M.R. Narayan Swamy
New Delhi : The dramatic return of 11 of the dozen Indian fishermen abducted from the sea by the Tamil Tigers marks the end of an ugly nearly 70-day saga that is bound to cost the group valuable sympathy in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, officials say.
Indian officials who closely studied the case say that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has lost face over the episode when it initially denied seizing the men who had done it no wrong until its own cadres arrested in Tamil Nadu spilled the beans.
And with the return to India of the 11 men from Tamil Nadu Friday, soon after the 12th man from Kerala got caught in a battle involving a LTTE vessel and Maldivian security forces, has only deepened the embarrassment of the Tigers and their supporters in Tamil Nadu.
"It is a huge blunder (by the LTTE)," an official here said of the abductions and the commandeering of their vessel, Sri Krishna. The 12th Indian is stated to be in custody in the Maldives now after apparently jumping into the waters.
The bizarre drama unfolded in March when the fishermen who had set out from Kanyakumari to stay put in the sea failed to return home even after weeks, sparking alarm in their families who sought help from the authorities to trace them.
The same month, Tamil Nadu was enveloped in protests over the killings of five fishermen from the state, with most political parties blaming the Sri Lanka Navy for their deaths in the sea at the hands of men from a vessel called Maria.
Early in April, the Coast Guard caught six cadres of the LTTE's Sea Tigers off Tamil Nadu and handed them over to the police after dramatically sighting the Maria floating in the sea sans any occupant.
In revelations that shocked Tamil Nadu and the Indian establishment, the arrested men confessed that it were the Tamil Tigers who had not only shot dead the five fishermen but also kidnapped the dozen men who had gone missing — in two separate incidents.
The guerrillas – whose confessions were videoed – said that another group of Sea Tigers involved in smuggling weapons ended up killing the five Tamil Nadu fishermen when the latter picked up a row with the rebels thinking they were Sri Lankan fishermen.
One of the arrested Sea Tigers also stated that he had seen the abducted Indian fishermen in LTTE territory.
Officials speaking to IANS gave credit to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for giving the police a free hand to deal with the latest crisis, quite unlike in 1989-91 when his government was dismissed for overlooking similar activities of the LTTE.
The abducted fishermen have stated that they suffered while in LTTE custody, were moved from one place to another and threatened with death if they tried to escape. One of them was asked to sail with a group of Tigers who got hit near the Maldives.
Eventually, the remaining 11 men were taken to the sea and transferred on to two Indian fishing boats Friday when it became clear that the Tigers' complicity in the saga could no more be denied.
The LTTE, which has used Tamil Nadu since the early 1980s in its armed campaign against Sri Lanka, is known to have commandeered Indian fishing boats earlier too. But it is the first time it ended up seizing and holding Indian fishermen this long.