– JATIN DESAI

At the onset of the fishing season each year, a shroud of uncertainty envelopes the minds of the fishermen of India and Pakistan regarding their imminent arrest by the marine security agencies of each other’s countries. This year though, with the fear of the COVID-19 pandemic thickening that shroud of uncertainty, the fishing season in both countries saw an unusually unenthusiastic start from 1st August 2020. 

The scenario is not much different among fish workers of India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The arrest of fishermen is a quite common scenario in South Asia. As on April 30 2020 there were 38 Indian fishermen and their three boats were in the custody of Bangladesh, India’s ministry of external affairs replied me in my Right to Information (RTI) application. 

Indian and Sri Lankan fish workers are always tense. Many times, in the past incidents of shooting at the fishermen for allegedly entering into the water of the other country by the Navy has taken place. 

On 1 July 2020, India and Pakistan exchanged the lists of fishermen and civilian prisoners of the other country detained in their countries. Under the bilateral Agreement on Consular Access of 2008, India and Pakistan exchange lists of prisoners on the first day of January and July each year – a custom, which despite the varying degree of tensions in the bilateral relationship, has happened without fail for the past 12 years. As per the lists exchanged on 1 July 2020, 270 Indian fishermen and 54 civilian prisoners are languishing in different jails in Pakistan, while 97 Pakistani fishermen and 267 civilian prisoners are held captive in India.

Of the total number of Indian prisoners in Pakistan, more than 83 percent are fishermen, most of whom are from Gujarat. Rising sea pollution has seen the fish stock plummet around the Gujarat coast, forcing the fishermen to venture out further and further into the sea for a ‘good’ yield. Fishing near the yet-unsettled International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), the boats commonly ‘inadvertently’ cross over into Pakistan’s waters, making the fishermen the prey for Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency (MSA). Similarly, fishing boats from Pakistan also enter into the Indian side and their fishermen get arrested by Indian Coast Guard (CG). Many times, even if these fisher workers realise that they have ventured into other country’s waters, they are unable to stop their boats or turn them around or even drop anchor because of the stormy conditions or a technical snag – or just because the catch seems to be worth the risk.

After arrest on the high seas, the fishermen – along with their boats – are taken to Karachi and the nearest fishing port along the Gujarat coastline, India’s longest. Held guilty by the local court, the fishermen in most cases are sentenced to 6 to 18 months in prison, while the boats are abandoned to rot. Over the years, Pakistan has seized more than 1,000 Indian fishing boats, while India has confiscated around 300 of Pakistan’s. At roughly Indian Rs. 50 lakh per boat, this translates into a collective loss of Indian Rs. 500 crores for Indian boat owners. Pakistani boats cost half as much. These boats are a prime source of income for the fishermen. On average, one boat supports a hundred people. The loss of a boats cripples the fishing industry which provides the only source of income in many villages.

During time in jails, the fishermen are totally cut-off from their families, who are left behind to live a life of despair and ruin. Ignorant about the fate of their husbands, most women work for twelve hours in the fish processing industry for a meagre amount of Indian Rs. 200 per work day. The collateral damage sees many kids, often the first generation of the community to be educated, dropping out of school.

In a promising breakthrough, both countries signed the Agreement on Consular Access in May 2008. They pledged to provide consular access “within three months to nationals of one country, under arrest, detention or imprisonment in the other country”. They also agreed to “release and repatriate persons within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of sentences.” The excitement over this development was short-lived as the breakthrough agreement had no bearing on reality. In the absence of a fixed time frame, the completion of the nationality verification process takes an inordinately long time, often much longer than the period of the sentence itself.

Ironically, of the 270 Indian fishermen currently lodged in Pakistan’s jails, nearly 100 have already completed their sentences. Their nationalities are also confirmed by India. They should have been home long back. On the other hand, the tragedies of the kin of the fishermen who die serving their sentences get compounded as it takes several weeks to clear the paperwork for the repatriation of their bodies, revealing an apathetic attitude of the concerned officials in both countries. Such recurring instances further reinforce the futility of the mutual agreements that are signed with much fanfare but soon get reduced to optical gimmicks as the traditional suspicion and enmity cast their shadows on the Indo-Pak relations.

One year before the path-breaking Agreement on Consular Access, India and Pakistan instituted a Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners (JJCP) consisting of four retired Judges of the higher judiciary from each country. It was slated to meet twice in a year in respective countries. Till such time the mechanism was active, the committee members used to personally visit prisoners and inquire about their wellbeing. They looked into aspects including the status of cases, consular access, and recommended measures to remove the hurdles causing delays in their release and repatriation. An early recommendation made by the committee was the immediate release and repatriation of fishermen and women prisoners after the completion of their jail terms. Sadly, none of the committee’s recommendations were ever considered worthy of implementation. To the contrary, the committee has become virtually defunct after its last meeting in October 2013 in India. In May 2018, there was a move by both countries to revive the committee. India nominated its four members, but Pakistan has so far not made any nomination.

The offence knowingly or unknowingly committed by the fishermen of either side must be seen from a humanitarian angle rather than from a purely legal perspective. 

Not only India and Pakistan but all the countries of South Asia should adopt a No-Arrest Policy for fishermen who inadvertently violate the IMBL. Facts reveal that hardly any fisherman, if at all, has been arrested under charges of any other offence but for illegal trespassing. And almost always, the motive has either been found to be chasing a good yield or any other uncontrollable natural or man-made reason such as stormy conditions or technical snag. Rather than indulging in regular yet ineffective ritual of arrests and confiscation of boats, Pakistan’s MSA, Indian CG and other coastal securities of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh should push these boats back to their country’s waters with a warning. Only repeat offenders must be dealt with more severely. Arrest and incarceration should be the last resort, not the first. 

Importantly, as a mark of symbolic goodwill gestures, India and Pakistan routinely release fishermen from their custody en masse. The released prisoners even include the fishermen still undergoing their sentence. The question such gestures arise is if they are to be released, why arrest them in the first place? Similarly, the JJCP must be urgently reconstituted.

It is a matter of concern that both countries have continued to drag their feet on providing consular access within three months after an arrest. Worse, in the digital age, the inability to verify the nationality exposes the bureaucratic lethargy and diplomatic apathy. Since the Agreement on Consular Access is still a live document, these matters must be handled with more alacrity by everyone concerned.

The remains of prisoners who die in detention must be repatriated within one week. Currently, the unending wait for clearance leads to instances which lead to their bodies being cremated in a foreign land. As the shadow of COVID-19 looms large over both countries, there is growing concern for the health of the fishermen and other civilian prisoners among their families back home. India and Pakistan must therefore allow a team of doctors of the respective countries to regularly visit and examine the prisoners.

A seventh of India’s total earnings from seafood export is contributed by Gujarat. While the arrests of the fishermen is a regular phenomenon, their plight is not acknowledged by the national agenda of either country.  However, for the occasional humanitarian gestures and to maintain a façade of goodwill these detained fishworkers are herded off for repatriation through the Wagah-Attari border.

The Writer is a Journalist, General Secretary of Pakistan – India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy and a member and former Bureau Member of SAHR. The writer can be accessed through jatindesai123@gmail.com

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