Indian Government "Justifies" Sri Lankan Navy Killing Tamil Nadu Fishermen

Usha Ramanathan

TAMIL TRIBUNE, December 2008 (ID. 2008-12-02); Updated 2017-03-01

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Sri Lankan Navy has been attacking, shooting and killing Tamil Nadu fishermen for well over a decade. At least 77 have been killed [Reference 1] and many more injured. Attacks, shootings and killings continue in spite of repeated pleas from Tamil Nadu State chief ministers to the Indian government and promises from Indian prime ministers. Now senior Indian government officials "justify" and downplay the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen. In this article we present quotes from statements by a Indian Navy Commodore, a Navy Vice-Admiral, National Security Advisor, External Affairs Minister (Foreign Minister) and Prime Minister.

1. Indian Navy Commodore P. E. Van Halteren

Indian Navy Commodore P. E. Van Halteren said in July 2008 that Sri Lankan Navy shootings/killings of Tamilnadu fishermen may be taking place when the fishermen sail too close to Sri Lankan maritime boundary.

Our Response: Is the Commodore justifying the murder of at least 77 Tamil Nadu fishermen [Reference 1] because our fishermen went too close to the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) or even cross that boundary? We know there is a civil war between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. That does not justify the killings of Tamil fishermen from the neighboring country. In February 2006 Indian Government registered diplomatic protest to Pakistan as soon as Pakistan Navy killed one north Indian fisherman (not 77, not 7, not 2, just one). No Indian Navy Commodore justified that killing on the assumption that that north Indian fisherman might have went too close to Pakistani maritime boundary.

Commodore Helteren added, "Our duty is to just check whether any boats or ships are involved in illegal activities. However, as an extra effort, we always warn our fishermen whenever they are very close to the boundary area."

Our Response: We disagree. Indian military's primary duty is to protect Indian citizens. May be the Commodore thinks that Tamils and other South Indians are second-class citizens not deserving Indian Navy protection.

The Commodore makes it seem as if helping Tamilnadu fishermen is an extra effort he is providing as a favor to us. No. Protecting Tamil Nadu fishermen is his duty. We, along with other states, are paying his salary through taxes. It is our taxes that are paying for Navy warships.

Sri Lankan Navy has killed Tamil Nadu fishermen many dozens of times near Kachchativu where we have the right to go. In October 1999, Sri Lankan Navy came all the way to Tamil Nadu coast near Rameswaram and shot at and damaged houses. Are they not illegal activities? Where were the Indian Navy and Coastguard?

Commodore Helteren further added, "Sri Lankan Navy never crosses into our territory."

Our Response: How is he so certain of it? Does the Indian Navy has independent means of knowing if any Sri Lankan Navy ship crosses the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL)? If that is the case, Indian Navy should also know if any Tamil Nadu fishermen cross the IMBL into Sri Lankan territory. If that is the case why was the Indian Navy not turning the fishermen back into our territory? Truth of the matter is, Indian Navy does not know if Sri Lankan Navy ships enter into Indian waters. The commodore whose is paycheck comes from TamilNadu taxes simply wants to absolve the Sri Lankan Navy and justify the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Commodore Helteren owes an explanation how he could say that Sri Lankan Navy never cross into our territory.

Also, Indian Government told Tamil Nadu Government and fishermen in 1974 that the latter has the right to go to Kachchativu. Now any fisherman venturing near Kachchativu is shot at (and sometimes killed). Does the commodore has anything to say about that?

2. Indian Government External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna

Two years after Indian Navy Commodore P. E. Van Halteren's statement, on August 11, 2010, India's External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna told the Upper House of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha),  "Government of India intends to give a protective cover to fishermen as long as they do not stray into Sri Lankan water." Unsaid, but implied, is that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard would not protect Tamil Nadu fishermen if they go into Sri Lankan waters. All that the Sri Lankan Navy has to say is that it attacked the fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. There are, and never would be, any third-party witnesses to the attacks in mid-sea (other than Sri Lankan Navy personnel and Tamil Nadu fishermen).

Also, the Indian External Affairs Minister seems to justify the violent attacks (including hundreds of killings) if they happened in Sri Lankan waters. If I go into my neighbor's property and pick a mango, does my neighbor have the right to beat me up or even kill me? Absolutely not. He may call the police and have me arrested. If he beats me, he would be the one police would arrest. If he kills me, he would be the one who would spend long years in prison. We would have no complaint if the Sri Lankan Navy arrests the fishermen and puts them on trial in Sri Lanka. When Sri Lankan fishermen stray into Indian waters, Indian Navy and Coast Guard arrest them. That is the right thing to do.

Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna's implicit justification of Sri Lankan attacks on our fishermen in Sri Lankan waters (even if it is true) is deplorable. As we stated in Section 1 of this article, when Pakistani Navy killed a North Indian fisherman in February 2006, Indian Government acted immediately and registered diplomatic protest to Pakistan. That killing was not justified on the grounds that the north Indian fisherman was killed in Pakistani waters. No one asked Pakistan if the attack took place in Indian waters or Pakistani waters.

You will also notice that there is no criticism of Sri Lankan Navy either in Commodore Van Halteren's remarks or in External Affairs Minister Krishna's statement. These statements are signaling Sri Lankan Government that they have no need to fear Indian retaliation, financially, diplomatically or militarily. All that the Sri Lankan Navy has to say is that the attack took place on their side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

Since their own Indian government refuses to protect them and throws them at the mercy of Sri Lankan Navy, may God give a merciful heart to Sri Lankan naval officers. This is the prayer of this daughter of a fisherman.

3. Indian Navy Vice-Admiral K N Sushil

A little over three months after India's External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna's "justification" of Sri Lankan Navy attacking Tamilnadu fishermen, Indian Navy Vice-Admiral K N Sushil (Flag Officer Commanding in Chief, Southern Naval Command) also justified the attacks. We present here his statement to reporters in Coimbatore on October 21, 2010, and our response. 

Vice-Admiral K N Sushil said, "When fishermen straying into Sri Lankan area are stopped by the Sri Lankan Navy, they start running out of fear of being caught, leading to suspicion. As there was reported movement of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelem (LTTE) cadre in the sea, the Sri Lankan Naval force has no other option, but to fire, as per the job given to them, for that matter any force." 

Our Response: This is an outrageous statement by Vice-Admiral K N Sushil. He is justifying the attacks as the Sri Lankan Navy doing its job. Also he is painting a scenario that is entirely different from what is happening. Let me explain. Here are some reports of the attacks from mainstream news sources.

Thinathanthi: February 1, February 10, February 19, April 7, April 12, July 16, September 22, October 4, November 1, November 3, November 4.  Daily News and Analysis: March 28, May 9, July 6. The Hindu: July 9. All are from the year 2010. Thinathanthi is a daily Tamil newspaper in publication for over half a century. It has the largest circulation of any Tamil newspaper. Daily News and Analysis is a news website published by Diligent Media Corporation, a joint venture of two major media companies Dainik Bhaskar Group and Zee Group. Dainik Bhaskar Group publishes the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar and Gujarati daily Divya Bhaskar. Zee Group owns Zee TV that is seen in 120 countries. The Hindu is an English language newspaper published from Chennai for more than 50 years.

Once we read theses news reports of several attacks during 2010, we see that the general mode of attack is the same in each of these incidents. Sri Lankan Navy surrounds or comes close to fishing boats of Tamilnadu fishermen. Then shoot at them or board fishermen's boats and beat them. These are not cases of shooting at fleeing/escaping fishermen as Vice-Admiral K N Sushil said. The fishermen have been surrounded and Sri Lankan Navy personnel have boarded the boats. What is the need or rationale for beating, robbing and destroying property? If they suspect the fishermen to be LTTE, the proper thing to do is take them into custody, file charges in Sri Lanka and inform India that fishermen claiming to be Indian citizens are in their custody. That is what the Indian Government and senior officials like Vice-Admiral K N Sushil should demand. Instead they are justifying Sri Lankan Navy's attacks on our fishermen. I have to again bring up the 2006 Pakistani Navy incident mentioned in Reference 1. Indian government or senior Indian navy commanders did not justify that Pakistan was shooting at fleeing north Indian fisherman suspecting him to be a terrorist. Instead India said that what Pakistan did was wrong. Why a different tune when the fishermen killed are from south India?

Here is another incident reported in the February 19, 2010 issue of Thinathanthi. Tamil men working on Indian Government's Sethusamudram Canal Project were attacked by Sri Lankan Navy in the sea. The men showed Indian government documents that they were working on the Sethusamudram Canal Project. Naval personnel threw those documents in the sea and beat them up more. Mr. Vice-Admiral, how would you justify this act?

4. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon

Vaiko is the General-Secretary of a Tamil Nadu political Party Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). He met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on January 22, 2011 and complained to him that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard are not protecting Tamil Nadu fishermen from Sri Lankan Navy attacks. Indian National Security Adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon, who was present at the meeting, told Vaiko that the Sri Lankan Navy may be firing at the fishermen because they crossed the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) into Sri Lankan waters. To which Vaiko responded, “Even if they cross the territorial waters, there was no reason for killing.” [In several of my earlier articles I had said the same thing that Sri Lanka has no right to shoot or otherwise attack our fishermen even if they cross into Sri Lankan waters. Many others have also said this before--even before my articles.] You see what is happening? India's National Security Adviser is justifying Sri Lankan Navy actions instead of saying that it has no right to attack our fishermen. When India's National Security Adviser justifies the attacks, why would Sri Lanka stop the attacks? Indian government's attitude is the underlying reason for the continued killings of our fishermen.

5. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

On this same January 22, 2011 meeting with Vaiko, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not condemn the killings either. Instead he downplayed the killings. He told Vaiko that Pakistan had also arrested Gujarati (north Indian) fishermen. Vaiko pointed out that Pakistan did not shoot at them (Actually there was one instance of shooting in which a Gujarati fisherman was killed and Indian External Affairs Ministry immediately called Pakistan's Deputy High Commissioner to the ministry and registered a protest. No one said that the Gujarati fisherman might have crossed the IMBL into Pakistani waters. No one said that Sri Lanka has killed so many Tamil Nadu fishermen, so this one Pakistan killing is not a big deal. Pakistan understood that India was taking the matter seriously and would not tolerate further killings. In case of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu fishermen, everyone from senior Navy commanders, National Security Adviser (NSA), external affairs minister and the prime minister are justifying or downplaying Sri Lankan Navy killings. So Sri Lanka takes it that India is not taking the killings seriously and continues with the attacks with impunity.

Finally the Prime Minister assured Vaiko that India would take up the issue with Sri Lanka SERIOUSLY to ensure that such attacks were not repeated. Sri Lankan Navy is attacking Tamil Nadu fishermen for over two decades and has killed at the least 77 fishermen [Reference 1]. Why was the issue not taken up SERIOUSLY so far? Is Tamil blood cheap?

6. India's Additional Solicitor General

India's Additional Solicitor General told a Tamil Nadu court in 2013 that there was no chance of the Sri Lankan Navy entering the Indian waters and attacking Tamil Nadu fishermen, without presenting any evidence to support his statement. This is discussed in detail in reference 2.


1. How Many Indian Tamilnadu Fishermen did Sri Lankan Navy Kill? (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, June 2009 (6 KB)

2. Indian Government Defends Sri Lankan Navy in Court (Attacks on Tamil Nadu Fishermen) (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, September 2012 (8 KB)

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1. Collection of Articles on Killings of Tamil Nadu Fishermen in the Sea

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