'During Congress rule, the government used to get both the fishermen and the boats released whenever the Sri Lankan navy apprehended them.'
'Under BJP rule, only the fishermen are being released.'
Eight mechanised boats and 55 fishermen from Tamil Nadu's Ramanathapuram district have been apprehended by the Sri Lankan navy on December 18 and 19. While six of these boats were from Rameswaram, two belonged to Mandapam.
The boats and the fishermen are in Sri Lankan custody.
Ramanathpuram District Mechanised Boats Fishermen's Association President Jesu Raja told A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com that six boats, manned by fishermen from Rameswaram, were nabbed near Sri Lanka's Katchatheevu at 11 pm on December 18.
The remaining two boats, from Mandapam, were apprehended between Dhanushkodi (Tamil Nadu) and Talaimannar (Sri Lanka) at 1 pm on December 19.
"Since the fishermen arrested on December 18 were fishing near the border between India and Sri Lanka and the arrests were made at night," says Raja, "we cannot be sure about how far they were from the border."
"But the arrests on the 19th were made during the day. Our fishermen did not cross the border," he asserts.
"The first three kilometres from the Indian shore is meant only for country boats and there are rocks in the next five kilometres. That leaves only four kilometres of sea for the mechanised boats to fish in," he adds.
After Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974, Raja explains the situation has become worse for Tamil Nadu fishermen (this island, though uninhabited, plays an important role in the Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu fishing industries and has continued to remain a point of contention).
On December 18, 500 boats had gone fishing from the Ramanathapuram district. The rest returned when the Sri Lankan navy apprehended six boats, an arrest that had been witnessed by some of the fishermen who returned home safely.
Protesting these two arrests, more than 500 fishermen are sitting on a dharna in Rameswaram.
From Wednesday, December 22, they plan to go on a hunger strike in the village of Thangachimadam (Rameswaram).
Meanwhile, the arrested fishermen have been remanded in custody till December 31 in Sri Lanka.
"If they are not released by then, instead of celebrating New Year, we will start a rail roko agitation on January 1," warns Raja. "We are earning foreign exchange for the country. We provide employment to so many. The government has to come forward and help us."
Raja believes this recurring problem will be resolved if Katchatheevu is once again made a part of India. "Since India had gifted it to Sri Lanka, the only solution is to ask that it be returned. Now, the Sri Lankan navy is camping there and harassing us."
The fishermen have not talked to any lawyers in Sri Lanka; they expect the Indian high commission in Colombo to do so.
"During Congress rule," says Raja, "the government used to get both the fishermen and the boats released whenever the Sri Lankan navy apprehended them. Now, under the BJP's rule, only the fishermen are being released."
According to him, more than 150 boats belonging to India's fishermen are still in Sri Lanka's custody.
Some years ago, the central and state governments had come forward with a scheme to encourage fishermen to buy big boats that can go fishing in the deep waters of the open ocean; this way, they could avoid the narrow oceanic strip between India and Sri Lanka.
Talking about that scheme, Raja says, "We had to invest Rs 20 lakhs (Rs 2 million) to buy the boat (which costs Rs 85 lakhs/Rs 8.5 million) and spend Rs 30 lakhs (Rs 3 million) to run it. It is not easy for a fisherman to invest so much money.
"Thirty-five boats were bought under that scheme. Then, the pandemic affected the fishing industry like it did everything else. Now, the fishermen who bought those boats want to return them."
K Navas Kani of the Indian Union Muslim League, who represents Ramanathapuram in the Lok Sabha, tells Rediff.com that the Sri Lankan navy always interferes with Indian fishermen, a fact that was not being highlighted by the media lately.
"Our fishermen are always on the right side of the border. Sometimes, the wind might take them to the other side; it is not done purposely.
"I am going to meet the minister for external affairs (Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar) within the next two days to resolve the matter.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com