India has taken a “serious view” of the arrest of 112 fishermen by Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Wednesday.

“Yes, fishermen have been taken into custody. We are taking up the matter with the Sri Lankan government. We take a serious view of this,” Dr. Singh said at a news conference.

Dr. Singh pointed out that Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had gone to Colombo earlier this month to “make a strong demarche to the Sri Lankan government that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable among neighbourly countries.”

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, which is keeping a close tab on the development, the fishermen were produced in court and remanded in judicial custody. Indian Consul-General in Jaffna V. Mahalingam rushed to Point Pedro on Tuesday night and was in close touch with Colombo.

The Ministry says the Indian fishermen in 18 boats were surrounded by Sri Lankan fishermen who came in speed boats. Then they were taken to Point Pedro, 45 km south of Jaffna, where the police detained them. “The safety and security of Indian fishermen is of the highest priority and concern to the Indian government,” sources said, admitting that the Indian boats were “well within” Sri Lankan waters.

The sources said the harassment of Indian fishermen near Sri Lanka has unfolded in two phases in the past five or six years. During the war between the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Indian fishermen found in certain areas were seen as aiding the militants and harassed by the Sri Lankan Navy. A large number of them were arrested; in some cases, the Sri Lankan Navy even fired at them.

During this period, the Sri Lankan Navy dissuaded the fishermen of some critical points such as Jaffna from putting out to the sea, fearing they would bring in supplies for the militants. This, the sources said, was the beginning of the second phase. When the war ended with the defeat of the LTTE, Indian fishermen were accustomed to a free run of the area and encountered no competing claims from Sri Lankan fishermen. However, conflicts flared after the Sri Lankan fishermen starting putting out to the sea.

The governments now encourage more meetings between fishermen of both countries and are also planning a meeting of the India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on Fishing to work out a permanent solution.

Diplomats here admit the issue, which raises the political temperature in Tamil Nadu, must be resolved for the bilateral relations to progress smoothly.