‘We are fighting to stay alive. Our boats are our life, we are better off dead without them. We borrowed money to buy the boats, how can we pay interest if the boats are in Lanka.’
Fishermen in Tamil Nadu staged a unique protest on Friday at the Rameswaram jetty demanding that their boats be returned by the Sri Lankan authorities.
Rediff.com’s A Ganesh Nadar was at the scene of the demonstration.
“Bring back our boats.”
“Restore our right to fish around Katchatheevu.”
“Wake up, central government, wake up, state government”.
“We will fight till we die”.
“We will struggle till we get our boats back”.
Slogans like these could be heard from around the Rameswaram jetty on Friday as fishermen belonging to 11 different unions gathered to demand the release of their boats from the custody of Sri Lankan authorities on September 2.
For those who think it was a regular agitation, think again. These fishermen were standing in chest-deep sea water for over an hour, raising slogans and demanding the release of their boats -- their livelihood.
The Lankan authorities have around 108 Indian fishing boats in their custody, which fishermen dispute as unfair.
Protesting this injustice, the fishermen gathered around 9.30 am even as a number of policemen also assembled to ensure that law and order was maintained.
A boat belonging to the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard was also present.
Soon, the fishermen were in the waters and one could a see a banner which read ‘release 108 boats from Lanka’.
One of the leaders in the water could be heard saying, “Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party MP and Minister of State for Road Transport & Highways, Shipping in Modi’s Cabinet Pon Radhakrishnan should change his name to Poi (lies).”
A year ago, at a public rally, Radhakrishnan had promised the fishermen that he would retrieve their boats in a fortnight. The fishermen are still waiting.
Another slammed External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for making promises but failing to deliver.
A third leader said they were better off under the Congress government, as they had better ties with Sri Lanka and always got their boats back.
After an hour of continuous sloganeering, the fishermen, drenched and tired, called off their agitation.
Besides this agitation, one of the union leaders will also launch a fast unto death on September 12.
S Emeritt, one of the union leaders, said, “Today is Bharat Bandh because the unions want more money, more salary, more bonuses, but we are not striking for anything more. We are fighting to stay alive. Our boats are our life. We borrowed money to buy the boats, how can we pay interest if the boats are in Lanka? If the government doesn’t help we will have to do something desperate and drastic.”
He added that the 1974 accord with Sri Lanka clearly states that fishermen from both countries can fish around Katchatheevu but the Lankans are disputing this and India does not object.
He recalled the early days when there was no strife at all. “From 1974 to 1983 fishermen from both countries fished together. In fact, Lankan fishermen would come and stay the night in Rameswaram and return the next day. However, all that changed in 1983 when the ethnic war broke out. The Lankans stopped fishing all together as they were scared of their navy and Indian fishermen were shot at for allegedly supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.”
He adds that things changed for Indian fishermen in 2009 when the ethnic war came to an end. “Earlier, during the war, the Lankan fishermen didn’t venture out into the waters. However, after the war ended they started fishing and that’s when they began to complain that we were stealing their catch.
“This prompted the Lankans to arrest Indians and jail them for a few months and then let them off with their boats. When they realised that this wasn’t making any difference, they started to impound the boats. This caused heavy losses – anywhere between Rs 10 and 40 lakh.”
However, one thing this correspondent couldn’t help noticing was that even as these fishermen protested, another group returned from the sea with their catch of the day.
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