14 June, 2024


Fraying Brotherhood Over Troubled Waters

By Nirupama Subramanian

Nirupama Subramanian

If Tamil Nadu politicians truly care about Sri Lankan Tamils, they should discourage the State’s fishermen from cornering the marine resources in the Palk Straits

When Tamil Nadu politicians raise the pitch against the Sri Lankan government’s perceived atrocities on the Tamils in that country, they invoke popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu, saying Tamils here are hurt and angry at the way their brethren across the Palk Straits are being treated.

But that sympathy is nowhere evident on an issue that truly hits the Sri Lankan Tamils where it matters — their livelihoods. In fact, it is an issue on which Tamil Nadu actively works against the interests of fellow Tamils across the Palk Straits.

For the last three years, Sri Lanka’s Tamils have been trying to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, shattered by a long and brutal war. One of the main livelihoods of people in Northern Sri Lanka is fishing. As people have gone back to their homes, this is what they have expected to do to earn a living — go out in a boat and come back home with a decent catch.

By itself, that does not sound like a big deal. But as the Sri Lankan government waged a long and hard war against the LTTE, the waters off Northern Sri Lanka’s coastline were barred to the fishermen of the area.

The waters were declared high security zones and fishermen could put out only a kilometre into the sea in the entire North and East; ditto on the north-western coast, from Mannar upward, while the catch frolicked in the waters beyond.

New enemy

Now those restrictions no longer exist. The Sri Lankan Navy is no longer the villain it was in the war years. But Sri Lankan fishermen in the North find they have a new enemy. It’s the hundreds of boats that put out to sea from the Indian side daily, sailing into Sri Lankan waters as if they belong there.

As Antony Pillai, head of the Jaffna fishermen’s union, told The Hindu’s Sri Lanka correspondent R.K. Radhakrishnan last month: “They come in large numbers; it’s as if a huge island is moving”.

Bad fishing practices have depleted the catch on the Indian side; all the Indian fishermen want is to get to where the catch now is. Tamil Nadu fishermen organisers, such as U. Arulanandan in Rameswaram, flatly say it is “not possible” to restrict themselves to Indian territorial waters as the marine wealth, and the area on the Indian side, are limited.

Decades of war ensured that at least the marine resources in Sri Lanka’s northern seas were protected, if not lives on land. The International Maritime Boundary Line, for the Indian fishermen, is drawn on water. In Tamil Nadu, all the stress is on the fishermen’s “traditional areas/waters”. The State is still sore that there was no consultation with it before the “imposition of an artificial boundary” in the Palk Straits, and before India ceded Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka.

But Tamil Nadu fails to see that Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen too have the right to a livelihood.

An agreement between India and Sri Lanka in October 2008 — when Sri Lanka was still in the midst of its war against the LTTE — virtually gave carte blancheto Indian fishermen to cross the IMBL, and venture into Sri Lankan waters except for “sensitive areas” along the Sri Lankan coast, designated by that country’s navy.

Sri Lanka also gave the commitment that there would be “no firing” on Indian vessels; the Tamil Nadu fishermen had to carry valid identity cards issued by the State government.

Only after the war ended did the full impact of this agreement sink in for the Sri Lankan side. Equipped with powerful mechanised boats rigged for sea-bed trawling, Tamil Nadu fishermen have had no qualms about aggrandising the resources on Sri Lanka’s side of the sea. The Sri Lankan fishermen can only watch helplessly as the Indian boats rip their nets, and speed away with the catch, leaving behind a muddied sea in their wake.

The authorities on both sides monitor how many boats cross the IMBL every night. Records for January to June 2012, obtained from Indian government sources, are revealing. In January, 5,166 trawlers were seen crossing the boundary; in February, the number was 6,376; in March, it was 4,740; in April, it came down to 1,050; in May, it dipped to 304; in June, it rose again to 3,026. Checking the identity of each boat is impossible. Every month, 10 per cent or less are recorded as “positively identified”.

The waters where these boats were found fishing? Forget Kachchatheevu, where Indian fishermen claim fishing rights — they were seen even as far away as Pulmoddai and Mullaithivu in eastern Sri Lanka; Chundikulum, Point Pedro and Kankesanthurai; in the islets around Delft Island off the peninsula; and, all the way down to Mannar.

On August 20, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa asked the Centre to take up “strongly” the issue of attacks on Indian fishermen, saying the Sri Lankan Navy had been “emboldened” by India’s “soft handling” of the issue. Between June 2011 and August 2012, she wrote 12 letters to the Prime Minister on this issue.

Direct action

Tamil Nadu fishermen allege the Sri Lankan Navy beats them up, humiliates them, even foists smuggling cases on them. But so fraught have relations become between the fishermen of northern Sri Lanka and the ones from Tamil Nadu that the Sri Lankans are quite happy when their Navy takes on the Indians. In one incident in February 2011, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resorted to direct action, rounding up more than 100 Indian fishermen, and handed them over to their navy.

Over the last two years, Sri Lanka has stressed that the Indian fishermen must respect the IMBL, most recently at a meeting of the joint working group on fisheries held in Colombo in August.

Should the Tamil Nadu government really wish to help Sri Lankan Tamils, there are several constructive ways of doing so. Sending back school children and cultural groups is not one of them. In fact, nothing is worse than raising the temperature for visiting Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu. The links between the two sides run too deep and too strong, and destroying them serves no purpose. Think of the petty Tamil traders from Colombo who travel to Chennai daily, and how the new negatively charged atmosphere affects them. Think also of the Indians who have made Sri Lanka their home, live, work and have invested in that country over the four or five decades, their numbers increasing since the 1990s, and it should become clear that such brinkmanship serves no purpose.

Protesting the “training” of Sri Lankan officers at Wellington or NDC is certainly not constructive either. If anything, having them here is an opportunity to give them a first-hand experience of how a federal system in a multi-ethnic country works, with all its pulls and pressures.

But what can be truly constructive, and with an immediate positive impact on the lives of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils living in Jaffna is if Tamil Nadu can restrain its fishermen from plundering the Palk Straits with their bad practices, and from cornering all its resources. Tamil Nadu politicians, if they truly care about Sri Lankan Tamils, should encourage the State’s fishermen to see the fishermen on the other side of the straits as partners with their own rights to the marine resources of the region. Some fishermen know co-operation is the way forward.

As far back as 1985, according to Mr. Arulanandan, Rameswaram fishermen submitted a proposal for developing alternate areas for deep sea fishing. Others, such as N.J Bose, another fishermen’s leader, have suggested a bilateral agreement that will enable fishermen from both sides to fish in each other’s waters. Instead of resorting to damaging rhetoric aimed more at maximising their political mileage, Tamil Nadu politicians should take the lead in encouraging such options by which fishermen on both sides can share these resources.

(With inputs from T. Ramakrishnan in Chennai and S. Annamalai in Madurai)


The Hindu OpEd

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Latest comments

  • 0

    How much the author paid by teh GOSL. What nonsense she is talking about. Problems oF Tamils is not livlihood. It is Freedom from the Millitary oppression by Sri Lankan Millitary in north and East. Tamils never look for livelihood from any one not even from Tamil Nadu. We have looked after our sleves by hardwork all the time. I do not know where she wrote the article from. May be from a air conditioned office or Hotel or travelling to Jaffna in Sri Lankan govt escort. WHom she is fooling.
    Before teh war Sri Lankan Tamil fisherfolk had no problem. They did not go into direct action with Tamil Nadu fisherman on their own. They were wnet on gun point from the Military dictator of the north Governor Chandradsiri. He is worse the viceroys. I wish he had died when he was admitted to Hospital. No probably he should die suffering from stroke and living long.
    The Fisherman association president makes statement on gun point in millitary ruled Jaffna. Is She foolish to beelive the statatments and action of teh opprssed under gun point.
    We want the Tamil nadu politicans continue to to what they do for whatever reason for their own political ends or for our sake. It does not matter.
    We request the people of Tamni nadu to contunue to do what they do. It will improve our situaution of millitarised Jaffna. Do not worry about our livelihood. We will manage. We would have managed our political freedom also well unbder Pirapaharan, If Italian Roque Sonia did not interfere. Pleas help us throwing Sonia from power you will do good to you and to us Sri Lankan Tamils. Do not Listen to financially and intelectually corrupt people like this author

  • 0

    The link http://groundviews.org/2012/08/01/the-struggle-to-go-home-in-post-war-sri-lanka-the-story-of-mullikulam/ and the comment made by thivya on August 3, 2012 • 5:19 am is copied and pasted below:-
    “The Northern Tamil fishermen’s main problem is not the Tamil Nadu fishermen but the illegal Sinhala fishermen settlers from the South. The Tamil fishermen’s livelihood is being destroyed by the illegal Sinhala fishermen settlers. The Tamils from both sides of Palk Strait have been fishing in the sea of Tamils from time immemorial without any problem whatsoever. Commanders of the occupying Sri Lankan military have become brokers bringing in hundreds of fishermen from south and allowing them to operate from coastal areas where Tamil civilians are denied resettlement.
    The ethnic cleansing of Tamil is continuing in the North and East. The North never had influx of Sinhala fishermen like this before, now there are thousands of them. The truth is the Tamil IDP’s are languishing in makeshift tents along the road sides while the foreign aid received to settle them is being used to build fancy houses for Sinhala settlers in the historic habitat of Tamils. The Tamil fishermen are not allowed to fish in their traditional sea but the Sinhala fishermen settlers are brought in from the South and are occupying the Tamil’s houses. From Jaffna to Amparai, the entire coast is being occupied by the Sinhala fishermen
    (Please see the Video by France24.flv ).”
    This comment rubbishes the article written by Nirupama with inputs from R.K. Radhakrishnan and T. Ramakrishnan shows clearly that The Hindu as aproxy of GOSL ,and is not only anti ADMK but also shedding crocodile tears for Northern Tamils.

  • 0


    watch the above video too. At the comments made above, i cant imagine can anybody be anymore shameless. You might have no problem cos u dont fish in the seas probably. It is the gov that provide for the IDPs and war refugees in the north. What has most of tamil diaspora done? TN politicians done? what have they done? It is the rest of the SLns that mainly spend for the relief of the war refugees. Tamil Diaspora is like a crow that feed on dead bodies.

    • 0

      Refugees are fed by the relatives living abroad not by the rest of SL. rest of the SL robs what is given to them by other governments through the SL govt such as the tractors housing stuff etc. That is why Inidan government decided to give it diretly to the receipient Accounts. You want the Diapsora and Tamil Nadu give so that rest of SL and Northern Milltary can rob them

  • 0

    Refugees are fed by the relatives living abroad not by the rest of SL. rest of the SL robs what is given to them by other governments through the SL govt such as the tractors housing stuff etc. That is why Inidan government decided to give it diretly to the receipient Accounts. You want the Diapsora and Tamil Nadu give so that rest of SL and Northern Milltary can rob them

    My a$$ refugees are fed by diaspora! Diaspora may send money for political parties but none of them go to the ‘starving’ ppl here. They are fed by the state and the rest of the Lankans. Howmuch bad the gov is they are at least feeding them. You ppl are not doing it. Just watch what TNA MP said in an Aus programme that Tamils who were in camps are now trying to go to Aus because gov has stopped giving them food and dry rations after closing the camps. That means apart from the government others have not done anything material. SL gov is corrupt but still they deliver when it comes to tamils in north. SL did a war and successfully won and we didn’t need ur money for that. We know how to handle them. It is the mess created partly by u ppl that we are trying to adjust.
    Indian government built homes are poor quality and situated in areas where there is no employment. Only a small section of TD helps the tamil refugees here. Providing food, education, welfare, and employment is done by the state with a poor economy. Every Lankan pays a nation building tax in their salaries. It is we who feed ppl in the north. I understand this is humiliating to ur egos of mt. Everest size, but yet it is the truth. What u send for political parties is not used for feeding ppl.
    The tamil diaspora must be wishing more and more tamils have perished in the war. What a selfish bunch.

  • 0

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