Is Tamil Nadu Holding Up Deal On Swapping Fishermen Prisoners?

14-underSri Lanka and India are discussing at the diplomatic level a proposal from fishermen’s organizations in both countries that fishermen being held in custody in the two countries should be released in a swapping arrangement. But Tamil Nadu appears to be standing in the deal’s way, some officials said on condition of anonymity.

Speaking to the Indian media, the Director General of Fisheries, Nimal Hettiarachchi, said that Sri Lanka has taken up this suggestion with India through diplomatic channels. It is learnt from other sources that while the Indian Central government is open to the idea, there has been no positive response yet from the Tamil Nadu government, the third player in the conflict, apart from the Indian and Sri Lankan governments.

“So far there has been no response from the Indian side,” Hettiarachchi told an Indian daily earlier this week. “The ball is in Tamil Nadu’s court,” said another official, speaking off the record.

As of now, there are 22 Sri Lankan fishermen and 40 Sri Lankan boats in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh custody, and 38 Tamil Nadu fishermen and 84 of their boats in Sri Lankan custody.

According to one Indian daily, leaders of fishermen from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu have been “earnestly pleading for a prisoner swap between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu to bring to an end the intense agony which incarcerated fishermen are facing on both sides of the Palk Strait.”

“This demand stems from indications from Sri Lankan officials that Tamil Nadu fishermen now in custody in the island will be released if, at the same time, Tamil Nadu also releases those Lankans in its custody,” the paper said.


Hunger Strike 

Frustrated with their indefinite captivity, the 38 Tamil Nadu fishermen in Jaffna prison went on a fast unto death. But this ended on Thursday after four excruciating days, thanks to the efforts of the Acting Indian Consul General in Jaffna S. D. Moorthy. Earlier, sustained persuasion by the Indian official had resulted in about 12 of them breaking the fast. Some of the fishermen were diabetics and one was a heart patient, sources in Jaffna said.

As per the latest information, their incarceration will continue at least till December 18. The court in Kayts, at which they were produced on Friday, had extended their remand till December 18.

Meanwhile, according to reports from Tamil Nadu, fishermen’s organizations had been taking up the question of swapping fishermen in custody with authorities at all levels, but without any success.

N. Devadas, chairman of the ‘India-Lanka Talks Group’ told an Indian daily: “In discussing the problem of TN fishermen with governments, our first demand has always been that innocent fishermen from both countries should be released. But this suggestion has never been taken seriously”

Fishermen’s organizations had made this plea before the Indian External Minister Sushma Swaraj and other Central Ministers Pon Radhakrishnan and Nitin Gadkarai, as well as Tamil Nadu Fisheries Minister and the State Fisheries Secretary Dr. Vijayakumar, but to no avail, Devadas said.

Fishermen’s leader U.Arulanandam, who heads the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF) and is said to be a veteran fighter for the rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen, said that he had written “letters after letters” and made “statements after statements” seeking a swap, but governments in New Delhi and Chennai have only made promises, avoiding a follow up.

The political leaders of Tamil Nadu are indifferent to this issue, he admitted.

“This is a mystery to me. Perhaps they want the problem to continue,” Arulanandam is quoted as saying

Perhaps fishermen are being ignored because they are poor, he said. He pointed out how India and Sri Lanka are promoting economic and business cooperation and trade and sorting all issues, but tend to brush aside the issues of the poor fishermen.

Talk to Tamil Nadu

Sri Lankan expert and Advisor to the India-Lanka Fishermen Welfare Forum, S. P. Antonymuthu, is quoted as saying that one way out will be for Sri Lanka to take up the fishermen’s issue with the Tamil Nadu government also, besides talking to the Central government in New Delhi.

“The Sri Lankan government should modify its stand that it will talk only to New Delhi. However, it should also be recognized that the present hostility in Tamil Nadu towards Sri  Lanka, is preventing Colombo from talking to Tamil Nadu,” he said

However, fishermen’s organizations from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are talking to each other and have met several times, both in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu, Indian and Sri Lankan government officials have participated in some of the meetings as observers. But the fishermen would like the matter to be taken up by the governments themselves trilaterally and not left to the fishermen.

“This is not a matter that can be solved by the fishermen. It is the government’s job to find a workable solution,” Arulanandam said. And Anthonymuthu wholeheartedly agreed.

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