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Home > Citizens Action and Concerns for Peace in South Asia > Pakistan - India: Fishermen in troubled waters

Pakistan - India: Fishermen in troubled waters

by Sharmila Faruqui, 2 August 2009

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The News on Sunday, 2 August 2009

Fishermen from Pakistan and India are constantly being arrested by each other’s marine authorities on charges of violation of border

Last month, I was invited to Ibrahim Hyderi, a fishermen village at Karachi’s coast. Though the event was a reception by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) a local NGO, in the honour of a three member delegation of Indian peace activists on a visit to Pakistan, all the speeches and slogans were directed to a pressing issue faced by the fishermen on both sides of the borders — that they are often harassed, tortured and arrested on charges of crossing the border in the sea.

Mai Bhaghi, a 60-year-old woman from Rehri, another fisherman village on Karachi coast was on my right at the stage. She came with a list of four family members who left for a fish catching trip in the sea and never returned home. "It has been more than 10 years now that they are in Indian jails. Here are the names and details; I beg you; please help me and get them released," she said while handing over the list to Indian delegation.

Near her on the stage was Kavita Srivastava, peace activist from Rajhastan in India. She also had a list of Indian fishermen who are in Pakistani jails for years. "I have brought this list of Indian fishermen and other people who are in Pakistani jails for no crime of theirs; they just crossed border mistakenly," she said while handing over the list to me. "When I was leaving India, families of detained people came to me and asked for help; please do something," she added with tears in her eyes.

Srivastava brought the pain of the families of poor fishermen on other side of the border who are suffering as their loved ones languish in Pakistani jails. She shared how women have been rendered destitute and children have stopped going to school after bread earners of the family were arrested by Pakistani authorities.

In contrast to Srivastava, we had Mai Bhaghi, the one who is directly affected and her pain and agony was quite obvious when she spoke to a crowd of more than 500 men and women who had gathered to greet the Indian delegation.

"There is no adult member in the family; you can imagine how we are surviving; our children and women do domestic work so that we can have two time meal," she says. "It is like we all are in Indian jail as we remember our loved ones each day and cry. But feel helpless as we cannot to do anything; we even can’t go and see them," she added. She said the family receives a letter only once in a year, which brings hope that their loved ones are alive.

Unfortunately, fishermen from Pakistan and India are arrested by each other’s marine authorities on charges of violation of border in the sea — the border which is not properly marked.

Majeed Motani, a fishermen leader from Ibrahim Hyderi, told how these arrests happen. Majeed and ten other fishermen were on a fish-catching trip as they could not catch fish in the near waters. They went into deep sea; obviously they could sail down, two days had passed, they were a bit tired and often took naps on the boat. It was the third mid night when they heard shouts and found themselves surrounded by Indian navy boats. Next day they were in a jail in India. "We did not know whether we had crossed borders or were we arrested from Pakistani waters. There is no demarcation, how you can find that you are crossing the border while on water," says Motani.

And then he broke into tears recalling how he and colleagues languished in Indian jails for more 24 months. Still they were lucky that they got back sooner where it takes several years to be freed from Indian jails.

According to Mohammad Ali Shah, PFF chairman, there are about 550 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and about 105 Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails at present. And no one knows how long it will take to secure their release. Arrests of fishermen are so frequent that before the current batch is released another is already arrested.

In any other part of the world this issue would have been simple — the fishermen violating the sea borders would be given verbal warnings and they just move their boats back. "At the most they would have been arrested and released the very next day," says Shah who is also a member of World Forum of Fisher People.

Once arrested, there is no channel of communications from the fishermen as families cannot go and visit them due to visa restrictions and difficult permission processes. Strained relations between two rival countries have contributed so negatively that even if these fishermen have completed their sentences in the jails they cannot get back to home countries easily. The process is that the two countries will first agree on a list of people in each other’s jails and then exchange will be on equal number basis. This means India will release only 50 people if the number of Indian people released by Pakistani authorities is 50 regardless of the number of Pakistanis in Indian jails.

If we are with the fishermen of India and Pakistan who are languishing in each other’s jails, we have to stand up against forces of hatred and enmity and say no to terrorism wherever, and in whatever conditions, it takes place.

The writer is advisor to the Sindh Chief Minister.