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Monday, January 31, 2011

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(Published in on 25th January, 2011, retrieved from

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Three men in a fishing boat are asked to jump into the sea by personnel aboard what one of them identifies as a Lankan Navy fast craft. A fisherman hesitates because his hand is injured, and he can’t swim. At this, the men on the fast craft tie a rope around his neck and strangulate him by pushing him into the sea. Then, they ride off, leaving his comrades to search for his body.

The victim, 28-year-old Jayakumar, was unarmed. So were his companions – his brother Senthil and their uncle Rajendran. And yet, someone saw fit to order them to jump off their boat on pain of death, and proved they meant it.

Who was that someone? Sri Lanka claims it wasn’t their navy. India condemns the action, shrugs and moves on. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee sagely says fishermen crossing the maritime border should be arrested, not killed, and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna conveys his sympathies to the bereaved family.

Jayakumar is the third fisherman to have been killed in the past six months, by what we must conclude are ghosts in the India-Sri Lanka waters. Since July 2010, these marauding ghosts have attacked and wounded more than thirty fishermen, stealing their catch, mobile phones and other valuables.

Each incident has been followed by precisely the same diplomatic dance. DMK patriarch and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi bemoans the loss and conveys his grief to the Centre through telegrams and phone calls, while AIADMK Chief J Jayalalithaa slams his lack of action.

The Centre clucks its tongue, and ticks off Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka gathers up righteous anger and denies involvement. The Centre puts its hands in its pockets, hems and haws and mutters indulgently, “well, don’t do it again”, to which Sri Lanka responds indignantly, “what do you mean, again?” The Centre gives the fishermen’s family a solatium and tells the press that Sri Lanka is still an ally.

And what happens when Sri Lankan fishermen stray into Indian waters? They’re detained and handed over to the Lankan mission, to be returned safely back to their homes. I’m not suggesting that they be given the same treatment as their Indian counterparts; I’m suggesting that their Indian counterparts be given the same treatment as they.

The seemingly haunted vessels that magically carry the identification marks of the Sri Lankan Navy dispense punishment in much the same manner as the ‘kangaroo’ courts, and all we can think of is compensating the family, and closing the case.

A few lakhs may be more than a fisherman earns in a decade. But could such a sum ever make up for the loss of a son, of a husband, of a father? And why is India doing nothing about it? We’ve never been the non-interfering type. In fact, our involvement in the Sri Lankan civil conflict has cost both sides dear. But that hasn’t kept us from poking our noses in – except when we’re required to take a stance.

The next question, of course, would be: What can India do? The answer would be easier if we were to transpose the issue to the other side of the border.

If the transgressor were Pakistan – which, incidentally, behaved in almost the same manner in the wake of the 26/11 attack (except that Lanka cannot quite say its forces are ‘stateless actors’) – we would first cancel our cricket tours. In the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, this is bound to have a severe impact on Sri Lanka, especially given the amount of clout India has with the ICC.

Secondly, we would rethink our trade relations. India-Sri Lanka trade has been rising steadily over the past few years, with 2010 creating a record for bilateral trade. At a time when Sri Lanka needs to boost its economy, India has a gun to hold to its head.

The third aspect India could use for leverage is socio-cultural relations. Indian authors have been invited to the Galle Literature Festival. India has been involved in development projects in the education and health fields in Sri Lanka.

When fishermen continue to die for no good reason off the coast, we cannot continue to be friends with the perpetrator. When the Centre has ammunition, it cannot twiddle its thumbs and fail to protect its citizens.

For once, in a career of playing doormat to its neighbours, our country should stand up and demand justice.


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