The news of the bodies of four fishermen washed ashore in Sri Lanka has triggered anger in coastal Tamil Nadu. The fishermen of Pudukottai district have held demonstrations demanding that a criminal case be filed against the Sri Lankan Navy. The Tamil Nadu chief minister has written to the Prime Minister seeking an investigation into the recent deaths. On Wednesday, MPs from both the DMK and AIADMK raised it in the Rajya Sabha. In response to their submissions, the external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, told the Rajya Sabha that India has expressed its concern with Sri Lanka in the strongest terms.
The conflict between the Sri Lankan navy and fishermen from Tamil Nadu started as early as 1983. The year 1983 has a significant place in the history of Sri Lanka as well. In July 1983, there was a massive campaign against the Tamils in Colombo. Several hundred Tamils were killed and several thousand went into exile. That was the starting point of the influx of Tamil refugees to India through the Palk Strait.
It was also the time when the militant groups demanding a separate state of Tamil Eelam were gaining popularity among both the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. India was providing training to different militant groups on Indian soil. It is against this backdrop that Sri Lankan personnel opened fire on the Indian fishermen in August 1983, in which one fisherman from Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu was killed. This was seen in Tamil Nadu as a reaction to the move by India to support the Tamil militant groups. It was also seen as a move to stop the Tamil refugees from travelling to India.
But Sri Lanka stated that their navy opened fire because the Indian fishermen had crossed into their waters. The Palk Strait is a narrow strip between Sri Lanka and India. Fishermen from both the countries crossing borders was common. This may happen by mistake or intentionally for a better catch. This had never been an issue until 1983.
This continued, and the Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu were attacked by the Sri Lankan navy too often. This was a huge issue in Tamil Nadu from then on for several years. It was even depicted in popular culture. A 1991 film, Azhagan directed by K Balachandar, has a dance sequence that showcases a newly-wedded couple from the fishermen community. The boy, in half-mind, leaves his young wife to go to the sea. The story goes on to say that the boy is shot by the Sri Lankan navy and the film ends on the note that the girl continues to wait for him.
Some media reports claim that more than 500 fishermen were killed from 1983 onwards. The Tamil Nadu government in one of its submission to the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has submitted that 83 fishermen were killed from 1991 to 2011. In his submission yesterday in the Rajya Sabha, AIADMK MP and former deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha Thambi Durai mentioned that 245 Indian fishermen have been killed by Sri Lankan personnel over the decades until now. This is only those who were killed while in water. It does not include people who succumbed to injuries after reaching the shore.
Apart from those killed, the condition of those who have survived injuries is precarious. As a person who has been for long working on this issue, I have had frequent interactions with the fishermen from Rameshwaram and nearby villages. One such interaction remains a painful memory.
In Rameshwaram, there are both boat owners and fishing labourers. After the introduction of trawlers in the late 1990s, many outsiders have invested in the trawlers in the area and the traditional fishermen from the locality are hired to work in these trawlers. It is these labourers who get caught in the attacks by the Sri Lankan navy. Sahayam was one such traditional fisherman who worked for a boat owner. He was badly injured in his left arm in one of the attacks, but he survived. He was brought back and treated. He recovered from the injury, but the entire left side of his body, especially the hands, lost its strength. Fishing involves intense physical labour. With not much strength, he started going as an assistant which only earned him very meagre wages. He was already married and had two young children. It was exceedingly difficult to make ends meet. The family was driven to poverty. At one point, he recalls with a stoic face, his wife told him that it would have been better if he had died in the attack instead of surviving. Because at least then the government would have given some money as compensation and the family would have survived with that. Sahayam told me this in 2008. And there are more such Sahayams from these 38 years of attacks.
In 2009, the war in Sri Lanka was declared to have come to an end. One of the reasons that the Sri Lankan navy gave for opening fire was that they suspected the Indian fishing boats as LTTE boats. But though the Sri Lankan government announced in 2009 that it has wiped out LTTE, it continues to shoot at Indian fishermen. Today, the reason given is that Indian trawlers are trespassing into Sri Lankan waters. The reasons have been changing. But the attacks continue.
Till today, there is no protocol or procedure specified on what the fishermen on the waters should do when they are surrounded or attacked by the Sri Lankan navy. Should they call the coast guard or the local police station? Who should they inform? What action should be taken by the officials when such information is received? No answers to these questions. Even after nearly four decades, neither the state nor the central government has come up with a structure to deal with such incidents, leave alone stop them.
International maritime law gives clear directions on what should be done if people are found crossing borders on the sea. Nowhere does the law gives the authority to open fire on trespassers.
Today, the fishermen of the Pudukottai district have placed the right demand to file a criminal case against the Sri Lankan navy. The Central government should understand that it is not only a matter of life and death, but it is also a matter of dignity for India.
(Poonkuzhali is a writer based in Chennai)