KARACHI: Sitting on the Malir district jail lawn with other about-to-be-released Indian prisoners, mostly fishermen, Govind Arjan slowly felt around to gather his belongings. As he struggled to get up, his friend, Mukesh Bhagan, quickly lent him his hand that he gratefully held on to while being led outside the big iron prison gates.“He can barely see anymore, Didi. He lost his sight in jail here,” Mr Bhagan explained to Dawn on Friday morning.
Both men, arrested at sea after having crossed over into Pakistan waters, were being released after spending seven months behind bars. “I didn’t catch fish but was arrested as I was, after all, a part of the boat crew. I operated the sails, handled the ropes, etc., on our boat ‘Ravi Jothe’,” said Mr Arjan. “My sight wasn’t as bad then,” he added.
Asked if the prison authorities treated him well or allowed a doctor to see him, Mr Arjan answered that he was treated very well. “But the drops and medicine given to me for my eye condition didn’t help much and my sight deteriorated gradually,” he said.
“I am going back home now but I wonder what good I would be to anybody there. My parents are old and my children, two girls and one boy aged 11, nine and five, respectively, are quite young. My wife will be working while I will be sitting at home, being a burden,” he said sadly.
Sitting nearby was another Indian with a pole lying next to him. Suraj Ukada said he couldn’t walk without support. He said he was not a fisherman but a cook on the boat ‘Mother’. About his problem, he said that he had an accident in India some time ago and the fracture in his leg couldn’t be set properly.
Holding his knee as he limped towards the bus, arranged by the Ansar Burney Trust International to take the fishermen to the Wagah border, was another slightly disabled young man, Dhanjee Raja. He said he was a victim of polio since childhood.
“We are the lucky ones being released after five to eight months. There are still many other fishermen in prison here. We have heard from fishermen in India that the coastguards usually let the old and weak fishermen go as no one wants a problem on their hands in case something happens to them. But here in your jail, we have also met very old Indian fishermen, who are so frail that they can’t even feed themselves. We take care of them,” said Mr Bhagan.
“We also had an Indian fisherman who had to be released some time back on special permission on humanitarian grounds after it was discovered that he had advanced cancer in one of his legs,” said a jailer, Shunail H. Shah.
About the excitement of the prisoners being released on Friday, he said that they had all been ready and raring to go, with luggage packed, since Thursday evening. “They didn’t even have a proper breakfast this morning and only had a cup of tea as they knew they would be making a long road journey with hardly any breaks to use the toilet,” the jailer laughed.
Among the 49 released on Friday, there were three teenagers, too, from the Youthful Offenders Industrial School. “I started catching fish three years ago,” said 16-year-old Ramesh Varjan. “My elder brother is also a fisherman but our father works on an agricultural farm. I think I will join him when I return home,” he said.
But another 16-year-old Indian fisherman, Vipul Raja Bamaniya, reasoned: “If I don’t catch fish, how will we eat?”
Meanwhile, all the fishermen acknowledged that they had been treated well by the prison staff. “We have been doing time here, eating good food and learning crafts such as beadwork, but you can’t imagine the suffering of our family back home without us,” said Shamjee Lakshman as he wiped the tears off his eyes.
Earlier, chairman of the trust Ansar Burney while briefing the media said that the 49 Indian fishermen being released had already served out their sentences. However, he added, there were several others who despite having served out their sentence were still in jail just because their government had yet to give them consular access. “We keep releasing them from our side as soon as possible but it is, unfortunately, not the same in India, where Pakistani fishermen have been languishing in jails for years,” he said.
“Ask these poor fishermen how they were treated in jail here and none will complain but it’s not like this for our men locked up next door. I appeal to the prison authorities in India to please treat them like human beings and not let their nationalities be the cause of maltreatment,” he said.
About the recent mysterious deaths of Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh in Pakistan and Pakistani prisoner Sanaullah Haq in India, he said that he was sure there was more to it than what met the eye. “The Indian prisoner, Sarabjit Singh, was here for 23 years and then one letter goes out to India from his side and he is dead within four months of that. Sanaullah’s getting beaten up and succumbing to his injuries after that was a sad way of taking revenge of something that no one is even clear about. Still, our message is of love and friendship. And the release of more fishermen today is one such gesture of goodwill on our part. India, too, should reciprocate,” he said.