Is India playing it right with Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has released five Indian Tamil fishermen, who were sentenced to death by a court there for smuggling drugs, after President M Rajapaksa granted pardon following diplomatic pressure from India. They have since returned to Tamil Nadu.

As expected, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of celebrations to claim credit for this achievement. The BJP wasted no time in crediting Narendra Modi’s personal efforts in ensuring the release, of course, with ground soldier Subramanian Swamy having played Mr Ambassador in facilitating the release.

And then there is Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK that has lost no time to claim credit for their relentless pressure on the Centre to apply diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka. Not to be left behind, the DMK too has taken out time from the humdrum of Tamil politics, to stake claim to their share of credit in getting the fishermen released. And lastly, there is the evergreen champion of Sri Lankan Tamils and the erstwhile LTTE, Vaiko of MDMK who has been vociferous in claiming his role in getting the fishermen released.

Indian diplomacy

While one cannot pass judgment on whether the charges against the fishermen were true or not, one thing is for sure and that is Indian diplomacy has failed rather than succeeded, in the context of Sri Lanka.

While our diplomats would be patting their backs on a job well done, it would be well to reflect on why the situation was allowed to come to this stage, where fishermen got arrested and were handed out death sentences.

Has anyone recorded the number of Indian fishermen who have been killed, arrested, imprisoned for long periods and ill-treated by the Sri Lankan authorities, over the years? This is a rarity even with our sworn enemy, Pakistan. So how is it that Sri Lanka has been able to take such a hardline against fishermen from India, in waters shared by Sri Lankan fishermen as well?

The fact is that India has failed to have a clear and coherent policy with regard to Sri Lanka. History has shown that India has never had a consistent position on Sri Lanka and more often than not, allowed Sri Lanka to dictate terms to India.

Lanka’s internal conflicts

Sri Lanka has seen internal conflict based on language and religion, ever since it won its independence from the British and was initially granted Dominion status. In the aftermath of independence, there was a push to promote Sinhala as the official language. This push grew into an agitation between Sinhala and Tamil groups on one side, and Buddhists and Christians, on the other.

Soon the agitation took a violent turn and with time, the Sinhala-Tamil divide overtook the Buddhist-Christian conflict. The agitation grew into a militant resistance movement by the Tamils and by early 8os, there were several Tamil militant groups that had mushroomed, each one trying to outweigh the other as the leader for the movement towards an independent Tamil State.

The failure of Indian diplomacy and the lack of vision on the part of the political establishment in Delhi dates back a long time. One example is the dispute with Sri Lanka over the Kachchatheevu island, a 285-acre uninhabited island that lies between the two countries, off the coast of Rameshwaram.

Other than a sacred Catholic shrine of St Anthony, there is no building nor any inhabitants on the island. Residents of both the countries would visit the island without visa, to celebrate a festival that lasts three days in a year and other than that, the island was used temporarily by fishermen to dry their nets, etc. The island holds significance for fishermen only and has no other activity in or around it.

Ill-conceived agreements

As per agreements signed in 1974 and 1976, the Indian Government strangely acquiesced to the Sri Lankan demand that the island be handed over to them, when historically the island was part of the Ramnad kingdom of Tamil Nadu. The agreement allowed citizens of both countries to visit the scared shrine, without need for visa, but this did not include fishing rights for Indian fishermen. This was a blunder on the part of the then Indian Government that failed its own people and denied access to fishing off the island.

In the wake of the LTTE militancy and activities in the area during the peak years of agitation, Sri Lankan Navy began to take violent action against Indian fishermen, who have traditionally fished in those waters for centuries. Till date, several hundred Indian fishermen have been killed or arrested, while our Government has remained silent. All these bring to context the recent death sentence of the five Indian fishermen.

How did the Indian diplomats allow this to happen and what was the Central Government doing, all these years?

In the 1970s, the Indian Government tried to appease the then Bandaranaike Government by handing over the Kachchatheevu island, without completing the due process of ratification in Parliament. Then in a contrarian policy, in the late 1970s and early 80s, we began assisting various militant Tamil groups, by way of training and arms support, in raising the demand for an independent Tamil State in Sri Lanka.

Once the militant Tamil groups began infighting amongst themselves, India chose to support the Prabhakaran-led LTTE and extended full support by way of training, finance, arms and logistics, both onshore in Sri Lanka and from India.

When LTTE grew into an army to reckon with and turned against their Indian mentors, the Indian Government, once again, in a reversal of policy, went against the LTTE and launched the disastrous and ill-planned Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operation, only to pull out later without achieving any political or military gain, while further straining ties with Sri Lanka.

At the people level, we lost support from the Indian Tamil community, as also the Sri Lankan people. We simply failed at the diplomatic and political levels and that is carrying on till date.

The murky politics

The Centre seems to be caught between domestic politics of Tamil Nadu and the intransigence of the Sri Lankans. With the LTTE threat neutralised, Sri Lanka is now beginning to play the China and Pakistan card against India. Sri Lanka fully understands the Indian position and discomfort in having any Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which it considers as its sphere of influence. Despite this, Sri Lanka allowed the Chinese nuclear submarine to dock in its port that happens to be at a kissing distance from India, ignoring Indian protest. On a political level, it has been trying to do the tango with Pakistan as well, while India continues to watch helplessly.

Sri Lanka is naive in playing the China card against India, which will give it little gains, other than some easy finance from China. However, India ‘replaying’ the Tamil support for an independent Eelam could be far more threatening to Sri Lanka, this time around. This card must be used aggressively by Indian diplomacy to keep Sri Lanka in check and aligned with Indian interests in the region.

With LTTE vanquished, Sinhala sentiment is at its peak but this should not come in the way of India allowing the sentiment to extend to a tipping point against India. While the Centre does not have to give in to domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu, it certainly must be more forceful in ensuring that the Sri Lankan Navy is held in check against any further provocation or action against Indian fishermen. It’s time India stood up and made its presence felt.

The fact is, India has never had a clear strategic vision or position on Sri Lanka and that ambiguity remains till date. Can Narendra Modi’s Government show some vision and spine to correct this?