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India-SL security trade-off mooted

Lanka should give India Kachchativu on lease, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 01, 2005 01:18 IST
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran

An Indian expert on South and South East Asia has suggested that India and Sri Lanka enter into a deal in which Sri Lanka gives India the Kachchativu island on "lease in perpetuity" and licenses to select Indian fishermen to fish off the north Sri Lankan coast, in return for a Defence Cooperation Agreement, which among other things, will help curb the LTTE's deadly naval wing, Sea Tigers.

In his latest book entitled: Conflict Over Fisheries In the Palk Bay Region (Lancer, New Delhi, 2005) Prof V Suryanarayan says that it is very important for India to find ways for fishermen from Tamil Nadu to fish in Palk Bay/Palk Strait (up to 5 nautical miles from the north Sri Lankan coast) and around Kachchativu, because this is a traditional right as well as an economic necessity.

According to him, a grave injustice was done to Tamil Nadu fishermen in 1974, when New Delhi decided to give in to the Sri Lankan government's contention that Kachchativu was part of Sri Lanka, and agreed to draw the maritime boundary line in a such a way that the island was included in the Sri Lankan side.

New Delhi had callously overlooked the fact that Kachachativu had been part of an Indian "Zamindari" and that Indian fishermen had, from time immemorial, fished in the waters around it, Suryanarayan says.

The area around the island and beyond, nearer the Sri Lankan coast, is rich in prawns, and prawns are the main source of income for these fishermen since 1969. The annual fish production in the Palk Bay region is 85,000 tonnes today. The stakes are, therefore, high.

Fishermen go for fish wherever they may be, and respect no maritime boundaries. Despite the maritime boundary, Sri Lankan naval surveillance, and LTTE's resistance, Indian fishermen have been poaching in the waters around Kachchativu, and going as close as 2 nautical miles from the Sri Lankan coast. Over a 100 fishermen have been killed, and catch and equipment worth millions of rupees, have been lost in the process. But the fishermen are undaunted.

Although the Art 73 of the UN Law of the Sea prohibits shooting of straying fishermen, the Sri Lankan Navy had been quite trigger happy. The Government of India could do little to stop it, given the security concerns of the Sri Lankans in the light of the LTTE-led insurgency in North Sri Lanka from 1983 onwards. The Sri Lankan Navy is much more restrained now, partly due to Indian intervention and partly due to the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE.

Suryanarayan urges nations to recognize such straying and poaching as a fact of life, and device means of reconciling this reality to the idea of national sovereignty.

He argues that Art 5 of the 1974 maritime boundary agreement, read with statements of Indian ministers in parliament, gives Indian fishermen the right to fish around Kachchativu. But this is rejected by India as well as Sri Lanka.

Art 5 says: "Subject to the foregoing, Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to visit Kachchativu as hitherto, and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for these purposes."

Clearly, there is no mention of "fishing". Moreover, the 1976 agreement clearly bans poaching.

Given the deaths and the political fallout in Tamil Nadu, in 1991, the state Chief Minister, J Jayalalitha, called for the "retrieval" of Kachchativu from Sri Lanka. But Suryanarayan says that Kachchativu cannot be retrieved because the handing over to Sri Lanka "however unjust and irrational" is a fait accompli. His suggestion is to take the island on "lease in perpetuity." In this case, sovereignty over the island will rest with Sri Lanka, but India will get the right to use the island and the waters around it.

Suryanarayan recalls that in 1974, India gave Bangladesh Tin Bigha on such a lease, to settle the vexed question of access to enclaves in each other's territories. Why cannot this be replicated in the Indo-Sri Lankan case, he wonders.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa took the cue, and in 1994, asked the Central government to get the island on perpetual lease. She reiterated this demand in 2004 in a letter to the Indian Prime Minister.

Of course, the idea is anathema to the Sri Lankan Establishment. Giving even an inch of tiny Sri Lanka to any other country cannot be sold to the public here. But Suryanarayan has suggested a deal that he says both India and Sri Lanka should find worthwhile. He suggests that the two countries look at the strategic importance that Kachchativu has gained in the context of the LTTE's acquiring a powerful naval arm, the Sea Tigers. Both India and Sri Lanka should be interested in tackling this menace because the presence of a third "rogue" navy in the area is not in their security interest. They have to be alive to the dangers of maritime terrorism, he pleads.

Already, in 1997, the Maritime Intelligence and Counter Piracy Operations Centre had described Sri Lankan waters as an "extremely dangerous area for maritime traffic" and are the fifth most afflicted in terms of piracy. According to the US think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Sea Tigers have destroyed 30 to 50 per cent of the coastal craft of the Sri Lankan Navy.

Suryanarayan points out that the LTTE has been keen on controlling the coastline of the "Tamil Homeland" in Sri Lanka, which means two thirds of the Sri Lankan coastline. Its 2003 proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) in the Tamil-speaking North East demanded complete control of the coast and access to it from the sea, while the Sri Lankan constitution said that the sea and fishing came under the Central government.

The LTTE's interest in gaining control over the Sri Lankan North Eastern coastline and the sea lanes off it stems from its Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran's doctrine on the need for a navy. "Geographically the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of the its seas. It is only when we are strong on the seas and break the dominance that the enemy now has, that we will be able to retain the land areas we liberated and drive our enemies from our Homeland." (Mr Narayanswamy: Tigers of Sri Lanka ).

Suryanarayan considers the Tigers' doctrine and demands to be dangerous to both Sri Lanka and India. "India can ignore this dangerous development only at its own peril," he says.

Joint Indo-Lanka naval base in Kachchativu

Calling for strong action on India's part, Suryanarayan says: " A country of India's size and resources should not only assess the dangers emanating from a changing strategic environment but, it should also zealously safeguard autonomy in decision making. The recently published Indian Maritime Doctrine highlights not only the importance of the control of the seas but also the necessity to deny its use to the adversary. New Delhi should develop the political will to pursue courses of action that are in India's national interest. India should neutralize the Sea Tigers at the earliest opportunity."

The expert further says that Indo-Sri Lankan cooperation will be necessary for this venture, and suggests that after giving Kachchativu to India on perpetual lease, the Indian and Sri Lankan navies should have a joint base in the island to counter not only the Sea Tigers but smugglers and drug runners, who have become a major problem in Sri Lanka.

The deal should be part of a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) between India and Sri Lanka, he says, and adds that the time is ripe for such an agreement.

"The honeymoon between Colombo and the Tigers has come to an end and discerning observers can notice a tone of intransigence and defiance in recent LTTE statements. At the same time, cooperation between India and Sri Lanka in matters concerning defence is making steady progress. The number of Sri Lankan officers coming to India for defence training has registered a quantum jump. According to informed sources, the two countries are sharing intelligence on the vital issue of the movement of LTTE ships in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi has offered assistance for the modernisation of the Palay Air Base."

"Negotiations between the two countries on the signing of a defence, agreement has reached a fairly advanced stage."

"A joint naval presence in Kachchativu would go a long way in monitoring the activities of the Sea Tigers in the Palk Bay region. If Indian ships can accompany US ships to the Malacca Strait, cannot India extend a helping hand to its smaller, more vulnerable, neighbour in the south?" he pleads.

Licensed Indian fishing in Palk Bay region

Suryanarayan strongly urges that India gets Sri Lanka to give in to its demand for licensed Indian fishing in Sri Lankan waters in the Palk Bay/Palk Strait area. He notices that in 2003, Sri Lanka had agreed to consider such a proposal mooted by India at the Prime Ministerial level. This is a "window of opportunity which India should exploit", he says.

To buttress its case, India can point out that in the 1976 maritime boundary agreement, it had unilaterally offered Sri Lanka, licensed fishing for three years in the Wadge Bank area, the experts says.

Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen from Jaffna and Mannar are indeed opposed to poaching by Indian fishermen, but they have been practical enough to accommodate it with some conditions. A recent agreement allowed Indian fishermen to fish as close to 3 nautical miles from the North Western coast and 7 nautical miles from the Northern coast, provided the Indians did not use trawlers. Trawling, which sweeps the bottom of the sea, is what the Sri Lankan fishermen are really bothered about, not the traditional fishing methods.

The fishermen of the two sides seem to want to share the marine resources in the restricted Palk Bay area. Why can't the governments of India and Sri Lanka follow suit? Suryanarayan wonders.

He is acutely aware that the Sri Lankan Establishment, represented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Fisheries, is against licensed Indian fishing despite the 2003 offer. In 2003, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was going out of the way to accommodate India and the offer was part of the mood of the time. But the mood had not percolated to officialdom and the rest of political system.

The Sri Lankan case is succinctly stated in "Kachchativu and the Maritime Boundary of Sri Lanka" written by WT Jayasinghe, formerly Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary. He says that for Sri Lanka, the entire marine resources in those waters are vital for her well being, and suggests that fishing in the North be restored.

Suryanarayan himself says that fishing in the North had been battered by war and security restrictions, and needs restoration. Prior to the war, the North contributed 38% of Sri Lanka's catch. But the situation is dismal now. About 150,000 fishermen had been rendered jobless and 90 per cent of the boats need to be repaired completely. It is only after the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement that the fishermen here are slowly getting back on their feet. In this context, the Sri Lankans think that it is not proper for anyone to suggest any kind of legalised poaching.

And the Indian trawlers are a menace even after the ban on trawling for a part of the year imposed by the Tamil Nadu government. Sri Lankans think that the problems of the Indian fishermen should be addressed at the Indian end and not the Sri Lankan end. It is India, which should motivate its fishermen to take to deep sea fishing in multi-day boats. The South Sri Lankan fishermen have set an example by acquiring such boats and going to far flung areas.

India reluctant to do joint patrolling

The Sri Lankan Establishment would like India to agree to joint patrolling of the Palk Bay, but India has been wary about this and has been reluctant to commit itself. The reason for this can only be in the realm of speculation. Perhaps India wants to avoid confronting its own fishermen and also the LTTE or the Sea Tigers, on a regular basis.

The proposal to give Kachchativu on lease in perpetuity to India is considered preposterous by Sri Lankans. Not an inch of land, even if it is a barren island with not even grass on it like Kachchativu, can be bartered away given the highly sensitive nature of the Sri Lankan polity.

It is contended that the Tin Bigha model will not apply to the India-Sri Lanka case because the 1974 exchange between India and Bangladesh took place when relations between India and that country were exceptionally good. A pro-Indian government was in power in Dhaka at that time. Such an agreement cannot be entered into now, given the steady deterioration of Indo-Bangladesh relations since Mujib-ur-Rahman's assassination in 1975.

Although India-Sri Lanka relations are officially stated to be "excellent", there are deep-seated problems and tensions, which keep coming to the surface every now and then. The Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project which Suryanarayan recommends as an alternative way of solving the economic problem of Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay area, is opposed tooth and nail by the Sri Lankan government, and the political system and the media, both in the Sinhala majority South and the Tamil majority North. The Sethu project will ruin North Lanka, the critics allege.

The Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala majority South Sri Lanka will indeed want Indian cooperation to neutralise the Sea Tigers, but they would not want it to be tied to giving Kachchativu on lease to India. The standard argument in Colombo is that it is in India's own security interest to finish the Sea Tigers or the Tigers as such. Also, since it was India, which fashioned the Tigers into a powerful military force in the 1980s, it is duty bound to clean up the mess here, gratis. Sri Lanka should not be asked to pay for it in any way, especially territorially.

As Suryanarayan himself says: " While acknowledging their indebtedness to India, the Sinhalese leaders are, at the same time, deeply concerned about India's intentions and capabilities. The asymmetrical power equation has added to the Sinhalese anxiety. The foreign policy makers in Colombo were and are obsessed with the colossus in the north. India was looked upon, to quote Ivor Jennings, as a "mountain, which might, at any time, send down destructive avalanches."

The Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East, led by the LTTE, are also very wary about India's intentions and actions.

Therefore, it is very unlikely that Suryanarayan's twin proposals, one for acquiring Kachchativu on perpetual lease with the bait of a joint naval base on it to quell the Sea Tigers; and the other for getting Colombo to agree to licensed Indian fishing around Kacchativu, will be accepted in Sri Lanka.

At any rate, India is unlikely to go on an open collision course with the LTTE militarily, given its 1987-1990 misadventure in Sri Lanka. As the former Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said: " The IPKF route is closed."

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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First Published: Nov 01, 2005 01:18 IST