Diplomacy wins the day

The telephone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Mahinda Rajapaksa capped days of back channel persuasion by a number of emissaries.

Updated - November 16, 2021 05:52 pm IST

Published - November 21, 2014 02:10 am IST

The unconditional release by Sri Lanka of five fishermen sentenced to death by a court in that country on charges of drug smuggling is a welcome development. Sri Lanka must be commended for taking this large-hearted step. It is not often that nations set aside their own laws and procedures, as well as domestic political considerations, to make exceptions for nationals of another country; three Sri Lankans convicted in the same case remain on death row. It speaks volumes about the importance that Colombo attaches to its relations with New Delhi that all five men are back in India. Further, they will not need to undergo any more imprisonment in an Indian jail as would have been required in a normal case of commutation of death sentence and repatriation under the transfer of prisoners agreement between the two countries. Years of appeals to Islamabad — from two Prime Ministers, family members and civil society — could not secure the release of Sarabjit Singh from the Kot Lakhpat jail in Pakistan. Several times Pakistan did come close to letting him go, but in reality he was a hostage of the bad relations between the two countries. He met a cruel end in the jail at the hands of fellow-inmates who brutally attacked him, inflicting injuries that killed him. India spared no diplomatic effort to secure the release of the five men from the Sri Lankan prison. The telephone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Mahinda Rajapaksa capped days of back channel persuasion by a number of emissaries.

While it is not clear what, if any, incentives New Delhi offered in return, the resolution of the matter to India’s satisfaction is a significant point in bilateral relations. With the episode linked fundamentally to the issue of encroachment by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters, it should prompt both sides to redouble efforts for a solution that will end the dispute between the two fishing communities over sharing the Palk Bay region’s scarce marine resources. Beyond Sri Lanka, it should not be a surprise if the happy ending to the issue brings under scrutiny New Delhi’s own conduct in the case of the Italian marines, which has been in limbo as the government debates under what law they should be charged. Further, with the release of the fishermen setting the bar high for diplomatic interventions, demands are bound to grow for similar action in other cases in which Indians abroad fall foul of the law. New Delhi has a duty to safeguard the well-being of all its citizens, wherever they might be, but it would also do well to lay down the circumstance and the red lines beyond which it would be unwise to interfere in the legal systems of other countries.

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