As you walk through the outer gates, you can’t miss a white board showing the number of prisoners in the District Prison Malir, Karachi, along with their other details. The number of foreigners in the jail stands out. According to the information on the board, District Prison Malir currently houses 469 foreign prisoners of whom 256 have been convicted, 41 are being detained and 170 are under-trial prisoners (UTP). And almost all of them are Indian fishermen.
Somewhere in neighbouring India, there must be similar boards in their prisons or sheets of paper clipped in files showing the number of foreign inmates, many of whom are fishermen from Pakistan.
Sir Creek, a 96km strip disputed territory in the Indian Ocean between Pakistan’s Sindh and India’s Gujarat state is where almost all of these violations occur. Pakistan and India don’t know where to draw the line — literally. The misery suffered by Pakistani and Indian fishermen caught for unknowingly crossing over to the other country while catching fish at sea seems to have no end. In a way their situation can be compared to fish caught in the net, fighting for life and then pulled out of water. They are poor people whose livelihood for generations has depended on fishing. They don’t know any other work and if they get caught for straying into each other’s waters by mistake, they face an infinite time in jail while their families face a life of uncertainty and hunger back home.
For their families there is no news for days or even months after the disappearance of their menfolk, though vanishing with their boat at sea almost always means the same thing — that they have been arrested for straying into alien territory. The boats are confiscated immediately and never returned.
The Indian fishermen arrested for invading Pakistani territory are usually from Gujarat and the Pakistani fishermen caught on the other side are from Sindh, mostly Keti Bunder in Thatta and other coastal villages of Karachi such as Ibrahim Hyderi, Mubarak Village, Rehri Goth, Chashma Goth, Abdullah Goth, Abdul Rahman Goth, Kaka Village, Soomar Goth, Sanghu Goth, the Baba and Bhitt islands, etc. The fishermen on either side have similar stories to tell about how they were arrested. They only realise they are in troubled waters when they find the coastguard boats approaching them, and by then it is too late.
While the Indian fishermen — unless they happen to be children in which case they are kept in the Youthful Offenders’ School adjacent to Karachi Central Prison — are sent to the District Prison Malir where they are kept in new and separate barracks and treated rather well, the Pakistani fishermen are not so fortunate. Most are sent to GIC Kutch Putch, a prison in Gujarat, India.
The children are also sent to regular prisons, kept with criminals and beaten up night and day. Some have even died in prison in India like Ibrahim Mallah of Keti Bunder in 2010 and Nawaz Ali Mohammad of Rehri Goth in 2012. The news about their death also reached here after several days and it took even longer, almost a month, to have their remains brought here.
Whereas the Indian fishermen imprisoned here say they get to eat proper food, those lucky enough to return alive from India, have terrible tales to narrate about their ordeal. “We were fed the thinnest watery curry with worms floating in it but it was either that or starve to death, so we ate,” said little Mir Mohammad of Thatta, soon after the 14-year-old’s return from India after one-and-a-half year. Another recent returnee 16-year-old Asghar Ali says that they were made to sweep and scrub floors in GIC Kutch Putch, a far cry from the Youthful Offenders’ School here where the young prisoners are expected to take lessons and learn some kind of a craft. “The prison staff treated us like total criminals. They yelled and screamed at us day in and day out. ‘You are not here to attend your father’s wedding so you better work to earn your keep,’ is what they’d tell us,” said 18-year-old Abdul Kareem on his return to Pakistan.
Recently, the Pakistan government took very good care of a young Indian fisherman suffering from brain abscess at the time of arrest. He was admitted to Civil Hospital and treated so well there by the doctors and nurses that at the time of his release he said that he wanted to become a doctor. One wonders about the fate of any Pakistani fisherman with any ailment under Indian imprisonment.
“My husband was suffering from a gastric ailment which was so serious that I had on occasions seen him cough up blood. It has been eight months since my husband went missing at sea. I don’t know what’s become of him,” Zahida Begum, wife of Abdur Rehman, a Pakistani fisherman cried.
It is a sad reality that while Indian fishermen prisoners in Pakistani jails are released as soon as they have served their sentence, things aren't happening the same way for Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails. Some have been stuck there for as long as 13 to 14 years.
Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, who has been fighting for the cause of fishermen for years through his NGO Legal Aid, explained that under the Foreigners Act of 1946, aliens get around seven years in prison.
“But here we intervene to give these poor fishermen some respite. By the time their cases reach court, it has already been around one year, which we have requested to be considered as served time. That is how they are released after nine to 14 months, regularly,” he says. “There is no green or orange line representing Pakistan or India in the sea,” he points out.
It’s a great moment of joy for the Indians when they are being released. They joke with the prison guards and are presented with new clothes and shoes by Legal Aid or any other NGO responsible for arranging transport for them right up to Wagah where they are then handed over to Indian authorities.
Another NGO that also comes to the aid of fishermen is Ansar Burney Trust. The Edhi Trust, meanwhile, is responsible for receiving and transporting Pakistani fishermen on their being handed over to Pakistan authorities by the Indians at Wagah.
The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) and Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (FCS) also look after the well being of both Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails and Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails.
Sometimes, determining a detainee’s nationality can also become an issue and prolong his stay in prison. After exchanging information with the other country’s authorities about the arrests made, there has to be some kind of confirmation that the people really are from the other side. There are many Burmese fishermen families in Ibrahim Hyderi and they don’t even have a National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) CNIC. Likewise, there are several individuals from India whose nationalities have not been conformed by India.
“To deport a person, you need to know what country a person belongs to,” points out Kamal Shah of the PFF. “That’s where NGOs like us come in. “We accept responsibility for the Burmese men, also known as Bengalis here, while urging the Indian government for their early release,” he says.
“Normally we get in touch with the Indian authorities through the Arambagh Police Station, the moment any of the fishing boats go missing here. That’s how we find out if our fishermen have been arrested at sea. Then we inform their families. Those who have no other means of earning also receive food rations from us, which is little consolation for their plight,” he admits.
Iqbal Haider advocate and the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz are no more with us, but they also fought for the fishermen’s cause. Faiz Ahmed Faiz as director of the Fishermen’s Cooperative Society also used his international influence to get detained Pakistani fishermen released from Indian jails. Iqbal Haider went to India to negotiate the release of Pakistani fishermen. At his reference meeting last year, Karamat Ali of Piler, said, “After getting the biggest batch of 450 Indian fishermen released from Pakistan, Iqbal decided to go to India for the release of Pakistani fishermen imprisoned there. Through his sources, he even met Sonia Gandhi. When they agreed to release 25 Pakistani fishermen, he threw a fit saying that he had got 450 Indian fishermen released and was hoping for as big a number to be released from India in return. He said he wouldn’t leave if they didn’t agree. It was only on his insistence and stubbornness that we eventually returned home with some 75 Pakistani fishermen,” he said.