The year 1653 saw the birth in England of what even then was recognized as "one of the most beautiful of the world's books". A classic today, it certainly has one of the most evocative titles ever to have been conjured up by a writer-The Compleat Angler, Or The Contemplative Man's Recreation, Being A Discourse Of Fish and Fishing, Not Unworthy The Perusal Of Most Anglers. The writer, ironmonger Izaak Walton, begins by quoting from the Bible (John 21.3), "Peter said I go a fishing, and they said we also go with thee." Walton goes on to say later, "Oh the brave Fisher's life, It is the best of any, 'Tis full of pleasure, void of strife, And 'tis belov'd of many: Other joys Are but toys; Only this Lawful is, For our skill Breeds no ill, But content and pleasure." "Only this lawful is" is something that the fishermen of India and Sri Lanka would dearly love to hear from their leaders and governments, for at the moment, they frequently find themselves described as illegal.
The world has come a long way in the 350-odd years since Walton's book. On the other,?On the one hand, seas have been carved up by nations. there is a UN Law of the Sea laying down the rules for sharing maritime resources. But the fishermen of India and Sri Lanka-as also, India and Pakistan and, at one time, India and Bangladesh, but those are very different issues-have for long been the convenient scapegoats of realpolitik. They are locked up when diplomacy fails; their release is trumpeted as triumphs of diplomacy. Last week saw the surprise election of a new government in Sri Lanka. Maithripala Sirisena, a 63-year-old veteran politician and the common candidate of the opposition, dethroned the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa at the close of a decade in power that saw the military crush an armed Tamil insurgency.
The end to decades of insurgency was brutal, prompting India to moderate its traditional support for Sri Lanka at the UN human rights forum in Geneva. Nevertheless, India did not shout out its condemnation as it was fully entitled to do as the homeland of Tamils, which makes this an opportune moment for the two nations to try and reboot their ties-beginning with sorting out the dispute over fishermen. These are not unfriendly nations by any stretch of the imagination and, for India, the liberal, business-friendly man who will be prime minister for the third time, Ranil Wickremasinghe, is one of the friendliest politicians to come out of Sri Lanka. Sensing the historic moment,
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up Sirisena and, apparently, sent out an urgent friendly invitation to visit India. "Prime Minister Modi asked the President to visit India and wanted the visit to take place this month itself. But, he (Sirisena) said this month may not be possible because he is still settling down, but early next month is OK," government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters. As a "goodwill gesture," he added, Sirisena had decided to free all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody. He will also take a decision on the fate of Indian trawlers that have been seized by local authorities. Coast guards and naval patrols from both countries routinely intercept scores of fishing boats from the other side every year for straying out of their territorial waters, seizing boats and detaining fishermen. But unlike in the case of Pakistan (where fishermen can be kept behind bars for years) they are usually released. Sometimes, the period of incarceration can be hair-raising: last year, Sri Lanka sentenced five Indian fishermen to death on charges of drug trafficking but Rajapaksa commuted the sentence after diplomatic negotiations and direct talks between him and Modi.
To give you an idea of the numbers involved, at one point, in July 2014, former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa petitioned Modi seeking the release of 93 fishermen and 62 boats. According to one Indian estimate, there were nearly 1,900 Indian trawlers in the Palk bay in June 2014-the Sri Lankan numbers are less than half India's. India and Sri Lanka share a maritime border of more than 400km running along four different areas-the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Palk bay and the Gulf of Mannar in the centre and the Indian Ocean in the south. In the Palk Bay, the minimum and maximum distances between the two coasts are around 16km and 45km, respectively, according to a September 2013 paper by N. Manoharan, a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation.
Fishermen's trouble began with the Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka around a quarter of a century ago. But smuggling and terrorism-the main reasons for the incarceration of fishing, or allegedly fishing, boats-are less of a concern today in bilateral relations. That is what makes last week's election the perfect opportunity to take relations between the two nations to the highs they have long craved and are perfectly capable of reaching. From time to time, experts on both sides have come up with their solutions to the fishermen conundrum. Former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam once suggested an agreement allowing fishermen from the two countries to fish on alternate days.
One common sense suggestion with the potential for immediate execution is by Indian strategic affairs specialist Alok Bansal of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in Delhi. He has been telling discussion forums that India and Sri Lanka should set up a common fishing zone and that fishermen should be issued common fishing licences. "We are talking about subsistence fishermen with no modern gadgets or knowledge of where their country's maritime boundary ends and where it begins," he told me. "So you really cannot partition the waters." His idea is to allow fishermen from both countries to fish without any bar. A common licence will help keep out fishermen from third countries. Bansal, who has been on the Palk Straits a number of times, says fishermen from the two sides in any case have an established pattern of fishing, including "certain holidays". Holidays are, of course, essential to Walton's "contemplative man" but the Palk Straits aren't the rivers and streams of England. Here, desperately poor fishermen trying to make a living find themselves snared in the dragnets of naval guards.
(The article first appeared in South Asia Monitor)