Not Loving Thy Neighbour:
Indian Fishermen Protest Sri Lankan Killing, Boycott Island Party
Every year, a festival on Kachchativu island draws thousands of Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen, keen to put differences aside. But this year the Indians did not come.
The island of Kachchativu, located between the Sri Lankan and Indian coasts, has a chequered history. The two countries have a long running dispute over who actually owns the small island, which is closer to Indian islands but within Sri Lanka’s maritime border.
Yet somehow the uninhabited 1.15 square kilometre island, which is mostly used by local fishermen to store gear and to seek shelter in case of bad weather, has become the unlikely site for an annual event focused on reconciliation.
The South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies asked members to stay home in protest, over the alleged shooting of a fisherman.
The cause of the reunion is the annual feast of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of anglers. There is a shrine to the saint on Kachchativu and during an annual feast in his honour, held in February or March each year, thousands of fishermen from both Sri Lanka and India meet on the island, symbolizing co-existence between the island nation and its far larger neighbour.
However this year would be different. Several Tamil Nadu fishermen have allegedly been shot by the Sri Lankan navy and even though thousands of Indian fishermen were expected, hardly any attended in 2017, for the first time in years.
The festival had been organized slightly differently because a new church had been built on the island by the Sri Lankan navy, in response to the ever increasing numbers coming to the Kachchativu shrine. And in this case the Sri Lankan navy was also the main organizer of the festival.
The navy was told there would be around 5,000 Indian fishermen and their families coming to the island. The navy had prepared lodging, food and other facilities. But none of the Indians turned up.
Apparently the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies asked their members to stay home in protest, over the alleged shooting of a Tamil Nadu fisherman by the Sri Lankan navy and the imprisonment of many more southern Indian fishermen and the impounding of their boats. The Sri Lankan navy has denied any wrongdoing.
“We have no need to shoot Indian fishermen,” the navy’s commander, Vice Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, who attended the festival, said. “If they are found inside our maritime boundaries, then we take legal action. No shooting will take place.”
Many of the Sri Lankans who made it to the festive mass were upset about the lack of their Indian brethren.
“Every time I came here, there were a lot of Indians,” says Sri Lankan local, Mercy Ferdinand. “This time they didn’t come. They must be feeling so sad because usually they come and make vows to St. Anthony. They lost that opportunity this year,” she notes.
Ferdinand says this is upsetting because many of those who meet annually on Kachchativu rekindle long-standing friendships.
“I am not sure why there are no Indians here this year,” says local man, Sylvester Tyrone, who travelled with great difficulty, with a group of around 200 from Waliweriya in Sri Lanka to get to the festival. “If the countries were more united, then we wouldn’t have this problem.”
The Sri Lankan navy helped Nilujan, a resident of nearby Delft Island, get to the festival. “I have been coming to this festival for the past six years,” Nilujan told The Catamaran. “On previous occasions, there were a lot more Indians here. But this time they don’t seem to be here – it would have been good if they had come,” he noted.
Nonetheless, despite the conflict and those who were protesting with their absence, the atmosphere at the festival remained upbeat. Attendees did not express any anger or hatred towards those who stayed away and it seems sure that next year, participants from both countries will be there.
As another Sri Lankan visitor said: “St. Anthony is a miracle. I ask him to grant everyone a comfortable life and wipe away all their tears.”