South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

India and Pakistan must immediately revive the Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners.

To be in prison in one’s own country is itself a nerve-wracking ordeal. But imagine how much more agonising it must be to languish in another country’s prison, often endlessly, and for no fault or for minor transgressions, especially if the two countries in question happen to be India and Pakistan?

Every time relations between the two nations nosedive, it automatically affects Indian prisoners in Pakistan, and vice versa. This was most recently typified in the film Sarabjit. Sarabjit Singh, an Indian national convicted by a Pakistani court, died in May 2013 after prison inmates brutally attacked him in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail. A week later, in what was seen as a tit-for-tat assault of Sarabjit, Sanaullah Ranjay, a Pakistani prisoner, died in a Jammu jail when Indian prisoners attacked him. The stories are similar: if Indian prisoners like Sarabjit, Kirpal Singh, Vaaga Chauhan and Ratan Das have died in Pakistani prisons, Pakistani prisoners like Nawaz Ali and others have died in Indian prisons. What ties their stories together is pain, pathos, and a sense of being victimised.

Profile of prisoners

Whenever a fisherman who has been arrested from the other side of the border dies, it takes at least a month for his body to reach his relatives back home. Fishermen Vaaga Chauhan and Ratan Das, both from Una in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, were reportedly arrested by Pakistani authorities when their boats strayed into the country’s waters. Though they died in Karachi on December 12, 2015, and February 8, 2016, respectively, their bodies arrived in India months later, only on April 14 this year. Similarly, Nawaz Ali’s body reached Pakistan a month after his death.

These men were not criminals or terrorists; small errors on their part and hostilities between their nations cost them their lives. Yet, not even a fraction of the concern and outpouring of emotion for the deaths of brave jawans is extended to these fishermen; there is no uproar, no debate. Perhaps this has something to do with their low economic status, semi-literacy, and invisibility to the public in both countries.

I have met many Indian fishermen who spent a long time in Karachi Jail. I have also met a few Pakistani fishermen in Rajkot Jail in Gujarat. All their stories are either of miscalculations made while negotiating the sea or errors in direction, both of which have to do with the absence of a clear demarcation of boundaries in the waters.

These prisoners have nothing to do with the policies of their respective governments, but they bear the consequences of these policies or are often held up as “prizes” in a tense geo-political conflict. In Gujarat, where there is pollution near the shores and an overabundance of trawlers, fishermen have no other option but to go farther into the sea to catch fish. This explains why there are more Indian fishermen in Pakistan’s jails than the other way round. Also, while most Indians in Pakistan’s prisons are fishermen, the opposite is not true.

A couple of weeks back, I met some Indian fishermen who had been released from Pakistan’s prisons and repatriated to India in March, in their villages in Gujarat. They recounted similar horror stories: of being denied sufficient food, health services, communication with family members, and delay in consular access. The sad reality is that neither India nor Pakistan treats these prisoners within the norms laid down by international covenants or with any decency.

The need for timely repatriation

And here’s what makes the situation glaringly unfair. India and Pakistan had signed the Agreement on Consular Access in 2008, according to which consular access must be provided within 90 days of arrest of either country’s prisoners. This period is given to help verify the person’s nationality and enable necessary steps to repatriate the person to his or her country of origin.

There have been instances where prisoners could not be released and repatriated because their nationalities were not verified on time. Even today, 18 Indian fishermen remain in Pakistan’s prison after completing their sentences more than a year ago.

In January 2008, India and Pakistan set up the India-Pakistan Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners, which consisted of retired judges from both countries. The committee worked hard to seek early repatriation of prisoners who have completed their sentences in the other country’s jail and also ensure that they are treated humanely. It met every six months and visited prisoners in both countries. It discussed issues such as health and food of the prisoners and the need to evolve a mechanism for humanitarian treatment of women, the mentally challenged, juvenile prisoners, and so on.

For prisoners lodged in jails in the neighbouring country, meeting judges from the higher judiciary meant a lot. It gave them hope and confidence of returning to their homes. They brought to the notice of the committee members the hardships they faced in these prisons. This intervention helped the prisoners receive better medical treatment. It also allowed family members to find them through the committee members. Both governments applauded the role played by the committee.

Unfortunately, this committee has not met since the Narendra Modi government came to power. In April, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, while assuring the family members of Kirpal Singh that his remains would be brought back soon, said the government would try to revive the judicial committee. Union Minister V.K. Singh told the Rajya Sabha later, much to everyone’s surprise, that the committee had been meeting. This is not true.

India and Pakistan must immediately revive the committee to ensure that the prisoners are ensured their rights and are repatriated at the earliest. It is time that these prisoners, who are victims twice — first of poverty and circumstance, and then of a geo-political conflict — are not held hostage. The least India and Pakistan can do is evolve a policy of no arrest on straying fishermen.

Jatin Desai is a journalist and General Secretary of Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy.

Updated On: May 23, 2016