India and Sri Lanka Thursday jointly agreed to release all fishermen held in custody in the two countries in the wake of growing agitation in Tamil Nadu over the death ofÂ a 22-year old Indian fisherman, allegedly shot dead by the Sri Lankan Navy Tuesday. Sri Lanka is to release 85 Indian fishermen while India will release 19 Sri Lankan fishermen according to the latest agreement reached between the two countries constantly embittered by its fishermen trespassing into each other’s territorial waters. K. Britjo, a 22-year old Rameswaram fisherman, was allegedly killed by theÂ Sri Lankan navy in the Palk Strait seas in the early hours of Tuesday.
The Sri Lankan navy has denied it shot dead the Indian fisherman as well as claims by India that the incident took place in Indian sea territory.
The decision by the two governments to release the fishermen were taken afterÂ the Indian Vice President, Hamid Ansari, met Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Indonesdia on the sidelines of the Indian Ocean summit while in Colombo, Indian High Commissioner, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, metÂ Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss the ongoing agitation by Tamil Nadu fishermen.
Meanwhile reports say that despite the agreement, a court in Chennai on Thursday has extended the remand of Sri Lankan fishermen in its jails till March 23.
Sri Lankan fishermen state that they often unknowingly stray into Indian waters while Indian fishermen often claim they do not leave Indian sea territory. However thousands of trawlers from the Tamil Nadu coast from Nagapattinam to Rameswaran poach in Sri Lankan waters right upto the coast daily.
Despite the Sri Lankan government introducing a system of seizing and not returning the trawlers believing this would act as a deterrent to poaching, the daily trespass on Lankan seas continue, deprivingÂ Lankan fishermen of their livelihood.
The Indian fishermen claim they do not cross the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and that they fish only around Kachchativu island, which India handed over to Sri Lanka in 1974, officially dropping claim to it. However, the 1974 agreement between the two countries permitted Indian fishing, which was withdrawn in a new controversial agreement in 1976 signed by Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, giving Sri Lanka complete control of the sea territory around the Kachchativu island, thus making fishing by Indians illegal.
The 1976 agreement however maintains that Indian fishermen can attend the festival of the St. Anthonyâ€™s Catholic church located in the Kachchativu island, without obtaining visa and permitting fishermen to dry their nets in the island.
The 1976 agreement was disregarded by Tamil Nadu and the fishing by Indian fishermen continued, though the level of destruction was less as they were using ordinary boats. The introduction of trawlers in the 1980s led to the destroying of the Palk straight seas, beginning with India and continuing upto Sri lanka through the poaching. With the war between the Lankan military and the LTTE intensifying between 1983 and 2009, every boat which came from India was looked at with suspicion by Sri Lanka because of the constant sea movement by the Sea Tiger wing of the LTTE.Â Indian fishermen were often seen working in cohort with the Sea Tiger wing of the LTTE, and fishing with their consent. Following the end of the Lankan war in 2009 and the annihilation of the LTTE,Â the Sri Lankan Navy, began arresting the poaching Indian fishermen and seizing their boats. Last Tuesdayâ€™s killing of the Indian fisherman come after a gap of about five years as the Lankan navy limited its attempts at dissuading the invasion of Lankan waters, to seizing fishing boats. Currently there are 134 boats belonging to Indian fishermen in Lankan custody.
Meanwhile, as a mark of protest against Tuesdayâ€™s killing, Tamil Nadu fishermen as a whole have threatened to boycott the St. Anthonyâ€™s Festival to be held at Kachchativu island shortly. Around 5,000 Indian fishermen were to attend the annual Feast this year. Both the Indian and Lankan fishermen across the Palk Strait are mostly Catholic.