Rameshwaram: A day in the life of a fisherman in Rameshwaram starts a little after midnight. He kisses his children as they sleep, wishes his wife farewell and sets out on his boat at 1 am. The women as is tradition, say a little prayer, hoping the gods save their men from the vagaries of the sea.
On January 2, Vijayan and his wife followed the same routine. After bidding him farewell, she went back to sleep. She normally checks on him by giving him a missed call around sunrise, the time most fishermen return to the shore. That day, she couldn't reach his phone. She did not think too much of it, thinking may be her husband went into deep waters for better catch that day. By noon, she was just a little anxious. Then at 2:30 pm, Rajam said a neighbour of hers saw the news on TV - her husband and other fishermen and their boats had been captured by the Sri Lankan Navy.
CNN-IBN met her more than a week after the incident and Rajam said no authorities have told them anything other than asking for her husband's identity proof. The atmosphere at Rajam's house was one of mourning. No one had cooked in the house for more than a week. The children were being fed by neighbours, while Rajam remained inconsolable. Her pre-teen daughter had been crying constantly, even in school. Rajam's gold ornaments are all with moneylenders from whom they borrowed Rs 12 lakh for the fishing boat, which is also now in Sri Lankan custody. Though it's early days, Rajam fears creditors may come knocking any time now and with her husband in captivity, she has no options.
"My husband, all the other fishermen and their boats should be returned or else I have no way out but to commit suicide with my family," she said, breaking down.
Over 200 fishermen from three districts in Tamil Nadu and 84 fishing boats are in Sri Lankan custody. Villages like Pamban and Thangachimadam in Rameshwaram live in terror. In Thangachimadam, Infanta, her husband and aged mother-in-law, live in a thatched roof hut. There is no flooring inside the house, instead they sleep on the soft sea sand. In 2011, Infanta's son Langlet, along with four others were captured by the Sri Lankan Navy for alleged drug-trafficking. The families have been contesting what they call 'false' charges ever since but to no avail.
When CNN-IBN sat down with Infanta, she was calm initially but broke down while fetching her son's photograph. After that there was no stopping her tears. Her son, was a sickly boy, had plans of learning computers and going abroad and was just training as a fisherman as a back-up. She said he cries when he manages to talk to her. It's been two years and several petitions, but her only son has not returned. Age has slowed Infanta's husband down, he is not able to go fishing or work regularly.
The state government has been paying these families and those of other captured fishermen Rs 250 per day spent in captivity. But Infanta said that all she wants is her son, the money is no use without him. The only light in the family is Langelot's 2-year-old nephew Rufus. But the child has never seen his uncle. Gladwin, a fishermen who showed CNN-IBN around the village has a house full of toddlers. His brother was also captured along with Langlet. He excused himself from talking on record saying even a 5-minute interview plunges the family into weeks of depression.
Columbus and Pattinathan, however, are among the lucky ones who managed to return from a Sri Lankan prison after 38 days last year. Their wives still cry at the memory of those dark days. But back home in Thangachimadam, with no boats, their families are struggling to meet daily expenses. Pattinathan says that fishermen don't understand the concept of borders, "We go where there is fish, we go where nature takes us. Our ancestors have been doing the same thing for centuries, this is all we know." He and Columbus now do odd jobs at the beach, helping other fishermen. Their boats which are still in Sri Lanka cost them around Rs 30 lakh. While the families are happy to have them back, they feel without their boats and employment, they are a burden. "When I was in captivity, I questioned life itself and wanted to die. But back here now, its no better, I can't feed my family," said Columbus.
The frequent arrests and shootouts at sea have scared fishermen. Tolstoy, a 25-year-old fisherman, whose cousin was also captured on January 2 said they have no guarantee of returning home these days when they set out, even if they fish in Indian waters, they are in terror. "At night, even while fishing in Indian waters, we don't use our torches, because if they see our torch light, they might come and get us. We are very scared, but have no other means of livelihood," he said. Fishermen also narrated stories of feeling very scared to venture out when the Indian cricket team beats Sri Lanka in a match, the world cup win, they say was a very trying time.
Meanwhile, the desperation, the trials and tribulations have made the residents of Pamban and Thangachimadam villages extremely devout. In a 1 kilometer stretch there are around 5 churches and a couple of temples. Prayers are regularly conducted for the fishermen. Women who see their men off, now even pray to god asking for a safe journey with no interference of the Navy.
The issue of fishermen arrests, has, however, become an emotive point for politicians in Tamil Nadu. The DMK has of late attacked Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on what it terms her lax response to organising a conference of Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen. Jayalalithaa herself writes a letter to the PM every time there is a fresh attack, requesting the Centre to stop considering Sri Lanka a friendly nation. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj is now planning to head an agitation in Rameshwaram on January 31. But leaders of fishermen are not impressed. NJ Bose, general secretary, TN fishermen association said, "Every time a party is in opposition, they suddenly show sympathy to our cause. This is just vote bank politics. They are politicising and ruining us the way they ruined Sri Lankan Tamils. No one genuinely cares."
Arulanandam is a well built, silver haired activist, who has worked for the release of innocent fishermen for 30 years now. He has participated in three fishermen summits with Sri Lankan and Indian authorities so far, all inconclusive. Naturally, he doesn't have much hope with the latest one being proposed by the PMO. "I don't understand why they are arranging a fishermen summit when the issue is about release of those captured. Fishermen, when they meet, only talk of their problems fishing. Are fishermen capturing and releasing each other? How will talks on the level of fishermen solve these issues?" In the past 3 talks, Arulanandam said, fishermen had agreed on dividing seas amongst themselves and had sent their proposals to both sides of governments, but nothing came of it. No fishermen leaders on both sides have been intimated about the upcoming talks and there is no information on ground even if it were to solve their issues. He feels that fishermen are being sacrificed in the competitive military deployment of the Indian and Sri Lankan Navy, both of which seems to be capturing fishermen tit for tat. But what disappoints him most is what he calls the lackadaisical attitude of the government towards the suffering of Indian fishermen. "No offence to Devyani Khobragade, but if the Indian government could take on the US for a consul employee, then why is it not doing anything when hundreds have died here," he asked.