To nowhere land

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The revival of a religious event in Kachchatheevu after two decades brings hordes of pilgrims and others from both sides of the Palk Straits to the little island.

"THE island is 18 miles east of Pamban. Where Pamban is I do not know," Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in the Rajya Sabha in 1960. More than 40 years later, Kachchatheevu is better known as a tiny dot of land in the Palk Straits that was ceded controversially by India to Sri Lanka in 1974 under the Maritime Boundary Agreement.

Located north-east of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and south-west of Sri Lanka's Delft Island, Kachchatheevu is no more than 1.6 km in length and slightly over 300 metres wide at its broadest size.

Sunrise over Kachchatheevu.-

For most of its existence as part of Sri Lanka, the island has been a no-go zone under security restrictions imposed by Colombo in its northern seas since the flare-up of the ethnic conflict in the Jaffna peninsula in 1983 when Tamil militants began runs to Tamil Nadu and back using the Palk Straits.

For fishermen in northern Sri Lanka, barred by their Navy from putting their boats out beyond a kilometre from the shore, Kachchatheevu has been an island too far even though the waters around it are famed for prawns and oyster beds.

But despite the restrictions, their more adventurous counterparts from Tamil Nadu have found the lure of the island's Kachchatheevu waters irresistible. Under the 1974 agreement, India retained for its fishermen the right to dry nets on the island but their fishing rights in the zone have remained a grey area.

In any case, all rights in relation to Kachchatheevu have been in abeyance due to the conflict in Sri Lanka and the security restrictions in the region. But that has not kept the Indian fishermen away, and Kachchatheevu is now notorious as the place where Tamil Nadu fishermen get shot or fired at regularly by the Sri Lanka Navy.

A boat ride to Delft Island for a connecting ride.-

Tamil Nadu was not consulted when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the Maritime Boundary Agreement with her Sri Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranaike giving away the island, originally part of the zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad, and which the people of Rameswaram and other coastal areas regard as their traditional fishing grounds. Since then, for successive rulers of Tamil Nadu, retrieving the island from Sri Lanka has remained a promise.

This year, as a gesture towards the ongoing peace process with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan government relaxed the restrictions in the seas around Kachchatheevu to enable the revival of a Catholic feast on the island after two decades. The response took the Sri Lankan government and the organisers of the feast by surprise.

On March 9 and 10, the two days on which the feast was held, hundreds of people from the peninsula, particularly Delft Island, not just pilgrims but also weekend-trippers, packed into the special ferry service organised by the Jaffna district administration for the three-and-a-half hour journey to Kachchatheevu.

"WE had heard so much about Kachchatheevu, it is always in the news, and now that they have opened it up, this was the chance to come and see it," said Chitra Varatharajah of Ponnalai in Jaffna, who came with siblings and children.

Time for a prayer.-

For 19-year-old Anthony James and his seven friends from Gurunagar, a fishing hamlet near Jaffna town, it was a break from the normal routine of school, examinations, playing cricket, and from the war-ravaged environs of his home.

Two students from Jaffna Medical College decided to get in the boat "for the experience". And, of course, there were those who were there purely to witness the revival of the feast.

Uninhabited and covered with scrub vegetation, Kachchatheevu is not exactly a tourist paradise. There is not a drop of drinking water on the island. And the only structure is a decrepit church named after St. Antony, patron-saint of seafarers, to whom the feast is dedicated. It was put up by a prosperous fisherman in the early 20th century. But there is no shelter, no food, and nothing to sightsee - except the choppy blue waters of the Palk Straits all round.

A church with a view.-

But these were hardly deterrents to people who have lived in the midst of an armed conflict all these years, been bombed and shelled and displaced from their homes again and again, leaving behind their belongings each time, sometimes even losing a loved one. Considering how many times several of them had taken refuge from the war under the open sky, camping out on Kachchatheevu was a party.

In a measure of how much has changed in the peninsula since the ceasefire agreement was signed by the government and the LTTE on February 22, a Sri Lanka Navy gunboat, stationed off Kachchatheevu, inspired no fear. Instead, as the boats passed it, the passengers waved out to the sailors on board. With the truce holding, and no threat of an outbreak of fighting at least in the immediate future, here finally was the opportunity to get away for a "weekend", like normal people. Armed with jerry-cans of water, cooking utensils, groceries and bedding, they were out to enjoy it.

"If the situation takes a turn for the worse, and the fighting breaks out once more, who knows when such an opportunity might come again," observed N. Lakshmanan, a journalist for Jaffna's Uthayan daily and a resident of Delft.

As with everything else connected with Kachchatheevu, the St. Antony's feast has never been complete without Indians. The Maritime Boundary Agreement acknowledged this, and wrote in a specific clause permitting Indian fishermen to attend the feast. Until the time it was discontinued in 1982, the Kachchatheevu feast was not just a religious meeting point for people of the region from both countries, it was also an occasion for informal trade.

The Palk seas had always lent themselves to a thriving contraband business, but on the days of the Kachchatheevu festival, smuggling went legit, or at least, the authorities adopted a laissez faire attitude to it. For two days, in the background of the religious observances, the tiny island would be transformed into an open-air market, with Indians peddling much sought after lungis for coconut oil, spices and cakes of foreign brand soap.

"Currency was not accepted. It was purely by barter. I used to go every year for the business opportunity," said 59-year-old K. Thambirash, a resident of Delft.

The Sri Lankan authorities had declared a crackdown on contraband, yet several pilgrims and visitors carried discreet quantities of coconut oil and soap, hoping to exchange it for something from the Indians.

However, contrary to the heightened expectations, only 19 Indians made it, including a priest from Rameswaram, who had been invited by the Jaffna church to participate in the feast. As they landed at the makeshift jetty on the evening of March 9, the Sri Lankan visitors ran to the beach to greet them.

A naval gunship stands guard as the visitors bathe.-

"All my parish people were ready to come with me. But as they could not, they have asked me to make the arrangements for them to come next year," said Lazar Amalraj, the priest from Arokkia Annai Church in Pamban, Rameswaram.

According to him, the Ramanathapuram district authorities discouraged several people from attending the festival by putting out that there was no official intimation from Sri Lanka that it was going to be held.

In glowing terms, the priest described Kachchatheevu as the "wonderful land" where the peoples of northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu could come together to "share our culture, our ideas and be happy" and expressed the hope that next year, more people would be able to participate in the feast. But underneath the cliches, Kachchatheevu is really a tale of how men in suits hunched over a conference table in a faraway city can create animosities between people and upset local arrangements that have existed for centuries.

The bonhomie could not mask the resentment and envy with which the Sri Lankan Tamils, most of them fishermen themselves, regard Indian fishermen. Jaffna fishermen cannot use mechanised boats, they cannot go out to sea beyond a kilometre, and the fishing hours are restricted. They must cast their nets close to the shore and be satisfied with the small catch. Bound by the security restrictions, which are still not completely removed despite the ceasefire, the fishermen of Jaffna and its islets have been unable to realise the potential of the Palk Straits, the only source of their livelihood, to its fullest.

But all these years they have watched as their counterparts from across the Straits make incursions into Sri Lankan waters with impunity and get away with it most of the time. Notwithstanding the security restrictions, the Indians come not only to Kachchatheevu where their fishing rights are not clearly written in to the Maritime Boundary agreement, but also poach in waters around the Jaffna islets, their trawlers dragging and destroying the nets of the local fishermen. It is for this reason that Jaffna fishermen, who would otherwise hold not brief for the Sri Lanka Navy, are of the view that its actions against Indian poachers are fully justified. "The Sri Lanka Navy must protect our waters from Indian fishermen. Already we live and work under so many restrictions. The Indians have only been adding to our problems," said S. Vimalanandan, a fisherman from Delft.

But the Indian fishermen have their own tale of woe. The handful who came to Kachchatheevu were candid enough to admit that they had depleted their own resources and that their livelihood depended now on the catch in the Sri Lankan waters. Not surprisingly, they argued for a pragmatic division of the spoils.

"We have over-fished in our own waters, there is no fish left on our side. Now, it is only here that we can get a profitable catch. The Sri Lankans and the Indians must learn to share what's left," said Sippu Jesu, who heads a fishermen's association in Pamban. "The problem has to be resolved between the fishermen from the two sides through a local arrangement it should not be left to governments," he said.

While Jaffna's dormant fishing community hopes for relief to come from the ongoing peace moves, across the Straits, Tamil Nadu fishermen worry that once the conflict is resolved, their counterparts in northern Sri Lanka will zealously guard the catch.

Indira Gandhi thought she was trading good neighbourly relations when she signed the agreement. No one saw then that less than 10 years later, not only would the ties between the two countries run aground over a far bigger issue, but that the tensions created by the gifting of an island that she described as a "sheer rock with no strategic significance" would continue to affect the people of the Palk Straits on both sides of the maritime boundary.

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