India and Sri Lanka as nations have experienced numerous problems in the recent past and it is time now for both nations for looking and paving a new future together. An important concern that both governments need to work jointly is the issue of repeated arrests of Indian fisherman within Sri Lankan territorial water by their coast guard and navy need serious introspection by both nations. Last year the matter turned grim with a Sri Lankan court handing capital punishment to five arrested Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu for illegal drug trafficking. The unconditional release of these convicted fishermen by the then Sri Lankan Government must be highly appreciated for this act of kindness and generosity; and for showing a humanitarian face to resolve a major diplomatic and judicial crisis. Not many countries in the world do exhibit such act of humanitarianism including so-called western civilizations against convicted citizens of another country.
India has been steadily working in restructuring its foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region with maturity and sensibility and has been making headlines across the globe. Such new era and dimension of the foreign policy and Indian diplomacy must be commended. Both countries should work together in resolving the issue of fishermen crossing the international maritime boundary and in peacefully resolving the resultant conflict. The Indian coast guard and navy must also take appropriate actions in restraining Indian fishermen accidentally or intentionally crossing over to the territorial water of another sovereign country. Since these incidents have been happening repeatedly it is time to look for some meaningful demarcation of maritime boundaries to avoid future dilemma.
One of the best possible solutions could be establishing an Indo-Sri Lanka joint maritime border security coordination committee for managing Indo-Sri Lankan territorial water issues. Under this proposed bipartite agreement, fishermen captured and arrested in each others’ territorial water could be exchanged between the coast guards if they do not have any significant issues or pose any serious threats to the arresting nation concerned. This will reduce territorial water confrontations and will also result in quick release of arrested fishermen between both countries saving time as well as unnecessary legal and financial burdens.
If mobile courts (having a senior magistrate on special deputation) are made available in the monitoring vehicles of the coast guard services of both countries this could be easily resolved. If the arrangement works good, then it could be extended to other bordering neighboring countries that share maritime boundaries within the SAARC maritime region for amicable settlements for fishermen crossing the territorial water unintentionally. Two warnings could be provided in writing to the individual captured vehicles following financial penalties from the third capture onwards on infringing territorial water and on forth violation the ocean going vehicle can be grounded by the host country for 2-3 months as punishment. Hopefully this could settle the lasting legacy in better managed and diplomatic ways. Since strict documentation will be maintained the legal cases could be easily tracked on board using internet network from the corresponding national coastal and naval legal databases.
With two new governments in office in both countries, this should start a new page in the Indo-Sri Lanka relations and working towards achieving peace and prosperity for the subcontinent and for the whole of South Asia. Such joint initiatives could also help in reducing smuggling of contraband commodities including drugs, illegal immigration and insurgent activities harmful for both nations. The joint initiative is the simple beginning with ample opportunities for better management of maritime territorial disputes and marine resources more efficiently in future.
Saikat Kumar Basu