Straits of tension

Published : Apr 06, 2007 00:00 IST

The attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lanka Navy renew tensions and revive the controversies relating to Kachativu.


AROUND 8 p.m. on March 9, Sri Lankan naval vessels surrounded and fired upon Indian fishermen from Rameswaram who were fishing in the traditional fishing area around Kachativu, an islet in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. One of the fishermen died and three were seriously injured.

Christopher (34), Vilver (31), Dasan (50), Sahayaraj (22) and Soosai (28), all belonging to Pamban near Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, were shot at without warning. "We raised our hands above our heads to signal that we were unarmed fishermen, but the Sri Lanka Navy personnel shot at us like they would shoot sparrows. After they finished with the firing, they left as if nothing had happened," Soosai said. The bullets hit Christopher on his right thigh, Vilver below his left knee and Dasan in the stomach and smashed into the diesel tank of the country boat and the engine, rendering the boat inoperable. A couple of hours later, Christopher died of haemorrhage.

The injured fishermen rigged up a sail and reached the Pamban fishing harbour on March 10.

Fishermen from Pamban, Mandapam, Thankatchimadam and Rameswaram thronged the Pamban shores to receive the body of Christopher. Tension gripped the fishing harbours as the news of the attack spread. Fishermen in and around Rameswaram blocked the Pamban Bridge, the only road link between the island and the mainland, and raised slogans against Sri Lanka.

The March 9 incident was the latest in a series of attacks since February by the Sri Lanka Navy on fishermen from Tamil Nadu for fishing in the island's territorial waters.

On February 11, its sailors attacked and injured Govindan, Ilangavan and Subramanian of Point Calimere. The next day, they surrounded the fishing boats of Sivalingam, Arumugam and three others of Akkaraipettai near Nagapattinam and forced them at gunpoint to jump into the sea. Arumugam and Sivalingam drowned. On the same day, the Sri Lankan naval boats fired on the fibre-glass fishing boats of Sakthikumar, Muruganandam and Mayilvahanan, off Vedaranyam coast, where the dredging of the sea floor for the Sethusamudram canal project is under way. The fishermen's nets, valued at Rs.30,000, were damaged. On February 14, a naval vessel opened fire and damaged the mechanised trawler of Pitchandi and nine others of Akkaraipettai. In another incident, the navy personnel shot at fishermen from Pudukottai and tore up their nets.

On February 24, Aruldoss, Kalimuthu, Singadurai and Muthu, who belonged to Thankatchimadam in Rameswaram, were out at sea, 15 km from Kottaipatinnam in Pudukottai district, when Sri Lankan Navy personnel sprayed bullets on their mechanised trawler.

Aruldoss, who was injured in the firing, later told reporters, "We were scared and raised our hands. The naval personnel first threw teargas grenades and then opened fire. A shrapnel from the boat hit me. We were fired upon while we were fishing in Indian waters."

On February 26, the Sri Lankan Naval personnel opened fire on Kaliaperumal, Ajiskumar and five others while they were fishing in Indian waters. Kaliaperumal died.

Although Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi issued a stern warning on March 5 that if the Sri Lanka Navy opened fire on Tamil fishermen again "the hands of the Tamil fishermen will not be merely fishing in the sea", it was the March 9 firing that made the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government act decisively and swiftly. The DMK held a demonstration on March 12 to "warn" the Sri Lankan government against encouraging its Navy's atrocities.

The DMK and the Congress, partners in the government at the Centre, got their acts together in New Delhi. On March 12, Union Ministers P. Chidambaram (of the Congress), T.R. Baalu, A. Raja and Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan (belonging to the DMK) presented a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seeking his intervention "to stop the Sri Lankan Navy's attacks on innocent, unarmed Tamil Nadu fishermen".

In a memorandum to the Prime Minister, Vaiko, general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), wondered whether the Indian Navy and Coast Guard had become mere spectators of the mounting "murderous attacks against our fishermen".

Dr. S. Ramadoss, founder president of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), said only the "retrieval" of Kachativu from Sri Lanka and a permanent solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict would ensure permanent protection for Tamil fishermen.

The demand for the retrieval of Kachativu is not new. On August 15, 1991, Jayalalithaa, who was then Chief Minister, made the demand. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary vowed to "fight" with the Centre to get back Kachativu.

The year 1993 witnessed a series of killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao on September 22, stating that "the Government of India has not taken any effective action so far to advise the Sri Lankan government to stop such inhuman action". Two days later, she wrote another letter to Narasimha Rao, pointing out how the Sri Lankan Navy had forced the fishermen to throw one of their dead colleagues into the sea.

In a demi-official letter on August 10, 2004, to External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh, she suggested that a "permanent solution to this problem would be to take Kachativu on lease in perpetuity".

At the heart of the problem, which has been festering for 25 years, is the 1974 ceding of Kachativu, 12 km off Rameswaram, to Sri Lanka and the subsequent rise of Tamil militancy in the island-nation. In the maritime agreement between the two countries, signed on June 26,1974, India ceded Kachativu to Sri Lanka with a view to "mending fences" and forming "friendly relations" with its neighbour. Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister, described the island as "sheer rock with no strategic importance". The median in the international waters was drawn in such a way that Kachativu fell on the Sri Lankan side (Frontline, April 22, 1994, November 4, 1994 and April 11, 2003). India gifted the island to Sri Lanka despite strong objections from the DMK government headed by Karunanidhi, the Jan Sangh and the Praja Socialist Party.

The agreement protected the "traditional rights" of Indian fishermen, and those of pilgrims to visit Kachativu during the annual festival held at St. Anthony's church there since 1939. Fishermen from Tamil Nadu faced no problems fishing around and beyond Kachativu between 1974 and 1983. But with the resurgence of Tamil militancy in the north and east of Sri Lanka in 1983, the militants started using the Palk Strait to smuggle arms, ammunition, fuel and medicines, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began to strengthen its Sea Tiger force, making a nervous Sri Lanka Navy quick on the trigger.

The abundance of prawns in the waters beyond Kachativu attracts fishermen from Rameswaram, Pudukottai and Nagapattinam. Besides, the very nature of fishing "drags" their boats to the Sri Lankan waters, fishermen say. T. Anthonyraj (54), president of the Vercode Mechanised Trawlers' Fishermen's Association in Rameswaram, said the boats strayed "naturally". A stretch of 3 km east of Rameswaram coast is reserved for fishing by country boats and catamarans. Boats and catamarans do not need authorisation (tokens) from the Fisheries Department because they cannot go far out into the sea. The next 6 km, a stretch that falls on the Indian side, have "nothing but rocks and so we have to cross them to spread our nets", Anthonyraj said. After dropping their nets, the fishermen usually wait for about four hours for a good catch. During this time, the mechanised trawlers and the country boats fitted with engines start drifting at the rate of 3 km an hour due to ocean currents. So the boats drift about 21 km from the Indian shores, 9 m beyond Kachativu. "To tell us that we should not cross the boundary is tantamount to telling us that we should not remain alive," he said.

Anthonyraj said the Sri Lanka Navy's attacks were unwarranted because it was on Colombo's insistence that New Delhi asked the Tamil Nadu government to issue identification cards to fishermen. A series of procedures was put in place to ensure that only genuine fishermen from Ramanathapuram, Pudukottai and Nagapattinam districts could go into the sea. Before a fishing crew sails out, the leader gives a list of the names of its members to the office of the Assistant Director of Fisheries and the trawler is given a token. Tokens are issued separately for buying diesel to operate the trawler and only a limited quantity of diesel is given.

Anthonyraj said, "We also inform our Navy before we sail out. We draw close to the Indian Navy/Coast Guard vessels, which are stationed off our fishing harbours, show the officers our identity cards, the authorisation from the Assistant Director of Fisheries and the amount of diesel we carry. Only after following this procedure are we allowed to go into the sea. Even if we replace a single member of the crew, we have to inform the Fisheries Department. Sometimes, the Sri Lanka Navy personnel also check our identity cards. If they fire on us after all this, what is the sanctity of this arrangement?"

Since 1983, the Sri Lanka Navy's attacks have resulted in the deaths of 132 fishermen. Hundred fishermen are missing. The Sri Lankan Navy, Anthonyraj said, had destroyed about 300 boats and now held 90 in its custody.

Tamil Nadu fishermen faced the bullets of the Sri Lanka Navy several times in 2006. Chief Minister Karunanidhi, in a demi-official letter to Manmohan Singh on September 22, 2006, complained about the "inhuman act of the Sri Lankan Navy" when "they intercepted four Tamilian fishermen of Sirvathur [near Velankanni], took their catches, manhandled the fishermen, pushed them out of the boat into the sea, and ordered them to swim to safety. Two of these fishermen are feared to have drowned as they could not be rescued. What is pertinent to note is that all the four fishermen were fishing within the Indian territorial waters, south-east of Vedaranyam [at five lengths depth]."

After the March 9 incident and the protests in Tamil Nadu, top officers of the Coast Guard and the Coastal Security Group, Tamil Nadu, visited the "problematic areas" on the International Maritime Boundary Line between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait and on the shore. Inspector-General Rajendra Singh, Commander, Coast Guard, Eastern Region, Jagan Seshadri, Additional Director-General of Police and Chief of the Coastal Security Group, Nanjil Kumaran, ADGP (Intelligence), and Sanjeev Kumar, I.G. (South), visited these areas. Jagan Seshadri met leaders of several fishermen's associations and reportedly told them to keep off the Sri Lankan waters. Some leaders of the fishermen's associations reportedly rejected this suggestion.

Colombo has once again suggested joint patrolling of the area by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navies. New Delhi is not inclined to accept this.

Talking to mediapersons, Karunanidhi said that when the State Ministers gave a memorandum to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner P.M. Amza on March 12, he told them that the Sri Lankan government had agreed on "a joint inspection" of the fishing boats along with the Indian Navy. "As he [Amza] said, if the Sri Lankan government approaches the Government of India and if both the governments come forward to do joint inspection, we also believe that it will protect the Tamil Nadu fishermen," the Chief Minister said.

Newspapers reported that Karunanidhi had accepted the suggestion for "joint patrolling" of the sea. In a statement on March 13, the Chief Minister clarified: "Joint patrolling is possible only when the Centre gives its consent. The reports that I have given my consent for this are wrong. This is a decision to be taken by the Union government. As far as we are concerned, our standpoint is that the fishermen should be protected."

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