Helpless pawns in a bilateral dispute: No relief in sight for poor Indian and Pakistani fishermen

The current process shows the insensitivity of our systems and highlights how fishermen and others are of the lowest priority as they remain incarcerated without reason in the other country's prisons.

Indian fishermen in Karachi waiting to be released, May and June 2023 (Photo: Edhi Foundation)

If 99 Indian fishermen incarcerated in Pakistani prisons had been repatriated last month as agreed, Jagdish Mangal might still be alive. Mangal was among the several Indian fishermen arrested by Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency in February 2020 and detained in Malir prison, Karachi. He was 35 years old from Nana Vada, Gujarat.

Pakistan was to repatriate 99 Indian fishermen on 3 July, but this never happened for unexplained reasons. Mangal died on August 6 of "natural causes", according to the medical certificate.

Another fisherman, Soma Baraiya, 58, who was to be released along with 198 other Indian fishermen in May, passed away days before his repatriation. Hailing from Kotda village in the Indian state of Gujarat, he has been imprisoned since 2020. After being taken ill, he was sent to hospital, where he died due to lung and heart issues.

Neither man should have been in prison in the first place.

Hard positions

Mangal is the fifth foreign prisoner to die in captivity in Pakistan, writes Dawn News in an editorial, due to “the hard positions taken by the two states and the erasure of humanitarian concern”.

The incarcerated fisherfolk’s impoverished families struggle to survive while the main breadwinners are jailed, treated as criminals, and “kept underfed and without healthcare in grimy, choked prison cells,” writes Dawn. “All this pain is in the name of an unsettled history and indiscernible maritime boundaries.”

The only means of survival for the fisherfolk is fishing. When they cross the invisible International maritime border, they risk being arrested by the other country’s security agencies.

Soma Baraiya’s mortal remains were repatriated in just over two weeks – an excruciating wait for his grieving families, but because his nationality had already been verified in readiness for the upcoming repatriation, the process was far quicker than the usual 2-3 months.

It is unacceptable that in this age of digital communication, the authorities take months to confirm the nationality of incarcerated fisherfolk. Even in the case of demise, as in the above cases, it typically takes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs two weeks after a death in custody to send an official communication across the border.

India and Pakistan signed a Consular Access Agreement in May 2008, according to which they would provide consular access to each other's prisoners within three months of the arrest and not after completion of the prisoners' prison term. This has not happened.

The Agreement needs to be followed “in letter and spirit”, as urged by the Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners at its meeting in May 2013.

The Committee, comprising four members from each country – retired judges from the higher judiciary – in fact recommended that such prisoners must be provided consular access “every year, at least four times, namely in the first week of February, the first week of May, the first week of August, and the first week of November”.

Formed in 2007, the Committee met twice a year for most years until its last meeting in India in October 2013.

The retired judges would also meet cross-border prisoners – fishermen and civilians. The process helped expedite issues like consular access, health, legal aid and so on.

The Judicial Committee needs to be urgently reconstituted.

The current process shows the insensitivity of our systems and highlights how fishermen and others are of the lowest priority as they remain incarcerated without reason in the other country's prisons.

The fishing communities of both countries “have good relations among each other,” says Veljibhai Masani, a fishing community leader in his 50s from Mangrol, Gujarat.

Before 2001, fishing community delegations would occasionally visit the other country to verify their incarcerated colleagues’ nationalities. This process needs to be revived.

Greater pollution on the Indian side and dwindling fish supplies drive more Indian fishermen towards Pakistani waters than the other way around.

There are currently 266 Indian fishermen in Malir jail, Karachi and 68 Pakistani fishermen in various jails across Gujarat.

Earlier in May and June this year, Pakistan repatriated 398 Indian fishermen, while India repatriated 15 Pakistani fishermen and some civilian prisoners in May and July.

Another 100 Indian fishermen incarcerated in Pakistan were to be repatriated on July 3, but that has yet to happen.

Absence of bilateral communication

Family members of those incarcerated across the hostile border are nervous and unsure about the future of their loved ones. They desperately call anyone who they think can be of help. The trauma affects them mentally and physically.

Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar would do well to take the urgent step of repatriating 100 Indian fishermen promised by the previous government. If the decision is carried out, it will send a strong and positive message.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, those incarcerated across the border have had no communication with their families back home. Although there are no official directives, sending anything from India to Pakistan and vice versa has become virtually impossible. Earlier, they could at least send letters to their relatives.

In the absence of communication, the arrested fishermen's family members have no information about how their loved ones are faring. Prisoners have a right to meet relatives and friends but this is not possible between India and Pakistan.

For humanity’s sake, there’s a need to think out of the box -- why can there not be online meetings between arrested fishermen and their relatives? This is quite doable and will give some hope to the prisoners and their families.

When a few fishermen from Maharashtra were repatriated to India recently, one of them was in shock, learning of his mother's death only after entering India. How can the system be so insensitive to the suffering of the arrested fishermen and their relatives?

With smaller boats and limited capacity, fewer Pakistani fishermen venture towards India, which is why there are fewer in Indian custody.

Hundreds of confiscated boats

Testimony from the fishing community and boat owners suggests that Pakistan has over 1,200 Indian fishing boats in its custody, captured over the years. Each boat costs around INR 60 lakh, over USD 72,000 in today’s currency.

India holds over 200 Pakistani boats. They are smaller than the Indian ones and have yet to be returned.

The only time any boats were returned was in March 2015, when Pakistan sent back 57 Indian fishing boats. An Indian fishing community delegation flew to Karachi -- there was a direct flight between Mumbai and Karachi then -- and Pakistan’s MSA towed the boats to the maritime border where the Indian coastguards and fishing boat owners met them.

“Narendra Modi had just become prime minister and was on good terms with Pakistan’s then premier Nawaz Sharif”, says Veljibhai Masan, who was part of the eight-member delegation.

Pakistan had promised to release 22 more boats later, but that never happened.

Disuse and lack of maintenance damages the confiscated boats in any case, so even if returned, they are not seaworthy.

Coastal economy suffers

When fisherfolk are arrested and fishing boats confiscated, the coastal economy suffers. Boats are the only source of income for most people in the fishing community.

The fishing community is poor. Most are semi-literate. Their families struggle to survive when their members are arrested across the border. Women take up extra jobs, often in the fishing industry or home-based work. Children are forced to drop out of school. They become neglected and lose interest in their studies.

A government scheme in Gujarat, India, provides some relief, giving each family INR 300 per day during the fishermen’s incarceration in Pakistani prisons. However, it benefits only those who are first-time detainees. Some fishermen, arrested twice or thrice, become ineligible. It also does not help fishermen from other states working in Gujarat.

The Maharashtra government announced a similar scheme last month. But the resolution, in Marathi, is a non-starter, requiring the incarcerated fishermen to have received permission for fishing from the Maharashtra government. Such permission is given to boats, not individuals.

Both governments, in their communication, have stated that the fisherfolk cross the water border inadvertently. This is true. And if they cross the border inadvertently, why should they be detained in prisons across the border for years? Nowhere in the world are people kept incarcerated for so long for inadvertently crossing a border.

They are generally held and charged for violating the Foreigners Act, which carries a sentence of six months. The detained men typically spend a year or more in prison before getting a court hearing. Their under-trial time is not counted. The process of nationality verification begins only after they have served their sentences. This takes more time. And then, they are released only when it is considered to be a ‘good time’ politically.

Need for no-arrest policy

Activists have also long been calling for a No-Arrest policy and for fishing boats that cross the maritime border to be pushed back into their own country’s waters. Adopting such a policy will stop the harassment of fishermen and their families and reduce pressure on the treasury.

Last August, over 30 organisations around Southasia and beyond endorsed a joint statement about cross-border prisoners initiated by Sapan, the Southasia Peace Action Network, calling for the humane treatment of cross-border prisoners and to decriminalise inadvertent illegal border crossings.

The statement, titled ‘Release prisoners on completion of jail term, decriminalise inadvertent border crossings, especially for fisherfolk and minors‘, draws attention to the death of two Indian fisherfolk in Pakistani custody in 2022 and the death of a Pakistani fisherman of Bengali origin in India’s custody the previous year.

Ideally, there should not be even a single fisherman of either country in Indian and Pakistan's prisons. Viewing the issue through a humanitarian rather than purely legal or political lens is the need of the hour. It is time to stop using poor fisherfolk as pawns in bilateral relations.

(The authors are veteran journalists who met through the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy launched in 1994, the former is based in Mumbai and the latter in Boston. Views are personal. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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