Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Politicians created fissure in Indian-Lankan fishermen relationship


With the continuing trend of arrests of Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities and vice versa, there is no doubt that the issue is slowly reaching towards its crescendo, from where nobody really knows what would happen at the end.

The continued detention of 100-odd Indian fishermen by Sri Lanka on serious charges including drug smuggling has created a state-wide agitation in Tamil Nadu, the bordering state with Sri Lanka across Palk Strait.

As the relatives and friends of those fishermen living in Tamil Nadu feel that it is a pure vindictive action by the Sri Lankan authorities, who are often said to take such action on fishermen due to Island’s political posture on Tamils, the situation is slowly getting out of control.

Meanwhile, five Sri Lankan fishermen, who had been apprehended by Indian Coast Guard personnel attached to Tuticorin station on Sept. 17, were handed over to Tuticorin Marine Police. According to Coast Guard sources, they were found illegally fishing in Indian waters 70 nautical miles South East off Kanyakumari.

It is not a stray incident and the Indian Coast Guard regularly detains Sri Lankan fishermen for illegally fishing inside Indian Exclusive Economic Zone, where there are abundant fish reserves, particularly of export items like Tuna, which fetches very high value in international markets.

Even though the Indian authorities regularly detain Sri Lankan fishermen for illegally fishing inside Indian territorial waters, it has never pressed for continued detention of them and always repatriates them to Sri Lanka in the shortest possible time.

However, Indian fishermen say that the Lankan authorities always press for strong charges against those innocent (Indian) fishermen straying into their territorial waters, despite fully knowing that they were in search of better fish catch in the strait.

It may be noted here that the Sri Lankan Government had detained about five fishermen from Tamil Nadu on the charges of trying to smuggle narcotics.

Palk Strait, a major livelihood for Indian fishermen

Fishing is a major livelihood of the fishermen from coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, which is located across the Palk Strait, Sri Lanka.

Initially, prior to the outbreak of ethnic war between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, these fishing activities were going on as usual. But after the mid-1980s when the ethnic problem took a bigger proposition in the Island’s political circles, the condition started to worsen.

In those days, according to seasoned fishermen from the coastal districts, Lankan authorities used to fire on Indian fishermen on suspicion that they helped the armed Tamil militant groups by ways and means. Even though the attitude of Sri Lankan authorities remained hawkish on Indian fishermen since then, they regularly go for fishing in the strait, as it is filled with fish, mostly consumed in Tamil Nadu.

While most of the sea along the Indian border remains shallow and possibilities of huge fish catch remains very minimal, the fishermen from Tamil Nadu prefer to go towards the other side of the disputed Katchatheevu Island in the strait, where fish reserve remains abundant due to the depth and rocky formation.

Limited coastline, cause of concern

The coastline in Tamil Nadu can be divided into three fishing zones. From Pulicat Lake to Point Calimere lies the Coramandel coast. From Point Calimere to Dhanushkodi lies the Palk Strait and from Dhanushkodi to Kanyakumari stretches the Gulf of Mannar.

Though the two other areas never remained a problem, the Palk Strait, which is the area of concern, is just 22 miles of water that separates the northern coast of Sri Lanka from the southeast coast of India. The international boundary line is close to both the countries and the boundary is 6.9 nm (nautical miles) away from Dhanushkodi , 11.5 nm from Rameswaram,15.9 nm from Point Calimere and 23 nm from Vedaranyam.

The Palk Bay (named after Robert Palk, Governor of Madras) is landlocked and is connected with Gulf of Mannar by a narrow passage called Pamban Strait which separates Rameswaram from the mainland.

Katchatheevu pregnant with abundant fish varieties

The island of dispute Katchatheevu is located in the Palk Strait, 10.5 miles south of the delft island in Sri Lanka and 12 miles from the nearest point on the Indian coast off Rameswaram. It is mile-long and 300 yards wide with an area of 285.2 acres and has an abundant source of several fish varieties including prawns, normally consumed in the State of Tamil Nadu.

It has been widely written in the Media and even by the Chief Ministers of TN that Katchatheevu was ceded away to Sri Lanka. Before 1974, Katchatheevu had been an integral part of India based on the Zamindari Rights of Raja of Ramnad. According to available details, in 1880 Muhammad Abdul Khader and Muthuswamy Pillai executed a registered lease deed which made provisions for collection of roots for dyeing purposes from 70 villages and 11 islands belonging to Ramnad Estate – Katchatheevu was one of the islands.

In 1913, a lease had been entered into between Raja of Ramnad and Secretary of State for India in Council for using different kinds of boats and to collect and take away any chank shells; and here too Katchatheevu being mentioned in Palk Bay. Both India and Ceylon were colonized by British and they had recognized Katchatheevu as a part of India.

In 1947 there was a lease executed to Diwan of Ramanathapuram exclusively for Katchatheevu. Later in 1948 Zamindari was abolished under the Madras Estates Act and the Ramnad Zamindari was taken over by the Government of Madras. So by abolishing the Zamindari system the sovereign State has the claim over the island.

Fishermen considered supporters of militants

Though fishing activities along the disputed Katchatheevu area were continuing for centuries, the ethnic war in Sri Lanka changed the whole scenario after 1980s. When armed struggle by different Tamil groups in Sri Lanka started gaining foothold in the early 1980s, the Sri Lankan authorities, who were clueless about the activities, were quick to point finger on the innocent fishermen from the Tamil Nadu State as the supporters of the ethnic groups and charged them with carriers of materials meant for the liberation movements.

The attitude of Lankan Navy had helped dawn a new era in the Palk Strait, where every (Tamil Nadu) fisherman became a prime suspect in the eyes of the Lankan authorities as the supporters of ethnic war in the Island Nation.

In a gradual shift in dealing with these fishermen, the Lankan Navy started attacking them and over a period and in due course of time, it has become a regular phenomenon.

According to Mr. Vivekanandan, who is currently advisor of the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, a cooperative organisation for a small group of fishermen which has over a quarter century experience in working with fishing communities, there are two distinct issues here.

The first is the movement of Indian boats into Sri Lankan waters, especially in the Palk Bay – the shallow, narrow strait between India and Sri Lanka.

The second is the Sri Lankan ‘multi-day’ fishing boats, which fish in many parts of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Palk Bay problem arises because the international border is close to the shores of both India and Sri Lanka.

Historically, fishermen from both the countries had fished amicably in the Palk Bay without any notion of a border. The border was fixed in 1974, but there were no conflicts till the civil war in 1983, after which Sri Lankan fishermen were not permitted to fish normally by the Sri Lankan authorities, due to security concerns.

The Indian side saw this as an opportunity to cross over and fish in the Lankan waters; their fleet expanded, particularly the trawl fleet. The smaller-scale fishermen in India have always been at loggerheads with the trawl fleet, which is not allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the shore of Tamil Nadu. So they go beyond this to fish, deep within Sri Lankan waters.

Lankan Navy atrocities

According to information available in public domain, more than 500 Tamil Nadu fishermen had been killed by Lankan Navy personnel between 1983 and 2005.

Besides, there are reports that from 1983 to 1991 Sri Lankan Navy had attacked fishermen 236 times and over 3000 boats (both trawler and small fibre boats) were damaged or destroyed.

However, the scenario has changed after 2005. From the killings of innocent fishermen, Sri Lankan Navy has now turned towards detention and torturing of them for fishing near the disputed Katchatheevu.

New tantrum

According to Lanka’s Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the Island Nation has planned to adopt a new stringent policy to deal with the continuous problem of Indian fishermen ‘poaching’ in the country’s territorial waters.

Addressing the local Media recently, the Minister said as part of a new initiative which is to be adopted by the Sri Lankan Government on humanitarian grounds to deal with Indian fishermen, the authorities will from now on confiscate their boats as opposed to the usual practice of releasing the boats with the fishermen.

The Indian fishermen are also suffering as a result of the actions by their boat owners and languishing in Sri Lanka’s jails,” Minister Senaratne explained.

He said Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody will be released soon after completing the legal proceedings.

Associations’ view

Speaking to Sagar Sandesh, Mr. K. Bharathi, President of South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association (SIFWA), said: “At one point of time, after the consistent brutal attacks on our innocent and unarmed fishermen by the Lankan Navy, we lost hope in the Indian Government (for failing to protect its citizens in sea) and even went on to the extent of seeking gun licences which would definitely send a ‘right message’ to the Government.”

However, the Indian Government shot down the proposal by the association, citing various grounds including that it could become deadly mid-sea clashes between Lankan Navy and Indian fishermen if allowed.

He added: “After the end of ethnic war in the Island Nation, the Lankan Navy has switched to other means of harassing the innocent Indian fishermen. What is alarming about the attack is the nature, which is mostly very cruel. We heard that fishermen were stripped naked and forced to do homosexual acts only to torture them mentally as killings had become a big issue after the end of the ethnic war.”

Besides, there have been numerous instances wherein they have been taken into custody and tortured, physically and verbally abused, hit with hose pipes and burnt with hot rods, Mr. Bharathi lamented.

Making a more comprehensive analysis about the whole story, Mr. S. A. Mahesh, President of All Indian Traditional Fishermen Association, stated: “The fish varieties Indians (South Indian states) consume are abundantly available in the waters close to the Lankan maritime border near Katchatheevu and the kind of fish the Sri Lankan fishermen are inclined to net are abundantly available inside the Indian territorial waters. And both the fishermen know it very well. But the political class does not want to understand the whole point and is creating fissures in the relationship of fishermen from both the countries.”

Politicians vs problem

While DMK Chief M. Karunanidhi criticized right from the beginning during the 1974 agreement, the AIADMK party Chief and Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa called upon the people of the State to take a pledge to retrieve the island on Aug. 15, 1991.  Besides, she Jayalalithaa also wrote a well-analysed letter in 2003 to then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee suggesting alternatives to get back Katchatheevu.

One of the possible solutions put forth was to get the island of Katchatheeu and adjacent sea on “Lease in perpetuity” solely for fishing, drying of nets and pilgrimage, she mentioned in the letter. However, years have passed since then, but nothing has fructified yet on the fishermen issue.

As far as the point of view is concerned from the Navy side on the fishermen issue, the then Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Nirmal Verma, had said that the issue of cross-border fishing has to be tackled between the fishing communities of the two regions and the governments of the two countries (Sri Lanka and India).

According to Admiral Verma, it was a larger issue and it was not merely a Navy to Navy issue. “It is something which engages the attention of our senior political hierarchy at the highest level, be it the State or the Centre,” he opined.


  1. உரைக்கும் கட்டுரை! இன்னும் பேசப்படாத பொருளும் இதனுள் இருக்கிறது!

  2. தோழர், 2011 ஏப்ரல் 02 உலக கோப்பை கிரிக்கெட் இறுதிப் போட்டியில், இந்தியாவிடம் இலங்கை தோற்றத்தை சகித்துக் கொள்ள முடியாத இலங்கை கடற்படையினர், இந்தியா கடல் எல்லைக்குள் மீன் பிடித்து கொண்டிருந்த இந்திய மீனவர்களான விக்டஸ், மாரிமுத்து, ஜான் பால், அந்தோணி ராஜ் ஆகிய நான்கு போரையும், போட்டி முடிந்த 20 நிமிடங்களில் பிடித்து சென்று சித்திரவதை செய்து அடித்து கொன்றனர்.

    அதே போல் 2009 மே 18, இலங்கை இன அழிப்பு போருக்கு பிந்தைய வெவ்வேறு காலகட்டங்களில், செல்லப்பன், வீரபாண்டியன், ஜெயக்குமார் என்ற மூன்று இந்திய மீனவர்களும் இலங்கை கடற்படையினரால் கொல்லப்பட்டனர் என்பதும் வெளிப்படையான உண்மை.

    இவை எதுவும் இந்த கட்டுரையில் தெரிவிக்கப்படவில்லை என்பது மட்டுமல்ல, 2005-க்கு பிறகு இந்திய மீனவர்கள் இலங்கை கடற்படையினரால் கொல்லப்படவில்லை என்பது போன்ற தோற்றத்தையும் இந்த கட்டுரை தருகிறது.

    கொல்லப்பட்ட, போதை வழக்கில் கைது செய்யப்பட்ட மீனவர்கள் அனைவருமே நிரபராதிகள். அந்த உண்மை இரு அரசுகளுக்குமே தெரியும். இந்திய ஆட்சியாளர்கள், அவர்களின் சுயநலன் சார்ந்த நிர்பந்தங்களின் காரணமாக உண்மைகளை மறைக்கிறார்கள். அப்படியான நிர்பந்தங்கள் எதுவும் பத்திரிகையாளரான தங்களுக்கு இருக்க வாய்ப்பில்லை.

    இனி வரக்கூடிய காலங்களில் பாக் வளைகுடா மரணங்கள் குறித்து விரிவாக எழுதுவீர்கள் என்று நம்புகிறேன். தோழமையுடன் நன்றி!