KARACHI, June 27: Wednesday morning brought longed-for freedom for 311 Indian fishermen who were released at 10am from the District Prison Malir.
The fishermen, most of whom hailed from Gujarat, included 20 juveniles who spent their time in the Youthful Offenders’ School adjacent to Karachi Central Jail.
They all boarded the seven air-conditioned coaches arranged by retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid and his team that would take them to the Wagah border crossing where they would be handed over to the Indian authorities on Thursday morning.
There were broad smiles all around as the fishermen holding on to their new clothes and slippers along with their tattered knapsacks waved goodbye to prison officials and others seeing them off. When their knapsacks were being put on the buses’ rooftop carriers, a policeman quickly requested the crew to fit them into the luggage compartments. “It may rain soon,” said prison constable Masood Ahmed looking skywards. “Please don’t let their things get wet.”
Sindh Minister for Law and Prisons Ayaz Soomro, who was there to see off the fishermen, said it was a goodwill gesture from Pakistan.
“We hope that seeing our intentions, the Indian government, too, will reciprocate and release the Pakistani fishermen from Indian prisons,” he said.
“There are still 131 [Indian fishermen] left in our jails. But we are taking good care of them, spending around Rs135 a day on each of them,” he added.
Justice Zahid, who has been fighting for the cause of such fishermen for years, explained that under the Foreigners Act 1946, aliens get around seven years in prison.
“But we intervened to give the poor fishermen some respite so you see them being released between nine and 14 months.
“Just look at their innocent faces and tell me if they even belong behind bars,” he sighed, pointing out that there was no clear demarcation in the sea to stop them from straying into the neighbouring country’s territory.
About the four fishermen held back as earlier 315 were announced to be released, he said they still had a week or so to serve out their term.
Speaking to this reporter just before their release the fishermen said they longed to be with their families. Sporting a bright red tilak on his forehead, Mansukh said he missed his children. His two-year-old son he thought wouldn’t even remember him as he was too little when he was arrested nine months ago. Then with a shy smile he added that he missed his wife Sonal, too. “She is the one who sent me the kumkum [red saffron] for the tilak in her last chitthi,” he said.
Nanji Bhagwan, who was in jail for 10 months, said he didn’t know that he had entered Pakistani waters while catching lal machhli, which is also called Lal Pari.
“I didn’t know where I was heading in my search for Lal Pari,” he chuckled the moment he realised that he sounded like he was chasing fairies.
Among the 311 Indian fishermen, there were 10 Muslims, including Yaqoob Taju who said he liked the jail food, especially beef and chicken curry.
He said: “I only know fishing and I will return to fishing once I get back; so you can count on my returning soon. This is God’s world. What difference does it make if I am here or there?” he mused.
Two juvenile boys, Kishan and Vipul Deepak, could not be released, because the former was being treated for some neurological problem and the latter being interrogated further after he mentioned the name of his uncle, who lives in Karachi, instead of his father’s by mistake.
Eighteen-year-old Jagdish said in the Youthful Offenders’ School, he was afraid of the local boys who were in the habit of taking drugs. “They fought a lot and I just thought it better to keep a distance from them,” he said, adding that he couldn’t even study there as the medium of education was Urdu. “We are Gujarati-speaking and know a bit of Hindi only,” he explained.
Asked how his experience was at the correction facility, 14-year-old Yateen Valjee said: “Well, it wasn’t bad.
The food was also okay. Some media people visited us around the time of the Holy festival and we played Holi, too. When they found out that we had a problem performing pooja without our idols or their pictures, they gave us the pictures of Vishnu, Bholay Nath and Guru Dev.”
Perhaps the youngest among the boys was 13-year-old Sunjay Ram, who spent nine months here. “I have made some friends who are being tried for various crimes, including murder. I will write to them once I reach home,” he said. Then with big innocent eyes,
he asked: “What is Wagah? Will anyone come to take us home from there?”