The other border question

Published : Mar 21, 1998 00:00 IST

The case of Indian and Pakistani fishermen, jailed for trespassing into each other country's territorial waters while engaged in their work in proximate marine regions, presents a humanitarian problem.

A LARGE number of Indian and Pakistani fishermen are lodged in jails in each other's country, deprived of basic legal and human rights. They were arrested for transgressing the maritime boundary between the two countries while engaged in fishing. Following a bilateral agreement, each side released a batch of 194 fishermen on July 15, 1997. It is difficult to determine the exact number of those who are still imprisoned in the two countries since government agencies do not release the figures. However, the Fishermen's Cooperative Society in Karachi has stated that around 130 Indian fishermen remain in Pakistani jails, while the corresponding figure for Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails is estimated at 118.

Consistent efforts by concerned agencies have made a limited exchange of fishermen possible in recent years. However, their task has been made difficult by the 'exchange protocol' - the procedure followed for the release of the fishermen is somewhat similar to the procedure followed in the case of prisoners of war. The fishermen are kept in the dark at every stage from the time of their arrest. Even after completing their term of punishment as per court orders, they are not released; they have to wait for years for a formal process of exchange of prisoners to take place.

However, for the first time, trade unions and labour support groups of both India and Pakistan, and their common platform, the South Asian Labour Forum (SALF), have been successful in drawing the attention of the authorities concerned to the plight of the fishermen. The SALF has demanded the unconditional release of all the detained persons and a stop to the mid-sea arrest and imprisonment of fishermen.

The SALF's Indian chapter, which consists of central trade unions such as the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), and labour support groups such as the Centre for Education and Communication, welcomed the exchange of prisoners in July, but criticised the absence of a clear policy of action to prevent the arrest and detention of innocent fishermen.

H. Mahadevan of the AITUC said: "The act of exchange by the governments has not been undertaken as part of any clear policy. There is no bilateral agreement defining the maritime borders between the countries. Besides, this does not guarantee that arbitrary arrests and illegal detention will not happen again."

The SALF demanded that India and Pakistan mark out the maritime boundary so that buoys and other marking devices would be visible to fishermen while they are at sea. It emphasised the need for an agreement among countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that would enable fishermen of these countries to fish in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal without hindrance.

India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives share the resources of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. India has a long coastline of 7,417 km. Pakistan's coastline lies almost parallel to the 1,640-km-long Gujarat coast in India. As for the Bay of Bengal, India shares the coastline and the marine resources with Bangladesh. Sri Lanka has its northern coastline along the Palk Straits. However, there are no bilateral agreements on maritime boundaries between India and any of these South Asian countries.

The provisions of the Maritime Zones of India Acts, 1976 and 1981, under which the fishermen are detained and punished, do not correspond with those of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, of which India is a signatory. The Maritime Zone of Pakistan Act is almost identical to the Indian law. The SALF has demanded that these Acts be amended in such a way that they are in consonance with the U.N. Convention. It has also requested that fishermen's organisations and trade unions be represented at and consulted on bilateral or regional negotiations on this issue.

For fishermen, the concept of marine borders is difficult to comprehend. Whether Indian or Pakistani, Hindu or Muslim, all the jailed fishermen are poor. The ocean has been their workplace and their families have been engaged in fishing for generations. The hardships faced by thousands of fisherfolk, who live and work on the borders of India and Pakistan, are indescribable.

On October 8, 1989, Pakistani fishermen Naushad Ali, Muhammad Iqbal, Abu Usmaan, Ali Abu Samariya, Babal Gulmuhammad, Gaunar Khan Bahadur, Nisar Ahmed Usmaan, Ibrahim Adam and Khasina Ramzaan were aboard the boat Samira when they were arrested while in Indian waters. They were kept in police custody before a court sentenced them to jail terms. They were shifted to the custody of the Kutch police in September 1991, when they completed their terms in prison. Since March 1992, they have been in the custody of the Porbandar police.

The endless wait for freedom shattered Naushad Ali. The breadwinner of a family of seven, he said: "Why should we bear this pain because of the tensions between two governments? Our hearts are dead. Our hopes have been constantly belied."

A group of fishermen arrested in 1994 included several members of a family from Sind - three brothers, Sikander, Nizamuddin and Nissar, their cousins Didaar, Ashiq Ali and Muhammad Azhar, and their uncle, Muhammad Yakub. They never realised that they had entered Indian waters. Although they have completed their jail term, they still cannot comprehend their crime.

Didar was reluctant to talk. However, when he was coaxed to do so, he said: "What do I say? Each of us has three or four children, all of whom are now begging on the streets. They are dying of hunger." Muhammad Yakub said bitterly: "Here and also there (Pakistan), workers are languishing. No one cares for them."

Pakistani fishermen usually work at sea for between 10 to 15 days at a stretch. Ghani Rehman, 31, who was in the Porbandar jail for more than three years, said: "This time we were at sea for more than a month. It was not possible to make out where the wind and the current were driving the boat. If there were some marks to go by, it would have been possible to find out where we were. Suddenly the Navy came. We did not even know whose Navy it was." Ghani was the captain of the boat Al Jashan, which had 14 more fishermen on board.

After his arrest, Ghani wrote a letter to the owner of the boat in Karachi, but there was no reply. He wrote to his wife urging her to do something for their release, but she wrote back saying that she was helpless. Ghani's major worry was about the survival of his wife and three children.

Muhammad Alam had a similar story to narrate. He lived in Karachi with his parents, wife and two children. Alam was among six persons who set out fishing on a January morning on board the boat Al Kabutar. His boatmates were Muhammad Hussain, Abdul Sakur, Nurul Islam, Abdul Kalaam and Nur Alam. At night they spread their net and slept. At dawn, the Coast Guard caught them. The boat was kept at Porbandar, and they were sent to the police station and then to the Porbandar Jail.

The Indian Government and the agencies concerned - the Coast Guard, the police, the jail authorities and so on - are aware of the problems and individual officials sometimes express a desire to solve them. But what is lacking is positive action.

India's territorial waters are overseen by the Coast Guard, the Border Security Force, the Customs and the Army's inland units. K.C. Pande, Commandant at the District headquarters of the Coast Guard, at Porbandar said: "There are no signals on the sea that demarcate the border. Above all, there is no agreed boundary on the Arabian Sea between India and Pakistan. For their mutual convenience, the patrolling agencies have worked out an imaginary line in the Sir Creek region, off the Kutch coast."

He acknowledged the fact that fishing boats could stray into neighbouring territory owing to tidal currents, wind force, cyclones and engine failures. The captured Pakistani boats had no navigational aids. According to him, no Pakistani fishing boat has been found with arms and ammunition on board.

The Coast Guard Commandant suggested that in case of violations, the boats be seized and the crew and fishermen fined and released. Further, there should be separate courts for the speedy trial of cases like these.

Coast Guard officials also admit that the enforcement agencies that patrol the territorial waters often take retaliatory action. One official said: "If they capture a certain number of Indian boats, we capture that many Pakistani boats in retaliation." A large number of Pakistani fishworkers in India have completed their jail terms. They wait in police camps at Porbandar until the exchange of prisoners take place. Atul Karwal, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Porbandar, who is in charge of these "freed but fettered" fishworkers, expressed the opinion that they ought to be deported immediately after they complete their period of conviction. He said that there were no facilities to accommodate the fishworkers who had served their terms.

H.M. Shah, jailor at the Porbandar jail, said: "We do not inform the Pakistan High Commission on our own. Consular access for Pakistani prisoners is available only at the Central jail in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. But the prisoners are sent to that jail only on the orders of the Union Home Ministry, which are routed through the Gujarat Government."

FOR many years now, fishworkers' unions, boat owners' associations and trade unions in both countries have asked their respective governments to work out a long-term solution. Since 1988, the Shree Akhil Gujarat Machhimar Mahamandal, the Fishermen Boat Association, the Diu Porbandar Machhimar Boat Association, the Gujarat Marine Products Exporters Association, the National Fishworkers Forum and others have made several representations to the Indian Government.

Premjee Vhai Khokhari, secretary of the Shree Porbandar Machhimar Boat Association, said: "The fear of arrest has forced a number of fishermen to stop fishing. In spite of such frequent arrests and our protests, no effective measures have been taken." Khokari has consistently campaigned on this issue. He has addressed petitions to the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister and the External Affairs Minister.

Under the aegis of the SALF, on December 4, 1996, trade union leaders from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka met I.K. Gujral, who was External Affairs Minister at that time, and Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta. Gujral confirmed that no charges other than the violation of territoral waters had been made against any of the detained fishermen. Indrajit Gupta called a meeting of officials of the Ministries of Home and External Affairs, the Intelligence Bureau and some other government departments and representatives of the central trade unions and labour support organisations on August 27, 1997. He said at the meeting that he would find a long-term solution to the problem.

Similar efforts have been made on the other side of the border too. The Fishermen's Cooperative Society Ltd, Karachi, the Fishermen's Union, Karachi, the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, and the SALF's Pakistan chapter have taken up the issue with the Pakistan Government. In a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Karamat Ali, convener of the SALF's Pakistan chapter, said: "As long as the two governments cannot take decisive action even in a matter that does not have anything to do with issues of the national security of either country, but is surely a question of continued violation of the fundamental human rights of these fishermen, we feel there is no point in claiming that the two governments are sincerely working for the improvement of relations between the two countries."

Fishworkers continue to be detained on the high seas. While the authorities of the two countries invariably cite the issue of national interests, they appear to have ignored two major questions involved - the fishworkers' right to livelihood and the incompatibility of their national laws with regard to the seas and internal laws and conventions.

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