People of the Sea

Published: October 4, 2013 - 13:34 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 02:05

Pakistan recently arrested some Indian fisherfolk for violating the maritime boundary. Within days, India made similar arrests, nabbing Pakistani fisherfolk for this invisible crime.

All this just days before the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York on September 23 where the prime ministers of India and Pakistan were expected to meet on the sidelines. Both sides keep arresting each other’s fishermen, in blatant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982.

Article 73 (enforcement of laws and regulations of the coastal state) of the UN Convention states that arrested vessels and crews “shall be promptly released upon the posting of reasonable bond or other security”. No such option is ever provided to the arrested fisherfolk.

Penalties for violations “may not include imprisonment, in the absence of agreements to the contrary by the States concerned, or any other form of corporal punishment.” Hah.

“In cases of arrest or detention of foreign vessels the coastal state shall promptly notify the flag state, through appropriate channels, of the action taken and of any penalties subsequently imposed.”

Excuse me, while I scoff. Not only are these poor pawns (no pun intended) in the power game arrested — for crossing an invisible boundary — but neither country bothers to inform the other that it has their men (often boys). The prisoners have no consular access, no lawyer, and no way to contact their families.

Their boats and their catch are impounded. The boats, costing lakhs, are never returned. A line of prickly masts of impounded Indian fishing boats reaches into the horizon at Karachi harbour, mute testimony to the fisherfolk’s tragedy.

It is onlyafter the arrested fisherfolk have been in prison under trial (sometimes for years), and have served out their sentence, that the respective consulates are informed. An outdated, hostile procedure is followed for most cross-border prisoners.

The families of those arrested often remain ignorant of their arrest and whereabouts for lengthy periods of time. In some cases, repatriated prisoners have nowhere to go if they have lost track of their families. When cases come to public notice, it is because the prisoner’s family or friends have somehow learnt of their arrest and taken up the issue, engaging lawyers and notifying the media.

Even after serving their sentences, the prisoners are not released, pending a cumbersome verification process, plus paperwork like getting their passports made. Anyone who has dealt with Indian or Pakistani bureaucracy knows what a nightmare that is, and that much worse for those who are resourceless, penniless, and unlettered.


Sometimes, they are released as a ‘goodwill gesture’. Pakistan freed over 350 Indian prisoners in August 2013. Earlier, India released some Pakistani prisoners.

Those released by India included three of the six or so fishermen arrested in 1999 after a poorly timed cyclone — in May, at the height of the Kargil war initiated by then Pakistan army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf — destroyed their vessel and they ended up on the Indian side. Indian courts charged them with spying and smuggling narcotics, and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

When investigated by journalist Jatin Desai and others, India insisted that these men were not in Indian prisons. Their names did not show up on any of the prisoner lists exchanged since the establishment in 2007 of the India-Pakistan Joint Judicial Committee.

It was only after one of the ‘cyclone fishermen’, Nawaz Ali Jat, died in a hospital in Ahmedabad where he had been under treatment for an ailment, that India finally admitted that these fisherfolk were indeed prisoners in India. Was the information earlier suppressed due to incompetence or was it malice?

Pakistan arrests more Indian fisherfolk than the other way round simply because industrial pollution and over-fishing have destroyed India’s coastline and reduced the fish supply, and fish in the Pakistani waters are more plentiful. Not that the fishing communities on either side have a problem with their colleagues from across the border fishing in the grounds that they traditionally shared — until 1947.

It is only because of tensions at the national level that the fisherfolk suffer, and are treated like prisoners of war, as Mohammad Ali Shah, of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, points out.

Fisherfolk and activists on both sides are rightly demanding a no-arrest policy as the beginning of a permanent solution to this issue. Other suggestions include fishing licences to hunt on the other side, and establishing a joint fisheries commission.


This story is from print issue of HardNews