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Why do India and Pakistan treat their fishermen like fish?

Last updated on: October 01, 2012 14:58 IST
When a security force finds the vessel of another country within its maritime borders -- with no "objectionable materials apart from a large cache of fish" -- why can't they simply ask the vessel to return, asks Shivam Vij

The insensitive governments of India and Pakistan are not moved even when one of their citizens dies in the other country, especially if the citizen was a poor fisherman arrested for the crime of inadvertently crossing a maritime boundary.

After 23 days of lying in the morgue of Ahmedabad's Civil Hospital, the body of 32 year old Nawaz Ali Jat will finally reach Karachi on Monday by a Pakistan International Airlines flight. His family waited 14 years for his return, but they didn't even get to know when he died of kidney failure on September 8.  

In May 1999, a cyclone hit the Karachi coast, pushing Nawaz's boat across Indian maritime borders. Along with his relatives, Usman Sachu, Zaman Jat and Usman Jat, Nawaz was arrested. India and Pakistan were fighting a war in the treacherous mountains of Kargil, a war that these fishermen had nothing to do with. But since they were Pakistanis who had committed the crime of being hit by a cyclone, they were charged with more than just trespass. Nawaz was accused and convicted of anti-State activities. Their families thought they had died, until they got a letter from them from inside Sabarmati Jail.

The spying charges meant that even though hundreds of fishermen have been arrested and released by India and Pakistan since then, Nawaz and his relatives were not. When Mumbai-based journalist and peace activist Jatin Desai asked the Indian government about his case in 2007, the government replied that India has no Pakistani fisherman arrested before 2000.

Desai has met Nawaz's family in Karachi and he says he wouldn't know how to face them the next time he goes there. Nawaz Ali Jat died after a long illness on September 8. The Gujarat government informed the ministries of home and external affairs on September 10. On receiving no response they wrote to the two ministries again on September 15 and then again on September 21. The MEA finally woke up from its slumber and informed the Pakistan high commission on September 26. That's when Nawaz's family in Karachi got to know.

As if this wasn't insensitivity enough, it's been five days since then and there is no news when the body could be sent to Karachi. The Gujarat government is yet to hear from the MHA or MEA.

This indifference cannot be explained merely by Nawaz Ali Jat's nationality, because India clearly doesn't care much about Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails either. Rambhai, an Indian fisherman, died in Karachi on May 28 this year, and it took over 40 days for his body to reach Mumbai. India and Pakistan's reaction, as also of the media in both countries, would have been very different had these people been middle class city folk rather than poor coastal fishermen.

Indian and Pakistani fishermen are regularly arrested in the Arabian Sea between Gujarat and Sind. These are fishermen who have been fishing in these waters for generations. They did not ask for these maritime boundaries. More Indian fishermen than Pakistani ones get arrested, because some of the Indian fishermen deliberately take risk and cross the maritime boundary because there's more fish there. This is partly because industrial pollution has destroyed the ecology of the Gujarat coast. But often, it is bad weather or dysfunctional GPS that makes them cross that invisible border in the sea.

Another reason for such regular arrests is the Sir Creek dispute, where India and Pakistan disagree on what the maritime boundary is. On September 29, for instance, the Border Security Force arrested 9 Pakistani fishermen near Sir Creek in Bhuj. 'The intruders were not found in possession of any objectionable materials apart from a large cache of fish stored in their boat,' The Times of India noted without irony.  

Apart from Sir Creek area and the island of Diu (a Union territory), the affected Gujarat districts are Porbandar, Junagadh and Jamnagar in the Saurashtra region. The fishermen are from the Koli and Kharwa communities, though there are some tribals too. On the Pakistani side the fishermen are Muslim Kolis. These fishermen use not small boats but large trawlers. They're at sea for days. One trawler costs as much as Rs 50 lakh and up to a hundred people are dependent on it for their livelihood. When a trawler is caught by the Pakistanis, the Gujarat government gives each prisoner's family a princely sum of Rs 175 a day.

Jatin Desai, who is also joint secretary of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, has been following the issue for years. He tells me that until 1996, Pakistan used to release the fishermen with the trawlers on the same sea. But to discourage them they started retaining the trawlers and sending the fishermen via Wagah. This cripples them financially even after they return. As part of the ongoing India-Pakistan peace process the two countries have released hundreds of imprisoned fishermen in batches this year. But they still have the trawlers. Pakistan has some 600 of them, whereas India has 120.

There are around 45 Indian fishermen in Karachi's Malir jail, of whom 11 were arrested last month. The number of Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails at present is 60, in various jails in Gujarat. Desai tells me that this is the lowest figure of Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails since 1999. Until last year, the number of Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails was invariably over 300, and that of Pakistani fishermen in India was never below 100.  

When a security force finds the vessel of another country within its maritime borders -- with no "objectionable materials apart from a large cache of fish" -- why can't they simply ask the vessel to return? What purpose is served by the arrests, keeping in jail (on tax-payers' money!) for years and then releasing them like doves as some meaningless 'confidence building measure'?

Saadat Hasan Manto's Toba Tek Singh, the no man's land where his protagonist Bishan Singh dies because he refuses to choose between India and Pakistan, was still a piece of land. What did Manto know that the men who rule India and Pakistan extend their territorial madness even to the high seas, arresting each other's Bishan Singhs daily, drilling into them that they aren't simply the fishermen of the Arabian Sea but of India and Pakistan and they better know how to recognise which droplet of the sea belongs to which country…

Shivam Vij