Monday’s tragic death of a 22-year-old fisherman, who was allegedly shot dead by the Sri Lankan navy, has once again brought into focus the perennial tussle between India and the island-nation over marine resources, fishing rights and the maritime boundary.
While there have been a number of instances of Indian fishermen being arrested by Sri Lanka for allegedly trespassing and fishing in Lankan waters, figures from the Ministry of External Affairs show that the number of detentions have reduced sizably in the last three years. From a peak of 787 apprehensions in 2014, the number of Indian fishermen arrested by Sri Lanka reduced to 454 in 2015 and 290 in 2016.
But this year has seen a sudden spike in arrests. In his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami stated there were three separate incidents which occurred on March 4 and 5, wherein 32 fishermen from the state were apprehended by Sri Lanka. In all 85 fishermen from Tamil Nadu continue to remain in Lankan custody, while 128 fishing boats have also been seized.
The alleged killing of Bridgo, a young fisherman from Rameswaram is, however, far from the first casualty in this long-drawn dispute.
The Tamil Nadu government had in 2012 stated that 85 fishermen had been killed and 180 injured by the Sri Lankan navy between the years 1991 and 2011. In 10 years, the TN government noted that there were 167 incidents of shooting by the Lankan navy. Some media reports estimate that around 600 Indian fishermen have been allegedly killed by the Lankan navy personnel so far.
Monday’s incident comes six years after the last reported killing of an Indian fishermen by the Lankan armed forces.
In April 2011, four fishermen were killed after allegedly being attacked by the Lankan navy. In January the same year, two fishermen were also killed in a shooting incident at Palk Bay. In both cases, Sri Lanka denied its involvement in the firing.
The incident, however, quickly snowballed into a diplomatic row after Sri Lankan Buddhist monks were attacked in Chennai. With protests raging on across Tamil Nadu, security had to be beefed up at several Sri Lankan establishments.
Prior to 2011, the then Minister of External Affairs while responding to a query by MP Tariq Anwar noted that one fisherman had been killed in 2010, none in 2009 and 5 fishermen in 2008.
Significantly, in light of repeated incidents of Indian fishermen being fired upon by the Lankan navy personnel, India and Sri Lanka had in October 2008 issued a joint statement to “put in place practical arrangements to deal with bonafide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).”
The highlight of the agreement was that no Indian fishing vessel would be fired upon.
The 2008 statement read:
“As part of these practical arrangements, following the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline and their intimation to the Government of India, Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas. Further, there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels.
It was agreed that Indian fishing vessels would carry valid registration/permit and the fishermen would have on person valid identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu.”
Despite the statement, Indian fishermen have on several occasions come under attack and faced harassment for allegedly crossing the IMBL.
In 2015, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister triggered controversy when he defended the island-nation’s right to kill fishermen straying into their waters. In an interview to a Tamil channel he said, “If someone tries to break into my house, I can shoot. If he gets killed…Law allows me to do that.”
The question is - is the Sri Lankan navy well within its rights to fire upon Indian fishermen if they stray into their waters?
During the civil war in the island-nation, the Sri Lankan navy defended shooting upon Indian vessels on the pretext of “anti-terrorism and national security”.
JHU Ranaweera, commanding officer of the Sri Lankan navy is quoted in Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma’s ‘Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia’ as saying, “We are on high alert all the time for LTTE boats. When we see such a large number of Indian fishing boats, it is impossible for us to tell whether they are really fishermen or Sea Tigers.”
But that argument is no longer valid, with the LTTE having been decimated by the Lankan forces in 2009.
V Suryanarayan in his book ‘Conflict over Fisheries in Palk Bay Region’ observes that when Indian fishermen trespass into Lankan waters, it must be treated as a civilian economic offence.
“I would like to point out that crossing the International Boundary Line and fishing in the waters of another country are civilian economic offences. Shooting and killing of fishermen who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line, violate all canons of natural justice,” he writes.
Speaking to The News Minute, N Sathiyamoorthy, Director of Observer Research Foundation – Chennai Chapter notes that if Monday’s attack took place in Lankan waters, the Sri Lankan navy is within its rights to fire at an approaching vessel.
Sathiyamoorthy also points out that the Sri Lankan navy would have to justify the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident – could the fishermen have been arrested rather than fired upon?
“If the attack was in Sri Lankan waters, then legally Sri Lanka is free to do what it wants in its territory,” he says.
“However, it is bound by two technicalities,” Sathiyamoorthy adds. “One is the 2008 joint statement between India and Sri Lanka, where they promised to not shoot Indian fishermen. The second is on human rights grounds. The Sri Lankan navy will have to prove that the fishermen physically threatened them and they were protecting Lankan territory and waters.”