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How India should handle the Shenzhen arrests

By Sheela Bhatt
January 14, 2010 19:55 IST
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According to the China experts in New Delhi the arrest of so-called 21 Indian diamond merchants on charges of smuggling under China's anti-smuggling laws in Shenzhen on January 8 needs to be handled carefully by the establishment and even the media.

Srikanth Kondapalli, associate professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, told, "The arrests of Indian merchants should be treated as a law and order issue. Any country would apply their local legislation when found necessary."

Indian ambassador to Beijing S Jaishankar told, "I am satisfied that we have got the consular access to the arrested Indians. We have found that they have been treated well. Now our priority is to get them proper legal representation."

A senior diplomat based in New Delhi told that, "the law has to take its own course and there should be caution before media judges the issue. It is wrong to say that China took 'revenge' or India 'retaliated' or vice-versa. Such headlines have serious consequences to the people directly affected."

While the officer belonging to the external affairs ministry said that the seriousness of the case will be determined only when charges are framed against the arrested merchants and till that time one should not pre-judge the issue.

According to a diamond merchant based in Mumbai, the local authorities will determine the charges within 35 days of the arrests. Already two Indian consulate officers have met all the arrested Indians. Ambassador Jaishankar directed first secretary of the embassy

to fly to Shenzhen from Beijing to meet them. The officers were allowed to meet each of the arrested persons separately for 20 minutes. It took a long time in jail that looks like a hotel building to take the statement of arrested Indian merchants.

The MEA officers have taken from them in writing that they have been treated well and are given vegetarian food because more than 10 merchants take only Jain food without onions, garlic and potatoes. All of them told the Indian officers that they have been treated well by police and there is no complaint of harassment of any sort.

Meanwhile, the diamond industry in Surat and Mumbai had been taken by surprise. They had no clue that the Chinese authorities were keeping them under surveillance. In Mumbai, it's also now understood that the investigations against the diamond merchants was underway since long. A popular Chinese website has put up a video allegedly of the operation by the Chinese customs department. In the video, a courier of alleged smuggled diamonds is shown getting down at station, walking across the streets of Shenzhen and delivering diamonds to an Indian merchant in a hotel.

However, big diamond traders in Mumbai argue that the Chinese government had invited them to their country with lots of promises. They helped develop the diamond trade there in big way in a short time. They say the arrests should not come in the way of the huge potential of the diamond trade within China.

Amongst 21 arrested persons are employers of big firms in Surat and Mumbai. One of the jailed merchants belongs to the firm of the former president of the diamond merchants association in Mumbai. The Shenzhen arrests are being taken seriously in Mumbai and industry bosses have understood the consequences of the legal case in China. Lack of knowledge of the Chinese legal system is their biggest obstacle today, said a merchant in Surat.

Two days after the arrests of diamond merchants, three Chinese engineers, employed by the Shandong Electric Power Construction Corporation, were arrested in Korba in Chhattisgarh in connection with the chimney collapse at a BALCO plant last September in which 40 people were killed.

The China's foreign ministry has pledged on Thursday, 'to ensure the rights' of Chinese engineers. 

Spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the Chinese foreign ministry and the Chinese embassy to India would actively assist SEPCO in dealing with the prosecution and protect the legitimate rights and interests of the three engineers. 

Meanwhile, the Gujarat police arrested a Chinese engineer in Kutch on Wednesday. He was employed at a site of the mega power project. He was arrested for allegedly smuggling Chinese-made liquor in Gujarat in violation of the state policy of prohibition

The Indian establishment clearly says that none of these arrests are linked.

A MEA officer said that, "I emphasise that these legal cases should not be linked. The case in Korba is few months old. The engineers were in hospital and the arrests were delayed."

Kondapalli also says, "I do not see any diplomatic fall-out of these arrests. As I said the case is an issue of law and order. It's not a political issue."

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi