KARACHI, Sept 26: A Pakistan fisherman arrested by the Indian authorities in 1999 died more than two weeks ago but the authorities there broke the news on Wednesday, shocking not only the family but also people pursuing peace between the two countries.
Though the first priority of Mohammad Nawaz’s family and the Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (FCS) is to undertake the lengthy formalities to bring his body back for burial here, doubts are being expressed over the prospects of sustainable friendly relations between the two states.
“We received a brief communiqué from the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi after they were informed early on Wednesday,” said Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, the FCS welfare officer.
“It only says that Mohammad Nawaz died during treatment at a hospital in India’s Gujarat state. He was arrested in 1999 on charges of fishing in Indian waters with his three fellow fishermen that included his younger brother.”
He said the two countries exchanged lists of fishermen jailed in their respective prisons, but the Pakistani authorities were never told about these four fishermen arrested and it was only in 2010 when their presence in an Indian jail was recognised and brought on record after an exchange of a series of letters.
Abdul Saeed Khan Baloch, the FCS administrator, criticised the Indian authorities and termed the death of Mohammad Nawaz the result of ‘criminal negligence’ on their part, demanding that officials of both Pakistan and India hold a transparent inquiry into the matter.
“We were neither aware of the cause of the death, nor were we ever told about his ill health. He died on Sept 8 and the Indians informed us on Sept 26. “I don’t know if this is deliberate or due to negligence. In either case, it’s a criminal act,” he added.
The news of Mohammad Nawaz’s death brought life in his native Rehri Goth — a poor neighbourhood of fishermen — to a standstill.
His two children and wife started receiving condolences from relatives and neighbours, but they wanted to know some facts untold for more than a decade.
“My younger sister was just three months old when my father (Mohammad Nawaz) embarked on his last fishing journey from the Korangi fish harbour in 1999,” said teenage Abdul Ghani in a barely audible voice while sobbing consistently.
“Since 1999 our life has hung in the balance. In 2010 the news of our father’s presence in an Indian jail had boosted our hopes, shattered by the news of his death today.”
FCS data shows reasons for its anger and protest which says over one year ago Pakistan released 654 Indian fishermen, but India released fewer than 50 Pakistani fishermen.
“Currently 65 Pakistani fishermen are in Indian jails and 46 of them might be handed over to us on Sept 28 at the Wagah Border,” said Mr Sheikh, the FCS welfare officer. “In our jails there are 39 Indian fishermen. We have received some five bodies of our fishermen over the past few years from Indian prisons. One of the Indian fishermen also died in the Landhi jail.”
Peace campaigners say if the ‘tragic episodes’ like that of Mohammad Nawaz continue, the initiative taken a couple of years ago for the quick release of fishermen in each country’s jails will come to nought.
“But it should not provoke us into to a tit-for-tat reaction,” said retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, one of the four committee members representing Pakistan at the Pakistan-India Judicial Committee that handles the release of prisoners in each country’s jails.
“When we release Indian fishermen, we follow our constitution as well as Islamic principles. If Indians don’t follow their constitution, the ruling of their Supreme Court and their civil society doesn’t raise a strong voice for that, it should not make us do the same.”
He deplored the government’s attitude on a ‘sensitive and human issue’ that none of the official took up with the Indian authorities or at an international forum.
“I wonder why our foreign minister doesn’t come up even with a single statement and ask the Indians to release our fishermen and prisoners who have completed their jail terms. The same is the case with our interior minister, who has never spoken on that subject,” said Justice Zahid.