Tamilnadu fishermen, India and Sri Lankan Navy

Killings of Tamil Nadu Fishermen Continue with Impunity

Usha Ramanathan

TAMIL TRIBUNE, September 2004 (ID. 2004-09-01); Update September 2012
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Abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. What is Happening in Recent Years?

3. Diplomatic Protests and Warnings

3.1 "Expressing Concern" is not Enough
3.2 India's Clout over Sri Lanka
3.3 The "Wink and Nod" Drama
3.4 The Helicopter Incident 

4. Cut all Financial Aid to Sri Lanka

5. Cut all Military Assistance to Sri Lanka

6. Retaliate against the Sri Lankan Navy

7. Why India Refuses to Act Against Sri Lanka?

8. Grieving Parents, Weeping Wives and Sobbing Children

ABBREVIATIONS

AIADMK - All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagam

BJP - Bharatiya Janata Party

DMK - Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

1. Introduction

In December 1997 I published an article "Gujral and the Fishermen" about the Sri Lankan Navy shooting and killing Tamil Nadu fishermen in the seas [Reference 1]. Some or most of the killings were in Sri Lankan waters when the fishermen strayed into it or deliberately went into it for fishing. Some were definitely in our waters because they were closer to Tamil Nadu coast. Even when Tamil Nadu fishermen were in Sri Lankan waters, Sri Lankan Navy has no right to shoot at them. This aspect is discussed in Reference 1.

Over six years have passed since I published the article "Gujral and the Fishermen". What has happened since then in the ensuing six years? Killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen continue and, as before, Indian Government had done nothing to stop the killings of "its citizens", the Tamil Nadu fishermen.

2. What is Happening in Recent Years?

What has happened from the time of my article "Gujral and the Fishermen" (December 1997) to now (August 2004)? Governments have changed in India, Prime Ministers have come and gone but one thing remains the same. Scores of Tami Nadu fishermen have been killed. No action against Sri Lanka for killing Tamil Nadu fishermen. 

Four different coalition governments have come to power in India; the United Front coalition government, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition governments (BJP formed two coalition governments with different sets of partners) and the current Congress led coalition government. None of these governments have taken any effective steps to stop the killings. There have been three different Prime Ministers--I. K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh. None of them have done anything effective to stop the killings.

Both the present Tamil Nadu State Chief Minister Jayalalthaa Jeyaram (of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagam (AIADMK)) and former chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi (of Dravida Munnetra Kazagam (DMK)) have written to the Prime Ministers of India to stop the killings of the fishermen. More than a dozen letters have been thus written, and always a promise that action would be taken but no effective action is yet to be taken. One of the strongest assurances came in the year 2000. In response to a letter from the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on November 28, pleading to stop the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy, the then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition government sent a letter dated December 22, assuring him that that the Indian Government would take steps to stop the killings. But on January 29, 2001 (just over five weeks from the Prime Minister's assurance) the Sri Lankan Navy killed two more fishermen. India did nothing to stop the continued killings. Mr. Vajpayee held the office of Prime Minister for another three years and there were more shootings and killings. Is an Indian Prime Minister's assurance worth anything?

The latest killing was just a few weeks ago on August 9, 2004 (now a Congress-led coalition government under Dr. Manmohan Singh is in power in India). Mr. C. Ramu of Murungaivadi Village was the victim. He was 40 years of age, married to Mrs. Muthulakshmi and had four children. Is the Indian Government totally impotent to protect Tamil Nadu fishermen from the tiny Sri Lankan Navy? No. India has many means at its disposal to end the killings but it simply does not want to act. There are diplomatic, economic and military means that could have been effectively used.

3. Diplomatic Protests and Warnings

3.1 "Expressing Concern" is not Enough

Since Sri Lanka is a "friendly" neighbor, the proper thing for India to do after the first killing over a decade ago was to protest the killings and ask the Sri Lankan Government to stop it. If killings continued, as it did, then a warning that Indian Navy would retaliate would have been issued. Even if it did not work, after, say, 4 or 5 such incidents, Indian Navy should fire at Sri Lankan Navy ships. Even after over 100 separate incidents of shootings and many killed and many more injured, it had done anything of this nature. Indeed India is yet to issue even a warning. The most India had done as of now is to "express its concern" over the deaths to the Sri Lankan Government. We can understand expressing concern after the first death, second death, may be even the third death, but even after over at least 70 deaths all that is done is expressing concern; that means India considers Sri Lanka's friendship is worth more than 70 Tamil Nadu fishermen's lives. [Number of killings is discussed in Reference 2)

3.2 India's Clout over Sri Lanka

India has considerable clout over Sri Lanka. If the mighty and large neighbor India sneezes, tiny Sri Lanka trembles. There will be no more killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen if India sternly tells Sri Lanka to stop it. Here is an example of the clout India has over Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Government negotiated an "Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA)" with the United States of America in May 2002. This agreement would allow United States military to utilize Sri Lanka's ports, airports and air space for transit. In return Sri Lanka would receive financial and military assistance from America. It was expected that the agreement would be signed during Sri Lankan Prime Minister's visit to America in July 2002. It did not happen because, according to news reports in both Sri Lankan and Indian papers, India expressed to Sri Lanka its "displeasure" about the agreement. India does not want any American military presence, even a transit arrangement, in Sri Lanka. Now it is August 2004. The agreement is yet to be signed because India did not want Sri Lanka to go through with the agreement. If Sri Lanka would abide by India's wishes in its dealings with United States of America, Sri Lanka would surely stop the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen if India wants it to stop the killings.

3.3 The "Wink and Nod" Drama

Soon after a shooting incident in which Tamilnadu fishermen are killed by Sri Lankan Navy, Tamil fishermen groups would make noise and demand action. (What else can these poor people without much political clout do?). Dutifully the Tamil Nadu State Chief Minister would write to the Indian Prime Minister pleading with him to take the necessary action to stop the killings. (What else can he/she do? He/she does not have a Tamil Nadu Navy under his/her control to protect the fishermen? Command and control of the Indian Navy lies with the Indian Prime Minister.) On receiving the Chief Minister's letter the Indian Government would express its concern to the Sri Lankan Government. Sri Lankan Government would say that it would do its best not to shoot at the fishermen. This is all done with a wink and a nod. Sri Lanka knows that India is not serious about it. Why would anyone think that India is serious if all that India does is to express concern even after over 100 deaths, especially as India is continuing to provide economic assistance to Sri Lanka and continuing with its training of Sri Lankan Navy cadets and officers? India's expression of concern and Sri Lanka's reply are all a "drama" to pacify Tamil Nadu politicians. Nothing more.

3.4 The Helicopter Incident

Here is an example of how this "wink and nod" drama is carried out. In 1998 Sri Lankan military helicopters shot and killed a Tamil Nadu fisherman in the sea. After protests from Tamil Nadu about the continued killing of fishermen, Indian Government expressed its concern to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka told India that no such helicopter attack took place because their military logs did not indicate any such attacks. So India said that it was satisfied with the reply. India did not conduct any independent investigation. India simply believed the Sri Lankan military and disbelieved Tamil Nadu fishermen. (Only India and Sri Lanka have helicopter gun-ships in that region.) If police charges someone with murder and he says that he did not do it because his diary has no entry of the murder, will police consider him innocent just on that basis? In August 1999 Bangladesh soldiers shot and injured three Indian farmers across the border. Indian Border Security Force rushed to the area and fired at Bangladesh soldiers in retaliation. Did India enquire if the Bangladesh Army logs have entries of the attack? No, it took the word of the farmers and retaliated so that such shootings would not occur again. 

In summary, even after over 100 killings, India has not warned Sri Lanka. All it has done is express concern. As we said before, "expressing concern" is appropriate after the first killing, second killing, may be even the third killing. The fourth time a warning should have been issued and after that action should have been taken. What type of actions India could have taken? Actions India could have taken but did not take are discussed in Sections 4, 5 and 6.

4. Cut all Financial Aid to Sri Lanka

As a protest to the killings, India could cut all economic aid to Sri Lanka. Even as the Sri Lankan Navy was killing Tamil Nadu fishermen, India has given well over 100 million U.S. dollars in "soft loans" to Sri Lanka. [100 million U.S. dollars is approximately 400 crore Indian Rupees at the current foreign exchange rate.] "Soft loans" mean loans at low interest rate (lower than the normal interest rate countries pay when they borrow money). In essence, Indian taxpayers, including Tamil people, are subsidizing Sri Lanka even as the Sri Lankan Navy is killing its citizens. [Tamil Nadu State Government as well as many other state governments are paying a much higher interest rate than the Sri Lankan Government when they borrow money]. Some of these subsidized loans are used by the Sri Lankan Government to build barracks and buy food for the Sri Lankan military. India is subsidizing the housing and feeding of a military that is killing Tamil Nadu fishermen.

5. Cut all Military Assistance to Sri Lanka

Another option is for India to cut all military assistance to Sri Lanka. India's military assistance is not publicized but that does not mean that it does not exist. Even as the Sri Lankan Navy is killing Tamil Nadu fishermen, Sri Lankan Navy officers are trained at Indian naval bases. Many of them are trained at the Naval Training Command in Kochi (Cochin), Kerala, South India. Some of them go on to work in the very same Sri Lankan Navy ships that kill Tamil Nadu fishermen.

India also sells military equipment to the Sri Lankan Navy, some of which might have been used in the attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen. Indian Government keeps these sales a secret. In August 1999 a secret meeting between Sri Lankan and Indian military officials was held in New Delhi to discuss sale of military equipment to Sri Lanka. This was a very high level meeting; the Indian team was headed by Indian Defence Secretary T.R. Prasad and the Sri Lankan team was headed by its Defense Secretary Chandrananda de Silva. Sri Lankan team included Sri Lankan Navy Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri. India did not want Tamil Nadu to know of the sale of equipment to Sri Lankan Navy even as it was killing Tamil Nadu fishermen. When a newsmagazine reported this secret meeting, Indian Government was furious.

What was discussed at the meeting with the top Sri Lankan Navy officials? According to the news report, they discussed the sale of military hardware to Sri Lanka. They discussed Indian Navy's help to Sri Lanka in patrolling the Sri Lankan coast. The newsmagazine did not mention anything about discussing the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Obviously India did not consider the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen serious enough to discuss with the top brass of Sri Lankan military. By then, Sri Lankan Navy had killed well over 100 fishermen and, in fact, just a month before, in July 1999, Sri Lankan Navy had killed Tamil Nadu fishermen. Would it not be a good time to put some pressure on Sri Lanka to end the killing of our fishermen? No such thing happened. In the ensuing months, even as the Indian Government was delivering equipment to the Sri Lankan Navy, Sri Lankan Navy was shooting and killing Tamil Nadu fishermen.

At that meeting India sold over 20 million U.S. dollars worth of military equipment to Sri Lanka. (20 million U.S. dollars is approximately 80 crore Indian Rupees at current exchange rate.) What did the Indian Government sell to the Sri Lankan Navy? Top on the list was an offshore patrol vessel (OPV) "INS Shardae", built at Hindustan Shipyard Limited, Vishakhapatanam, Andhra Pradesh, South India. India was selling patrol vessels to Sri Lanka even as Lanka's other patrol vessels were killing our fishermen. An Indian official said that the military equipment sale was ``beneficial for the Indian Government financially and marked a quantum jump in the growth of the defence industry in India." India was more interested in the 80 crore Rupees than the lives of over 100 Tamil Nadu fishermen. India was more interested in the growth of  its defense industry than the lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen. What is the purpose of the defense industry? To defend the lives and properties of its citizens. Does the Aryan-Hindi dominated Indian Government consider the Dravidian-Tamil fishermen citizens of the country or mere chattels whose lives do not matter?

6. Retaliate against the Sri Lankan Navy

We have discussed so far two ways India could stop the killings if diplomatic protests and warning did not yield results, namely, cutting off economic aid and stopping military assistance. India did neither. There is yet another option that would end the killings. Warn Sri Lanka that if any more fishermen are killed, Indian Navy would shoot at Sri Lankan Naval ships in the area. Sri Lanka's tiny navy is no match for India. There is a large fleet of Indian Navy ships in the area of the killings (between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu coast). At present (Year 2004) Indian Navy has more ships in this area than anywhere else except for Mumbai (Bombay). Never once had these ships retaliated against Sri Lankan Navy ships for the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen. 

India knows how to react swiftly and decidedly with "offending" neighbors when it wants to. Here is an example that we mentioned in Section 3. On August 22, 1999, some Bangladesh soldiers fired on Indian farmers near the Indo-Bangladesh border. Three farmers were injured. India's Border Security Force rushed to the area and fired at Bangladesh soldiers in retaliation. Additional contingents of Border Security Force were also sent to the area for reinforcement. Bangladesh is also a "friendly" neighbor like Sri Lanka. But compare that with what India is doing with the Sri Lankan Navy? Killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen are going on for years and over 100 fishermen were killed and many more injured. Indian Navy has not fired a single shot, even a warning shot across the bow, at Sri Lankan Navy ships. Does not our fishermen deserve protection? After all, Tamil people pay for over 10% of India's military expenses. When we pay for the Indian military we expect protection for our people.

7. Why India Refuses to Act Against Sri Lanka?

Indian Government simply does not care about the killings Tamil fishermen. Sri Lankan co-operation in foreign and military affairs mean more to India than Tamil Nadu fishermen's lives. India is willing to sacrifice Tamil blood so that Sri Lanka would not provide diplomatic support or transit facilities to its enemies (for example, Pakistan, China). That is more vital to the security of the northern Hindi belt region. Tamil Nadu fishermen's lives are acceptable price to pay for the security of the northern Hindi belt region.

In her address to the National Development Council on October 22, 2011, Tamil Nadu State Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said, “Even attacks on fishermen belonging to Tamil Nadu in the Palk Bay by Sri Lanka are not looked upon as acts of aggression against India. This issue is merely looked upon as a minor problem concerning Tamil Nadu alone. The Centre seems to think that the lives of fishermen belonging to Tamil Nadu are worthless and do not call for any potent action.”

8. Grieving Parents, Weeping Wives and Sobbing Children

To the Hindi dominated Indian Government lives of Tamil fishermen may mean nothing (see Section 7 above). Even according to the Indian government, 77 Tamil Nadu fishermen have killed between 1991 and mid April 2007 [Reference 2]. 77 is not just a number. Each one represents a human being. How many mothers lost their sons and are weeping? How many wives lost their husbands and face an empty life for years to come? How many children lost their fathers? How many babies lost their fathers and would never have the opportunity to know the love of a father? Never to run into the loving arms of the father returning from sea. Never to be held in the loving arms the way only a father can hold. Never to walk the seashore in the summer breeze, holding father's strong hands and chit chatting. How many families were ruined? How many lives were ruined? Old parents, young wives, little children. Tamil people have no power to act. Only the Indian Government has the power to act and protect our fishermen and their families. But the Hindi dominated Indian Government refuses to act.

[NOTE: The name "Katchateevu" is sometimes spelled as Katchatheevu, Katchativu or Katchathivu. They all denote the same island.]

REFERENCES

1. Gujral and the Fishermen (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, December 1997.

2. How Many Indian Tamilnadu Fishermen did Sri Lankan Navy Kill? (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, June 2009 (6 KB)

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