India-Sri Lanka ties have suddenly hit a rough patch. The provocation? Assaults on Indian fishermen, some of which have resulted in fatalities, that are being blamed on the Sri Lankan Navy.
Tragic as they are, incidents like these are normally only minor setbacks in bilateral ties. But the ‘Tamil factor’ in Indian politics is a controversial one, and an issue around which tensions aren’t so easily dismissed.
As a result, India’s government has reason to be particularly worried about the deaths of two Indian fishermen off the coast of Tamil Nadu. It’s a highly emotive issue in the poll-bound Tamil Nadu state, whose ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party is an ally of India’s ruling Congress Party. Indeed, the issue has already been raised between Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was in Chennai on January 23, and Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. At the meeting, Mukherjee was reported as having said ‘firm action’ will be taken if a similar incident occurs.
As the news of the second fisherman’s killing began to make headlines on January 23, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs promptly lodged a strong protest with Sri Lanka through its diplomatic channels in New Delhi and Colombo, telling the Sri Lankan government categorically that such incidents must not happen again. Colombo was apparently told that use of force must be avoided in all such situations and that the safety of Indian fishermen in the waters between India and Sri Lanka would continue to be of the highest importance to the Indian government. ‘The October 2008 understanding reached between the two governments must be scrupulously adhered to in letter and spirit,’ India's Foreign Office stated.
It’s all such a shame, because as recently as November 2010, Indo-Sri Lanka relations seemed to be on a high, with Indian Minister of External Affairs S M Krishna visiting the island nation and inaugurating the new Consulate General of India in Hambantota, where just days earlier, a major Chinese-built port had been officially opened.
An Indian consulate in Hambantota would allow New Delhi to keep a close eye on Chinese activities tied to the port project, and was India’s way of reclaiming some of the strategic space it ceded to China when it took advantage of India’s dilly-dallying over construction tied to the Hambantota project.
During Krishna’s visit, another Indian consulate, in the city of Jaffna was opened, along with the 100-kilometre Talaimannar-Medawachchiya-Madhu railway line for which India agreed to provide an $800-million credit line, including to cover the costs of construction, rolling stock, signaling and telecoms equipment.