socio-economic patterns followed for centuries.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to predict how many more bloated bodies will be found floating in cold waters in the interim.