The Indian government said it was “shocked” and had conveyed "strong protest" with the Sri Lankan government after four fishermen from Tamil Nadu were killed last week, amidst reports of a collision with a Sri Lankan navy craft and claims that they were "tortured to death".
The bodies of the four fishermen, three Indian nationals and an Eelam Tamil refugee, were handed over to the Indian coast guard after being recovered from the wreckage. The killing has sparked protests and outrage across Tamil Nadu, with locals claiming that the men may have been tortured before being killed.
In a statement, the Ministry to External Affairs (MEA) highlighted that a "strong demarche was also made to the Sri Lankan Acting High Commissioner in New Delhi". "Expressing our deep anguish at the loss of lives, we emphasised the need to deal with issues pertaining to fishermen in a humanitarian manner. Existing understandings between the two Governments in that regard must be strictly observed. Utmost efforts should be made to ensure that there is no recurrence," the statement added.
The Sri Lankan navy, however, denied responsibility for the deaths and instead blamed Tamil Nadu fishermen, with a report on its official website claiming “it is quite evident that Indian fishing trawlers poaching in Sri Lankan waters are making aggressive manoeuvres resisting their arrest by SLN units time and again”.
The fishermen were identified as A Mesiya (30) of Thangachimadam, V Nagaraj (52) of Vattanvalasai, S Senthil Kumar (32) of Thaathanenthal and N Samson Darwin (28) of the refugee camp at Mandapam. They had drowned at sea with their boats about 8 kilometres from Neduntheevu (Delft Island) as the Sri Lankan navy attempted to apprehend them based on allegations that they were crossing the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka. After going missing on Monday, two of the bodies were recovered on Wednesday in Kankesanthurai and the other two were found the following day.
The fishermen who were killed last week. Photograph courtesy of JDS.
The incident has caused outrage across Tamil Nadu and forced the Indian Central government to lodge their protest just days after news initially broke.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami called on Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to launch "an appropriate inquiry" into the killings,The Hindu reported. Palaniswami also granted Rs 10 lakhs as compensation to the bereaved families.
Tamil Nadu Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar said, “the Sri Lankan navy has committed a mistake”. Calling for an independent committee to be established, the minister added, “We will gain trust in the committee only when those who are guilty are punished”.
Meanwhile, thousands joined a protest in Rameswaram, condemning the Sri Lankan armed forces.
“The pictures of the bodies (recovered in the Palk Strait on Wednesday) of fishermen bear many injuries and deep cuts. Blood clots and stains could be seen. There would not be blood clots if they had drowned,” claimed U. Arulanandam, Tamil Nadu representative of Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF). He went on to tell The Hindu that the men may have been tortured and called for Indian authorities to conduct their own independent post-mortem.
“If the fishermen were found crossing the international maritime boundary, they should have been arrested,” he said. “But, they were tortured to death.”
Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) leader Seeman said the killing was an “insult” and called for the Sri Lankan soldiers responsible to be extradited to India for trial. He called for the cutting of diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka, charging that Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister were both war criminals.
DMK president M.K. Stalin meanwhile called for the Indian prime minister to directly address the issue, whilst claiming that “the Sri Lankan government was not respecting India or its government”.
"Four fishermen from Tamil Nadu have been attacked and killed by the Sri Lankan Navy,” added DMK MP Kanimozhi. “It continues to attack and damage the boats. The Prime Minister must find a permanent solution to this. The two countries should arrange for fishermen talks.”
Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) chief Vaiko announced that a protest will be held in Chennai on Monday, stating that at least 800 Tamil Nadu fishermen had been killed by the Sri Lankan navy over the last 35 years.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson M A Sumanthiran said that his party “will never accept the killing of the fishermen and we demand proper investigation into the incident by the Navy in bringing out the truth”. “Also, the death of a person from Jaffna who escaped to India to save his life in his native country and work with the local fishermen for his livelihood reflects the plight of our people,” Sumanthiran added.
This is the latest incident in a series of attacks against Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy.
Attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen have continued despite pledges from Indian prime minister and Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to "continue engagement to address issues related to fishermen through regular consultation and bilateral channels" at a virtual summit in September 2020.
In December 2020, the Sri Lankan navy arrested several Tamil Nadu fishermen and seized their boats following charges of fishing across the border. They were released earlier this week following negotiations between India and Sri Lanka.