Colombo’s decision to free five Indian fishermen sentenced to death in a smuggling case is a good gesture and smart diplomacy. Tamil opinion — as reflected by political parties and civil society in Tamil Nadu — has been a critical factor in the shaping of India-Sri Lanka ties. The Sri Lankan Tamil community’s battle for political rights and the plight of Indian fishermen in Lankan jails have a resonance in the Tamil street. Hence, the invoking of the president’s executive powers to issue the pardon could be seen as an attempt on the part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration to reach out to Tamils in India. Having said that, a radical change in Tamil opinion is unlikely in the absence of some closure on the charges of war crimes levelled at Colombo.
Over the years, the issue of the arrests of Indian fishermen has got increasingly entangled with the Tamil question, but it deserves to be considered and addressed separately. At the core of the fishermen issue — Indian trawlers and crew have been held by the Sri Lankan navy for fishing in their waters — is the livelihood of people dependent on fisheries and the depleting stock in the seas off the Tamil Nadu coast. The spurt in the number of trawlers in the past two decades has resulted in overfishing in Indian waters and the fishermen now trespass into Lankan waters for a catch. Only an overhaul of the fisheries operations in Rameswaram would help in the long term. Meanwhile, New Delhi and Colombo should establish a mechanism to facilitate the speedy release of fishermen and boats taken into custody by their respective navies when they, by accident or choice, cross the maritime boundary. Incidentally, both countries already have an agreement in place for the transfer of convicted prisoners.
New Delhi needs to work closely with Colombo to safeguard its own national interest, especially in the context of increased Chinese presence in the region. Addressing the fishermen issue constructively would expedite the process.