Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao is being rushed to Colombo to raise the festering issue of Indian fishermen being allegedly attacked and killed by the Sri Lankan navy (SLN).
Sources in the Lankan Ministry of External Affairs confirmed Rao’s visit, saying she’s expected on Sunday and would meet the Lankan foreign minister, GL Peiris and other officials. "It’s likely to be a two-day visit," an official said.
Rao’s unscheduled visit indicates that the fishermen issue has triggered unexpected ripples of worry in the diplomatic relations between the two countries.
It also makes clear at least two other aspects. Firstly, New Delhi was serious in raising the issue of the death of Indian fishermen with Colombo – at least two were allegedly killed by SLN in the last two weeks.
The alleged attacks and the subsequent protests by the fishermen community would have to be given priority as state assembly elections are approaching in Tamil Nadu and the ruling DMK is Congress’ close ally at the centre.
Second, the foreign secretary’s visit also reveals that New Delhi probably hasn’t accepted the Sri Lanka government’s and SLN’s strong denials of their involvement in the two cases. It’s worth noting that senior SLN officers have repeatedly told Hindustan Times that their records show that no SLN ship or patrol boat was near the locations of either of the two incidents.
Rao’s visit could also be an attempt to send a signal to fringe elements in Tamil Nadu politics who continue to support the remnants of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Members of one such fringe group is suspected to have attacked a Buddhist shrine – run by Lankan monks -- in Chennai probably as a retaliatory attack against the killing of the two fishermen. For India, it would only be further embarrassing if more such attacks were carried out.
Cooperation between the navies of the two countries has intensified in the last few years. The Indian navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma visited Sri Lanka twice in the last eight months. In October, 2010, the then SLN chief Vice-Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe also visited India.
For its part, the SLN, through the Lankan ministry of external affairs, has put out a statement where it said that instead of attacking it had on multiple occasions helped Indian fishermen and fishing boats that had strayed into Lankan waters.
But as of now, with Rao’s impending visit, it’s clear that it would require more than statements and denials for the issue to be sorted out.