THE men untangling nets in Akkaraipettai harbour, in Tamil Nadu, southern India, know how to ease growing tension with Sri Lanka: scrap the international frontier. “You can’t put a border on air, so how can you do it on water?” says the leader of a fishermen’s union. In any case, trawlermen pay it little heed. Their frequent clashes with Sri Lanka’s navy are part of a serious and widening quarrel between the neighbours.
Waters on the Indian side of the narrow Palk Strait are fished-out and polluted. So 600-800 trawlers venture daily to Sri Lanka. Fishermen in Akkaraipettai cheerily admit to trespass, and confess that some of them carry out destructive and illegal “bottom trawling”. By dragging nets weighted with iron bars they wreck coral and other life on the seabed. Their defence: running a trawler for a week costs up to 70,000 rupees ($1,300) in diesel alone. To turn a profit they need the well-stocked waters across the strait, little fished during Sri Lanka’s civil war, from 1983-2009.
Yet Indians are furious, too. A fisherman describes how, in March, a Sri Lankan naval vessel rammed his boat. Sailors then tied up him and eight crew, beat them and stole their catch. Others tell of thuggish naval sailors who smash boats and engines, spike fuel and break their bones.
The dispute should be solvable. A Sri Lankan official snorts of the Indian navy that “of course” it can stop Indian fishermen crossing. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan navy could mend its rough ways. More likely, however, clashes will increase. Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated government sees a long-term threat from Tamil Nadu.
The Indian state’s 72m people (compared with the island’s 21m) are mostly ethnic Tamils. Many backed their kin in Sri Lanka in the war. It remains home to some 100,000 refugees. And Tamil Nadu’s hostility to Sri Lanka is growing more overt. In March two Buddhist monks visiting the state were beaten by Tamil crowds. Sri Lankan cricket stars have been told to stay away. Tamil Nadu’s film actors held an anti-Sri Lanka hunger-strike on April 2nd.
A Sri Lankan official responds by warning against travel to the state. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s powerful defence secretary, growls that Tamil Nadu dictates policy to feeble Delhi. Airlines have cut flights. Traders who once bustled to-and-fro now stay at home. Textile shops in Colombo say stocks are running short.
Sri Lankans see the current surge of Indian hostility as being for electoral ends. The largest minority partner of the Congress-led government in Delhi, the Tamil DMK, quit last month, critical of the government for not being more robust in its handling of Sri Lanka. The state government, led by the rival party, the AIADMK of the chief minister, Jayaram Jayalalitha, wants India to promote a referendum in northern Sri Lanka and among the Tamil diaspora on a separate homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils.
India’s national government avoids such talk. On March 29th Salman Khurshid, the foreign minister, rebuffed suggestions to label Sri Lanka unfriendly, let alone impose sanctions. Instead India continues as a big aid donor, trading partner and investor. However, demands to boycott a big Commonwealth summit to be held in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, in November may grow too strong to resist.
Tamil politicians are indeed posturing ahead of India’s general elections in 2014. Either the AIADMK or the DMK is likely to help form the next coalition in Delhi. But, elections aside, a genuine concern for fellow Tamils also exists. Growing evidence of massacres in the war and cover-ups since are widely discussed in India. Off the record, a Sri Lankan official now admits the family of the Tamil rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was “wiped out”. Other stout denials may also be revised.
The government also still shows signs of hostility to Sri Lankan Tamils. Leading politicians now look ready to use sparring with Tamil Nadu as an excuse to scrap plans to devolve power to the regions. Mr Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, told a local paper on March 27th that regional autonomy would be a threat. “Could we afford to have a provincial administration here, which pointed a gun at the national leadership at the drop of a hat?”From the print edition: Asia
(courtesy- The Economist)