Sri Lanka: Death sentence for Indians stresses urgent need to resolve fishers’ problems

lanka-fisherman1A Colombo court’s recent awarding of death sentence to five Tamil Nadu fishers, for alleged drug-smuggling in 2011, has underscored the urgent need for the Governments of India and Sri Lanka to amicably resolve the vexatious fishing issue, without further loss of time. With this verdict on Thursday, the core issue may have also moved away from livelihood concerns of fishers from both sides, to be possibly replaced by legalities of alleged illegal actions of not only fishers but also other citizens of one country in the other.

Along with the five Indians, the Colombo court had also sentenced three Sri Lankans to death for allegedly partnering with them. Indian media reports, particularly those in Tamil Nadu, are mostly silent on the matter. As coincidence would have it, a Pollonuruva court in another part of Sri Lanka awarded death to four others for clubbing to death a fellow Sri Lankan in 1996. The convicts in both cases are entitled to appeal their conviction and sentencing.

Sri Lankan law provides death sentence for drug-related offences. Indian laws too now provide for death for ‘repeat offenders’. Even otherwise, Indian laws for drug-smuggling are harsh. At present, close to 100 Sri Lankan citizens are facing drug-smuggling charges before Indian courts, most of them in Tamil Nadu. As with the case of most domestic offenders, their cases also get delayed for a variety of reasons.

Protest, reassurance

As was only to be expected, fishers across southern Tamil Nadu coast have protested strongly to the Colombo court verdict. At least one bus has been burnt, and railway track removed for a distance in Rameswaram, from whose neighbourhood the five fishers hailed. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Pannerselvam lost no time in writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging the Centre to take up the issue with the Sri Lankan Government. Other political party leaders and social groups have also joined the appeal.

In New Delhi, Syed Akbaruddin, official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), tweeted that “India-Sri Lanka in constant touch in aftermath of judgment”. The Indian government, which has been pursuing their case for the last four years, “maintains that it has done ‘due diligence’ and found them to be innocent”, he said further.

Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Yash K Sinha spoke to the Sri Lankan Minister for External Affairs, Prof G L Peiris, as soon as the verdict was known. Indications are that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may take it up with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the sidelines of the Kathmandu SAARC Summit in mid-November. In between, the Government of India, through the High Commission in Colombo, can be expected to extend all help, including appropriate legal assistance, to the condemned prisoners.

Livelihood issues

At the bottom of the Sri Lankan problem dogging Tamil Nadu fishers, polity and Government – and by extension, the Centre – are the livelihood issues of Tamil fishers in the two countries. Attached to that is the Sri Lankan State’s concerns about the possible revival of the LTTE – particularly its lethal ‘Sea Tigers’ arm, and the past temptation of fishers from both sides to play courier.

From the Indian side, too, the LTTE-related concerns remain, though to a much lesser extent, so to say. Or, so it would seem. Its place has possibly been taken by Pakistani ISI and jihadis using Ocean neighbours like Sri Lanka and Maldives – and also their citizens in some cases — for terrorist targeting of India, using the seas, a la 26/11 ‘Mumbai attacks’. All three nations have been constantly concerned about their land and shared seas being used by international drug-traffickers in a very big way.

In this background, Tamil Nadu’s case for shared fishing in the Palk Strait, based on ‘traditional rights’ and ‘livelihood concerns’ come with consequences. In legal terms, ‘traditional rights’ are suspect at best, particularly in the light of the bilateral IMBL agreements of 1974 and 1976. ‘Livelihood concerns’ in context are more and even more immediate for the Tamil-speaking fishers in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

Minus this drug-smuggling case, Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) has been arresting Tamil Nadu fishers on charges of either violating Sri Lankan territorial waters, or using bottom-trawlers and fishing gear, banned in the country, or both. In purely theoretical terms, if drug-smuggling is proved, the Sri Lankan law provides for death-sentence. Having failed to convince the trial court of their innocence, it remains to be seen how the Indian defence will fare at the appeal stage(s).

Deep-sea fishing, the way?

Larger questions remain. What if in similar cases of the kind in future, Indian ‘due diligence’ process of the kind is unable to convince itself about the ‘innocence’ of the accused standing trial in Sri Lanka or elsewhere? Can the nation’s political leadership and diplomacy be pressured into working their way to obtain freedom for offenders of other crimes, just as they have been ensuring the release of innocent Tamil Nadu fishers from Sri Lankan detention over the past years in particular? If not, what are the domestic political and bilateral diplomatic consequences?

Even as the Indian MEA may be expected to apply its mind to these questions and more, it may be time for both the Centre and the Tamil Nadu Government to actively consider the alternate, ‘deep-sea fishing’, away from the Sri Lankan waters, if India’s Palk Strait fishers and bilateral relations were not to run aground. On more than one occasion since the AIADMK returned to power in Tamil Nadu in 2011, the State Government has shown an active interest in the project.

Successive State Chief Ministers, namely, Jayalalithaa and now Panneerlselvam, have mentioned ‘deep-sea fishing’ in their missives to Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, over the past three years. The State Budget for 2011 provided for 25 percent subsidies for converting bottom-trawlers to deep-sea vessels – the aid-quantum doubled to 50 percent in 2014 budget after a ground-study.

Both in the State Government’s memorandum to Prime Minister Modi when then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa called on him, and other correspondence have demanded over Rs 1000 crore in Central aid for the purpose. Maybe, it’s time the Centre took a comprehensive view of things and worked out modalities for the purpose – including loans for individuals or credit-line for the State Government.

Shifting the focus

Manmohan Singh belatedly began taking a practical view of things, by shifting the focus away from the MEA, to include the Fisheries Department under the Union Agriculture Ministry. Under the MEA-centric scheme, much of bilateral initiatives would end with the release of Tamil Nadu fishers, detained in Sri Lanka – until the next episode arrived. However, it is unclear if the Centre’s Fisheries Department has been alerted and tuned to take the lead in assisting the troubled fishers with information of fishing fields, gears and equipment – and also work with the State Government in identifying markets for available fish, price-fixation, etc.

Whatever communication that was/is possible between the Centre and the State Government (whoever was in power, wherever) too has been confined to the subject – or, would extend to cover the technicalities. If the inclusion of a Tamil Nadu official in the Indian delegation at official-level talks with Sri Lanka on the fishing issue was expected make the State Government appreciate the complexities involved, that was not to be – or, so it seems.

That way, the two rounds of well-meaning, officially-supported fishers’ talks earlier this year also got extremely politicised on either side of the Palk Strait, with the result, no solution became possible. Otherwise, successive rulings of the Madras High Court, banning Tamil Nadu fishers from crossing the mutually agreed upon IMBL with Sri Lanka has had little effect either on the fishers or the State Government. The case, along with the more ticklish ‘Katchchativu case’, initiated by AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa and joined in by rival DMK’s M Karunanidhi, is now pending before the Supreme Court.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

Courtesy: ORF