Tamil Politics Troubles in Fishing Waters Now
By N. Sathiya Moorthy
The death of an Indian fisherman from southern Tamil Nadu in a mid-sea incident, involving the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) may have sobered competitive Sri Lankan Tamil politicians, who had resorted to a blame-game on the fishing front, but their political one-upmanship has also made those seas rougher than already. It remains to be seen if it’s only an one-off affair or could get harsher in the coming weeks and months, especially if the Government stands by its commitment to have early Provincial Council Elections.
The fishing community forms a substantial electoral constituency in the North as in the rest of the island. In theory, the introduction of multiple issues and causes only imply that the Tamil community’s core concerns on a political solution and attended add-ons like ‘war crimes probe’ is getting diluted. In theory, the encroachment of intra-ethnic issues of the fishing kind means two things in particular. One, the core issue is getting diluted, not expanded.
Two, the community is settling down to a new normal, far away from the long war years, and is taking a closer look at life and livelihood issues, for which answers have to be found from within, at least up to a point. In a larger context, the postceasefire North-East division that Col Karuna resurrected in the monolith LTTE showed that the ‘Tamil unity’ propagated first by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in his time and enforced by Prabhakaran with the gun was a put-on, at best.
Karuna implied and charged the northern Tamil leadership of the LTTE with using the Eastern cadre as cannon-feed, as the worn-out war adage goes. The LTTE never really recovered from the ‘Karuna split’, unlike the earlier divisions, including the one supposedly spear-headed by deputy leader Mahattaya. Of course, the parallels should end there, but the underlying principle that the germination of new and varied issues that had been held swept under the carpet also means that the people are getting distanced from core ideological concerns and are focussing on the cares and worries of daily-living.
No, this discourse is not about the future direction of Tamil ethnic politics in the country. Instead, this one is about the by-product of the fisher-centric politics that has been revived on the ground, rather the seas adjoining the Tamil areas. If some TNA politicians, led by parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, launched a mid-sea boat-rally against the illegal deployment of destructive bottom-trawlers, there were others, reportedly identified with Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, who quarrelled with their Indian brethren, mid-sea.
Like in all fishing communities across the world, the TNA protests were not only against ‘poaching’ by Indian trawlers, which use even more destructive purse seine nets. It is equally so against the surreptitious introduction of such trawlers, meant for deep-sea fishing, in the northern and eastern waters, by fellow Tamil fishers. The underlying concerns are about protecting the marine environment, and is directly linked to the lives, livelihoods and the future of artisanal fishermen in the North.
Leaders of the TNA protestors even claimed that ‘protection money’ was being forcibly collected from trawler-users in the region and officials of the Fisheries Ministry should investigate this, too, if they did not know about it, already. At the centre of what remains a one-sided discourse is a parliamentary legislation, moved by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2017, imposing hefty costs on the deployment of bottom trawlers in Sri Lankan waters.
It was based on a private member’s bill piloted by none other than TNA’s Sumanthiran, as far back as 2013. At the time of passage, it was seen mostly as a local law aimed at further discouraging Indian fishers from southern Tamil Nadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters, especially those that are natural fishing areas of local Tamil fishers from the North and the East. It was, and it continues to be. But it is also against bottomtrawlers that are being introduced in these waters from Sri Lanka’s South, where they are deployed mainly in deep-sea fishing in the near seas.
Yet, there is no denying the extension and expansion of competitive Tamil politics in the country, keeping sectional interests in focus. An equally important aspect of this protest is the TNA, or a section thereof, targeting Minister Devananda and his EPDP more seriously than any time in the past.
This is much farther than the motivated loose-talk and rumours that used to be spun around the minister’s name even when the LTTE war around. Does it mean that the TNA, or at least this section of leaders, feel that Devananda’s EPDP has become a serious political contender and electoral competitor than they were willing to concede all along? Or, does it also mean that the TNA has concluded that other Tamil political adversaries like Justice Wigneswaran and Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam are not worthy of their opposition anymore? If the idea was to complain that the Fisheries Ministry under Devananda was not implementing a parliamentary law, the streets of Jaffna, and the seas off the Tamil areas cannot be the right venue.
These venues are meant to take the issue to the Tamil people, the Tamil voters, who are not in positions of authority and power, to direct ministry officials or the minister himself. As a senior lawyerpolitician, Sumanthiran knows this better. For his kind of grievances, the issue could be sorted out only at the level of either the President or the Prime Minister, or both. An alternative, if such mechanisms failed, would be to move the Supreme Court, for a writ of mandamus.
That could have larger consequences, which could affect the Indian fishers, and strain the Tamil Nadu sympathies and support for the larger ‘Tamil cause’ in this nation. This is also because such a law, in the case of ‘Indian poachers’ can be enforced only by the Sri Lanka Navy, in the mid-sea. The SLN is an anathema for Indian fishers, the Tamil Nadu polity and the Indian Government, too, in a way. It could only complicate bilateral fishers issue further, without resolving any. Once the focus thus shifts to the mid-seas, if not the Indian shores, all over again, it would further deflect local attention from the continuance and expansion of destructive trawler-fishing, as alleged, in the waters off the North and the East.
Lost game and more
The game, however, was lost when the protesting TNA leaders, especially Sumanthiran, directly asked why Minister Devananda was not doing enough to enforce the law to keep ‘Indian poachers away’. The sensitivity of the issue is not lost on the Tamil Nadu side, where there has always been a groundswell of sympathy and support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. Today, after sketchy reports of the TNA’s protests and some SLT fishers clashing with their own men mid-sea (like the SLN alone earlier), it may not take much time for the street mood in the south Indian state to turn against the Tamils in the island and their larger Tamil cause.
Already, post-war residual support has become increasingly peripheral than earlier, as evidenced in Elections-2019 to the Indian Parliament’s Lower House and Elections-2021 to the Tamil Nadu State assembly. No more does any mainline party give its voice for the Tamil cause – or, even on the fishers issue. The latter in particular owes to the increasing acknowledgement that there may be more to it than meeting the eye. It’s one thing for the Tamil Nadu fishers to claim that they crossed the IMBL without knowing, but another for their trawlers to be fishing in waters close to the Sri Lankan coast in the North and the East.
This, very many independent journalists and researchers, even from within Tamil Nadu, have written over the past decades. There is also the evolving aspect of many Tamil Nadu fisher leaders acknowledging wrong-doing by some of their own ilk. They used to talk about it in private earlier, but in the past few years, have been coming out openly on the subject, including on local TV talk-shows. Yet, it is entirely another thing for them to be seen as condoning the death of one of them in a mid-sea event involving an SLN patrol vessel – an event which may have been provoked by intraTamil politics of the earlier Tamil Nadu kind, in Sri Lanka’s North and the East.
As may be recalled, Tamil Nadu politicians used to paint even the SLN interfering with the actions and activities of Indian fishers in waters that the Indian Government readily acknowledges as Sri Lankan, more to target the Sri Lankan State and Navy. Their vehement criticism derived not from the fishers’ issue per se, but has had more to do with the larger ethnic issue in the neighbouring nation, where their umbilical cord brethren have been victimised far too long, and in far too many ways. Responding to TNA’s Sumanthiran, Minister Devananda asked a northern Kilinochchi audience, why the previous Government did not ban Indian fishermen from entering the local sea-limits and scooping out Sri Lankan marine resources through bottom-trawling (especially when it had passed the said law).
The implication was Sumanthiran and his TNA were better-placed as the outsider under-writers of the Ranil Government, to pressure the latter in the matter – but did not rise their little finger. In context, Devananda charged that the TNA was involved in a conspiracy to topple the current Government for political gains. Whether the TNA is involved in such a conspiracy or not, certainly the Sumanthiran-led protests are aimed at embarrassing Devananda and his EPDP among the Tamil fishers in the North and the East, then among the larger Tamil community in the country as their past perceptions of the man may have begun waning out.
Either way, in the context of addressing the issue of trawler fishing, competitive protests of the past fortnight may not have resolved any of them. It may be worse vide allegations of poaching by Indian fishers, which alone competitive Tamil politics in Jaffna, extendable to Colombo, and maybe Batticaloa and Kilinochchi, among other Tamil areas in the country, has ended up highlighting. Yet, there will be no positive result of any kind, other than painting SLT politicians in different shades of grey in the Tamil Nadu street-view, and New Delhi’s politico-administrative assessment. If still, Tamil Nadu fishers were to retaliate, it would be against SLT politicians on the land in India, rather than against their own brethren in mid-sea.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multidisciplinary Indian publicpolicy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected] nsathiyamoorthy.com)