Troubled waters

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

The recent attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by Sri Lankan fishermen renew tensions in the Palk Strait and revive the controversies relating to Kachativu.

WHETHER it is war or peace in Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait, the lives of fishermen from Tamil Nadu's Ramanathapuram, Pudukottai and Nagapattinam districts continue to be difficult. If they faced bullets from the Sri Lankan Navy between 1983 and 2002, when 112 of them were killed, now they are at the receiving end of attacks by Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. They are being abducted and their boats are being captured.

On March 3 and 5, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen from Pesalai and Neduntheevu attacked 154 fishermen from Rameswaram and Mandapam, and seized 21 boats because they were fishing off Kachativu, in the island's territorial waters. Two fishermen from Rameswaram suffered fractures in their hands. Tamil Nadu fishermen say that they received this humiliating treatment at the hands of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who had been refugees at Mandapam or Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu for the past 19 years.

With a ceasefire in place between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from February 2002, and with Colombo lifting a ban on fishing in its northern territorial waters, the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen from Mannar district and the islands off the Jaffna peninsula have resumed fishing after a gap of about 17 years. So they resent Tamil Nadu fishermen coming into their waters.

The attacks have turned the spotlight on Kachativu and led to a revival of the demand that the Government of India retrieve it from Sri Lanka. Kachativu is a tiny island situated in the Palk Bay, between India (off the Rameswaram coast) and Sri Lanka. India ceded it to Sri Lanka in 1974 by way of "mending fences" and furthering "friendly relations". Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dismissed the island as "sheer rock with no strategic importance".

Infuriated by the recent attacks, fishermen's associations at Rameswaram have demanded the restoration of their "traditional rights to fish in and around Kachativu", as enshrined in the 1974 agreement. A. Anwar Razza, Tamil Nadu Labour Minister, and P.G. Narayanan, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) member of the Rajya Sabha, said that a permanent solution to the problems faced by Tamil Nadu's fishermen can be achieved only if the Centre takes steps to get back Kachativu from Sri Lanka.

On March 5, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote a letter to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, in which she termed it a "burning issue". She pointed out that Tamil Nadu fishermen "depend essentially on fishing in the waters around Kachativu for their livelihood". She insisted that the "traditional rights and privileges of Indian fishermen to carry on their normal occupation of fishing in these waters will have to be recognised early and a suitable working arrangement devised".

Members of Parliament belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) told External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha that although the attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy and the island's fishermen had become "a persisting phenomenon", they had "a strong feeling that the government is not paying appropriate attention to this issue". On August 15, 1991, during her first tenure as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa had announced that she was prepared to "fight" the Centre to get back Kachativu.

Over a fortnight after the latest incident, emotions continue to run high at Rameswaram, Pamban, Thankachi Madam and Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district. About 1,200 mechanised trawlers and around one lakh fishermen and workers struck work from March 3. N. Devadass, secretary, Rameswaram Port Mechanised Boat Owners' Association, asserted that the strike would continue till the "government guarantees our traditional right to fish in the waters around Kachativu" and facilitates the release of the seized boats and the fishermen who are in custody in Sri Lanka.

According to fishermen in Rameswaram, on March 3, at dawn, when 112 fishermen from Rameswaram in 21 mechanised boats were trawling their "double nets" off Kachativu for lucrative tiger prawns, they were surrounded by a few hundred fishermen from Pesalai in Mannar and Neduntheevu in the Jaffna peninsula. One Sri Lankan fisherman shouted, "Why do you come into our sea and churn it up?" They then boarded the mechanised trawlers, damaged them, assaulted the fishermen with iron rods, wooden logs and a "mugandu", a weapon shaped like the alphabet `C'. Arul (26) and Rajan (35) suffered fractures in their hands. The Sri Lankan fishermen commandeered the boats to Mannar, where the Tamil fishermen were produced before a magistrate.

Two days later, 42 fishermen from Mandapam, who sailed into the sea in nine mechanised trawlers, were `abducted' by fishermen from Mannar. The fishermen from Mandapam were not beaten up, and the `abductors' told the `captives' that they had no enmity towards them because when they came to Tamil Nadu as refugees they were given succour and were treated well. One Sri Lankan fisherman reportedly said: "But some of you cross the border and fish, and also damage our nets. Since you trouble us often despite our warnings, we have to behave rudely with you."

AFTER MPs from Tamil Nadu raised the issue in Parliament, New Delhi took up the issue with Colombo and 91 of the 154 abducted fishermen, including the 42 fishermen from Mandapam, were released on March 6. As of March 20, 27 fishermen and 31 boats, including four boats that were captured in February, were still at Mannar.

Since June 28, 1974, when India ceded Kachativu to Sri Lanka, it has been a source of controversy between the two countries. This is because the sea around Kachativu is rich in prawns, and attracts fishermen from Rameswaram. However, the 1974 agreement expressly protected the "traditional rights" of Indian fishermen to visit Kachativu and the right of pilgrims to take part in the St. Anthony's festival there. Article 5 of the agreement states: "... Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to visit Kachativu as hitherto, and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for these purposes." Article 6 says, "The vessels of India and Sri Lanka will enjoy in each other's waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein" (Frontline, April 22, 1994, and November 4, 1994).

Swaran Singh, the then External Affairs Minister, said that Indian "... fishermen were generally free to fish even roundabout Kachativu and they also used the Kachativu island for drying their nets... the traditional rights of Indian fishermen and pilgrims to visit the island remain unaffected." Fishermen from Rameswaram cite these statements to assert that they have "a traditional right to fish in and around Kachativu".

Although the abundance of tiger prawns attract fishermen from Rameswaram, Pudukottai and Nagapattinam to the waters around Kachativu, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen prefer to catch sheela, cutla and tirukkai fish, and baby sharks. According to Devadass, there was virtually no sea corridor available for Tamil Nadu fishermen to fish in Indian waters. He said: "If we put our nets in the water once, it should remain submerged in water for four hours. In these four hours, we travel 20 km and reach Kachativu." Kachativu lies 18 km from Rameswaram, and in this area, a four-km stretch is reserved for fishing by country boats. "If we go east from Rameswaram, there are only rocks over a stretch of 9 km. Then begins the Sri Lankan waters (after 13 km). So there are no Indian waters at all for us to fish in," Devadass said.

Between 1974 and 1983 fishermen from Tamil Nadu faced no problem while fishing around Kachativu. In 1985, in the midst of the ethnic crisis, the Sri Lankan government imposed a ban on fishing in the waters around the islands off the Jaffna peninsula. This rendered Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen jobless; many of them came to Tamil Nadu as refugees. So the sea was open to fishermen from Tamil Nadu. However, the Sri Lankan Navy started firing on them when they fished around Kachativu. The military confrontation between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE escalated after the LTTE sank three sophisticated boats of the Sri Lankan Navy. Colombo imposed a "no-go" zone in its northern territorial waters from September 1993.

In 1993 and 1994, the Sri Lankan Navy opened fire on fishing boats from Tamil Nadu a number of times and many Rameswaram fishermen were killed. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote a series of letters in September/October 1993 and February 1994 to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, protesting against "such brutal attacks on the innocent fishermen". She demanded that India issue "a notice of retaliation" to Colombo. From 1983 to March 2003, 112 Tamil Nadu fishermen have been killed and 897 have been injured; about 250 boats were sunk when Sri Lankan naval vessels rammed them.

The firing stopped after the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2002. But it started arresting the Tamil Nadu fishermen who fished around Kachativu. In March and October 2002, and in February 2003, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 27 fishermen from Tamil Nadu for fishing in the island's waters.

Observers believe that India obtaining Kachativu on perpetual lease could solve the problem. Fishermen's associations in Rameswaram are keen that India do it. According to M. Radhakrishnan, Tamil Nadu Fisheries Minister, the State government would set up a high-level committee to hold talks with the Sri Lankan government.

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