Colombo, March 9 (newsin.asia): New Delhi and Colombo on Thursday started joint action to stem the growing agitation in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu over the death of K.Britjo, a 22-year old Rameswaram fisherman, who was allegedly killed by the Sri Lankan navy in Indian waters in the Palk Strait on Monday.
The two governments have agreed to simultaneously release all fishermen in each other’s custody. While Sri Lanka will release 85 Indian fishermen, India will release 19 Sri Lankan fishermen. However, a court in Chennai on Thursday put paid to the immediate release of Sri Lankan fishermen from Tamil Nadu jails, when it extended their remand till March 23
The two governments had acted after the Indian Vice President, Hamid Ansari, met the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Indonesdia on the sideline of the Indian Ocean summit. In Colombo, Indian High Commissioner ,Taranjit Singh Sandhu, met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and pressed him to take action. The Sri Lankan navy denied that its men had killed Britjo or that the incident took place in Indian waters. But it said that it is ready for an inquiry based on GPS data from the concerned vessels.
Be that as it may, looking at the issue on hand, the agitating fishermen Tamil Nadu are unlikely to react enthusiastically to the announcement on the release of fishermen.
Emotions Rising High
Emotions are running high in Tamil Nadu because, after a gap of four or five years, a Tamil Nadu fisherman had died (allegedly) at the hands of the Sri Lankan navy in the Palk Strait. To put an end to Sri Lankan naval shootings which had claimed the lives of 300 to 400 Tamil Nadu fishermen since the 1980s, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had agreed not to use force, especially firearms, in dealing with poachers. Therefore, the killing of Britjo of Rameswaram on Monday night with a military Self Loading Rifle (SLR) came as a rude shock to the fishermen of Tamil Nadu.
Moreover, Britjo (or Britgo as some spell) was only 22 year old .That made his death unbearable given the fact that in fishermen’s families, the male is much valued, and parents pin much hope on the male child.
The fishermen will also be disappointed that the Indian and Sri Lankan governments have not been able to reach an agreement on the return of the 134 boats in Sri Lankan custody. These trawlers had cost their owners several hundreds of thousands of Indian rupees. The Sri Lankan government had introduced the system of seizing and not returning the trawlers of the poachers in the belief that this would be a deterrent to poaching. While this has reduced poaching, it has not prevented it. Thousands of trawlers from the Tamil Nadu coast from Nagapattinam to Rameswaran poach in Sri Lankan waters daily with impunity, unmindful of the legal implications and the harm they are doing to the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen who, incidentally, also happen to be Tamil Catholics.
The Indian fishermen claim that they never cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and that they fish only around Kachchativu island, where, according to them, they have a “traditional right” to fish recognized by an India-Sri Lanka agreement in 1974. But it is a fact that they come within sight of the Sri Lankan coast. In fact it is learnt that the killing of Britjo took place very near the Mannar coast in Sri Lanka though the Rameswaram fishermen claim that he was fishing between Dhanushodi in India and Kachchativu island mid way to the Sri Lankan coast but on the Indian side.
The agitating Indian fishermen have said that they will not bury Britjo until the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj comes down to assuage their feelings and assure them that the Sri Lankan navy man who shot the boy will be arrested and tried for murder. Tamil Nadu fishermen as a whole have said that they will boycott the St.Anthony’s Festival to be held at Kachchativu island shortly. About 5,000 of them were to attend the annual Feast this year.
N.Devadas, President of the Rameswaram fishermen’s Association, told this writer that India should ask all Sri Lankan diplomats to leave the country till the issue is settled satisfactorily.
“We want India and Sri Lanka to stop this drama of friendship and take this issue seriously. What is the use of having Ambassadors if they cannot address the peoples’ pressing issues?” he asked.
Devadas recalled the seriousness with which the government of India took the case of the killing of two Kerala fishermen by Italian marines in Indian waters and wondered why in the case of the killing of Tamil fishermen, New Delhi is nonchalant. The Italian marines were arrested and a case of old-blooded murder is still on in an Indian court.
U.Arulanandam ,President of the Alliance for Release of Innocent Fishermen, recalled that in 1985, the Indian Coast Guard had arrested a Sri Lankan naval officer for killing two Rameswaram fishermen, Susaiappar and Alphonse, in the Gulf of Mannar. On January 8, 1985, a India Coast Guard vessel intercepted and boarded the Sri Lankan naval vessel in question, and brought its commander to Mandapam, though he was later let off.
“When there are precedents for strong action, why isn’t the Indian government acting,” Devadas asked.
He further warned that if the problem escalates, Center-State relations may suffer a set back given the fact that all political parties in Tamil Nadu except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at the Centre, are backing the agitation with emotionally charged statements.
Subramanian Swamy , a BJP leader, had stated that the agitation has been taken over by Tamil separatists and therefore it has to be put down with a heavy hand. The Tamil Nadu BJP President Tamilisai Soundarrajan has shifted the blame from Sri Lanka to China. She told a TV channel that China had instigated the firing to create tension between Sri Lanka and India. In other words, she absolved Sri Lanka.
Worrying Spin Offs
The escalating agitation is worrying people in Sri Lanka who are working for a permanent solution to the India-Sri Lanka fishing problem. S.P.Anthonymuthu, Convenor of the India-Sri Lanka Fishermen’s Welfare Forum, said that if the agitation is not contained by applying a balm to soothe the feeling of Tamil Nadu fishermen, India-Sri Lanka relations will suffer deeply ,and all Sri Lankans across the ethnic divide will stand to lose.
“I met the Minister of Fisheries, Mahinda Amaraweera , and told him that bad relations with India will affect Indian aid to Sri Lanka which is significant. The people of Indian Origin and the Sri Lankan Tamils will be particularly hard hit. India has constructed 50,000 houses for the war-affected Tamils; is building houses and a hospital for the plantation laborers of Indian origin; and has set up an emergency ambulance service from which all communities in South Sri Lanka are benefitting. I asked the Minister to immediately take steps to assuage the feelings of the Rameswaram fishermen by announcing the return of the detained boats,” Anthonymuthu said.
“Their detention is causing congestion in Sri Lankan harbors. They are rotting for lack of maintenance. They are neither used nor returned to their owners. They are a burden on Sri Lanka even as their detention is not preventing Tamil Nadu fishermen from poaching,” Anthonymuthu said about the continued detention of 134 boats.
“I am appealing to the North Sri Lankan fishermen, who are part of the Special Task Force (STF) to curb poaching, to be realistic and far sighted and allow the Sri Lankan government to release the boats.At STF meeting The Northern Tamil fishermen have been the most vociferous in demanding strong action against the Indian poachers and have been full supporters of the decision not to return the boats while returning the arrested crew,” he added.
(The image at the top shows fishermen of Tamil Nadu wailing after the death of 22 year old Britjo allegedly in Sri Lankan naval firing)