Tamil Nadu fishermen from Rameshwaram are killed by Sri Lankan Navy

Gujral and the Fishermen

Usha Ramanathan

TAMIL TRIBUNE, December 1997 (ID. 1997-12-01); Minor update September 2012
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Hindians: People whose mother tongue is Hindi (similar to Tamil speakers are sometimes referred as Tamilans or Tamilians).

The temple town of Rameswaram is the home of many fishing families. These are hard working families who have fished the local seas for generations. Just a few decades ago these fishermen went to the seas in small wooden sail boats; now they have diesel powered boats to go deeper into the seas, bring home a bigger catch and earn a decent living. Foul weather had been their nemesis for centuries - hurricanes, high winds and rough seas. Better weather reports and the powerboats have, to some extent, reduced the risk from the elements of nature. But now, for a decade or so, a dark Satan of death is stalking the fishermen of Rameswaram, in the form of Sri Lankan Navy. Scores of fishermen have been shot and killed by the Sri Lankan Navy during the last few years. Several others have been seriously injured. [See Reference 1 for the number of fishermen killed.] Both former chief minister Jaya Lalithaa and the current chief minister Karunanidhi have brought the matter to the attention of the Indian government and it had done nothing to stop the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen.

What did these fishermen do to become targets for the Sri Lankan navy? According to Sri Lanka, these fishermen had entered Sri Lankan waters. It is quite possible that some or all of these fishermen did cross into Sri Lankan waters by mistake. There are no boundary markers or walls to demarcate the Indian waters from Sri Lankan waters. In spite of navigational aids, fishermen do stray into Sri Lankan waters. There is no international norm or law that allows the Sri Lankan navy to shoot and kill straying Tamil Nadu fishermen. Do you think that the British navy would shoot and kill French fishermen if they were to enter British waters by mistake? Absolutely not. The British navy may warn them and turn them back. Similarly, if British fishermen were to stray into French waters, no French naval ship would shoot at them either. We are not aware of any country shooting and killing fishermen from a friendly neighbor straying into its waters.

We know that a war is going on between the Tamils and Sinhalas in Sri Lanka. This does not give permission for the Sri Lankan navy to shoot at Tamil Nadu fishermen. Neither Britain nor Germany shot at neutral Swiss ships during the Second World War.

This article is not about Sri Lanka's dastardly deeds against Tamil Nadu fishermen but about Indian government's callous disregard for the lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen. As we mentioned earlier, scores of Tamil Nadu fishermen have been shot and killed by the Sri Lankan navy [Reference 1] and many more have been severely injured. Indian government had done nothing to protect them. Indian government spends over 250 million Rupees annually for patrolling the Tamil Nadu coast to prevent the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) boats entering Tamil Nadu. Where are all these Indian navy ships when the Sri Lankan navy is killing Tamil Nadu fishermen? There have been numerous attacks on our fishermen, never once had the Indian navy come to protect the Tamil Nadu fishermen. Is it because their orders were just to pursue LTTE boats entering Indian waters and not to be concerned with protecting Tamil Nadu fishermen from the Sri Lankan navy?

Instead of protecting the fishermen, in June of 1997 the Indian Coastal Patrol commander warned that Tamil Nadu fishermen straying into Sri Lankan waters would have their fishing license revoked. This is like revoking one's driver's license if he (or she) enters a wrong street by mistake. On the one side is the Sri Lankan Navy shooting and killing them, on the other side is the Indian Coastal Patrol threatening to revoke their fishing license. 

With the continued killings and the Indian government's step-motherly indifference, matters warmed up in August 1997. Tamil Nadu Meenavar Peravai (Tamil Nadu Fishermen's Association) planned a protest sail to Kachchativu island (similar to a protest march) on August 15, 1997. Chief Minister Karunanidhi met with Association representatives about a week before this protest date and induced them to cancel the protest sail by a combination of financial grants and promises. He announced that Tamil Nadu government would grant one hundred thousand rupees to the family of each fisherman killed by the Sri Lankan navy. He also made concessions relating to diesel supply (remember, fishermen's boats are fueled by diesel). Furthermore, he promised that he would take effective action to stop the killings.

Chief Minister Karunanidhi might have asked the Indian Prime Minister I. K. Gujral in the strongest terms to put an end to the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy. Gujral's public response came two days after Karunanidhi made promises to the fishermen. On August 14, 1997, Gujral made a public statement that it was not clear whether it was the Sri Lankan navy or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was shooting and killing the fishermen. It is an outrageous statement and shows the callous attitude of the Indian Prime Minister towards to lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen. [see Reference 2]

There is absolutely no doubt that the Sri Lankan navy was killing the Tamil Nadu fishermen. Never once had the fishermen who were injured in these killings and lived tell about it say that they were shot at by LTTE boats. Sri Lankan navy ships are distinct and different from the powerboats used by LTTE to go between Sri Lanka and India. Tamil Nadu fishermen are not fools.

Things got stranger yet! Just 20 days after Gujral's statement, "LTTE" kidnapped some Tamil Nadu fishermen and sent a few back to Tamil Nadu with a ransom demand that the remaining will be released in exchange for diesel. This is definitely a drama staged by the Sri Lankan government to blame the LTTE. Look at the facts. Never before had the LTTE kidnap any Tamil Nadu fishermen and demand a ransom. In all previous incidents, the fishermen were shot at (or in a few cases arrested and held in Sri Lankan jails); there were no ransom demands. The reason why the Tamil Nadu fishermen were kidnapped for ransom this time is clear. Kidnap them, tell them that they are being kidnapped by LTTE, and send a few back so that they will tell the Tamil Nadu government and people that LTTE kidnapped them. It would then become a point of record that LTTE is kidnapping Tamil Nadu fishermen. Then the Sri Lankan navy could continue to shoot and kill Tamil Nadu fishermen and blame the LTTE; it will take the pressure off the Indian government to take action against the Sri Lankan navy.

We are not sure if the Indian government asked Sri Lanka to stage this drama in order to buttress Gujral's August 14-th statement that LTTE could be behind the killings, or if the Sri Lankan government saw in Gujral's statement an opportunity to blame the LTTE and acted on it. It is very easy for the Sri Lankan government to stage this drama. It is well known that some former Tamil guerrilla groups are collaborating with the Sri Lankan army for some years now. Ask them to go to the sea, kidnap a few Tamil Nadu fishermen, identify themselves as LTTE, and then send some of the fishermen back with a ransom demand. Easily done. The fact that such kidnappings of Tamil Nadu fishermen for ransom never happened before, that this incidence happened soon after Indian Prime Minister Gujral's statement, and that the incidence was staged such a way that some of the kidnapped fishermen would be back to tell Tamil Nadu that LTTE kidnapped them, are all clear indications that the Sri Lankan government staged the whole thing.

Let us get back to Indian government's response to the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy. All that would take for the Indian government to put an end to the killings is for the Indian government to warn the Sri Lankan navy that if it shoots at Tamil Nadu fishermen again, Indian navy would attack them in retaliation. Sri Lankan navy is no match to the well- equipped, modern Indian navy. All that would take is one warning from the Indian government. But the Indian government never warned Sri Lanka.

Why? India is more interested in becoming a regional superpower than in protecting the lives of its Tamil citizens. Under its geo-political considerations, India does not want to offend Sri Lanka. It wants a friendly and preferably subservient neighbor in the south. If some Tamil Nadu fishermen are killed, so be it. After all, these are only Tamils. The situation would have been different if Hindi-speaking fishermen were to be killed by a neighboring country. Let us face it. The Indian government belongs to Hindi speaking people. Anyone else is expendable, particularly those in the south. If Hindi fishermen were killed by a neighboring country, there would have been a totally different scenario. Indian Prime Minister would have immediately issued a stern warning to the offender. Indian navy would have been immediately launched to protect the Hindi fishermen. Let us face it. This is Hindian country. All others are second- class citizens; their life and liberty are cheap [Reference 3].

So Tamil Nadu fishermen better learn to live with the political realities. They are not going to get any protection from the Indian government. Fish in the deep seas (it is their right) and risk life to the Sri Lankan naval guns or stay home and do some other work. But these are traditional fishing families; they are fishing in these seas for generations. No other job with a decent income is available to them. Then, fish in the deep seas (it is their right) and risk life to Sri Lankan naval guns or fish closer to the shores. Fishing closer to the shores would mean a much smaller catch, and less income; their women and children would go to bed on half-empty stomachs. But this is the fate of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Death or half starvation. It is unfortunate that they were born as Tamils in India. They cannot get any support from the Indian government. They cannot expect any protection from the Indian navy. The only government that cares about them is the Tamil Nadu state government. What can it do? It does not have a navy to protect its fishermen. It is the unfortunate and sad fact of life for the Tamil Nadu fishermen in India. Face death at the Sri Lankan naval guns or see your wife and children go to bed hungry.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The name "Rameswaram" is also sometimes spelled as Rameshwaram, Ramesvaram or Rameshvaram. They all refer to the same temple town in Tamil Nadu.


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

2. Who is Killing Tamil Nadu Fishermen and Where? (Sri Lanka and India) (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, May 2012 (16 KB)

3. India, Sri Lankan Navy and Tamil Nadu Fishermen: Is Tamil Blood Cheap in the Eyes of Indian Government? (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, April 2007 (6 KB)


Collection of Articles Killings of Tamil Nadu Fishermen in the Sea (by Usha Ramanathan)

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