Caught between life and death

Print edition : November 28, 2014

Carrying in the catch at the fishing jetty in Rameswaram. Photo: L. BALACHANDAR

Boats anchored off Rameswaram. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

The five fishermen who have been sentenced to death in Sri Lanka: (From left) J. Langlet Loyola, Kulandaisamy Prasath, P. Emerson, Rayappan Wilson and P. Augustus. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Wilson's wife, Jhansi, with their children, Subiksha, Kavya and Johan, at their house on November 2. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

The banner that Langlet's family readied in May to thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa after Sri Lankan President Mahind Rajapaksa announced that all jailed Indian fishermen would be freed. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Emerson's wife, Lavanya (seated on floor), and their children, Phemina and Wallace. She was pregnant iwth Wallace when Emerson was arrested, and he is yet to see his son. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Kulandaisamy Prasath's house in Pamban. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Prasath's wife, Skenita (in blue saree), and Augustus' wife, Bagyaselvi. Photo: R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

U. Arulanandam, Rameswaram fishermen's association leader, who has been asked by the Tamil Nadu government to liaise with the jailed fishermen. Photo: K. Pichumani

At Thangachimadam in Rameswaram, fishermen and their family members stage a road roko in support of their demands, in May 2013. Photo: L. Balachandar

The Palk Strait has become a dangerous fishing ground for the fishermen of Tamil Nadu, particularly Rameswaram. They hope that the Central government will act at least now to save five of their brethren sentenced to death in Sri Lanka.

“TODAY he stands accused of a crime that he refused to commit even when his family was in a very bad shape,” says Apoorvam, 62, about her son Rayappan Wilson, 44, one of the five Indian fishermen from Rameswaram awarded the death sentence by the Colombo High Court on October 30 on the charge of possessing narcotic drugs. “It defies all logic,” says his wife Jhansi, 32. “This is a man who went abroad and endured much hardship to support his family.” The drug-running option was available to him even when he was struggling to make ends meet and decided to go Saudi Arabia in 1990 to work as a labourer in the construction industry. “He simply would not take that option,” said Jhansi, whom Wilson married in 2001 on his return from Saudi Arabia. She said Wilson was confident of his release from prison and was eager to see Johan, his third child who was born a few months before he was arrested in Sri Lankan waters.

Wilson’s four colleagues, P. Emerson, Pilendran Augustus, Kulandaisamy Prasath, and J. Langlet Loyola, were also confident that the Sri Lankan court would release them on October 30 and believed that it was only a formality.

In fact, the day dawned like any other in the Thangachimadam and Pamban hamlets in Rameswaram, a narrow strip of land that juts out as if to shake hands with Sri Lanka. For its fishermen-residents, being in a Sri Lankan prison was not new. In fact, news of the arrest and release of Indian fishermen was the new normal there ever since the Tamil Tigers were decimated by the Sri Lankan forces in May 2009. This year alone, more than 300 Indian fishermen have been arrested and released after spending time in prison. Since the end of the war with the Tamil Tigers, arrest meant a longish period of incarceration, and many of the fishermen were even prepared for that. Faced with the choice of going hungry or crossing over for a decent catch, the fishermen chose to risk trawling Sri Lankan waters.

On October 30, U. Arulanandam, Rameswaram fishermen’s association leader, was busy making last-minute calls, coordinating with the Indian High Commission in Colombo, on the anticipated release of the five fishermen after three years in custody. The five were arrested by the Sri Lanka Navy near Neduntheevu islet on November 28, 2011. The Navy claimed that it recovered a packet from the boat and the Sri Lankan police slapped drug-peddling charges on the five who had been arrested for transgressing into Sri Lankan waters.

The court began reading out the judgment a little after 10 a.m. and a little before noon it delivered its verdict, awarding the death sentence. The five prisoners were too shocked to react; they had been convicted of smuggling heroin into northern Sri Lanka, a charge that was without any basis, said Arulanandam. “The allegation was that these five fishermen handed over a parcel to three Sri Lankan fishermen, who were also awarded the death sentence,” he said. “But the fact is that the three Sri Lankan fishermen had been arrested a day earlier. Even in court, one of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen said that he had not met the five Indian fishermen before,” he added.

Innocent: Indian investigations

The Sri Lankan media highlighted the point in the judgment about “GPS technology being used for the first time to prove” a crime. The other proof was “camera observation from a naval boat”. Said a senior Indian security official who handled the case in Colombo: “GPS technology can point to the specific location of something at a point in time. No one is contesting the position of the boat when it was caught. It was in Sri Lankan waters.” India offered to examine the boat forensically to establish that the fishermen were innocent. “Sri Lankan laws are similar to India’s. The Evidence Act dictates that the evidence has to be lifted in the presence of two witnesses. There has to be an elaborate cross examination. There has to be hard evidence of possession. In this case there was none of these. The judgment was based entirely on [the Sri Lanka] Navy’s version of events,” the security official added.

In many drug-related charges overseas, the Government of India makes its own inquiries to arrive at conclusions. In cases in Sri Lanka involving Indians arrested on drug-related charges, the government has not intervened in a single case so far to claim innocence of the persons arrested. This time, however, after an elaborate investigation involving multiple agencies, it concluded that the five Indians were innocent.

“At the time of the arrest, there was a significant catch in the boat. A smuggler will not wait to fish. He finishes his job and leaves,” said Arulanandam. He was asked by the Tamil Nadu government, which has been remarkably supportive of the fishermen, to liaise with the five jailed men.

“Every agency’s resources were used. The Narcotics Control Bureau, the local police, the Indian intelligence agencies [Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing] and the ‘Q’ Branch [of the Tamil Nadu Police that deals with Tamil Tigers]. These fishermen were found to be clean,” said an official who was a part of this team effort. After the Government of India was convinced of their innocence, it took up the case in different forums with the Sri Lankan authorities but to no avail so far.

The families of the fishermen are determined to keep up the pressure on the Central and State governments until the men return to Rameswaram. “I have met Chidambaram [Congress leader and former Union Minister], Sushma Swaraj [External Affairs Minister] and many more such important people,” Jhansi told Frontline. On November 3, the wives of the five fishermen met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Paneerselvam. Two days later, they met Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, who was on a tour of Rameswaram. Assurances were made, but the fishermen want more than mere assurances. With each passing day, Jhansi said, she did not know what to make of the various promises that politicians made. “I am hopeful he will come back. I want him to come back. Soon.”

That is also the sentiment in Thangachimadom and the prayer of the Fernandez community of Christians to which the five fishermen belong. In fact, in May, the hamlet celebrated Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement of the release of all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody “as a goodwill gesture to mark the swearing-in of Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi”. Rajapaksa was one of the international leaders invited to the ceremony. There were no qualifiers or riders to that statement and Thangachimadam and Pamban erupted in spontaneous celebrations.

In Langlet Loyola’s house, his family had readied a huge banner with the pictures of Modi, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, and Langlet. The banner, apart from thanking the political decision-makers, also thanked officials, fishermen’s associations, women’s groups and even the media for supporting them at a critical time.

Langlet, 24, is the only son in John Britto’s family of four and was studying in the poultry-belt of Namakkal. His maternal uncle, Rayappan, ran a dry-fish-based poultry-feed business there and Langlet helped him out and in his free time. He had completed his Class X with some difficulty and had come home to spend time with his family. Earning while on vacation was a welcome option for Langlet and he did not let the opportunity pass when it came on November 28, 2011, to help out a boat crew. After all, his birthday was on December 6 and he could do with some spare cash. “We are fishermen. I cannot stop him from going to the sea,” John Britto said to Frontline.

For Wilson and Jhansi, there was never a choice about fishing if they had to keep the kitchen fire burning. “He worked in Saudi Arabia until all his sisters were married,” said Jhansi as if to explain his “unfisherman-like” decision. The alternative would have been to be near his family and watch poverty eat away his family which included a young brother. Wilson had barely made it to Class IX when he decided to help his father and became a part-time fish worker. But what they earned as a family was not enough to make ends meet, and hence he decided to go to Saudi Arabia.

His family, including his son and two daughters Kavya (eight) and Subiksha (six), now lives in a 200-square-foot reinforced-concrete-roofed house that clearly needs more than a coat of paint. They moved in here after the December 26, 2004, tsunami washed away their house and all else.

Without Wilson, life is a struggle for Jhansi. The Tamil Nadu government gives her Rs.250 a day to sustain herself and her family. Though this money is disbursed every few months, the family does not complain.

“We get it as a lump sum. It’s OK. We manage somehow,” she said. The family thinks that the Tamil Nadu government has done a lot for them, but it does not have the same view about the Central government.

The fishermen had pinned their hopes on Narendra Modi’s intervention. “Modi was our hope. But so far there has not been even a word of consolation,” rued Skenita, wife of Kulandaisamy Prasath, one of the two fishermen who hail from Pamban. The other is P. Augustus.

Skenita’s house is a thatched one with sand as the flooring. An articulate school dropout, she does tailoring work to feed their two children, Roshan and Jayas. She believes that the Central government has not done enough, and fondly recalls the family celebrating Jayas’ first birthday on November 26, 2011.

Two days later their world turned upside down. The family lived in the hope that he would be released soon. But when the days became months and the months turned into years she, like the others, began frequenting government offices and meeting politicians to get help. But all that she got were promises.

Augustus’ wife, Bagyaselvi, is in a similar predicament. Bringing up two children, Sandhya (six) and Mirsa (four), without her husband is proving to be a daunting task. “My husband worked on the same boat for more than two and a half years. So did Prasath. We are genuine fisherfolk,” said Bagyaselvi. “They have not been caught by the Sri Lankans before this incident. This is the first time they were caught.”

While the Central government has been slow to react, the fishing community was quick to rally round the families of the arrested fishermen. “I am disappointed with the responses of the government, but I am also overwhelmed by the fact that all the fishermen here [Rameswaram] decided that they would go hungry until our demands were met,” Skenita told Frontline.

“Help-help-help” were the last words of the barely two-line note that P. Emerson, 40, wrote to his brother Gladwin, a boat owner, from Colombo’s Welikada prison where he was moved to, after much persuasion by Rameswaram fishermen’s association leaders. From the accounts of Emerson’s wife, Lavanya, Gladwin and an Indian official who handled the case of the fishermen in Sri Lanka, it appears that Emerson suffers from some form of mental illness. He had undergone treatment earlier in India and his condition had improved, according to his immediate family. Emerson and Lavanya have a daughter, Phemina (eight), and a son, Wallace, whom he has not seen so far.

When Emerson left on November 28, 2011, on what was to be a routine fishing trip, Lavanya was three months pregnant with Wallace. According to fishermen association leaders and the family, Emerson was emotionally distressed over the fact that he could not be there when his son was born and that he had not been able to see his son.

Both Emerson’s and Lavanya’s families do not want the next generation to continue with fishing. “I do not want to send my children for this work. There are too many problems. You end up getting shot too,” says Gladwin. Lavanya’s father, Cornelius, who had been in Sri Lankan prisons twice, recalled that in 1963, his boat was caught in gusty winds and ran aground in Sri Lanka. He ended up being put in a jail there for about a month. “The second time, in 1967, I was brought back in a week. The government acted very fast then. I wonder why it is not happening this time?” he asked. That is the question the whole of Rameswaram and the 10-lakh-odd fishermen of Tamil Nadu seem to be asking, particularly of the Central government. “We should not have agreed to withdraw our agitation,” said Arul, a Thangachimadam fisherfolk leader, who was jailed in Sri Lanka six years ago on the charge of carrying gunpowder. “It was a serious charge. The LTTE was still very much active. My brother, who was in the boat, did not even have an identity card. He was a Class X student. It was vacation time and he wanted to learn the trade,” he added. They were arrested on May 26, 2008.

Arul firmly believes—and he is supported vociferously by his compatriots—he was released only because of the pressure the community put on the governments in the State and at the Centre. “There was no letup in the agitation. Every day faxes would rain on various offices. Here, too, we kept up the tempo. Unfortunately, in this case, we let ourselves be carried away by the promises made by the government,” he said. Arul returned six months later on a scheduled flight on a ticket purchased by the Indian High Commission in Colombo. His brother, who by then had lost six months of school, refused to get back to studies and became a fisherman.

This time, too, there were spontaneous protests across the State by fishermen demanding that the Central and State governments act to secure the release of the arrested fishermen. Political parties also jumped into the fray and held a series of protests across the State. Chief Minister Paneerselvam met the families of the five fishermen in Chennai. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) suggested that the Chief Minister lead an all-party delegation and take up the issue with the Prime Minister. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karuanidhi wanted the Centre to get in touch with the Sri Lankan government and ensure the release of the fishermen. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko claimed that the death sentence was to threaten Tamil Nadu fishermen. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s State president Tamilisai Soundararajan said: “We are very much worried and we are concerned about their lives.” But no leader from any political party made the effort to visit the families of the fishermen in Rameswaram. This is possibly because as a voting block fishermen do not command a majority in any constituency.

Posturing and assurances are all that the fishermen have got from the political parties, particularly at the Centre. Will the authorities wake up at least now to make Jhansi’s wish—“I want him to come back soon”—a reality?

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