The bold men and the sea

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Seventy-two Tamil Nadu fishermen have been shot by the Sri Lankan Navy in the past six months. Yet they keep going back to the same strip of sea. Rohini Mohan  tracks the reasons why

Photos: MS Gopal

ON A cold January night, an hour before midnight, Jayakumar kissed his sleeping three-year-old daughter Bhumika’s cheek and walked out of the house, closing the door softly. On the dark beach about 100 metres away, his brother Senthil and uncle were already dragging their bright green fibreglass boat into the crashing waves. For four hours, they sailed quietly, their faces barely visible to each other in the moonlight. When the shoreline was out of sight, they cast their net. Just as they were pulling up their net heavy with fish and prawns, a blinding beacon flooded their boat. The Sri Lankan Navy was speeding towards them, filled with 10 men, machine guns in hand.

As soon as the speedboat caught up, a navyman hopped on board. In broken Tamil, he screamed at Jayakumar to rip the fishing net, but the latter hesitated — the net was full of catch. Enraged, the navyman ordered everyone to strip. As they did, shivering in the cold night, he laughed. “Now jump in the water!” he said.

The three men were to swim in the icy sea till they were ordered to stop. Senthil and his uncle jumped. Jayakumar cried, saying he couldn’t swim. He had lost his fore and middle fingers in the 2004 tsunami, and could not raise his right arm above his chest. In a few seconds, freezing in the sea, Senthil saw his brother being hurled into the water with a noose around his neck. The navyman steered the boat in a circular orbit, dragging a drowning Jayakumar by his neck in the water.

A helpless Senthil saw his brother gasping in the sea, wrenched round and round, unable to breathe, to swim, or scream for help. “It seemed to go on and on,” recalls Senthil. “I can’t believe that it lasted for just 10 minutes.”

Suddenly, everything stopped. The boat zoomed off. “I swam up to anna (brother), bobbing in the sea,” says Senthil. “I don’t know why I expected him to be alive.” He pulled his brother’s body up and went back home. “It was only when I came ashore that I burst into tears,” he says. It was the moment he lost his stomach for the sea.

A month later, holding Jayakumar’s daughter on the same beach, 25-year-old Senthil says he is just not able to shake off a sick fear of the sea. “That image, anna being killed slowly… it haunts my dreams,” shudders Senthil.

Almost every fortnight last year, a fisherman from Tamil Nadu was killed at sea. Shot randomly by the Sri Lankan Navy in the sliver of water between India and Sri Lanka. Unnoticed, the Palk Strait has become the scene of inhuman torture, humiliation and savage murder over the past 20 years. And in the past six months, the violence has been accelerating — 72 men have been killed. Nearly 400 have lost their lives till now, more than 2,000 are injured and almost 90 have gone missing. And this is not even war.

Law breakers Banned double nets are still used, reveals GovindasamyPHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN Missing kin Senthil holds the daughter of his dead brother JayakumarPHOTO: MS GOPAL Long wait As the men leave for sea, their wives are a picture of anxietyPHOTO: MS GOPAL

As TEHELKA travelled along the Palk Bay — districts of Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin, Pudukottai and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu — every fisherman seemed to have a gruesome story. And more often than not, a scar to prove it. In Rameswaram, Shekhar lifts his shirt to show a shiny crescent on his back — the scar from a bullet extraction surgery. In Mandapam, Jayaseelan shows his right hand — the thumb has been blown off. In Pudukottai, 18-year-old Joseph cannot straighten his legs, beaten to pulp with an iron club last year. His father has lost an eye. All of them recite Sinhalese abuses hurled at them by the Sri Lankan Navy. They vividly describe their “sky-blue-darkblue” uniforms. Some have saved bullets that lay like pebbles on their boat deck after a fishing expedition.

Yet, day after day, even before the sun rises over the Bay of Bengal, these fishermen venture back into the sea. Into the same waters in which their friends and family have been shot.

In the grey pre-dawn light, Govindasamy stands in a checked lungi on his large blue boat anchored in the fish-bloodstained harbour of Chegathapattinam in Pudukottai district. The shore is teeming with shirtless, lungi-clad men carrying iceboxes, baskets, ropes and nets. Rows of hefty boats, just de-anchored, dance in the incessant lift and throw of the waves.

Govindasamy’s wife, along with wives of other fishermen, watches quietly from the shore. She has woken earlier than her husband to pack tiffin boxes with old rice soaked in water, karuvaadu (dried and salted fish), pickle sachets, and a bottle of Coca Cola. One by one, the engines roar to a start. Diesel smoke chokes the air. Three more men get on the boat. Govindasamy’s wife waves goodbye to his indifferent back. Chegathapattinam’s morning din fades as the boat pulls away.

Govindasamy is two years short of 50, and has been fishing since he was six. He points to his tiffin box, whose contents should last him 15 hours. He recalls that earlier, his fishing trips used to last only 5-6 hours.

“Without fail, we would be home for dinner,” recalls Govindasamy. In the past decade, especially the past five years, he has been spending longer hours, sailing further away from the coastline. Today, each trip lasts for at least 20 hours, and almost always, he crosses into Sri Lankan waters. “That’s the only place where we catch any fish,” he says. “Our Indian side is completely barren.”

IN THE late 1960s, in a bid to expand fisheries exports, the Tamil Nadu government had urged traditional fishermen like Govindasamy to opt for bigger and more powerful engine-driven boats. The government gave loans and discounts for trawlers — massive mechanised boats with powerful engines that drag heavybottomed nets through the sea bed, trapping all aquatic life in its way.

“Fishermen were catching three-four times more than they had in the previous decades,” says V Vivekanandan, adviser to the South Indian Federation of Fishermen’s Societies (SIFFS). Today, the state has more than 10,000 trawlers. “Bottom trawling was making fishermen rich, and the boat owners and exporters richer.”

But this came at a price. Excessive bottom trawling has swept the Indian sea bed clean. Fishermen find their nets coming up emptier. Today, the Indian side of the Palk Strait is one of the most over-fished coasts in the country. On a daily basis, fishermen across the Palk Bay are forced to choose between a dry coastline and the dangerously rich sea beyond it.

Marked for life
Shekharof
Rameswaram
shows
his bullet scarPHOTO: MS GOPAL
Death notice A poster in Pudukottai mourns
the killing
of VeerapandianPHOTO: MS GOPAL

 

After hours of yanking levers, dragging nets out, and looping rusty chains into hooks, Govindasamy leans on a ledge holding down the net. Behind him, the Indian shoreline begins to disappear. He dips his hand in the water. “We used to have things like the 300-metre double nets, which could only be pulled by two boats,” he says. “It can cost up to a lakh rupees, but each time you use it, you can earn at least Rs. 75,000. It just scoops up every single thing in the sea.” Double nets are now banned, but Govindasamy and his crew say that they are still indiscriminately used. “In broad daylight too!” says the youngest in the crew, 19-year-old Satish. “Fisheries Department officials just need to be bribed, and they will look the other way.”

THERE IS only ocean around the crew now. As he yells out instructions, Govindasamy’s gold tooth glints in the sun. Satish monkeys up on top of the mast, where the Indian flag — its saffron bleached into a yellow by the sea air — has been fluttering. Satish wraps it up and jumps down. Govindasamy says it is to attract less attention. “We have done 22 nautical miles. We will soon enter Sri Lankan territory,” he confesses.

Before Satish, it was Govindasamy’s son Guna who used to accompany him. One blinding noon in 2008, Guna was shot in the chest as his boat passed Delft island in Sri Lanka. When Govindasamy had pleaded with the navymen to stop shooting, they asked him to hang by his hands from a netpulley. They thrashed an iron rod on his knees. “India po!” (Go back to India) they yelled. Another crew member was stripped naked, made to lie on an ice slab and another one placed on him, like a sandwich.

Fishermen on six other boats stood a few metres away, watching. They had witnessed this scene several times before. And as they had done for years, they pulled up their full nets and turned around at breakneck speed.

After hours of yanking levers, dragging nets out, and looping rusty chains into hooks, Govindasamy leans on a ledge holding down the net. Behind him, the Indian shoreline begins to disappear. He dips his hand in the water. “We used to have things like the 300-metre double nets, which could only be pulled by two boats,” he says. “It can cost up to a lakh rupees, but each time you use it, you can earn at least Rs. 75,000. It just scoops up every single thing in the sea.” Double nets are now banned, but Govindasamy and his crew say that they are still indiscriminately used. “In broad daylight too!” says the youngest in the crew, 19-year-old Satish. “Fisheries Department officials just need to be bribed, and they will look the other way.”

THERE IS only ocean around the crew now. As he yells out instructions, Govindasamy’s gold tooth glints in the sun. Satish monkeys up on top of the mast, where the Indian flag — its saffron bleached into a yellow by the sea air — has been fluttering. Satish wraps it up and jumps down. Govindasamy says it is to attract less attention. “We have done 22 nautical miles. We will soon enter Sri Lankan territory,” he confesses.

Before Satish, it was Govindasamy’s son Guna who used to accompany him. One blinding noon in 2008, Guna was shot in the chest as his boat passed Delft island in Sri Lanka. When Govindasamy had pleaded with the navymen to stop shooting, they asked him to hang by his hands from a netpulley. They thrashed an iron rod on his knees. “India po!” (Go back to India) they yelled. Another crew member was stripped naked, made to lie on an ice slab and another one placed on him, like a sandwich.

Fishermen on six other boats stood a few metres away, watching. They had witnessed this scene several times before. And as they had done for years, they pulled up their full nets and turned around at breakneck speed.

Senthil saw his brother gasping in the sea, unable to breathe or swim, or scream for help

Agreed upon by the respective governments in 1976, the 400-km maritime border between India and Sri Lanka has never been adhered to by fishermen. As Govindasamy says, “If fish don’t follow maritime borders, then why should fishermen?” For years, fishing boats from both countries have habitually crossed into each others’ territory. S Thavaratnam, president of the Federation of Fishermen’s Cooperatives of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, believes that the Palk Strait is a common heritage, but that Indian fishermen have taken this too far. “Sri Lankan boats can’t go out because all the time, there are Indian trawlers in our side.” Sri Lanka has banned bottom trawling to preserve its fish resources, but Tamil Nadu fishermen still trawl there.

New Delhi-based Sugiswara Senadheera, minister councillor to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, says Jaffna’s fishermen have asked the navy to strictly enforce the maritime boundary. “After destroying their own coast, they are coming to ours,” says Thavaratnam. “Very soon, we’ll also be left with nothing.”

In this fight for a bit of sea, however, it is still inexplicable why triggers must be pulled. Why bullets must rain on what is essentially a battle over resources. Violators of maritime boundaries, across the world, are considered civilian offenders. They are jailed for a while, and sent back to their country. But in the Palk Strait, in the liquid space between two ‘friendly’ countries, more than 400 men have been victims of a fatally disproportionate reaction.

‘If fish don’t follow maritime borders, then why should fishermen?’ asks Govindasamy

For close to 20 years, when the Sri Lankan Navy said they were “not shooting innocent fishermen”, they implied that the fishermen they shot were not innocent. During the ethnic war in Sri Lanka between the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the armed forces, it was believed that arms, explosives and medicines were smuggled from the Tamil Nadu coast. “It wasn’t just fish and fishermen on the boats then,” says Senadheera. “We were facing a security problem.”

RAVINA RANI’s husband was one such victim of doubt. Sebastian, then just 25, was shot dead in 1994, less than a year after his marriage. “I filed an FIR on the same day,” says Rani, looking exhausted. “They kept asking me if he smuggled explosives, if he was a Tamil terrorist. I said ‘No’ over and over again, but nobody heard.” The investigation was dropped. In the 26 years of war, every time an Indian fisherman was shot at sea, his innocence was in doubt.

Today, however, the LTTE is no more. There is no room for suspicion. Still, the murders at sea are on the rise. When Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to talk about the shootings early this year, Senadheera says she provided “evidence of navy involvement, following which an inquiry has been ordered”.

For years, men of the sea were being shot unnoticed, but it is only now that there is the smallest public outcry. When news of Jayakumar’s brutal strangling at sea made the papers, fishermen across Tamil Nadu staged a protest march. Twitter accounts have been abuzz with calls for justice and protection for the fishermen.

AIADMK, the main opposition party in Tamil Nadu, saw in it a political opportunity, thanks to upcoming Assembly election. Party chief J Jayalalithaa went to Nagapattinam to visit the family. BJP’s Sushma Swaraj followed from Delhi, to take on the ruling Congress alliance, which includes the DMK, the state’s ruling party.

Both Jayalalithaa and Swaraj, however, opted for political expediency. They repeat over and over that the murders will end if India reclaims an island called Katchatheevu in the Palk Strait.

It is still inexplicable why triggers must be pulled in what is essentially a battle over resources

This uninhabited island was ceded by India to Sri Lanka in 1974, and was, a decade ago, considered the last illegal point in the Palk Strait to which Indian fishermen sailed for prawns and coral. Today, Indian fishermen admit that they have been sailing beyond Katchatheevu, as close as 500 metres to the northern Sri Lankan coast. And here, and not Katchatheevu, is where they get shot most often.

“The Indian government prefers to focus on Katchatheevu, which is a closed chapter,” says U Arulanandam, founder of a civil society group that is trying to stop the killings by organising dialogues between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen. “Because if the Indian government admits that our fishermen are crossing borders, that means they have a massive long-term responsibility too, to ban big boats, and to improve fish resources on our side.” Shrugging, he adds, “But who wants real solutions if they won’t reap political benefits?”

Fishermen like Govindasamy know the risks every time they decide to cross over. “We have no choice if our side is barren,” he says. “When I cross, only I run the risk of being killed. But if I don’t cross the border, my entire family will starve.”

Two days after TEHELKA met him, Govindasamy took a trawler far too close to the Lankan border. His boat was captured and destroyed by the Lankan Navy, and he was beaten again. Calling from the hospital, his wife sobs over the phone, “At this point, I don’t know who to be angry with — this man and his adventures at sea, or the crazy men with guns.”

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