'We bear insults of Lankan government only to visit our patron saint' - The New Indian Express

'We bear insults of Lankan government only to visit our patron saint'

Published: 10th September 2013 07:58 AM

Last Updated: 10th September 2013 07:58 AM

The idol of St Antony, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, stands as a symbol of strength near the shore on the eastern side of Katchatheevu, silently welcoming those disembarking from their boats to take part in the annual festival of the church, which was built in 1905 by Seevakaruppan Padayachi, a fisherman from Nambuthalai village of Ramanathapuram.

Padayachi’s church was his way of thanksgiving for saving him from drowning once when he was caught in inclement weather, says U Arulanandham, state co-coordinator of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen Trust. But for the church, there remains nothing in the 285 acre land, situated in the Palk Strait, about 11 nautical miles off Rameswaram and 12 miles from Delft or Neduntheevu, the biggest islet of Sri Lanka. The only time the place livens up is during the church festival when the Sri Lankan government illuminates it with the help of generators. Even makeshift toilets are erected for the public during the annual event.

Katchatheevu, otherwise, remains uninhabited with the Lankan navy keeping a vigil - a far cry from how things were before June, 1974, when India signed the agreement with Sri Lanka to cede this islet.

As M S Jesu, a fisherman from Pamban, recalls, “Katchatheevu was part and parcel of our life. We would fish for the entire week during the night around Katchatheevu and rest on the islet in the morning.” When Jesu came to Katchatheevu for the annual festival in March this year he was setting foot on the islet after 30 years, he claimed, adding that he cherished the memories of olden days when the island was like a second home to him and many other fishermen. What should have been a nostalgia trip, ended up shocking the Pamban fisherman. “I came with joy, hoping to meet my relatives living in Colombo after so many years. But we were upset when we saw the Sri Lankan flags lined along the coast,” says Jesu. The welcome banners too were an eyesore, he adds, for they read: “Welcome to Sri Lanka”.

As the entourage of pilgrims moved into the island after security clearance, banners with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face greeted them as a reminder of their presence in a Sri Lankan territory. “I came here three years after the war. This was the first time the Lankan government had put up banners and pictures of Rajapaksa welcoming the people,” says Susai, a fisherman. The number of flags too went up this year, one every 20 metres on the beach, he claims.

“It is not only the livelihood of Tamil Nadu fishermen that is under threat because of the Central government’s stand on Katchatheevu. Very soon the Indian government will face a national security threat,” says Patrick, president of Pambam Panchayat.

In the past, fishermen from both the countries would participate in the festival in huge numbers, says Patrick. “We would exchange gifts. Sri Lankan Ceylon Rani soap, oil and tea are popular among our fishermen. They like our lungi and beedi,” explains Xavier Susai. But things changed after the 1983 Velikadai massacre. 

Though the then Sri Lankan government stopped conducting the festival officially and their Navy was gunning down those trying to cross the maritime border, a small group of Tamil fishermen would risk their lives to attend the festival every year.

There was no festival conducted in 2009 when the Sri Lankan government wiped out the LTTE base. It was resumed in 2010. Now, the Tamil fishermen visit their land amid tight security with the Navy personnel checking their bags and issuing food tokens and guides to the pilgrims. “We put up with these insults to ensure the continuity of our tradition,” a fisherman says.

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