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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Apr 2024  Padma Rao Sundarji | India-Sri Lanka tussle: Let sleeping islands lie

Padma Rao Sundarji | India-Sri Lanka tussle: Let sleeping islands lie

The writer is a senior foreign correspondent and the author of Sri Lanka: The New Country
Published : Apr 11, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Apr 11, 2024, 12:00 am IST

An in-depth analysis of the political climate in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership

Mr Modi’s latest charge, that the Congress Party had “given away” Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka several decades ago, was reckless. (File Image: DC)
 Mr Modi’s latest charge, that the Congress Party had “given away” Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka several decades ago, was reckless. (File Image: DC)

The silly season is on in full swing. From bawdy to banal, political parties are taking potshots in all directions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems set for an unprecedented third term. The undoubtedly startling speed of arrests by notoriously tardy government agencies in recent months did galvanise the Opposition INDIA bloc into full throttle on March 31, Easter Sunday. But even if the alliance manages to wrest a few seats from the BJP, there is little doubt that Mr Modi and his A-Team, including external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, will return.

Demonetisation, Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) -- there is heated debate over many aspects of Mr Modi’s decade-long premiership. But the exception must be foreign policy. There can be no doubt that both around the world and in the immediate neighbourhood, India has gone places.

So where was the need for Mr Modi to dredge up a non-issue pertaining to Sri Lanka, merely to lash out at an already ailing Congress? And risk decimating the bilateral goodwill that Mr Modi has himself created, after decades of the most legendary bilateral cock-ups in Sri Lanka, primarily by the very same Congress?

In the late 1970 and early 1980s, India armed and trained the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as “Tamil freedom fighters” struggling for rights in Sinhala/Buddhist-dominated Sri Lanka. LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran was a frequent state guest at the government-run Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi. When the civil war erupted in Sri Lanka, India sent troops against the LTTE, ostensibly to “maintain peace”. It had disastrous consequences. In 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress was assassinated in Tamil Nadu by an LTTE suicide bomber. The Tigers were now a full-blown terror outfit and were proscribed by many countries, including India. But even after Rajiv Gandhi’s brutal murder, Congress-led coalitions succumbed to pressure from their Tamil Nadu partners and offered no help to Colombo. In 2009 and with ample military aid from China and Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s armed forces defeated the LTTE. In 2013, the arm-twisting continued. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declined to attend even a Commonwealth summit, only because it was being held in Colombo.

A year later, Mr Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister.

In January 2015 and in response to an RTI query, Mr Modi’s government reaffirmed that Katchatheevu island was a part of Sri Lanka. In March 2015, Mr Modi arrived in Sri Lanka with a superbly-crafted itinerary. It was the first visit by an Indian PM since 1998, and came at a time when Western outrage over alleged human rights violations by the Sri Lankan Army upon Tamil civilians was at its peak. Mr Modi landed when controversial former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa -- seen as the villainous architect of that alleged Tamil massacre -- was riding a populist wave, especially among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority. He arrived at a time when India-Sri Lanka relations were at an all-time low.

For the first time in the history of India-Sri Lanka relations, an Indian Prime Minister paid homage to, and acknowledged, Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority. Mr. Modi underlined the Buddhist link between India and Sri Lanka and met with the Buddhist clergy, before proceeding to inaugurate several development projects in Tamil-Hindu Jaffna.

Whether it enraged the woke elements or not, there is no denying that Mr Modi’s 2015 visit -- and several subsequent ones -- were the turning point in India-Sri Lanka ties and generated enormous goodwill in Sri Lanka.

Colombo is grateful for the $4 billion assistance extended by India to help tide over its recent economic crisis, and has been trying its best to protect India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, in the face of an increasingly aggressive China. But there is no denying that China’s stranglehold over its Belt and Road-Initiative (BRI) partner has also increased exponentially.

Mr Modi’s latest charge, that the Congress Party had “given away” Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka several decades ago, was reckless.

Though the misfired pre-election jibe is hardly likely to destroy the bilateral relations he himself built up with Sri Lanka, there is, indeed, a real issue. But it lies elsewhere and is begging for India's urgent attention.

Indian “bottom trawlers” relentlessly poach in, and “outfish” in Sri Lankan waters. Bottom trawling involves scraping the bottom of the ocean with nets. The practice damages marine ecology and depletes fishing grounds of fish and corals. It is banned in most countries, including Sri Lanka, but not so in India.

“It’s not about the size of Katchatheevu or the number of coconut trees on it,” said the convenor of Sri Lanka’s National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NFSM), Herman Kumara, over the phone from Colombo, pointing out that the waters near the uninhabited, 1.6-km-long island are not particularly fish-rich anyway. “There was a clear exchange of fishing grounds in the 1970s. India got Wadge Bank, we got Katchatheevu -- perhaps because there were fewer fishermen, more primitive technology, less pressure on resources those days. Whatever it was, it’s our land, and there’s no going back now.”

Mr Kumara, who is also the general secretary of the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP), says that Indian fishermen have powerful political support in Tamil Nadu, and poach undauntedly between the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar. “Between 500-600 fishermen routinely cross the international maritime boundary into Sri Lanka every day, leaving hardly any catch for our locals,” he says.

The arrests of Indian fishermen, even inadvertent strayers, by a trigger-happy Sri Lankan Navy are played up in the Indian media. But Mr Kumara says these are “token arrests” as Colombo invariably orders the Navy to release them. “Sri Lanka is bound, after all, to respect its Big Brother”, he says.

Mr Modi will almost certainly be re-elected. To deepen relations with both Tamil and Sinhala Sri Lanka, he must revive a joint working group on fisheries that has been defunct since 2016. He must ensure Indian fishermen respect Sri Lankan sovereignty. Bottom trawling must be banned in India too, not “restricted” and ignored. Protecting the fragile ecology of the Palk Straits will also protect the livelihoods of Tamil Sri Lankan fishermen, battered by three decades of the bloody civil war.

It is best for India to let sleeping islands lie. Otherwise, there’s another player only too eager to pour (snake) oil over the Palk Strait’s troubled waters: the People’s Republic of China.

Tags: narendra modi, indian politics, foreign policy