By Uditha Jayasinghe
Tension between Sri Lanka and India has spiralled as both countries arrest fishermen crossing into each other's maritime boundaries, with those taken into custody increasing to hundreds on both sides, and triggering calls for diplomatic intervention.
Just last week, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 140 fishermen and 23 boats within just two days. India, not to be outdone, arrested 98 Sri Lankan fishermen in just 13 days in December, and the numbers keep increasing, daily. Deeper tensions between Colombo and the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu seem inevitable. Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Government have traditionally had strained relations as the Indian State, home to the largest number of Tamils, has for decades empathized with their Sri Lankan counterparts and their struggle for equal political rights in Sri Lanka.
'An open-air prison'
With the new rise in fishermen arrests, the already tenuous relationship has been further strained with Tamil Nadu politicians accusing the Sri Lankan Government of turning the narrow strip of sea dividing the two countries into 'an open air prison.'
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa Jeyaram, is one of the most vociferous critics of Colombo's human rights record, and last week, sent a letter accusing Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, of being too soft on the fishermen issue with Sri Lanka's Government.
Even though discussions between the two parties have been mooted for next year, they are yet to get locked down, with fishermen getting caught in the middle.
Just days after the 140 Indian fishermen were arrested, Colombo hit back blaming Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa Jeyaram, for keeping Sri Lankan fishermen 'hostage' in order to achieve her political goals.
Deputy Minister of Fisheries, Sarath Kumara Gunaratne, said that by arresting Sri Lankan fishermen and holding them in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa is attempting to win the support of the Indian fishing communities.
Speaking in Parliament, the deputy minister claimed that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is demanding that Indian fishermen be allowed to poach in Sri Lankan waters using large scale fishing gear. The deputy minister said the methods used by Indian trawlers to catch fish, are damaging marine life in Sri Lankan waters when they cross the international maritime boundary.
He urged the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is Sri Lanka's main Tamil party, to raise the issue with Jayalalithaa, as it is affecting the livelihood of fishermen in the North that is governed by the TNA.
Gunaratne also pointed out that attempts are being made to scuttle ties between Sri Lanka and India by using the fishermen issue. However, he said President Mahinda Rajapaksa is keen to ensure ties with India and interaction with the Indian Central Government remain strong. More....