Victos Fernando had been missing for four days when his body washed up, bruised and salt-soaked, off Sri Lanka’s northern coast. He’d disembarked with three other fishermen on April 2, 2011, from the crowded harbor of Rameswaram, a small island off India’s southeastern coast, to sail for the fertile breeding shoals on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations. The day before, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had both issued warnings against going out to sea. The two countries were slated to play a cricket match that day and tensions would be high.
Someone, after all, would have to lose.
The post-mortem on Fernando’s body showed heavy bruising on the arms, legs, and chest. Within 10 days, the three bodies of Fernando’s crewmates had come ashore on their native soil in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. According to a fisherman named U. Arulanandam, a local activist with the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, doctors reported broken teeth and abrasions left by razor blades inserted under the victims’ toenails. Sri Lanka had lost the match; the Indian fishermen had been tortured and tossed like refuse into the sea.
“There’s always some reason. That day it was cricket, some other day it’s some other tension,” Chenatam Fernando, Victos Fernando’s younger brother, told me. “Fishing is dangerous.”
Tensions have been high on the strait since 1983, when Sri Lanka first descended into a three-decade-long civil war that pitted its Sinhalese majority in the south against the Tamil minority in the north. Indian Tamil fishermen, who come from the same ethnic stock as their counterparts in Sri Lanka, started crossing the maritime border regularly to fish and to smuggle goods—everything from spare radio parts to firearms—to their brethren across the water. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees fled in the opposite direction, many of them making landfall in Rameswaram. The Sinhalese navy saw every Indian vessel as a potential threat and took to assaulting and killing Indian fishermen more or less at will. In 30 years, they racked up a body count of some 300 fishermen, with countless others suffering injuries and financial losses at their hands.
They’re like pirates, thieving everything
The war ended in 2009 and the killings stopped following Fernando’s death in 2011, but many families are still reeling emotionally and financially from losses suffered during decades of violence, with ongoing government assistance doing little to ameliorate their problems. And even now, weekly reports surface of Indian fishermen being detained, assaulted, and having their equipment confiscated by the Sri Lankan navy. “They’re like pirates, thieving everything,” Chenatam Fernando says of the Sri Lankan navy. “The nets, the fish, even the rice.”
In Rameswaram, fishermen like Chenatam Fernando see themselves as hapless victims of an interminable border war. To the Sri Lankans, they’re little better than thieves. I said as much to Fernando, but he dismissed the notion with a sad shake of the head. “The same waters we’ve been fishing for 1,000 years. We’re all Tamilans,” he said. “Where the fish go, we follow. If the fish run, we also run.”
Compared with India’s fractious land borders, which trace some of the world’s most active geopolitical fault lines, the Palk Strait looks calm, a seemingly clear-cut border between two young nations on two separate landmasses. At its narrowest point, 18 miles of open water separate the Indian island of Rameswaram, a stiletto thrust eastward into the strait, from the Sri Lankan island of Mannar. Between them lies a barely submerged series of shoals known as the Ram Sethu (or Ram’s Bridge), built, as the great Hindu epic the Ramayana tells us, by an army of ape-men so that the God Rama could invade the kingdom of Lanka and rescue his wife, Sita, from a 10-headed demon king.
As the number of boats on the strait increases, there are fewer and fewer fish left to follow. The Palk Strait, once a place of limitless abundance, has become the focal point of a conflict no longer fought over religion or arms or the kidnapped wife of a god, but over fish.