Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa commuted the death sentence of five fishermen from India – Emerson, Augustus, Prasath, Langlet, and Wilson. They were earlier convicted for drug smuggling and due to Indian diplomacy, presidential pardon was granted. These five were handed over to Indian officials, and they can walk free without having to face legal action in India.
Could Sri Lanka have carried out the sentence, if India did not engage Sri Lanka diplomatically? I believe that it is very unlikely. Having said that, India moved swiftly once the death sentence was announced. It was a multi-pronged approach – India pursued the issue legally by filing an appeal on fishermen’s behalf in the Colombo High Court on Nov 11th, PM Modi and President Rajapaksa had a telephonic conversation on the 9th of November, and Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs minister had multiple conversations.
India considered this case as a priority, and this finally led to the presidential pardon. This move is expected to reduce tensions between India and Sri Lanka, at least in the short run.
Indian diplomacy has done a credible job in this case, however it throws open many questions.
- Why did India not try to secure the release of these fishermen for the last 3 years, as they were arrested in 2011 and why did we wait for the Sri Lankan courts to convict them, before acting on it?
- Consider this with the case of the Italian Marines, who were arrested for killing two Indian fishermen in 2012. Despite being charged for man-slaughter, the marines were allowed to go to Italy to vote in elections in 2013, based on the promise from Italy that they would be sent back to India for their trial. Later on, Italy reneged on this assurance and this showed India in bad light. While this is not an ideal example, it still showed the intent shown by Italy towards securing its people, irrespective of the circumstances. Should India learn something from this?
- India’s hasn’t been able to get Rajapaksa to implement the 13th amendment to the constitution, and set in motion the political process with Tamil minorities, as promised to India. Why is India not able to pressurize Sri Lanka towards implementing the 13th amendment?
- Sri Lanka has taken India for granted for all practical purposes, by favoring trade with Chinese as opposed to India, with scant recognition of India’s contribution to the economic and development assistance of the nation. Have we missed a huge opportunity in maintaining our hegemony in this region?
- A few weeks ago, a Chinese nuclear submarine and a warship docked at Colombo port and a few weeks before that, another Chinese submarine docked at Colombo port. This contravenes the 1987 agreement between India and Sri Lanka, which states that their respective territories will not be used by either countries for activities that are prejudicial in nature to each other’s unity, integrity and security. When India registered its protest, it was brushed aside by Sri Lanka, stating that more than 200 warships have docked at Colombo as goodwill visits, and for refueling and crew refreshments. How does India reduce the Chinese influence in the region?
- India hasn’t been imposing itself on its neighbor and we stopped short of supporting the UN resolution against the atrocities Sri Lanka committed on the minority civilians during the war. People like Mr. Swamy go around advising the government on why India should not support resolutions against Sri Lanka, as that would make India vulnerable to resolutions against it, on Kashmir and Manipur. How skewed can you get in your foreign policy?
The release of the 5 Indian fishermen by the presidential pardon is hailed as a diplomatic victory. Or, is it just the Sri Lankan superiority in diplomacy? Mr. Rajapaksa has done a favor to India by releasing the fishermen, and there is no second guessing that he would expect it to be returned at the impending polls in Sri Lanka, and also at the UN Human Rights council meeting.
All in all, Sri Lanka hasn’t been fair to India in its dealings and being a stronger neighbor, India hasn’t done much about it, for various reasons. India has to ensure that Sri Lanka implements the 13th amendment and ensure the interests of Tamil minority are protected. India cannot wait longer and it has to contain Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, for this would evolve into a larger problem than what we envisage today.
PM Modi and President Rajapaksa are expected to meet during the SAARC summit at Nepal. It would just be the ideal opportunity to send a strong message to Sri Lanka. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, India is still relevant and it cannot do away with a powerful neighbor like India, irrespective of the Chinese influence. This is the time for India to apply pressure and engage with Sri Lanka, not just at a political level, but at a strategic level as well. I only hope that it is not too late already.