Long Road To Jaffna

Narendra Modi’s visit to the northern province of Lanka was a historic first by an Indian PM, but India must be pro-active with measures that will help post-war reconstruction 

Maya Mirchandani, Jaffna 

The welcoming flags and banners along the highway from the airport to downtown Colombo were the first indications of the importance Sri Lanka attached to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in March.

It was the culmination of two months of pro-active diplomacy on both sides, and indicated just how far India’s relationship with its island neighbour has come since a carefully orchestrated coalition ousted the government of former President Mahinda Rajapakse in January. But even though President Maithripala Sirisena seems a more willing dance partner, continuing squabbles over fishing rights in the Palk Strait threaten to break India’s rhythm.

Following exchanges of visits by the countries’ foreign ministers, a visit by President Sirisena to Delhi and a visit by Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Colombo, Modi’s trip marked the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in 28 years. And his visit to Jaffna in the Tamil north was a historic first.

However, despite those milestones and the release of 54 Indian fishermen from Lankan custody following the visit, Sri Lanka’s maritime border conflict has by no means been solved.

After Modi’s departure, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe lost no time in reminding India that its fishing boats are not welcome in his country’s waters—and if they cross the maritime border the Lankan navy is well within its rights to shoot.

He had good reason for such tough talk.

Though India calls the dispute over fishing rights a humanitarian issue that affects the livelihoods of fishermen in Tamil Nadu, the situation is even more worrisome for the fishing community of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

The coastal village of Ilaivalai, 20-odd km north of Jaffna, is a case in point. Six years after the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended, Jaffna’s heavily aid-dependent economy, based primarily on agriculture and fisheries, is floundering. The village’s tiny, traditional boats are no match for the trawlers used by Tamil Nadu’s fishermen—which not only strip the water of fish through bottom-trawling but also cause significant environmental damage.

In a moment of dark humour, Northern Province Chief Minister CV  Wigneswaran explains ruefully how bad conditions have become. “Our resources on the seabed are being completely denuded. The Indian side is just like my head here,” he says, pointing to his bald pate.

As Jaffna’s fishermen struggle to make ends meet, the chief minister and other leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in power in the Northern Province, say that if Tamil Nadu’s political parties really want to help their cause, they should convince the state’s fishing associations to ban trawlers and help the fishermen’s livelihoods.

They may consider the Prime Minister’s threat to shoot at Indian boats “unfortunate”, as Wigneswaran called it. But local leaders all agree with Colombo on the need for a complete ban on trawlers in these shallow waters. In fact, Chief Minister Wigneswaran goes a step further and says there is no objection to the trawling as long as they take the trawlers out to the deep ocean and keep out of the Strait.

The TNA’s Member of Parliament, MA Sumanthiran, says they welcome emotional support from Tamil Nadu. “But at the same time, we urge them to consider our stand and not to strike a discordant voice,” he says. “We have clearly articulated a position of a political solution within an undivided country. They must realise, if they are to be supportive of us, they should support what we want.”And an important part of what they want is the return of livelihoods and incomes for Jaffna’s local population.

In his speeches, Modi referred to the need to find a mechanism to resolve the crisis, but the Indian government is also clear that Tamil Nadu’s fishing associations need to come up with a solution to the trawlers themselves first. Ever savvy in such matters, Modi touched on that “emotional support” by pushing for the implementation of the 13th Amendment, which devolves political power to the Tamil-dominated North and East of Sri Lanka within the framework of the Sri Lankan nation.

Speaking in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, he urged Colombo not only to implement but to “go beyond” the 13th Amendment soon. Moreover, in a meeting with the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance, Modi also urged them to be patient with Colombo’s new government and give its new leaders time to make good on 
their commitments.

For his part, Wigneswaran, saying it’s time Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and its minority communities got together to close decades of communal rift, reacted to Modi’s advice by saying that “in 67 years, Colombo has never worked without pressure”.

That pressure, according to Sumanthiran, must come from Delhi. “We have achieved this much, the system of Provincial Councils came into being only with India’s intervention,” he says.

Wigneswaran backs this position, saying they look to India to play the role of “collaborator, mediator 
and facilitator”.

(Hard News Media)

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