India on Saturday took up with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe the "humanitarian" issue of fishermen's rights as controversy raged over his remarks that Indian fishermen may be shot if they intruded into Sri Lankan waters.
On a two-day trip ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit here next week, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also made it clear to him that there was no comparison between the issues of Italian sailors and the fishermen.
"In the discussion with Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, she (Swaraj) raised the matter regarding issues related to Indian fishermen. She explained our view that issues of fishermen is a humanitarian issue. It is an issue of livelihood," MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told reporters, hours after Wickramasinghe's remarks in an interview to a Tamil channel stoked a controversy.
Wickramasinghe alleged that Indian fishermen were taking away the livelihood of Northern Lanka fishermen. "If someone tries to break into my house, I can shoot. If he gets killed law allows me to do that," he had said.
Wickramasinghe also linked the right to take coercive action to the issue of Italian sailors being arrested, saying that if India is friendly with Italy, it should show the "same magnanimity to Italy that you want us to show."
Asked about Lanka's attempt to link the two, Akbaruddin said, "Absolutely no. These are two different issues". He explained that there are different aspects even if one views it either from a humanitarian perspective or legal perspective.
"And the External Affairs Minister forthrightly explained to Sri Lanka Prime Minister our perspective on this. Our understanding is that he does understand what the nuances and differences are and agreed to take this conversation forward," he said.
The issue of Indian fishermen also figured in the talks that Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had with Swaraj. This is the first time that TNA has raised the issue of fishermen with the Indian government, analysts here said.
Emerging from the meeting, TNA leader R Sampanthan said a solution needs to be found as the livelihood of Lankan Tamil fishermen is being affected. Asked how he views the Lankan Prime Minister's statement, the moderate Tamil leader said protecting sovereignty was every country's right.
"But I am not sure if the Prime Minister will really follow it up with action. This issue needs to be resolved through dialogue. Let better sense prevail," he said. Akbaruddin said the fishermen issue was a difficult and both sides understand that it cannot be resolved immediately.
"What we are looking at interim solutions until the bigger problem is addressed. The bigger problem can be addressed through deep sea fishing. "The thinking is that the fishermen bodies on both sides could meet, we understand they can't meet before prime minister's visit, so we are now targeting dates just after PM's visit," he said.
Swaraj, who is here to pave the way for Modi's trip on March 13-14, met with top officials here besides holding delegation-level talks with her counterpart. Akbaruddin said the meeting with Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera focussed on the Modi's upcoming visit and the arrangements and agreements that are likely to be signed.
Swaraj also met with leaders of Indian-origin Tamils, Ceylon Workers Congress and Sri Lankan Muslim Congress among others.