On the face it, last week’s riots at a prison in the Sri Lankan capital should not be of any concern to India. But they are, in fact, a reminder of the Indian prisoners who languish there despite an agreement between the two countries for their repatriation. The deadly fighting that erupted in Welikade on November 9 between prisoners and personnel of the Special Task Force left 27 prisoners dead. The security forces personnel had gone into the jail to hunt down forbidden possessions, such as drugs and cell phones. With more than 3,000 prisoners, the jail is overcrowded and its inmates seething with resentment at the poor conditions in their wards, no different from many jails in India. During the search, some of the prisoners are said to have broken free from their cells, and taken on the security forces with weapons from the armoury. The 39 Indian prisoners are said to be unharmed but panic-stricken after the fighting. Most of them are serving sentences for drugs-related offences. But there is no reason they should be there, more than two years after India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement on “transfer of sentenced prisoners.” The 2010 agreement provides for transferring convicted prisoners who have served half their sentence back to India (or to Sri Lanka, in the case of Sri Lankans in Indian prisons). Under the terms, 31 prisoners in Welikade are eligible to be transferred. The repatriated prisoners are required to serve out the remainder of their sentence in prisons in their home States. Unfortunately, the authorities in India seem to have shown little urgency in speeding up the process to bring these prisoners back. Only some weeks ago, an Indian fisherman who had been in Welikade since 2004, and been identified for repatriation, died in the jail of a stroke.

Contrast this situation with the frequent furore in India over prisoners in Pakistan, the commitments that successive governments have made to have one particular death-row prisoner released from the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore, and the ceremony with which the two countries regularly release each other’s nationals from their prisons, and it would be hard to fault the Indian prisoners in Welikade for thinking their country doesn’t really care for them. Sri Lanka seems to have no problem transferring the eligible Indian prisoners. Evidently, the role of the State governments is crucial, for they must decide the jails in which these prisoners have to be lodged when they are repatriated. Tamil Nadu, the State to which most of the prisoners belong, must speed up the required procedures so that these people can return quickly, and serve the rest of their sentences at home.

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