More than 2,000 Indian pilgrims were yesterday given visa-free entry to Kachchativu – an islet in Sri Lanka’s norther waters which is at the centre of a major fishing row between India and Sri Lanka -- to participate in the Catholic Feast of St. Anthony, , Immigration and Naval officials said.
They said the pilgrims were allowed to enter the country without visas under a decades-old agreement between the two countries.
The Indian pilgrims were handed over to the Sri Lankan Navy by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) at the International Maritime Boundary Line, to be escorted to Kachchativu in their own boats, that were largely fishing trawlers, Navy Spokesperson Kosala Waranakulasuriya said.
He said the ICG provided a list containing the names to avoid any overstayers.
The SLNavy, meanwhile, has made arrangements to provide food and refreshments for the Indians during their brief stay on the island, he said.
The group is expected to return to India later today or early tomorrow, once the church ceremony is over, he said.
Apart from the Indians, more than 5,000 Sri Lankans also arrived at Kachchativu yesterday.
St. Anthony is regarded as the patron saint of seafarers, and the church was built by an unknown fisherman over half-a-century ago.
Although the ownership of Kachachativu was ceded to Sri Lanka, under an Indo-Lanka agreement in 1974, Tamil Nadu politicians demand that the island, a little over an acre in extent, be handed back to Delhi.
According to recent media reports from Tamil Nadu, pilgrims attending today’s feast have been urged to plant the Indian National flag on the island before returning home.
“Any moves to instal a foreign flag, Indian or otherwise, on Kachachativu island, during and after today’s ceremony, will be considered a ‘hostile act’, and those involved will be dealt accordingly,” senior security force official said.
4 Lankan fishermen drift into Indian custody
Even as hundreds of Tamil Nadu fishermen are currently landing on the northern-most island of Kachachativu to participate at a church feast, the Indian authorities on Friday arrested four Sri Lankan fishermen who had drifted into Indian waters.
The fishermen who had drifted towards the southern Indian coast of Andra Pradesh, were picked up by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and their catch confiscated.
However, Fisheries and Aquatic Secretary Dr. Damitha de Zoysa was optimistic that the group will be released at the earliest, as there was an understanding between the two countries to release such persons on a reciprocal basis.
She said that, since January this year, 34 Sri Lankan fishermen who had been apprehended by the ICG were released and returned to the country, following an agreement between the two countries in mid January this year.
It was endorsed at this meeting that fishermen who drift into each other’s waters, be released at the earliest, and the results since then has been encouraging.
“However, we are still working towards seeking the release of five Sri Lankan fishermen who were arrested by the Indian authorities near the Gujarat Coast late last year,” she said.