The Ministry of External Affairs — which recently committed itself to facilitating a meeting between fishermen from India and Sri Lanka — wished to quickly hear from Tamil Nadu on the matter, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh said here on Thursday.
“We are waiting to hear from Tamil Nadu. We wish to we hear from them quickly because it would help us solve the livelihood issues,” she told the Indian media.
The issue of Indian fishermen allegedly poaching on Sri Lankan waters springs up periodically, posing a challenge to India- Sri Lanka diplomacy. As on Thursday, 77 fishermen — predominantly from Tamil Nadu — are under detention in Sri Lanka, with many having their boats confiscated by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, who was in Sri Lanka last month, said that a meeting of fishermen from both the countries would be facilitated at the earliest. This meeting is expected to be followed by a meeting of the Joint Working Group — set up by the two countries to address the issue — that is to be held in India this year.
Suggesting that delay in Tamil Nadu’s response meant that there was virtually no progress on the promised meeting between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen, Ms. Singh said the joint working group could not meet unless that happened.
Joint Secretary (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives) Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who was also present at the press briefing, said Tamil Nadu had agreed to hold the meeting and that the State government’s cooperation was essential in addressing the issue.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan, who met the Foreign Secretary on Thursday, too urged the Indian government to address the issue as it affected the livelihood of Tamil fishermen of northern Sri Lanka. Mr. Sampanthan also raised other issues, including controversies surrounding land ownership in the north.
The TNA, Ms. Singh said, understood and appreciated India’s engagement and particularly its role in pushing the Sri Lankan government to hold the Northern Provincial Council elections. “We discussed a wide range of issues relating to their concerns and we have been taking up [those] with Sri Lanka. It is an ongoing process, and we will continue to take this forward.”
The Foreign Secretary also met her Sri Lankan counterpart Karunatilaka Amunugama. “I indicated the importance India continued to attach to our relationship with Sri Lanka, as has been stressed by our leadership,” Ms. Singh said.
Asked whether the Prime Minister’s absence at the Commonwealth summit would affect India’s diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka, Ms. Singh said the decisions taken by India were based, first and firmly, on national priorities, foreign policy obligations, and international obligations. “I think every country in the world has its domestic compulsion and priorities, especially countries that our democracies like we are. Each of them has their play within this matrix. That is something that is commonly understood.”
India and Sri Lanka were such close neighbours, she said, that they understood each other well. “We expect our engagement with Sri Lanka to continue and to be strengthened. We do not think anything has changed.”
Asked why India, compared to other countries, did not state its position strongly, she said there were different ways of expressing. “We say what we have to say, but we do it in our own way.”