At the fall of dusk on March 6, K. Britjo and his colleagues had set out from the Rameswaram fishing jetty in southern Tamil Nadu. They stayed in Indian waters, fishing off the coast until nightfall, but without much of a catch.
It was dark when they decided to leave the safety of the waters patrolled by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and try trawling the rich Sri Lankan waters for seer fish and pompano. They struck it rich immediately, working silently under the cover of darkness. But they were soon challenged by Sri Lankan Navy officers riding water scooters.
When the fishermen rammed their big vessel into one of the scooters, one of the Navy men on a water scooter was thrown over. The Navy men rescued their mate and retreated, but all hell broke loose when they returned soon. They allegedly began to fire at the Tamil fishermen , who had, meanwhile, continued fishing. Britjo, 21, the youngest of the six, took a bullet in his neck, just above the left clavicle. His captain was forced to retreat, while trying to contact through his cell phone his leader on the Rameswaram shore, to seek the Coast Guard’s help.
Nearly two hours passed, but no help came. Britjo succumbed to his injuries. His death has raised many eyebrows because this is the first time in five years that the Sri Lankan Navy has allegedly fired at Indian fishermen. The two countries had agreed not to harm fishermen who were caught in the other’s territory.
What could have been the provocation? Did the ICG not respond fast enough? Could Britjo have survived if he had got timely medical help? Britjo’s captain blamed the Coast Guard. However, security agencies, the marine police of the Coastal Security Group and those knowledgeable about the style of fishing of the Rameswaram fishermen have a different story to tell.
They point out that the GPS set handed over by the fishermen to the CSG contained no data pertaining to 2017 — an indication that an attempt was made to obfuscate the fact that they had indeed intruded into Sri Lankan waters deliberately.
Moreover, the statements by Britjo’s surviving friends were not corroborative. While one said the firing took place at around 8.45 p.m., another said it was at around 9.45 p.m. One said the Navy came in water scooters, another said they had come in inflatable boats. One said they were in the company of other trawlers, another denied it. They all concurred, however, that the fishermen were in Indian waters near “Sethukaalvai” off Dhanushkodi when the firing took place.
The captain insists that Britjo could have been saved, but doctors who performed a post-mortem examination of his body at 8.30 p.m. on March 7 said that the death occurred about 10 to 14 hours earlier, which meant that the SOS call from the captain would have been made only after he had re-entered the Indian maritime boundary. Whether the inquiries would throw light on this is anybody’s guess.