Fishermen protesting outside the taluk office in Vedaranyam, Nagapattinam district, on January 23 against the killing of two of them at sea.
THE Tamil Nadu fishermen's troubles in the Palk Strait have always inflamed passions. A wave of anger swept across the State yet again, this time as men who went fishing in the deep waters were abducted. Earlier, in January, there were tensions as the Sri Lanka Navy killed two fishermen. “The Government of India has never recognised Tamil Nadu fishermen as Indians,” said G. Ramakrishnan, president of the Jagadhapattinam Mechanised Boat-Owners' Association in Pudukottai district. “After several years, if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken out against the Sri Lanka Navy shooting Tamil Nadu fishermen, it is because of a series of agitations that have broken out in the State. He was forced to break his silence after BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leader Sushma Swaraj visited the family of Jayakumar, who was killed.”
According to U. Arulanandam, State representative, Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, the Sri Lanka Navy has killed 286 fishermen from Tamil Nadu in 28 years.
“This amounts to the murder of innocent Indian citizens by Sri Lankan naval personnel. That the problem has not been solved in 28 years is a betrayal of the hardworking fishermen's community by the Central and State governments,” he said.
Years ago, a report titled “Troubled waters” in Frontline (April 11, 2003) said: “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 Lanka Navy between 1983 and 2002, when 112 of them were killed, they are now at the receiving end of attacks by the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. They are being abducted and their boats are being captured.”
The situation today seems to be no different from what it was in 1983, 1997, 2003 or 2007 despite the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a military force in May 2009.
The news of the death of Veerapandian, 19, and Jayakumar, 29, at the hands of the Sri Lanka Navy inflamed public opinion in Tamil Nadu in January. At around 5 p.m. on January 12, Veerapandian of Jagadhapattinam and others were fishing about 25 nautical miles off the Pudukottai coast, apparently in the island's territorial waters, when a Sri Lankan naval vessel intercepted their boat and started firing at them. Other fishermen reached the shore with Veerapandian's body at around 11-30 p.m. Commandant D.S. Saini, Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Station in Mandapam, Ramanathapuram district, later said a bullet and a stone were found in Veerapandian's boat.
Jayakumar of Pushpavanam, a coastal village near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam district, his brother Senthil, 25, and another fisherman, Rajendran, 42, were fishing off the coast of Kodiakarai on January 22 when Sri Lankan naval personnel stopped them and ordered them to jump into the sea. When Jayakumar hesitated, one of the sailors reportedly came aboard the fishing boat, tied a rope round Jayakumar's neck, and dragged him into the sea. Jayakumar was strangled to death.
With anger mounting in the State, the Centre sent Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to hold discussions with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government on the death of the fishermen. But not all are convinced. K.S. Susai Vas, a motor-launch driver, is angry that fishermen had not been taken into confidence about what transpired during Nirupama Rao's visit to Colombo on January 30 and 31. “We do not know what happened during the talks. How will we have faith in the [Central] government?” Susai Vas asked over phone from the shores of Rameswaram.
FISHERMEN RELEASED FROM judicial custody in Sri Lanka, on their return to Nagapattinam port on February 19.
There was trouble again a few weeks later. On February 15 night, as 112 fishermen in 18 mechanised boats from Nagapattinam and Karaikaal were fishing off Kankesanturai in the Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen surrounded them in their speed boats, “arrested” them and abducted them. The next day, some 24 fishermen from Kottaipattinam and Jagadhapattinam were abducted. The Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen apparently threw petrol bombs at their Tamil Nadu counterparts and smashed the windshields of the latter's mechanised trawlers.
The issue had already triggered violent reactions. On January 24, a group of people armed with clubs smashed a showcase and furniture of the Mahabodhi Society Temple office in Egmore in Chennai. The group rained blows on four Sri Lankan Buddhist monks and fled.
If the Centre acted fast and spoke tough with Colombo, it was because of the fast approaching elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly, slated to be held in April. Political leaders in the State were quick to join the protest bandwagon.
The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) cadre observed a fast at Nagapattinam. MDMK general secretary Vaiko accused the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi of being silent over the killings of the fishermen as on the killings of Sri Lankan Tamils earlier (in 2008 and 2009). CPI State Secretary D. Pandian traced the genesis of the problem to India's “gifting away” of the Kachativu island in the Palk Strait to Sri Lanka.
The ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu, too, held demonstrations in different parts of the State on February 17 within hours of the news of the abduction of the fishermen breaking. In Chennai, the State capital, Karunanidhi's daughter and Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi led picketers outside the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission. She said Karunanidhi “has made it clear through this demonstration that this is not the time to be patient” and that she was confident that “this news will definitely reach the rulers and the Navy in Sri Lanka”.
Jayalalithaa, general secretary of the opposition All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), visited Jayakumar's widow at Pushpavanam on January 26. She said she was appalled that India, which had considerable military prowess and which was often painted as a power to reckon with in Asia, was subject to persistent attacks by a small neighbour. Such “audacious” attacks could only be because of the “weak” governments at the Centre and the State, the former Chief Minister said. She, too, blamed the Centre's “gifting away” of the Kachativu island in the Palk Strait in 1974 to Sri Lanka as the root cause of the problem.
Consoling Jayakumar's widow at Pushpavanam, Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, said: “I will take up the issue as attacks on Indian fishermen and not Tamil fishermen.” She blamed “the casual attitude of the [Central] government” towards the killing of fishermen. She said “had the Government of India taken a stern view of earlier incidents, these two incidents could have been avoided”.
In Colombo, Nirupama Rao spoke tough, brushing aside theories floated by Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to India, that “it appears that a third element is involved” in the killing of Veerapandian and Jayakumar. He said the Sri Lanka Navy was not behind the killings. “Since we believe that the LTTE is no more in Sri Lanka and India, it appears that a third element is involved,” said Kariyawasam.
Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris, too, claimed in Thimphu on February 7, after meeting his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, that there were satellite pictures to show that his country's Navy was not involved in the killings.
A report in The Hindu, “Differing perceptions across the Bay” (February 18), however, said, “The killing of Indian fisherman in January 2011…was a turning point. For once the Indian government was able to offer the proof that Sri Lanka demanded: Ms. Rao handed over to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa the autopsy report of the fisherman and the results of the ballistic tests done on the boat involved. The conclusion was that the bullets were the Sri Lanka Navy's standard issue.”
U. ARULANANDAM, TAMIL Nadu representative of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, says the Sri Lanka Navy has killed 286 fishermen from the State in 28 years.
In her talks in Colombo with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Peiris and others, Nirupama Rao made it “very clear to them” that “people in naval uniform have accosted our fishermen and the incidents [of killing] happened in that situation”. This was based on “what our fishermen have told us and the investigations that have been conducted in Tamil Nadu,” she asserted. On the theory doing the rounds in Sri Lanka about a “third force” in the region, she said, “…we have nothing to corroborate what the Sri Lankans have claimed”.
Nirupama Rao drew attention to the India-Sri Lanka Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements made in New Delhi on October 26, 2008, which categorically stated that “there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels”.
The Joint Statement says:
“Keeping in mind the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of the fishermen issue, India and Sri Lanka have agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
“As part of these practical arrangements, following the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline and their intimation to the Government of India, Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas. Further, there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels.
“It was agreed that the Indian fishing vessels would carry valid registration/permit and the fishermen would have on person valid identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu.”
Karunanidhi demanded that the Sri Lankan government abide by this Joint Statement, which made it clear that “there shall be no firing on the Indian fishermen”. In his speech on February 1 in New Delhi at the Chief Ministers' conference on internal security, he said fishermen who inadvertently crossed the international borders were only apprehended by the neighbouring countries and were not subjected to physical harm. Whereas, he said, “Indian fishermen who cross the international maritime border off Sri Lanka are repeatedly subjected to physical harm and harassment, and at times get killed. The Sri Lankan government must be asked to follow the due procedure of law as we do in the case of the Sri Lankan fishermen who cross into Indian waters.”
Even the soft-spoken Manmohan Singh said in his interaction with television editors on February 16 that India had taken “a serious view” of the “arrest” of 136 Indian fishermen. He said Nirupama Rao was sent to Colombo “to make a strong demarche to the Sri Lankan government that this sort of behaviour [the Sri Lanka Navy killing Indian fishermen] is not acceptable among neighbourly countries”.
Root of the problem
At the heart of the problem, which has been festering for 28 years, is the maritime agreement of June 28, 1974, by which India ceded Kachativu, an islet 12 km off Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, to Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister then, dismissed the island as “sheer rock with no strategic importance”. Although records proved that Kachativu formed part of the zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad, India drew the median in the international waters in such a way that Kachativu fell in Sri Lankan waters. India did this in the name of “mending fences” and forging “friendly relations” with Sri Lanka ( Frontline, April 22, 1994; November 4, 1994; April 11, 2003; and April 6, 2007).
The maritime agreement, however, protected the “traditional rights” of Indian fishermen and those of pilgrims who visited Kachativu during the annual festival held at St. Antony's Church there since 1939. Swaran Singh, then External Affairs Minister, explained 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.” So Tamil Nadu fishermen assert that they have “a traditional right to fish in and around Kachativu”.
What attracts fishermen from Ramanathapuram, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai and Thanjavur districts in Tamil Nadu and the Karaikaal region in the Union Territory of Puducherry to the waters beyond Kachativu is the abundance of tiger prawns. Besides, there is virtually no sea corridor available for Tamil Nadu fishermen to fish in Indian waters. A stretch of 3 km from the coast is reserved for fishing by catamarans and country boats. Beyond that, for the next 6 km, the stretch that falls in Indian waters has nothing but rocks below. So Tamil Nadu fishermen cross over to Sri Lankan waters which teem with fish. They had faced no problem fishing around and beyond Kachativu from 1974 to 1983.
The situation dramatically changed with the rapid rise of Tamil militancy in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka from 1983 and when militants started using the Palk Strait to smuggle arms, ammunition, fuel and medicines. The LTTE had also built up a strong Sea Tiger wing, making the Sri Lanka Navy quick on the trigger.
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