On Monday, Britjo, a 22-year-old fisherman from Rameswaram town in Tamil Nadu, was out at sea with a fishing group when he was shot dead, allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy. The police recovered a bullet from his body, most likely from an AK-47 rifle. His death sparked protests in the state, especially among the fishing community, which have intensified in the past few days. Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy wrote to the Central government asking it to intervene and to rein in the neighbouring country. The Centre, in turn, wrote to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe expressing “deep concern”. In response, Colombo denied the involvement of its Navy in the incident but promised an investigation – and said on Wednesday that it would release all 85 Indian fishermen currently in its custody.

While the death of Britjo has caused a furore, there are lesser known cases of Indian fishermen, specifically from Tamil Nadu, crossing into international waters and languishing in jails abroad for months on end. Thirty-seven of them, all from the southern state, are currently in the custody of the Iranian government for straying into the country’s waters. Five of them were working in Saudi Arabia, 15 in Bahrain and the remaining 17 in Dubai. The five were arrested on August 6, followed by the Bahrain-based group on October 22 and finally the group from Dubai in January this year.

After spending a few days in jail, they were all shifted to boats in two ports, Kish Island and Bandar Abbas, where they remain under strict surveillance and with little food or water. This despite the fact that the fines ordered by a court in Iran for some of them have already been paid and other formalities for their release completed, some of the captive fishermen and their families told Scroll.in.

‘We are starving here’

M Sathya Sagar Vijiya Babu, one of the fishermen from the Bahrain group, fears they may all starve to death if the Indian government does not act quickly to get them home. “We were taken into custody, jailed and then moved to the boats,” he said, speaking to Scroll.in over the telephone. “Every morning, the officials come to the boat, make us stand in line, count heads and leave. That’s it. They are not at all bothered about our food and water. Many days, we go to sleep hungry.”

Shortly after they were taken into custody while on their way to Dubai from Bahrain, the Indian embassy in Bahrain as well as their employer intervened. “They were in touch with us,” Babu said. “The employer came here. He paid the fine required by the Iranian court. We heard that Rs 10 lakhs was paid for each boat. But then again, we are kept under custody. Our relatives and social workers [back home] have met all political party leaders and government officials. But to date, nothing has worked. We are starving here.”

He added that their only request to the government now was to rescue them soon.

According to a letter dated February 20 sent to the Indian embassy in Iran by the Indian embassy in Bahrain, regarding the 15 fishermen in the Bahrain group, the fine set by the Iranian court was paid in November and other formalities completed. The letter also requested the mission in the Iranian capital of Tehran to take up the issue with the government there for a swift resolution of the problem.

Josephine Valarmathi from the non-profit National Domestic Workers Movement in Chennai, who has filed official complaints with the government on behalf of the fishermen’s families, said she was clueless as to why they had not yet been released. “In both cases, [complaints under] Madad, the Indian government’s official [consular] grievance system, has been filed,” she said. “We are also in touch with the Indian missions in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. We tried to get in touch with the Indian embassy in Iran too but all our efforts have been in vain.”

“We don’t know where the block is and why it is,” Valarmathi added. “Other than sending and receiving letters, the release of fishermen is not happening. And their families are struggling”

Maria Joseph Kennedy, one of the stranded fishermen, sent out an SOS video that he hoped would reach the Central and state governments in India. His message (translated from Tamil, watch the video below):

“There are 34 of us here from Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Ramanathapuram districts. The relatives of those in each district have gone and given money to the collector’s office. AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] and BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] workers in each district too have been given money. We have sent them faxes. We have sent petitions to the fisheries minister too. Nothing has happened. What do we do? If we ask the embassy, they say we have to get an order from India. Who has to issue the order? Tamil Nadu government and Central government have to issue the order. Even after they have both been informed, there is no action. Are we not Tamilians? Are we not Indians? Should we just die here? We request you to watch this and take a good decision.”


Families suffer too

For the families of many of these fishermen, it has been over five months since the money stopped coming in, and they are clearly struggling to make ends meet.

“I am sick and had to undergo surgery for appendicitis two days ago,” said Subi Heba, wife of stranded fishermen G Heba from the Bahrain group. “I am staying alone with my children. Due to lack of money, we couldn’t pay the fees and the school has told them not to come.”

She added, “Moreover, we had taken loan to pay for the visa.”

This is true for most of the fishermen, all of whom had also paid Rs 80,000 each to agents to travel to the Gulf countries around two years ago.

Heba said she was clueless as to what would happen to her husband, adding, “We are in a fix, a total fix, and if this continues, we all may die here.”

Kala Vargees, wife of arrested fisherman V Vargees, is facing the same challenges as Heba. “Children’s education fees, food, rent – everything has become a problem,” she said. “How can we survive without any income for five months?”

Heba added, “My only plea to the government is – please rescue my husband and others as soon as possible.”