Forgotten fishermen of the Palk Strait are caught in the crossfire between the Indian Navy, the Sri Lankan Navy and the Tamil Tigers.
As the experience of Kashmir indicates, borders between states can be extremely dangerous flashpoints. When militancy looms large, the local population suffers disproportionately. At the other end of the Subcontinent from Kashmir, on the narrow Palk Strait splitting India and Sri Lanka, it is the fishermen who are caught in the crossfire.
Largely unknown to the rest of the world, thousands of fishermen from India and Sri Lanka have suffered at the hands of those guarding the sea border. And if it is not the navy or coast guard of either side, it is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka who are the tormentor.
The Palk Bay waters have always been rich in fish. But to earn a livelihood from this stretch of sea both the Lankan and Indian fishermen have to deal with harassment, arrests, boat seizures, and death. Most often, the charge is of illegal entry into foreign territory, which may later transform itself into allegations of smuggling, and helping terrorists.
The figures, sketchy and remote as they are, have their own tale to tell. Sri Lankan authorities claim that betweenl993-97,338 Lankan fishermen were detained in Indian jails. On the other side, the Tamil Nadu government states that between 1983-91, 50 of its fishermen were killed and 57 injured in attacks by the Sri Lankan navy. The victims are definitely not buying the fuzzy official figures. Says one angry Tamil Nadu fisherman, “The government figures of deaths and injuries are quite partial. We estimate that in the last seven years, 600 Indian fishermen have been shot dead and an equal number of them have been injured. What is this? Are we being asked to abandon fishing and take to begging?”
The sea here is still the Bay of Bengal, and it is the Tamil Nadu coast of Ramanathapuram district. Offshore lies the 15-sq-mile island of Rameswaram, home to a fishing community of about 35,000. Rameswaram has nearly 8000 active sea-going fishermen. To the north is the Palk Bay, and on the island´s eastern tip lies Danushkodi, from where it is only about 16 km to Talaimannar of Sri Lanka.
In Pamban village near the town of Rameswaram, lies Saghai Nagar, a settlement of around 1000 fisherfolk. They have witnessed, and have been the victims of the Sri Lankan navy´s fiercest actions against Indian villagers. Here, 45-year-old Pathinathan lives with his wife and six children.
Pathinathan´s tale: “I had a country boat. In the late evening of 5 November 1996,I and three others Richard, Armstrong and Adaiklam – went fishing. It was a windy and stormy night, and our boat crossed to the Sri Lankan side near Talaimannar. When we realised this, we started coming back. But suddenly we were confronted by a boat of the Sri Lankan navy. We put on the light, raised our hands and begged for mercy. But they were firing and shouting at us. They then captured all of us, and took off our shirts, tied them on our eyes, and started beating us. They pushed us into their boats and continued the beating.”
Pathinathan and his friends then found themselves in Sri Lanka´s Mannar Jail. It took ten tortuous days and a hunger strike before help arrived. Recalls Pathinathan, “Somebody from the Indian embassy came to see us and assured us that we would get justice. But altogether we had to spend 100 days in several police stations and jails before we were taken to Jaffna and handed over to an Indian naval ship in mid-sea.”
Paithanan´s boat was returned four months after his own repatriation. It arrived badly damaged and without the engine. “Now I am no longer a boat owner but a boat worker under a heavy loan,” he says.
Saghai Nagar residents might consider Pathinathan and his friends lucky. Nobody got killed, no one left widows and fatherless children behind, no one got crippled. Like Susha Raj´s six friends who got killed, Austin and George who drowned during an incident, and Sebastian who ended handicapped.
The story of Sebastian´s group has moral overtones that should not be missed. It is a story of how the ocean currents took their unsuspecting team to the Sri Lankan side, of how, for all the brutality of the Lankan naval officers, Lankan fishermen treated them with compassion.
This is how Sebastian´s friend, John, narrates the aftermath of the 14 July 1997 naval ambush: “We had seen Austin and George dying on the spot and going down with the boat. The rest of us somehow swam to an island called Nedundhewe on the Sri Lankan side. There some Sri Lankan fishermen rescued us and a local organisation took us to Jaffna for medical treatment… Altogether, we were in Jaffna jail for five and a half months. Leave alone compensation for the dead, their families have not even got death certificates till now. Our lives have been ruined without any fault of ours. It was the wind and water currents that took us to the other side. There are widowed mothers and wives left behind.”
With a crippled right hand, Sebastian cannot fish any more. He says, “I cannot think about my future. I am married with three children and now we are dependent on my father.”
Tales such as these run across all the nearby fishing hamlets of Tamil Nadu, only the degrees differ. Antony Doss of Vercode village narrates an absurd incident where the captives had to fish for the Sri Lankan navy and survive on two slices of bread. One-time boat owner Sahyaraj is left hapless by the questions of anxious parents whose sons have never come back since they left with his boat last December. Sahyaraj, who says he was tortured at the hands of the Sri Lankan navy, asks: “Is this the 50th year of Independence for us? Our very lives and livelihood are in danger and no government does anything.”
It is May 1998. W. Antony Vincent (below), a Sri Lankan boat-owner, is waiting outside the Maduai Central Jail in Tamil Nadu. His mission in India is a difficult one, that of the release of five fishermen and his boat Philip Sahana. Vincent has already spent INR 10,000 in travelling to Trivandrum and Madurai to meet concerned people. His five-year-old boat cost him INR 900,000, of which 300,000 was bank loan. He is unable to pay the INR 15,000 monthly installments to the bank because the boat has been confiscated by the Indian Navy.
Vincent says: “I was not on the boat, so I do not know how the capture took place. The captive fishermen – K.S. Nicholas, W Wilbert, K.S. Joseph, Sirinimal Fernando and Wijendra Wadugu Chandra – wrote to me that they were fishing on their side of the Gulf of Mannar, when the Indian navy came and captured their boat and them. I want my boat back, then only can I survive. I am also trying for the release of the fishermen… Maybe after some time I will get rid of all this and shift to some other profession.”
At the Madurai Central Jail, the captured Wilbert lends a fresh twist to the story: “The navy people said that we were being caught because the Sri Lankan navy was killing Indian people.” Other than this talk of revenge, Wilbert maintains that no one ever told them what their offence was, even after they were produced before the magistrate several times. “The magistrate did not ask us anything, nor did we tell anything.”
But Wilbert could easily have been charged with smuggling, which is usually what the Indian navy does when it picks up straying Sri Lankan fishing boats. H. Mahadevan, a prominent leader of the All-India Trade Union Congress, recalls a typical incident involving 15 Lankan fishermen in the Madurai Jail who were being held on the “concocted” charge of smuggling shark fins into India. Mahadevan recalls that although no shark fins were found in the vessel full of fish, a confession was obtained from the Lankans, who were slapped with a fine of 1NR 47,000 by the Indian Customs. The irony is that the price of shark fin is much the same in both India and Sri Lanka. Says Mahadevan, “What happened was a miscarriage of justice, and genuine fishermen were convicted as common smugglers.”
Once arrested on Palk Bay, a Sri Lankan fisherman generally has to wait anything from six to 12 months for release. His captured boat, however, will have to wait a couple of years before it is returned. The fisherman will be disappointed if he is expecting any help or legal support from his country´s mission in Madras. The Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in Madras, S. Gautama Das, admits, “We do not provide any legal support to the captive fishermen. When we get any information regarding the arrest of our fishermen, we inform the Tamil Nadu state government. Then the state government gets reports from the concerned departments and sends them to the central government. The central government takes a political decision about the release.”
The mission in Madras is unable to readily supply information about the whereabouts of its captured citizens. These men are left to fend for themselves in a hostile, alien setting for what is difficult to call a crime.
The maritime agreements between the two countries reflect the power balance, the political and security interests of national governments which take precedence over the rights of the poor fishermen on both sides. The two maritime agreements signed between Sri Lanka and India, one in June 1974 and the other in March 1976, demarcated the Palk Strait maritime boundary and gave Kachchativu to Sri Lanka. (Kachchativu is a small, uninhabited island in the Palk Strait at a distance of eight and 10 miles from the nearest points of Sri Lanka and India respectively.) However, the Tamil Nadu fishermen were not barred from the area. Article 5 of the 1974 agreement said: “Subject to the foregoing, Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to Kachchativu as hitherto, and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for these purposes.” Article 6 further emphasised the ´open´ nature of the territory, saying, “The vessels of India and Sri Lanka will enjoy in each other´s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein.”
But as is the case with so many bilateral arrangements, it was political expediency that had led to the agreement. Getting Kachchativu for Sri Lanka was important for the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government after its loss of face in the 1971 insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and India was looking for support from regional governments in the wake of the May 1974 nuclear test in Pokharan. The agreement, in some ways, also helped quell the prevailing anti-India hysteria in Sri Lanka.
The 1976 agreement represented a different kind of settlement altogether. It demarcated the boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal, barring either country´s fishermen from casting their nets in the other´s waters. Paragraph I of the Exchange of Letters said: “With the establishment of the exclusive economic zones by the two countries, India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zones. The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka, nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be.”
It is from the different interpretations of the above paragraph and Article 5 of the 1974 agreement that controversy has arisen over whether Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen can fish in each other´s waters. The Sri Lankan government argues that the 1976 Exchange of Letters effectively supersedes the free access clause in Articles 5 and 6 of the 1974 agreement. About Article 5 itself, Colombo claims that it only provides for Indian fishermen to dry their nets in Kachchativu, and not the right to fish. Several bilateral meetings later, the dispute shows no signs of a solution, even though fishermen continue to be harassed and killed. The official apathy is aptly captured by Madras University professor, V. Suryanarayan, who has been studying the problem: “It is always a fire-fighting exercise by both the governments, without removing the causes of fire. In fact, who cares in Delhi and Colombo regarding shooting and killing of some hundred poor fishermen?”
The main cause behind the fishermen´s plight is the factor of militancy. Sri Lanka´s ethnic conflict, the presence of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) militants in coastal Tamil Nadu, and the killing of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, have all taken a heavy toll on the livelihood of villagers on both sides of the Strait. It is not only the coast guards and naval forces who harass the fishermen, but the LTTE also have attacked these helpless men and their vessels.
“It is quite a regular happening that LTTE people take away our fishing boats and send back the crew. We have lost at least 40 boats belonging to the people of the Rameswaram area in the recent past,” says Murganandan, the president of Ramanathapuram District Fishermen Association.
The immediate fallout of the rise in militancy has been that since 1993 Sri Lanka´s navy has been given carte blanche to open fire on all unauthorised boats in its territorial waters extending from Trincomalee to Mannar. Lankan fishermen from Jaffna and Mannar, meanwhile, face restrictions on the types of boats they can own, areas they can fish in, and the time they can spend in the sea. In times of heightened conflict, Colombo promulgates emergency regulations whereby its waters become a prohibited zone. The Indian government has also adopted tough measures to prevent infiltration and movement of LTTE guerrillas. In these situations, nobody makes a distinction between militants and fishermen.
To be sure, there are some grey areas as far as the relationship between the fisherfolk and the militants is concerned, especially in the case of the Tamil Nadu villages. While leaders of the state´s fishermen take pains to explain that none of their men abet militancy, it is alleged that there are some 30 mechanised boats in Rameswaram which actually do no fishing, but are involved in reaching goods to Tamil militants on the other side. Some fishermen say this activity is not political in nature, but a means to make quick money. But as is often the case, the ones who carry out shady deals are never caught, and it is the innocent fishermen who face the brunt of the repercussions.
What is it that makes the waters beyond Kachchativu so special that Indian fishermen cannot resist fishing in it despite the proven dangers? One answer is prawns. The ocean currents and sedimentation on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait make it a rich field for the expensive tiger prawns.
There is also the incentive system which puts pressure on the fishing fleets to go for big catches, especially of shrimp which, too, are found in abundance on the Sri Lankan side. For a kilo´s catch of shrimp, the driver gets INR 20, the second hand INR 15, and the deck hands ten rupees each. This provides the fishermen with the motive to catch more, disregarding the dangers involved.
It is the survival instinct in a competitive fishing area that is pushing Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen to go into each other´s areas. Palk Bay, by virtue of its rich fishery resources, is one of the most active fishing areas in the Subcontinent. Here, hundreds of trawlers vie night and day with each other for the best catch. And if national boundaries come in the way, they might as well be ignored. But with paranoid state structures, that can be a fatal mistake.