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He spent 4 days in a Sri Lankan jail

Last updated on: August 12, 2015 18:26 IST

In our Special Independence Day series, Rediff.com looks at India through the lives of her people.

Today: Muthayya Fernandes, a fisherman from Rameswaram, who was imprisoned in Sri Lanka for crossing the International Boundary in search of fish.

Muthayya Fernandes

The complete coverageI have been going to sea since I was 12. I would go in my father's boat. I went to school till the 2nd standard. After that I did not feel like studying. Now I have my own boat. It is a 360HP mechanised boat.

This year, on 21st February, I was caught by the Sri Lankan authorities for crossing into their waters. We had left for fishing at 7 am in the morning after taking a token from the fisheries department.

We were near Katchatheevu (the island ceded to Sri Lanka by India in 1974) when the Lankan navy saw us. They said, 'You are in my country, my side of the border.' They spoke to us in Tamil. They asked us for fish. So we slowed down.

Our boat had seven people on board and we were a group of five boats. When we slowed down to give them fish, they boarded our boat. They were armed and arrested us at gun point. It was 5 in the evening. All of us in the five boats were arrested.

The naval authorities handed us over to another boat. That boat took us to the shore in Sri Lanka. We reached there at 7 pm. At 9 pm they gave us food and water. They took away all our possessions and our boats. We spent the night there.

The next morning, at 9 am, we were taken for a medical check-up. At noon the naval authorities took us to a court. The court handed us over to the Lankan police.

The police first took us to Kottaimannar jail and at 7 pm to a jail in Vavuniya.

At Vavuniya, I realised that 54 (Indian) fishermen had been arrested.

We were again given a medical check-up. They gave us a little rice which was only enough to fill a quarter of our stomachs. It was very less. They also gave us a little water.

The next day the IG (inspector general) Prisons met me as the leader of the group. He asked me if we faced any difficulties here. He said he could send us to the Anuradhapura jail if we wanted.

"We have no problems here, we want to stay where you are," I told him. I do not know his name, but he was a Muslim I remember. He spoke to me in Tamil.

 Muthayya Fernandes

IMAGE: Muthayya Fernandes left school to fish on his father's boat and has been a fisherman all his life. Photograph: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

On 24th February, 2015, India and Sri Lanka were supposed to hold talks about the problems of fishermen. The officials from our fisheries department were going to talk to officials of the Sri Lankan fisheries department. Our people said release our fishermen and then we will talk.

We were told that we would be released. We were then taken by bus to Kottaimannar court which is 70 kms. away. The court released us. They handed us over to our embassy officials who had come there. The officer in charge was a North Indian lady. I do not know her name.

We were taken to Yalpanam. They fed us very well. The next morning at 9 am they took us to Kankesanthurai harbour. The embassy officials gave us bread, bun, butter and jam for our travel.

At the harbour, our embassy people handed us over to the Sri Lankan navy, who took us to the International Maritime Boundary Line and handed us over to the Indian Coast Guard at 2 pm.

From there it is 64 nautical miles to Mandapam near Rameswaram. The journey takes three hours. They made us sit in the hot sun on the deck for three hours.

The Coast Guard did not even look at us. They treated us as if we were worse than dogs. They did not let us use the toilet. We threatened to start urinating on the deck, but we did not do that. They gave us bread and tea, but we refused saying we cannot eat and drink unless we were allowed to use the toilet.

Till the end of our journey they did not allow us to use the toilet. Once we were close to the shore, our mobile phones started working. We started calling reporters and telling them that they were ill-treating us.

We got a call from the assistant director of the fisheries department. He told us to cooperate with the Coast Guard. We calmed down. We were allowed to go home from the Manadpam Coast Guard station when we came ashore.

Muthayya Fernandes

IMAGE: Muthayya goes to sea thrice a week. Twenty-three Indian fishing boats are in Sri Lankan custody. Photograph: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

I had spent four days in a Lankan jail. I was not ill treated. The only problem was food. They gave us very little food.

My boat is still there (in Sri Lanka). More than 25 boats are still there. I have met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. I have also met Kanyakumari MP and Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan in this regard.

Sushma Swaraj told me that we cannot ask them (the Sri Lankans to release us) every time. Please don't go there. Pon Radhakrishnan has promised to help. But I don't think he will help. Nobody will help us. Nothing can help.

We follow the fish and at times, cross over to the other side. Why did they give Katchatheevu to them without asking us? (Katchatheevu is an island off Rameswaram in the Palk Straits that divides Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. It was once a part of Ramnathapuram district. India ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974.)

I borrowed 15 lakh rupees (Rs 1.5 million) to buy this boat. I have to pay Rs 45,000 interest every month. I have been injured, but still continue to work. I have no choice.

A fishing trip to sea normally lasts 24 hours. We leave at 7 in the morning and come back the next morning. Country boats go four days a week and mechanised boats go thrice a week.

Each trip I have to invest Rs 40,000. This includes diesel, food, nets and other expenses. The income we get from each trip varies from 20,000 to 60,000 rupees. That is in the hands of God.

Others who accompany me on the trip have to be paid salaries. The fishermen get 4% of the income from the catch and the driver gets 7%. The rest is for me. I sometimes go as the driver.

I have three sons and one daughter. One son has completed nautical science from the Ahmed University in Kannathur, Chennai. My second son is also studying at the same university, he is doing harbour engineering which deals with building harbours and jetties.

My third son finished a course at a polytechnic. Then he studied accountancy for three years. He is now in charge of the sales of our fish. I don't think he will take over my business. None of my children will follow my trade.

My daughter is studying commerce.

Muthayya Fernandes

IMAGE: Muthayya's boat is still in Sri Lankan custody. Photograph: Saisuresh Sivaswamy/Rediff.com

If I get my boat back from Sri Lanka it will be a big help. It is worth 20 lakh rupees (Rs 2 million). I can sell it and settle all my debts. Otherwise the interest that I am paying every month is a big burden.

The Narendra Modi government is not doing anything to help us get our boats back. At least the Congress is asking questions for us in Parliament.

I have also approached the priest of our church. He says, 'We cannot request them again to return your boats. How many times can we ask them the same thing?'

We have a GPS on our boats. The GPS shows us when we cross the International Border. We follow the fish there. The wind takes us there. We are not smugglers, but they treat us like that.

The Sri Lankans think the LTTE will come back and that is why they treat us like this.  

Muthayya Fernandes lives in Dhanuskhodi, Rameswaram, 18 kilometres from Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka. The International Maritime Border is just 9 km away.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa earlier this month, she asked him to protect the fishing rights of Indian fishermen and to retrieve the Katchatheevu islet. She also urged Modi to secure the release of 31 Tamil Nadu fishermen and 23 boats from Sri Lankan custody.

Muthayya Fernandes spoke to A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com

A Ganesh Nadar / Rediff.com
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