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TN fishermen vs SL navy: Encounters of worst kind

Last updated on: February 18, 2011 08:26 IST

TN fishermen vs SL navy: Encounters of worst kind


A Ganesh Nadar in Rameswaram

Tamil fishermen being attacked by the Sri Lankan navy has become a regular affair in Tamil Nadu. Most of these fishermen belong to two districts: Nagaipattinam and Ramanathapuram which includes the island of Rameswaram.

Recently 118 fishermen from Nagaipattinam were arrested by the Lankan navy and were produced in a court in Sri Lanka. They are reportedly remanded to judicial custody for 14 days.

They were allegedly fishing in the Sri Lankan waters. Only when they come back, we will know where they were actually fishing.

"In Rameswaram encounters with the Lankan navy are a regular affair," says a fisherman at Pamban. This village is near the famous Pamban bridge that connects Rameswaram with mainland India.

In January this year two fishermen were killed by the Lankan navy. Both belonged to Nagaipattinam.

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Image: Fishermen row a boat at sunset in Nagaipattinam, Tamil Nadu
Photographs: Reuters

A Saturday that never came

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Jesinda is a 47-year old widow. Her husband Penanzis was 42-years old when he was shot dead by the Lankan navy on January 5, 1995. Talking about her husband, she said, "My husband was a fisherman who had been going to the sea since the age of 13".

They had set out from Pamban -- five men and one young boy -- in a vallam (country boat). All of them were shot dead by the Lankan navy. This happened after they crossed the Katchathievu island. This island was given to Sri Lanka by India in 1974.

This team of fishermen usually set out on Thursdays and came back on Saturdays. When they did not come back on a Saturday, Jesinda enquired in the neighbouring fishing villages, but there was no news.

On Monday morning another vallam found an empty pot floating in the sea. It was a big pot in which they take food to eat at sea. The pot had the name of the boat-owner engraved on it. Other fishermen told them that the boat had been shot at and had sunk.

A massive search was undertaken and all the dead-bodies were recovered. The last body was recovered after 17 days.

Jesinda has four children, two boys and two girls. The government gave her Rs 50,000 and the fishermen's co-operative another Rs 25,000 as compensation.

She brought up her children with great difficulty. Now all of them are married and gone. She sells dry fish for a living. "All my sons are fishermen and they go to sea regularly. For many years I did not allow them to go fishing. But finally we did not have a choice as they don't know any other profession".

The fishermen's association is suing the Sri Lankan navy on her behalf and has filed a case in the Madurai bench of the Madras high court.

Image: Jesinda
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar
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'Now I don't go fishing'

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Jesu Arogyam, son of Balasingham, is 39-years old. He has been going fishing for the past 25 years. He has studied up to the sixth standard. He is now married with three kids.

He relates his experience with the Lankan navy in his own words:

"In 2003, my own vallam was captured by the Lankan navy near Katchthievu. Five of us were in my boat, and another five fishermen were in another vallam. It was peace time between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government.

They kept us in a navy camp for one night and the next day handed us over to the Orathurai police station. We spent another night there. They gave us rotten food to eat at the police station. It was stinking. We were confined in a very small room.

The court there sent us to Yalpanam jail. We were there for six months. Over 100 fishermen were there. They released us six months later, but they did not release our boats. Their navy handed us over to the Indian Coast Guards who brought us ashore.

We were again interrogated at the Mandapam Coast Guard station in Ramanathapuram district and then released.

While we were in jail there, we could not get in touch with our families. Our local priest here, Father Amalraj, called a priest in Lanka. That priest came and visited us in the jail there. He told our whereabouts to Father Amalraj who informed our family.

After four months in custody we went on a fast unto death. This lasted for five days. The local media covered it well. Only then did an official from the Indian embassy there visit us.

I don't know his name. He said, "We will be released in two weeks with our boats." Nothing like that happened. We came back empty handed."

Relating another incident, he said:

Last year my vallam was attacked. I did not go that day. Five of my people were beaten up by the Lankan navy for crossing the international boundary line. Their GPS, mobile phones and fishing nets were confiscated. They came back empty-handed. Now I don't go fishing.

Raja, son of Complese, is 28-years old. He has studied up to the seventh standard and is married with two kids. He has been going to sea since he was a ten-year old.

He says, "There is no fish in our waters, we have to go there across the international boundary line. This morning I spotted the Lankan navy on the boundary line. Nothing happened but some people said that they attacked five other boats".

He talked about his earlier encounter with the Lankan navy.

"In December 2003 I was captured along with my vallam with five others. We were in the other boat that Jesu Arogyam mentioned. We too were arrested along with them by the Sri Lankan navy.

Jailed for six months we went on a fast unto death after four months. On the fifth day as I had not had even water, I was hospitalised. Seven others were also taken to hospital. Even when we were on a drip in the hospital, we were guarded by cops on either side.

Even now when I see Katchathievu I think of those days in jail. When the LTTE was around, the Sri Lankan navy wasn't so visible in these waters."

He recalled another encounter.

"Two years back I was fishing near Katchathievu. The Sri Lankan navy caught me and asked me for my GPS. When I did not give it they beat me up with iron pipes. I was in hospital for two days.

The Sri Lankan navy ships don't have any numbers or names. They are painted black. They don't even have Lankan navy mentioned on them nor the Lankan flag."

(Raja refused to be photographed saying that the Lankan navy would see his photograph on the internet and then single him out for punishment).

Image: Jesu Arogyam
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar
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'As my sons spoke English, SL navy accused them of being LTTE cadres'

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Arul Sahayam, son of Susairanjee, is 50-years old. He has studied up to the third standard. He has two sons and two daughters. He has been going to sea since he was eight years old.

He says, "If I go to the sea on four days, I see the Lankan navy on two days. When they see us they normally chase us, take away our nets and sometimes even our slippers."

Then he related an event that happened two years back.

"On May 25, 2008, my vallam went out on the sea with my two sons:  Ignatius, who has done a course in shipping and is now 23-years old and Josephat, who is now 19 years old and has studied up to the eleventh standard. They took three others with them.

They were arrested by the Lankan navy with three other vallams near Katchathievu. In all 23 fishermen were arrested.

Ignatius replied to their questions in English. Thus he and his brother were singled out. They were accused of being LTTE cadres and were beaten up. They were threatened with a gun on their forehead. When they said they were Indians, they were accused of being suppliers to the LTTE.

The three other vallams along with 18 fishermen were arrested. The fishermen's co operative here informed us of their arrest.

We went and met the district collector and various other officials. I personally met Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and Governor Surjit Singh Barnala.

Three months later they were released as they were found innocent. The fishermen's co operative in Rameswaram contacted the fishermen's co operative in Sri Lanka. They arranged a lawyer there and got them released.

They were flown to Chennai. An official from the fisheries department came with us. We went to Chennai and brought them back. Our vallam was not returned.

For some days we stayed at home. Then we went to work on other vallams. Now we have our own vallam. We received no compensation from the government. Today both my sons have gone fishing. They will come back tomorrow.

I spent Rs 1.5 lakhs in those three months just going around meeting officials. Imagine our agony."

For the fishermen of Rameswaram, the Lankan navy is a part of their lives. A part that they do not like, but a part that they cannot deny.

Image: Arul Sahayam
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar
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