MUMBAI: It was a poignant day for the family of Captain Sunil James, who was finally released from a Togo jail on Wednesday night after five months in captivity.
His wife Aditi is relieved but must steel herself now for their toddler Vivaan’s funeral. “I feel he is an angel who has played an important role in getting his father back. But nobody would want this to happen,” says Aditi. The 11-month-old died of septicaemia on December 2, and the family campaigned for the release of Captain James in time for the last rituals. The body has been preserved in a morgue.
“I have not had time to grieve for my child. I have not allowed myself to think about him. After Sunil comes, we will grieve together,” says the 32-year-old housewife.
Both Captain James and fellow crew member Vijayan have been released. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said it was the result of “diplomatic relations between India and Togo.”
However, the family of Captain James said it was disappointed with the Ministry’s response, and the case made headway only after the Prime Minister intervened. “We had been in touch with the Director-General of Shipping and the Ministry of External Affairs [MEA] since August. For all these months, they only said they were looking into it. It was only after we met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the case moved forward,” said Aditi.
Her brother-in-law Rakesh Madappa, who spent a month in Togo to pursue the case, added: “With hindsight, the MEA could have done a lot more. But they hid behind the excuse that this was a judicial matter in a Togo court.”
However, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said: “I don’t want to get into a discussion with the grieving family. But we pursued this case, and had many meetings with the government there [in Togo]. We had to pursue the matter legally, and this takes time.”
Captain James left India in April to take charge of the merchant ship, MT Centurion. It was attacked by pirates as it sailed along the West African coast on July 16. On July 30, Captain James reached the nearest port in Togo to inform authorities of the attack. However, he and two other crew members were jailed on allegations of aiding the pirates.
For the last five months, his family had tried hard to get them released, contacting both the government and the ship’s owner, Accord Marine Management. MEA officials were in touch with the Togolese government and court. Mr. Madappa even hired a lawyer to fight their case and got the piracy charge dropped, though the charge of complicity in theft remained.
“It was difficult to get in touch with Sunil in jail. When we spoke, he never mentioned himself, he only asked about Vivaan: Had he had his vaccinations, had he started walking,” recalls Aditi. The family banded together, with Mr. Madappa taking leave from his job in Bangalore to work on Captain James’ release.
However, it was only after Vivaan’s death earlier this month that the matter acquired urgency. The family contacted their local MLA and MP Sanjay Nirupam; the upshot was a meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office. “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was very compassionate and promised that he would try and expedite the case,” Mr. Madappa said.
Joint Secretary Jawed Ashraf was assigned to the case. The release came nine days after the meeting.
Even as the family looks forward to Captain James’ return, Aditi says she will not pressure him to give up sailing. “He has been sailing for 15 years and risen to become a captain. He loves his job and I will support him in whatever he wants to do.”