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Focus on Indians in Arab jails too

Tamil Nadu has found a distraction from the rather raucously dramatic (and on occasion tragic) breast-beating over J Jayalalithaa being packed off to jail after being held guilty of corruption. Under the new law that has disqualified Lalu Prasad Yadav from contesting elections and holding public office for his role in the infamous fodder scam, Jayalalithaa too stands stripped of office and power. That, understandably, is cause for much grief among her fans.

But I digress. This is not about Jayalalithaa or her current misfortune. It is about why Tamil Nadu is in ferment all over again. Five Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka’s custody have been held guilty of smuggling heroin, and along with three Sri Lankan nationals, presumably their accomplices, given the death sentence. The judgment of Colombo High Court has led to renewed outpouring of anger among Tamil ‘nationalists’ in Tamil Nadu: They are at once outraged and inconsolable.

Five Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka’s custody have been held guilty of smuggling heroin and given the death sentence by the Colombo High Court. The Government of India has committed itself to trying to secure the repatriation of the convicted men. representation Pic/Getty images
Five Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka’s custody have been held guilty of smuggling heroin and given the death sentence by the Colombo High Court. The Government of India has committed itself to trying to secure the repatriation of the convicted men. representation Pic/Getty images

The facts which are known, and over which there’s no dispute, are simple. The five men had sailed forth from Rameswaram in November 2011, ostensibly to fish in the high sea. Their boat was intercepted by a Sri Lankan Navy patrol and the men were arrested. Subsequently they were charged with smuggling heroin. The families of the five men and Tamil ‘nationalists’ (who have been waging a relentless campaign against President Mahinda Rajapaksa ever since he decimated the global terrorist organisation called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) insist the men were framed.

Sri Lankan authorities insist that the charges are genuine; that the trial was fair; and, that the five Indians, along with three Sri Lankans, were given the death sentence in accordance with that country’s law to combat trafficking in narcotics. The Indian High Commission in Colombo, whose consular officials have been tracking the trial and providing assistance to the Indians, has not categorically stated that the trial was unfair or the charges baseless. The High Commission has said it will help the convicted Indians contest the verdict in the Supreme Court.

Since Tamil ‘nationalist’ sentiments transcend party affiliations in Tamil Nadu and politicians are prompt in pandering to those who rage against Sri Lanka, both the AIADMK and the DMK have demanded that India should immediately intervene and secure the release of the five convicted men; due process of law or sovereign rights of Sri Lanka be damned. It has even been posited that India should take a cue from Italy, which has been playing ducks and drakes with India’s justice system to save its marines who killed Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast.

The Government of India has committed itself to trying to secure the repatriation of the convicted men. A precedent has been found: The death sentence given to two Indians in a previous case was commuted to life sentence and they were repatriated to serve time in an Indian jail. In the event the Supreme Court upholds the High Court verdict, it is hoped the President will commute the death sentence. If the verdict is struck down, then the task becomes that much easier.

It would, however, be in the interest of India’s own attempts to combat trafficking in narcotics and trans-national organised crime to address two issues. First, the Government of India should make public its own assessment of the charges against the five convicted men and the trial in Colombo High Court. Have the charges been proved? Was the trial fair? Second, the Ministry of External Affairs, having committed itself to helping the convicted Indians in Sri Lanka, should now make a larger policy announcement: That it will, henceforth, extend all help to Indians arrested for violating the laws of other countries. As a first step, the Ministry must publish full details of Indians held in prisons in Arab countries, the charges against them, and the nature of help provided by the government in each case. In the event of any Indian being sentenced to death, the government must promise to exhibit similar alacrity in rushing to their defence.

Anything less than this would suggest that the Government of India continues to be led by its nose on the ‘Tamil issue’ and is not particularly perturbed by questioning the legitimacy of a sovereign nation’s laws. Those laws may be repugnant to our sensibilities but that does not invalidate them. Sadly, we see no difference between poaching in Sri Lankan waters and smuggling drugs (till 2009 our fishermen were also smuggling arms and ammunition) into that country. Yet, we wouldn’t be so callous and disdainful with, say, Saudi Arabia. What does that tell of us as a nation?

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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