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21 February 2011
Lanka can’t get away with it
KILLINGS, assaults, abductions and arrests. Such has been the high-handed and hardly civilised manner in which the Sri Lankan authorities, its Navy in particular, have been dealing with long-standing disputes over fishing rights that Tamil Nadu is approaching foment and even the insular Bharatiya Janata Party has spoken in condemnatory tones. Yet New Delhi appears unable to come up with a more credible response than statements and telephonic talks at the ministerial level ~ after a “failed” visit of the Foreign Secretary to Colombo ought to have indicated that words would not suffice to remedy the situation. The release of the 136 fishermen from Tamil Nadu who had been arrested and taken to Jaffna ~ many said to have been surrounded by their Sri Lanka counterparts and transferred to their Navy that was conveniently standing-by ~ does not close the chapter. The situation is much too serious for UPA-II to ignore: even if circumstances have forced it into fire-fighting on several fronts. Whether increased diplomatic pressure or threats of economic-related measures is the best route forward is for the government to decide. But act it must if the spilling of blood in the Palk Straits is to be averted ~ what is to prevent Tamil Nadu fishermen from sailing in strength to assert what they believe are their traditional rights?
Though Indian defence personnel generally steer clear of politically roiling waters, resentment is building up: did they train Sri Lankan naval personnel so that they used their muscle on Indian fishermen? There is a genuine threat to peace in the Straits, definitive action is needed. It is the absence of such action that has caused a sore to fester. Action was required on two fronts: determination, if not some sort of demarcation, of the “dividing line”; measures to avert Indian fishermen from straying across, perhaps fitting a few boats from each harbour with GPS devices or other hi-tech systems. But since the somewhat trigger-happy Sri Lankan navy has been active in those waters, there ought to be a strong Indian naval/coastguard presence too, if only to get a message across. That is an immediate requirement. In the longer term a joint Centre-State fisheries protection force could be raised. India must deem itself duty-bound to prevent its fishing communities from being bullied. Sri Lanka cannot be allowed to get away with such belligerence. This is no David-Goliath situation: just exploiting India’s diffidence in dealing with a smaller neighbour that is asking to be put in its place.