Sri Lanka narrowly avoids diplomatic spat with India
By Our Diplomatic Correspondent
COLOMBO – Sri Lanka risked a showdown with New Delhi over the arrest of 54 Indian fishermen in what was widely seen in diplomatic circles as a retaliatory move over the censure motion against Colombo at the UN Human Rights Council.
India abstained from voting, but made a statement that supported the UK-led resolution despite Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary, Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage, having indicated New Delhi would support Colombo at Tuesday’s (23) vote in Geneva.
The resolution calling for the establishment of a mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka was adopted with 22 voting in favour, the highest number of votes against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.
A day after the vote, Sri Lanka’s navy carried out the arrests, the largest single since June 2014, causing alarm in New Delhi because of the implications in Tamil Nadu, which is heading for assembly elections in two months.
Tamil Nadu fishermen poach in Sri Lankan waters, but their arrests are seen by them as “harassment” from the island’s navy.
The latest mass arrest triggered angry protests across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party and its allies are facing stiff opposition at the upcoming elections.
Officials of the Ministry of External Affairs had made it clear that the arrest of fishermen coming on the heels of the UNHRC resolution was seen as a hostile move. With Delhi’s displeasure made plain to Colombo, local authorities switched to damage control mode.
However, local fisheries authorities in Jaffna dealing directly with the Sri Lanka Navy had resisted moves to free the fishermen. They agreed to sending back only 40 fishermen on Friday (26) while retaining 14 others along with their trawlers and fishing gear.
Even before the release of the 40 Indians, the Indian High Commission in Colombo made their displeasure clear.
“We reiterate that issues associated with Indian fishermen are to be dealt in a humanitarian manner… Bilateral mechanisms are in place to comprehensively address all matters related to fisheries,” the High Commission said in a statement.
It is understood that the detention of the 14 had caused more anguish in New Delhi which was keen to avoid the arrest being exploited as a campaign issue in Tamil Nadu.
With high-level intervention on Saturday (27), the remaining 14 fishermen and their trawlers were released by the Jaffna magistrate with the intervention of the police.
It is understood that the police argued that the fishermen should be released to avoid a possible COVID-19 cluster from Indian fishermen at a time when the virus is rapidly spreading in India.
Thanks to the COVID-19 argument, Sri Lanka may have avoided a new cold war. Prime Minister Modi had attempted to address the issue of fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters and officials from both countries have been meeting to find a mutually acceptable solution when the latest arrest took place.
Sri Lanka’s navy had argued that they carried out the arrest as Indian fishermen had strayed too close to the Sri Lankan coast.