Deputy High Commissioner summoned

Amid uproar in Parliament, the Centre summoned the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner to South Block and demanded speedy release of 53 Indian fishermen arrested by the island Navy. (Nineteen were arrested on Wednesday and the rest on Thursday)

With irate parliamentarians from Tamil Nadu attacking the government for its feeble response, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and his deputy Preneet Kaur made statements in either House promising a lasting solution.

They said Colombo had been well acquainted with Indian expectations from the Sri Lankan Navy if it detained Indian fishermen — exercise restraint, extend humane treatment and not resort to violence under any circumstances. South Block also underlined this message to Sri Lankan diplomat Colonne Mahishini.

But Sri Lankan diplomatic sources contested assertions of complete blamelessness on the part of the fishermen, claiming that in one case, 500 boats had crossed over and damaged the fishing gear of local fishermen. This led to an agitation by Sri Lankan fishermen causing the Navy to step in and make arrests. They also complained of extensive use of bottom trawlers that even scrape the coral on the sea bed.

Of the 53 fishermen detained at Thalaimannar, 19 were on four traditional fishing boats and 34 aboard five trawlers. A Ministry of External Affairs official said India had recognised the ecology and marine life-damaging tendency of trawlers and stopped issuing new licences.

The DMK, the AIADMK, the CPI and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi went hammer and tongs at the government in both Houses over the Sri Lankan Navy’s rough methods.

They raised the political temperature by forcing adjournments in both Houses which might have led to statements by the Ministers. Unsatisfied with Ms. Kaur’s reply, AIADMK members walked out of the Lok Sabha.

In the Lok Sabha, T.K.S. Elangovan (DMK) described India as the biggest democracy but one of the weakest in protecting its own citizens. “That is what has happened in Sri Lanka with regard to Rameswaram fishermen and also with the [terrorist attack on] CRPF men in Kashmir.”

Mr. Elangovan said attacks on fishermen had become a daily affair despite many assurances by the government. “These Tamil [Nadu] fishermen are not going to capture the country; they are going to sea to capture fish. They don’t know where the maritime boundary is. I don’t know what our Coast Guard is doing.”

M. Thambi Durai (AIADMK) pointed out that the Chief Minister had written several times to the Prime Minister and felt the harsh behaviour of the Sri Lankan Navy was linked to Indian political parties and groups highlighting Colombo’s violation of human rights of its Tamils.

In the Rajya Sabha, AIADMK members walked into the well. Party leader V. Maitreyan and two others even squatted there, forcing Chairman Hamid Ansari to adjourn the House till noon. Earlier, Tiruchi Siva (DMK) said that in March alone, six incidents of arrest had taken place. and demanded a permanent solution to the problem.

Making a suo motu statement in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Khurshid said the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner was summoned to convey India’s concerns and demands including the immediate release and repatriation of the apprehended Indian fishermen. “We have emphasised the need for the Sri Lankan Navy to exercise restraint.”

India continued to remain engaged with Sri Lanka to ensure that fishermen on both sides could pursue their livelihood in a safe, secure and sustainable manner. The government was working on a “lasting solution” so that the fishing community came to an arrangement that did not lead to tension between the two sides, he said.

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