Across watery borders,a feast and a reunionhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/latest-news/across-watery-borders-a-feast-and-a-reunion/

Across watery borders,a feast and a reunion

An islet between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Straits,and traces its complex past

Way back in 1983,it was here on the islet that Julius met his grandmother for the first time. It was the only time the two met,she died the next year. Years later,as he drove his boat to Katchatheevu,ostensibly to take part in the St Anthony’s feast on this controversial islet,the experience is not just devotional,but deeply personal as well.

Lying between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Straits,the islet of Katchatheevu and the waters nearby have been in news quite often in the past few decades,almost always connected to Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu being fired upon by the Sri Lankan navy. But this time,the only fire that emanated from here was from the candles lit by devotees,mostly Tamil fishermen from both sides of the Straits,paying obeisance to Saint Anthony,the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.

The shrine of St Anthony,Anthoniyar for the locals,is near the shore on the eastern side of the 285-acre piece of land,but who built it isn’t clear—one version credits Seenikuppa Padayachi,a fisherman from Ramanathapuram,for having built the church around 1905,while another says it was built about 70 years ago by one Kuppu—perhaps the same person—as a mark of gratitude for having saved him from drowning. Till about four decades ago,it was a small thatched structure,before it was spruced up a little with a pucca roof and an ever so slight improvement in size. Situated almost equidistant from both Tamil Nadu and the northern part of Lanka where there is a large Tamil concentration,the island and the feast became an annual meeting point for people from both sides.

Like Julius or M Sengol Fernando,now 42,who has been here about 10 times before this year,the last time in 1984. With his parents settled in Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and grandparents in Tuticorin (Tamil Nadu),this was the nearest common ground for Julius to meet his relatives. It was inexpensive,too,and without much restrictions.

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“Attending the feast was only part of the reason for coming here. Equally important was the opportunity to meet relatives from across the waters without having to go through the procedures of obtaining visa. We would carry gifts for our kin and cook and sleep in one group,” he says. It was a time to catch up,share joys and sorrows and return to their respective homes with a broken heart but always with a promise to return.

In simpler times,before the civil conflict in Sri Lanka,people would discuss the trip with their kin on the other side and carry gifts like palm jaggery and cotton cloth for them. Even those who did not have any relatives would bring some stuff to barter with what they wanted from across the sea.

The conflict between the Tamil Tigers and other rebels and the government of Sri Lanka gradually changed the situation on the ground. So did the ceding of the islet to Sri Lanka by Indira Gandhi’s government in 1974,largely viewed as a political concession that is still being questioned by various political outfits.

In 1983,when the conflict escalated,the rights guaranteed to the Indian fishermen under the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1974 was suspended. The war also drove many like Julius out of the comfort of their homes to the safety of refugee camps in the Indian mainland,largely putting an end to the annual feast. There were still visitors to the islet around the time of the festival,but only the ones who were willing to brave the bullets and an almost certain death in midsea. There were some attempts to restart the festival,like in 2002 when the Sri Lankan government was holding peace talks with the rebels. But the strife worsened,and anyone who went to the vicinity of the islet put their lives at serious risk.

Then came the military decimation of the Tigers in 2009. The next year,the pilgrimage was restarted due to the initiative taken by the clergy on either sides of the water.

This was the third year in succession that the feast was being organised at St Anthony’s church. As the last two years went without any incident,the interest is steadily growing,which was clear from the number of persons who went on the trip this year. The majority of the people were from India,as it is not easy for those from Lanka to make the trip. Lankans wanting the make the journey are screened thoroughly before being cleared: neither those from the conflict-affected areas of Lanka nor those residing at the refugee camps in India were given permission.

Right from early morning on Saturday,March 3,groups of people started arriving at the fishing harbour in Rameshwaram,carrying food,water and cloth. Carrying photo ID passes,there were women and children,but in very small numbers compared to the men,and innumerable number of personnel from the local police,Customs,Q Branch and Special Branch of the State Police. Each passenger was given a life-jacket,a declaration form to list their belongings,and a stern warning not to indulge in malpractices.

With the sun beating down on them,the passengers grew restless as multiple agencies verified their ID cards,asked questions about age,occupation and purpose of visit. The few who entered into an argument with the officials realised it only increased their waiting time. It took nearly five hours for the passengers in our boat to set off for the islet that lies about 11 nautical miles away from the Rameshwaram coast.

Boat number 870,owned and operated by Pani Adimai with his kin as crew,was one of the early ones among the 110 boats to start the journey,leaving behind the dirty,dark water near the fishing harbour and crossing the deep blue sea to reach the emerald green shores of Katchatheevu. There were 33 on board,a number that the crew kept repeating to officials atop Navy,Coast Guard and Marine Police vessels,who stopped the boat every once in a while. Pani Adimai,loosely translated as bonded to labour,is irritated by the repeated stoppages.

He had been to Katchatheevu several years ago as a young boy when there was no danger. “But this is the first time I am taking part in the feast,” he says. So is his cousin Arogya Augustine Satler,a talkative 32-year-old who is second to Adimai on the boat. Aided by the calm sea,it took less than two hours to traverse the distance.

There were a few Lankan navy ships and several gunboats just outside the shallow waters that surrounded Katchatheevu. Personnel wearing navy,army and civilian police colours populated the reception area. The navy personnel conducted a formal checking of bags,issued food tokens and guided people to the church. They were young and receptive,but this failed to please a few of the ardent Tamils in our group,unwilling to forgive the bloody end of the war that killed thousands just three years ago. They refused to collect tokens for free food or the bottle of water or even the medicines provided at the free dispensaries run by the Lankan forces during the festival.

It was a like a festival of the refugees. With resources on the islet limited,people stuck together in groups. We met Nishanthan,a young Jaffna Tamil who delighted us with his detailed narration of his almost daring love story. As a group on the beach sat listening to him,it was easy to see the inherent affinity the people from either side of the Strait had for each other.

But such bonds also lead to bickering. Like when fishermen from both sides met on the shores of the islet near midnight on Saturday. The Lankans blamed fishermen from Tamil Nadu for using fishing nets that are banned,which they said were destroying marine life. Those from the mainland sought time to address the issue. Playing the role of a mediator in this dialogue was Sri Lankan minister Douglas Devananda,a Tamil who is part of the Mahinda Rajapakse government.

It ended when Sippu Jesu from Pamban,one of the senior members among the Indian fishermen,said they were there to take part in the church feast and did not have enough representation to take an important decision.

“We will never forget the help they rendered to us in the time of need in the past. We just want them to change,” said Thavarathinam,a senior leader of the fishermen from Sri Lanka after the meeting.

When Sri Lanka was caught in war,the situation was different. The fishermen there were not permitted to go beyond one km of their shores,while those from Tamil Nadu,forced by the depletion of resources in their region,ventured into Lankan waters to catch fish. Now that the war is over,the two groups are fighting over common resources.

“It is not just the Lankans who are complaining about our fishermen using banned nets. Even those from Tamil Nadu have been complaining but no action has been taken so far. Of the 750 plus boats in Rameshwaram,there are a group of rich and influential boat owners who do this. This has greatly affected the catch near our coast,and that is why our fishermen are now forced to venture into Lankan waters,” says M Karunamoorthy,a local leader of the fishing workers’ union from Rameshwaram who has filed petitions in the Madras High Court against the practice.

It was way past midnight when the meeting was over and people settled down. The beach was crowded with sleeping people watched over by Lankan navy personnel.

The makeshift market on the islet was active even before day break,selling local favourite Rani Soap—Rs 100 for six bars—and a brand of coconut oil popular among Tamils in Sri Lanka. Like any village carnival,there were vendors selling plates,spoons,inexpensive jewellery and knick-knacks,fruits and tea stalls,and even a tattoo parlour. Nobody ventured into the tent marked Bank of Ceylon currency exchange—the people’s market had already fixed the rates: Indian rupee was worth double of what Lankan money could buy.

In the morning,like the previous night,the Lankan personnel distributed food packets,water bottle,chocolate milk packets,bananas and biscuits for free. It even had a sticker in Tamil that read “From Sri Lankan Navy,with Love”. Some scorned at it,few were angry,and many were delighted.

The morning mass began early and was seemingly long for the uninterested,but still got over before 9 in the morning. The people said goodbyes and promised to keep in touch,and then began the scramble to reach the shores from where Navy gunboats ferried passengers to their boats that anchored in the deeper sea at a distance.

Looking at this tiny piece of forbidden but beautiful land in the midst of nowhere,it takes a conscious effort to remember that nearly 400 fishermen have lost their lives to bullets in this vicinity in the last three decades.

The Islet

Katchatheevu is an uninhabited islet spread across 285.2 acres lying about 11 nautical miles from Rameshwaram and about 12 miles from Delft or Neduntheevu,a populated bigger Sri Lankan islet.

This was once part of the 69 coastal villages and seven islands controlled by the Raja of Ramnad. It was taken on lease by the East India Company in 1822,and in 1913,the Government of Madras Presidency took it on lease,followed by several such lease agreements entered to by the kings of Ramnad. When the zamindari system was abolished in 1948,it became a part of Madras Presidency and was categorised as Government poromboke—unassessed land that is the property of the government.

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In June 1974,then prime minister Indira Gandhi signed the agreement with her Sri Lankan counterpart,Srimavo Bandaranaike,to cede this islet to Lanka,a move that has not yet been agreed to by successive governments in Tamil Nadu. As recently as February 15,the government claimed that Katchatheevu “was always and still is part of Tamil Nadu as per revenue records” in an counter filed at the Madurai bench of the High Court of Madras.