Arrest of 27 Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan Navy pushes associations into indefinite strike

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has written to Union External Affairs Minister Jaishankar flagging the arrest of the fishermen and seeking the Centre's intervention.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Oct 16, 2023 | 11:02 PMUpdatedOct 16, 2023 | 11:03 PM

All the detained fishermen were sent to judicial custody by the Oorkavalthurai Magistrate till 27 October and were lodged in Jaffna prison. (Creative Commons)

Demanding the release of the 27 fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy, fishermen’s associations in Tamil Nadu began an indefinite strike on Sunday, 15 October.

The associations claimed that they would also take forward various protests until the fishermen were released.

More than 400 fishing trawlers from Rameswaram and 373 trawlers from the Mandapam fishing jetty ventured into the sea on the morning of Saturday.

According to reports, the Sri Lankan Navy intercepted these boats in the early hours of Sunday and chased off the fishermen.

Two units of the Navy detained five boats of fishermen — which continued fishing despite warnings — on charges of trespassing across the International Maritime Boundary and entering into Lankan waters.

27 Indian fishermen arrested 

According to the Lankan Navy, its patrol vessels — attached to the North Central Naval Command and deployed on their waters near Mannar — secured two Indian fishing trawlers and arrested 15 fishermen.

Patrol crafts attached to the Northern Naval Command were patrolling near Delft and Katchatheevu islands and warned three more trawlers to back away from their waters. As the order was ignored, the patrol unit seized the three trawlers along with 12 fishermen.

The island nation’s Navy reportedly arrested all 27 fishermen and took their five boats to the Talaimannar port and Kankesanturai port, and handed them over to the Talaimannar and Jaffna police, respectively, for further legal action.

All the detained fishermen were sent to judicial custody by the Oorkavalthurai magistrate till 27 October and were lodged in Jaffna prison.

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The detained fishermen

The Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department confirmed that out of five boats seized, one boat was from Mandapam and the remaining four belonged to Rameswaram fishermen.

The arrested fishermen have been identified as Mariya George (47), Murugan (31), Karthik (24), Reegan (37), Kaanan (30), Balu (50), Ramanathan (35), Guna Sekaran (45), Arul Doss (53), Sagaya Penkar (32), Robinson (19), Jerman Sethrock (22), Pepin Raj (44), Peristen (23), Mobin (21), Justin (43), Kechooriyan (30), Jeevansan (29), Preeman (33), Mithun (27), KilingDan (30), Binai Kash (19), and Snthiya Stuvart (26) — all hailing from the Thangachimadam village in Tamil Nadu.

Further, fishermen Paluswamy (68), Sakthivel (59), Vairamuthu (66), and Maria Washington (49), who were also arrested, are from Mandapam.

Following the arrest and seizure of the boats, the other fishermen returned to the Tamil Nadu shore without fishing.

The information about the arrest was passed on to the fishermen’s associations and state officials.

Indefinite strike announced 

Following the arrests, the fishermen’s associations held an emergency meeting on Sunday night to decide the next course of action.

In the meeting, the associations decided to go for an indefinite strike until the arrested were released.

They also decided to hold a “road roko” and warned that no vehicles would be allowed to pass into Rameswaram.

NJ Bose, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fishermen Welfare Association, demanded the intervention of the state government in the release of the fishermen.

Speaking to South First, R Sebastian, a local fishermen’s association leader, alleged that the Lankan Navy itself trespasses across the Maritime Boundary and often drives Indian fishermen away.

“They are not even allowing us to fish along the border, and the Indian Navy is not bothered about the presence of the Lankan patrol vessels in our waters,” he said.

He added, “Every time we venture into the sea, there is no assurance of returning. Earlier, the Lankan Navy used to fire at us. Now, they damage our boats and nets. Unless there is a permanent solution, there is no guarantee for our lives.”

Also read: Stalin urges PM to broach fishermen issue with visiting SL President

Stalin writes to Jaishankar

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has written to Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, flagging the arrest of the 27 fishermen. He sought the Union government’s intervention in ensuring their release.

The chief minister requested the Union minister to take immediate diplomatic steps to secure the release of 27 Tamil Nadu fishermen and their five fishing boats.

“As I have written to you earlier, these repeated instances of arrest and seizure have struck fear into the hearts of the fishing communities along our coastline,” Stalin stated.

The livelihoods of these fishermen, who are often the sole breadwinners for their families, are at stake, he said.

“The economic implications of such recurrent arrests are profound, as they lead to not only loss of income for the fishermen and their families, but also jeopardise the food security of countless individuals who depend on their catch,” added the chief minister in his letter.

Additionally, Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai also addressed a letter to Jaishankar on the same issue.

He shared a copy of the letter on X and said, “On behalf of @BJP4TamilNadu, we request the kind intervention of our Hon EAM Thiru @DrSJaishankar for early repatriation of the 27 arrested Tamil fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy.”

Find a permanent solution, urges CM

On 13 September, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 17 fishermen and seized their three boats. Following the intervention of the Union government, they were released by the Sri Lanka court on 27 September.

During the arrest period, Stalin requested the Union government to initiate a lasting diplomatic solution through bilateral negotiations to bring peace to the lives of thousands of Indian fishermen.

“The recurring incidents of Tamil Nadu fishermen being apprehended by the Sri Lankan Navy continue to aggravate the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among the fishermen in the region. These fishermen, who rely on fishing as their primary and sole source of livelihood, sometimes find themselves unintentionally drifting into Sri Lankan waters due to the absence of clear demarcation and navigational challenges. The apprehensions by the Sri Lankan Navy have escalated tensions, disrupted lives, and caused economic hardships to the fishermen and their families,” Stalin pointed out in a letter he wrote then.

In March 2022, during the bilateral talks between India and Sri Lanka led by Union Secretary for Fisheries Department Jatindra Nath Swain and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Fisheries Secretary RMI Rathnayake, the Indian government requested the Sri Lankan authorities to tackle the fisheries issue with a humanitarian approach, pointing out the relevant UN Convention on the Law of the Sea clauses are fishermen-friendly, in spirit and letter.

The Sri Lankan side raised its concerns about the methods used by fishing vessels and stressed that it was imperative for the two countries to work together in drawing up effective measures to mitigate the loss of livelihood.

Also read: TN fishermen attacked, robbed midsea near Point Calimere

450 fishermen arrested since 2022

Nearly 450 Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu have been arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy and nearly 100 Indian fishing boats have been seized between 2020 and 2023.

On 17 July 2023, while answering a question regarding the arrest of fishermen by the Lankan Navy in the Parliament (Rajya Sabha), V Muraleedharan, Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, said that 74 fishermen have been arrested this year and all were released.

He also said that India attached the highest priority to the safety, security, and welfare of Indian fishermen and the government had taken up the fishermen’s issues at the highest level, including by the prime minister in his meetings with his Sri Lankan counterparts.

He further stated that the Sri Lankan government has been requested to treat the fishermen’s issue as a humanitarian and livelihood concern, and it has been stressed that both sides should ensure that there is no use of force under any circumstances.