Till 1983, there was total peace and tranquility across the Palk Bay. All that after a bloody ethnic war broke out in Sri Lanka. The Lankan navy opened fire at Indian fishermen for the first time on August 13, 1983, injuring five fishermen. Over a year later, on December 10, 1984, fisherman Muniyasamy of Uchapuli was shot dead by the Lankan navy.
By 1996, the Lankan navy began arresting Indian fishermen. For example, they allegedly abducted two fishermen, Shelton and Claston, of Thankatchimadam and held them in detention.
On November 13, 1996, the Lankan navy detained six Tamil Nadu fishermen. They continue to be incarcerated. According to U Arulanantham, president of Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF), the Lankan navy has so far arrested about 1,200 fishermen and destroyed 180 boats mid sea. Besides, over 450 fishermen have been killed in mid sea firing.
With Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa aggressively pursuing direct talks between fishermen on both sides, there appears to be a ray of hope, he says.
The first interaction between teams of fishermen of both countries happened on May 23, 2004, when a 22-member group comprising fishermen association leaders and NGO representatives from Tamil Nadu went to Sri Lanka to discuss the matter. The meeting discussed the marked differences between the fishing methods of Lankan and Indian fishermen and the possible solutions. The two NGOs - ARIF and National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (Lankan NGO) - set up the interaction. Prominent among those who participated from the other side included Royappan Joseph, Bishop of Mannar and Adaikalam, Lankan MP in Colombo. Among recommendations, the meeting urged Indian trawlers and boats to stay within three nautical miles of Sri Lankan waters. For various reasons, the recommendations could not be implemented.
The second meeting was held in Chennai on August 16, 2010, during which the Lankan side scaled up their demand and asked Indian trawls and boats to stay five nautical miles away from their shore.
When that meeting too drew a blank, a third round of talks was convened on March 22, 2011 at the fisheries department office located at Maligavathai near Colombo. AIRF president U Arulanantham led a seven-member from Tamil Nadu. Lankan Minister Douglas Devananda and Rajitha Sena Rathne, Viswanathan and Sunil Acharya from the Indian Embassy participated.
N J Bose, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Coastal Mechanised Boats Fishermen Association, welcomed Jayalalithaa’s latest move for dialogue, since problems can be solved if there is political will.
A few months ago, fishermen association leaders from TN had met Basil Rajapaksa, brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in New Delhi. He too had invited them for talks.
With political opinion building for a lasting solution, fishermen are keeping their fingers crossed. As Jesu of Thangatchimadam, a fishermen association leader, pointed out, fishermen have suffered enough. A recent verdict by a Paruthithurai court in Sri Lanka to confiscate five Indian boats has only added to their worries. Both sides want a win-win formula to resolve the problem.