The Sunday Leader

Reconciling To India, And Reconciling With India

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Coming as it did just ahead of President Maithiripala Sirisena’s India visit and meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the commencement of church renovation work on Katchchativu islet has drawn attention in more ways than one. Apart from Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha writing to PM Modi, it reflects a certain element of insensitivity to diplomatic niceties, unlike in the war-time past.

It did not stop there. Generally, a VVIP visit of the kind from one country to another has been marked by certain positive gestures. In India-Sri Lanka relations, freedom for jailed Indian fishers used to be the case. In recent years, Sri Lanka has held back the boats. It was not so this time. Freedom for 34 Tamil Nadu fishers jailed in Sri Lanka for about two months was announced after President Sirisena returned home.

The insensitivity was even more if one considered that it was election time in Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka-related issues had drawn attention in the past. The ‘ethnic issue’ war and ‘accountability issues’ were not on the poll table this time. The same could not be said about the fishers’ detention.

It is more so considering that BJP had promised the moon in the Rameswaram belt ahead of 2014 parliamentary polls in India. Modi became the prime minister then and so did Sushma Swaraj the External Affairs Minister, handling all Sri Lankan affairs, including the fishers’ row, like her predecessors. Minister Sushma, then Opposition Leader, had promised even more last time. PM Modi campaigned for the BJP in the assembly polls this time, too, and fishers’ area was where the party had some new hopes, too.


In the same seas

On fishers’ row and Katchchativu issue, the northern and eastern Tamils in the country are with the government in Colombo. Rather, it’s their case that the government was arguing with India, wherever, whenever, during the war years – even when the LTTE was fighting the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) in the same seas.

Post-war, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has let Parliament discuss the fishers’ issue. The ruling TNA, both in the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and as the official Opposition in national Parliament, have argued the case. For the first time, the TNA had passed two resolutions on the fishers’ issue in the party’s conventions in successive sessions in two calendar years, post-war but before the regime-change at the national-level.

It is a reality that the government(s) in India is/are also seized of. Hence it flows that there is certain unanimity not only of views, but also of expression, within the country – for India and Indians to hear. Yet, the question is about the absence of diplomatic finesse on the Sri Lankan side post-war. It cost bilateral relations dearly. It also harmed Sri Lanka in the international arena.


Praise or blame…

It’s easy for Sri Lanka – or, some Sri Lankans — to praise India when it suits, and blame India otherwise. There are others who in the name of praising India have landed it in problems – and knowingly, well. It’s one thing for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans to reconciling the fact of a larger neighbour. It is another for the two to reconcile with India on issues of mutual interest and concern, bilateral and international.  India’s interests and concerns are vast and varied, for a variety of reasons, historic and geographic, economic and demographic. India’s concerns over Sri Lanka flow mostly from its concerns over extra-regional, third nations. Even where there are bilateral concerns, India’s formulation over the ethnic issue is time-tested. A ‘negotiated political solution within a united Sri Lanka’ has been acceptable to all Sri Lankans.

Sri Lanka has been seeking to diversify similarly on its foreign relations almost since Independence. Yet, it has not been able to shed the India-centric mindset. It’s inevitable, hence foolhardy to try the impossible. It’s akin to India’s Pakistan and China-centric approach to neighbours and nations elsewhere.  Hence reconciling each other’s realities is the sustaining way out.


Closed chapter

In the present context, Sirisena’s India visit included a meeting with PM Modi in Delhi before the two appeared together at Ujjain, the next day. During election time in Tamil Nadu, the Delhi talks touched upon the fishers’ issue. It ended in the same hopeful note the same way as between government leaders from the two countries over the past decade or so.

This time, on the eve of a Sri Lankan VVIP meet with an Indian counterpart, the Katchchativu issue got flagged off—and unavoidably so. The timing of the commencement of the church construction work was worse thus in two ways – one, the presidential visit and two, the polls in Tamil Nadu. The two nations, over the past decades in particular, have always been sensitive on such occasions and timings.

India has hosted the installation of Angarika Dharmapala, a Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liner in Sri Lankan Tamil eyes, and welcomed President Sirisena inaugurating it. It should go a long way in underpinning bilateral ties that go beyond TN-centric factors. So should the continued Government of India insistence that Katchchativu was a closed chapter. Jayalalithaa’s case, and so also the rival DMK leader, Karunanidhi’s later-day petition on the Katchchativu issue is pending before the Supreme Court. Already, the Madras High Court had dismissed petitions of the kind, based on the Centre’s submission. If anything, the high court also ruled more than once that TN fishers were violating Sri Lankan waters by crossing the IMBL, whatever the reason and justification.


Real and realistic

The Indian concerns on the fishers’ interests are real. It’s also among the real issues between the two nations, going far beyond the ethnic issue.  It’s a livelihood issue, where not only lives are involved, but the work, culture and work-culture of a people, too, are involved.

Taken away from the sea, on to another livelihood, fishermen anywhere in the world would be fish out of water. It cannot however flow from a ‘right,’ which in the eyes of the Indian government does not exist – or, exist anymore.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have been vociferous, instead. Successive governments in Fort St George, Chennai, have underpinned their arguments on ‘traditional waters’ and ‘historic rights’. The legal phraseology would have meaning only when implementation – not necessarily when seeking implementation, and/or arguing the case for the same.

Even while sternly defending the TN fishers’ rights, the Tamil Nadu government under Jayalalithaa had facilitated fishers along the Palk Strait coast in particular to diversify onto deep-sea fishing. On record, it is to help the fishers supplement their income, not as an alternative to Palk Bay fishing.  If successful, the experiment could become an experience, and supplement could become an alternative.

At the national-level in India, PM Modi’s government at the Centre too has been seized of the problem. It’s also equally aware of the ‘deep-sea fishing’ project of the TN government, which has sought Central funds for the purpose.

It’s an internal issue of the Indian State and its constituent and their population, but it’s anybody’s guess if President Sirisena flagged them in his Delhi talks.India’s expectations on the ‘ethnic front’ are realistic.

There is now a near-consensus in Sri Lanka, too, on making the content, though not the context, of the India-facilitated 13-A as a basic document for ethnic negotiations in and by the Constituent Assembly.

India has long since distanced itself from a facilitation role. If Sri Lanka as a nation and peoples still would want a facilitator, India would do it better than in the past and better than the rest of ‘em all.It’s easy for anti-India polity in Sri Lanka to dig out new issues, where none may exist – if only to keep their domestic agenda on fire.  It’s similar to sections of the Tamil Nadu polity continuing to keep the ethnic issue alive, going beyond the fishers ‘concerns. The latter alone is for real, in some ways.

The recent TN polls showed that how the ethnic issue has gone out of the local polity’s radar, as competition on the concerns got clouded in their electoral priorities.

Because they wanted to shed their pan-Tamil identity and their ‘LTTE-centric past’, leaders like Vaiko and Thiruma, Ramadoss and Vijaykanth, all had to choose a new ground – common to all, other than in the case of Ramadoss.  Yet, all of them were seeking a new political identity that would sell to a larger section than their pan-Tamil, pro-LTTE imagery. That alone would have rendered them electorally relevant nearer home. They were/are at the politico-electoral cross-roads, just as the DMK founded itself in the Sixties and the AIADMK even at the time of founding in the Seventies. Win or lose, they needed to broaden their agenda and moderate their approach.


Losing to moderation

The same could be said of actor-politician Seeman, who went one step farther than the rest. His Naam Thamizhar Katchi (‘We, the Tamil, Party) fielded candidates in all 234 constituencies with future elections and future of elections in mind.

As if their views on pan-Tamil issues, including the Sri Lankan ethnic issues, had been consolidated, Seeman went on to broaden the width and depth of his manifesto, to include other issues and concerns.

The DMK did it in the Sixties, hoping that they would use their new-found moderate identity to conquer on their ideological front, from a position of political strength and electoral relevance.

The moderation brought them power, but only ended up diluting their ideology. At founding, the AIADMK and the late M G Ramachandran started off as moderates and stayed the course.  The likes of Vaiko and Thiruma tried riding two horses at a time, but lost both – and more. It’s a lesson that hard-liners in the Sinhala South and Tamil North in Sri Lanka could and should learn from – not lose out on.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

1 Comment for “Reconciling To India, And Reconciling With India”

  1. ari

    Katchateevu belongs to Sri Lanka and what we construct on our land is our business. To hell with traditional waters…it is illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters by Indian fishermen thus depriving Sri Lankans of what belongs to them by the big Bully India….Shame on you….

Comments are closed

Photo Gallery

Log in | Designed by Gabfire themes