Relations between India and Sri Lanka have never been better. Yet the recent killings of two Tamil Nadu fishermen, allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy, have cast a negative light on bilateral ties. While the Sri Lankan Navy has denied responsibility for the deaths, there is anger in Tamil Nadu, and New Delhi has lodged a strong protest with Colombo. Unacceptably, miscreants have attempted to take diplomacy into their own hands by attacking a Sri Lankan Buddhist priest in Chennai. It is the responsibility of the Tamil Nadu government to ensure such incidents do not occur. The latest turn is surprising considering that in October 2008 the two sides reached an elaborate understanding to put in place “practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line.” For the first time, both sides acknowledged and accepted that fishermen crossed the international boundary, and had to be dealt with in non-lethal ways. The steps included designation by Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along its coastline that Indian fishing vessels could not venture into even if they crossed the IMBL. The governments also agreed there would be no firing on trespassing vessels, which would have a valid registration or permit; the fishermen were to carry government-issued identity cards. These measures led to a remarkable drop in the number of arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan authorities, from nearly 1,500 in 2008 to just 34 in 2010. There were no incidents of killings in 2009 or 2010. The January 12 incident in which a fisherman was allegedly shot by the Sri Lankan Navy was the first of its kind since the 2008 arrangements.
Significantly, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has hinted at a rethink on the two-year-old understanding, remarking to the press that the end of the war against the LTTE and the peaceful situation in northern Sri Lanka necessitated a revision in the existing arrangements. Clearly, there is an apprehension in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen are now taking advantage of these arrangements to cross the IMBL regularly and in greater numbers, threatening the livelihood of fishermen on the other side. While these concerns are real, it is extraordinarily difficult physically to prevent fishermen from crossing the international maritime boundary. Fishing communities in Tamil Nadu need to be sensitised to the imperative of respecting the sanctity of the IMBL but the penalty for trespass cannot be death. India and Sri Lanka, which have excellent political and economic relations, are surely capable of resolving the livelihood-centred problems that have surfaced among their fishermen in the post-LTTE era.