Sri Lanka fishing row: Why ‘coercive diplomacy’ may not work

In a recent letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the travails of the Indian fishers arrested/harassed by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa commended ‘coercive diplomacy’ as a possible way to make Colombo see reason. In a way, the chief minister’s suggestion is an expression of the entire state’s exasperation and frustration at not being able to resolve the fishermens’ row amicably, despite unanimous resolutions by the State Assembly, other independent initiatives of the government and individual political parties and groups.

Only days after the CM’s missive, a Sri Lankan official was reported to have said that Indian fishermen crossing into Sri Lankan waters would be fined Rs 15 crores (obviously SLR; 1 INR = 2.16 SLR). Following protests by Rameswaram area fishers, and the government of India possibly taking it up, too, the Government has since denied it in a way, and senior Sri Lankan Minister, Rauff Hakeem, on a brief visit to Chennai, has also said as much.

Indian and Sri Lankan navies engaged in their regular mid-sea exercises recently, and there is already a mechanism for bi-annual on-board conferences on the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) for better coordination. Reports have also spoken about CM Jayalalithaa wanting to link ‘Katchchativu’ ownership/re-possession, etc, to the fishing issue – and her case in the Supreme Court is pending for years now. In between, local news reports indicate that the fishers in southern Tamil Nadu coastal town of Nagapattinam are taking to her less-publicised initiative on deep-sea fishing.

The State Government wants to expand the fishing zones for the stocks-depleted fishers from the State. The fishers want to avoid arrest and attacks by Sri Lanka Navy. The scheme requires Central funding, Jayalalithaa told the PM a year and more earlier, and it needs to be acted upon one way or the other. The upcoming Assembly polls in TN can delay or fast-track the Centre’s decision – and that alone could decide the prospects of the scheme’s possible success.

Least chance

Independent of such efforts of the Chief Minister and her government, starting with the off-again-on-again fishers’ negotiations and other initiatives, ‘coercive diplomacy’ as a way to end TN fishers’ trouble may have the least chances of success. Recently, the Sri Lankan Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took a tougher course on the fishing issue than the predecessor leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Rajapaksa government was not known to have encouraged Sri Lankan Parliament or the nation’s polity to discuss the sensitive bilateral issue, with livelihood, diplomatic and security angles involved, in public. Nor did they evince any serious interest, given their own political priorities of the times – both from the Sinhala and the Tamil sides. Instead, the Rajapaksa government was believed to have handled the fishers’ issue entirely at the official-level, and mostly at the highest echelons of the Sri Lankan State structure, responding to India’s requests/efforts to have the detained fishers’ freed, after the Sri Lanka Navy had done its ‘mandated’ job – the latter as understood by the navies across the world.

Recently, the Sri Lankan Parliament discussed the fishers’ row with India in some detail – possibly for the first time in a very long time. Clearly, the political opinion was near-unanimous. Speaker after speaker, representing varied political opinions, insisted on discouraging Indian fishers from entering Sri Lankan waters, and ‘taking away’ what was due exclusively to the Tamil fishermen of the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the island-nation.

Intervening in the debate, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan, suggested that the Sri Lankan government should engage not only the Indian Centre but also the Tamil Nadu State in negotiations. Another parliamentarian said that the government should send and MPs’ team to talk to the Tamil Nadu Government. But no parliamentarian even remotely suggested that the TN fishers too have a share in the spoils from the shared seas. They were unanimous – either expressly or by implication — that it all belonged to the Sri Lankan fishers, and that the TN fishers were ‘poaching’ in Sri Lankan waters.

In a way, PM Wickremesinghe may have taken a leaf out of the TN and Indian efforts at what Sri Lanka may consider as attempts to keep the issue alive. As may be recalled, the Tamil Nadu Assembly is often agitated by the continual arrest and reported harassment of the State’s fishers (along with their brethren from the adjoining Union Territory of Puducherry). Cutting across party lines, Members of Parliament from the State have also often brought the functioning of the two Houses to a stand-still on various occasions, again over the same issue.

If the TN political efforts at unifying the nation’s Parliament on an issue that they consider dear have not been wholly successful over the past decade and more, it has not been the case in Sri Lanka. There are no formal reports of the Sri Lankan Parliament passing a resolution, the recent debate should have conveyed to those concerned across the Palk Strait, the ‘mood’ of the Sri Lankan nation as a whole. Should any resolution of the TN Assembly kind be moved, unanimity may have already been ensured.

It is in times such as this that armed then with a possible resolution, the Sri Lankan Government can either wring its hands, or flex its muscles – as it chooses to. Much of the Sri Lankan Government decision could then be dictated by domestic political compulsions, of what they often say, again, is of the ‘Tamil Nadu kind’. Already, PM Wickremesinghe is on television that his nation’s Navy would shoot Indian fishers crossing into the Sri Lankan waters. Going beyond political hype during a long run-up to parliamentary polls in his country, it is a political position that no PM or Government could rescind – nor be seen as doing so – after making it.

For the first time ever, at party conventions twice over the past year or so, the TNA, ruling Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, and has a majority Tamil stakes in the East and elsewhere across the country, has passed resolutions on the fishers’ controversy. TNA parliamentarians and Provincial Council members too have started talking on the subject. Their views reflect the general mood of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishers, who say that their TN brethren are scrapping their seas’ bottoms after having destroyed it all on the Indian side of the shared waters. Incidentally, it is also reflective of the Sri Lankan Government’s position.

It does not stop there. As coincidence would have it, there is also the recent Indian experience viz Nepal, where perceptions of ‘coercive diplomacy’ in the form of ‘blockade’ of essential supplies to the land-locked country, has backfired on bilateral relations. India is left to hold the baby, and unfortunately so. The Centre is believed to be still recouping from the adversarial effects of the ‘Nepal blockade’ on India’s prime position in regional equations and strategic priorities. It may not want another misadventure on hand – at least until it had the inputs and time to re-assess the ‘Nepal strategy’, if any.

The Way Ahead

The situation viz Sri Lanka is no different. At the height of India’s engagement/involvement in Sri Lanka after the anti-Tamil, Pogrom-’83, India’s ‘coercive diplomacy’ in the form of air-dropping food and medicines for the beleaguered Tamil citizenry through ‘Operation Poomaalai’ (‘Operation Garland’) in 1987, led to a situation from which there has been no escape for India – and with no friends left in Sri Lanka, either. The medium and long-term efforts of such an attempt now over the fishers issue would have a sharper short-term repercussions for the affected Tamil Nadu fishers than already.

Where does a permanent solution to the fishers’ row lie? Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, after due deliberations, seemed to have hit upon the idea of subsidising TN fishers for deep-sea fishing, with extended facilities for landing, storing and marketing at international prices. At their first meeting in Delhi after Wickremesinghe became Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, PM Modi made a positive reference to the TN initiative, without acknowledging it as such.

CM Jayalalithaa, in her first meeting with PM Modi after he had taken charge in 2014, submitted a memorandum for Central grants for the purpose. If the Centre has taken any initiative, and if the State Government is also aware of the same, it is time that they shared it with the affected fishers, who could think and act differently, on the livelihood front.

After all, deep-sea fishing involves not just financial commitments and marketing facilities. It also involves also physical preparations in the form of refitting their destructive trawlers, and emotional and psychological makeup for the individual to stay at sea for a longer period, from days to weeks, and later on, months at a stretch. Fishers, who are accustomed mostly to return home after an overnight stay at the sea, would have to be away from the family, among others. Some of them are doing it already, as they fish along the Gulf coast and elsewhere, for local corporations. Unlike in those cases, the fishers would be staying on-board their vessels to begin with, graduating to ‘mother vessels’ in their time, all of which needs education and re-education, too.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. This article has been written for India Writes Network)