Bad headlines and puerile graphics are headaches that media houses and communications managers learn to live with; they seldom become nightmares for governments. But if the fracas over a rather inappropriate posting on the website of Sri Lanka’s ministry of defence is anything to go by, they can even snowball into a foreign relations crisis. The Sri Lanka government has issued an unconditional apology to India for last week’s post (hurriedly withdrawn) on an official website that speculated how J. Jayalalithaa’s alleged “love letters”, elucidating the sufferings of Tamil Nadu’s fishermen, would affect the prime minister, Narendra Modi. However sincere its claims about the lack of authorization for such a post, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government can hardly quell the storm that has broken over Tamil Nadu. Political parties and personalities across the board there have expressed their disgust, and quite justifiably so. There has been a self-immolation bid, emblematic of the seething popular anger against Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu. The minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has promised to summon Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to register India’s protest after an uproar in Parliament over the issue. In spite of a brave attempt by India’s foreign ministry to wrest control of bilateral affairs as the Centre’s prerogative — evident in India’s decision to sit out on the recent United Nations human rights commission vote — the clock may be turning back. And thanks to Sri Lanka, which seems to be struggling to control anti-India sentiments itself.
The mood can perhaps be explained. Much like the controversial Tamil Eelam issue that had a Tamil minority fighting the might of a supremacist State, the conflict over fishermen’s rights in the Palk Bay conjures up the image of a hapless Sri Lanka fighting against Big Brother India. This has struck a chord in Sri Lanka, ironically among Tamil fishermen in the north and east who are victims of the predatory fishing practices of India’s fishermen. India, represented especially by Tamil Nadu’s politicians, defends these practices by arguing for fishermen’s traditional rights over the waters, an argument Sri Lanka is unwilling to buy. Talks on the issue have been suspended repeatedly, making fishermen on both sides open to disciplinary actions by the respective States. The resultant anger, profitable on either side to politicians, has complicated the issue. The recent fracas adds another twist to this unseemly tangle.