August 7, 2002


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Plight of the ants

When the elephants clash, so the saying goes, the ants are sure to get trampled. The India-Pakistan standoff is now entering its eighth month. Many ordinary citizens of the two countries have suffered in the battle of these Goliaths. Farmers on either side of the border have had to evacuate to make way for the armies. People who have relations either side are stranded. The cut-off of all communications is obviously a major hardship.

No group of people has, however, suffered as much as the poor fishermen of Gujarat and Kutch. A large number still continue to wallow in each other's jails for years on end with no great hope in sight.

The problem of Indian and Pakistani fishermen and other maritime personnel is now quite old. Despite considerable efforts India and Pakistan have yet to demarcate their maritime boundary.

The problem is extremely difficult or quite easy to resolve depending on how one looks at it. It involves delineating where the boundary runs in the Sir Creek, a small stretch of water dividing the two countries. Pakistan wants the boundary to run along the southern coast of this creek. India insists it is along the centre of the waterway.

Both sides have produced enough evidence, maps, and charts to fill tomes. If they want, the two countries can continue this dispute for centuries. On the other hand, if there is some give and take it can be solved in an afternoon.

But non-demarcation of the maritime boundary is not the real problem. Even if the maritime boundary dispute were to be resolved, the problem would still remain unless there is a change in the attitude of the two governments and their respective agencies, the Coast Guard of India and the Maritime Security Agency of Pakistan.

Despite the fact that the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka is demarcated, the problem of fishermen being arrested continues to a lesser extent even in the Palk Bay.

Each year the two maritime agencies, charged with the security and protection of their national waters, arrests a number of fishermen of the other country and captures their boats. As the entire exercise has as much to do with scoring points as with national security, the number of boats and fishermen arrested by each agency is more or less equal.

A large number of Indian and Pakistani fishermen are lodged in jails, deprived of basic legal and human rights. They have been arrested for transgressing the maritime boundary between the two countries while engaged in fishing. Ironically, as of today no such boundary exists. The numbers run into hundreds and the fishermen languish in jails for years with only their families left to worry about them.

From time to time a few labour and human rights organisations have made efforts to bring the plight of the fishermen to the notice of their governments. Consistent efforts by these agencies have made a limited exchange of fishermen possible in recent years. But their task has been made difficult by the 'exchange protocol'.

The procedure followed for the release of the fishermen is somewhat similar to the procedure followed in the case of prisoners of war. The fishermen are kept in the dark at every stage from the time of their arrest. Even after completing their term of punishment as per court orders, they are not released; they have to wait for years for a formal process of exchange of prisoners to take place.

Yet, even ants have godfathers. While India and Pakistan have not talked to each other for over a year, Track 2 diplomacy has been going on behind the scenes. One such group concerned with resolving the maritime issues between the countries has been meeting in Malaysia for the past two years. The group comprises retired naval officers from India and Pakistan with experts from Canada's Dalhousie University acting as facilitators.

The initial aim of the group was to bring about a maritime agreement between the two countries along the model of the famous Incident at Sea Agreement between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States. This agreement, originally signed to prevent collisions and other ugly incidents between the warships of the two countries at the height of the Cold War, has now become the model for many such agreements the world over. A large number of countries, adversaries otherwise, have seen the wisdom of signing such agreements. Israel and Jordan, for example, have a working agreement similar to INCSEA. So have Malaysia and Indonesia.

The India-Pakistan group discovered that many other maritime issues remain unresolved between the countries. There is the question of the maritime boundary. The frequent arrest of fishermen remains a major issue. Then there is the question of oil and natural gas pipelines. Pollution, environmental protection, and piracy are other issues where the two countries can co-operate with mutual advantage.

After the 2001 meeting of the group, as a result of the lobbying done by the Indian participants, the government's policy about fishermen changed. All the Pakistani fishermen held in custody were released and instructions were issued to the Coast Guard not to make further arrests. Transgressors were to be warned and let off. The gesture, made just a few days before the Agra Summit, was intended to create a cordial atmosphere for the talks. It was hoped that Pakistan would reciprocate the move.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, whose policy is not to tackle any other issue before the Kashmir problem, did not reciprocate and about 250 Indian fishermen continued their stay in Pakistani jails.

Not for want of effort though. After the 2002 meeting it was decided to mount one more effort for the release of the Indian fishermen. Naeem Sarfraz, a very active member of the Indo-Pakistani group, mounted an intense effort to bring their plight to the notice of government officials and human rights groups. As a result of his lobbying, the Pakistani government has now decided to release 236 Indian fishermen.

But the periodic release of fishermen brings only a temporary respite to the real problem. The solution is quite easy and obvious. Some permanent arrangement must be made so that the fishermen are not arrested in the first place.

Many suggestions have been made in the past to resolve the issue. One workable solution is to create a 10 mile buffer zone either side of the present provisional maritime boundary. Fishermen on either side must be instructed not to fish in the buffer zone and shooed away if they transgress. Even if in extreme cases a few boats and fishermen are captured, the boats may be impounded, but the men should be repatriated within a short time.

Frequent institutionalized meetings and talks must be held between the Indian Coast Guard and the Pakistani Maritime Security Agency to make these solutions work. If the government of each country cares for the welfare of its citizens, as they always profess to do, they should embrace these solutions, which may alleviate the suffering of a few of their innocent citizens.

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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