Over 100 days have passed since five fishermen from Rameswaram set out to sea from Pamban on November 28, 2011. A few hours after they crossed the International Maritime Boundary Line for fishing in Sri Lankan waters, they were picked up by the Sri Lankan Navy.
Instead of following the established convention in such cases — as both India and Sri Lanka have been doing in the recent past — the Sri Lankan authorities charged them with smuggling narcotic drugs into the country. In Sri Lanka, drug use is rampant, and the government has stringent punishment for the offense.
More than 40 Indians are in Sri Lankan jails for trying to smuggle in drugs, and some have already completed over 15 years in prison.
The established procedure, when it involves fishermen, is to ascertain if they are genuine fishermen, getting in touch with the Indian Consulate in Jaffna and completing the process of repatriation. However, in this case, none of this happened.
The five were arrested and put in a lock up, where they were beaten and forced to accept that they were couriers. “But none of them has accepted that they are involved in transporting drugs. They are innocent fishermen and we can stand guarantee for that,” said a fishermen cooperative leader from Rameswaram.
The Indian authorities are hopeful that Sri Lanka will not press the charges of ferrying drugs. The case will come up for hearing in a local court on Monday.
The fishermen associations have launched a series of agitations to secure the release of their colleagues. Asserting that they would not stand behind anyone who was involved in the drug trade, the association members made it clear that their landing points would never be allowed to be used for ferrying drugs.
The Tamil Nadu government has expressed its sympathy with the fishermen, but conveyed to them that the court case had to be dealt with ahead of a possible release.
A few fishermen from Rameswaram are here to try and sort out the issue.