THE body of Bhikha Lakha Siyal, the young Indian fisherman who died in a Pakistani jail in December, was finally sent home to his family last week. The delay in the return of his body speaks volumes for the low priority that the governments of India and Pakistan attach to the plight of fishermen who inadvertently cross maritime boundaries and end up in prisons in each other’s country.
Unfortunately, this is not the only instance where the remains of fishermen who have died in prisons across the border have been repatriated after an inordinate delay. Even now, the return of the body of yet another Indian fisherman who died earlier this month is awaited.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) chairperson Zohra Yusuf feels that in these two cases the Indian side is more to blame for not expediting the process of return. “It must be very painful for the families of the dead who have to wait for the bodies. In our countries, bureaucracies do not take a humanitarian view,” she says. If this is the situation where the dead are concerned, one can only imagine the desperation and endless wait of those who live and who are part of a vicious circle. “Suddenly one country is sympathetically inclined and releases some prisoners and the other side reciprocates,” says Ms Yusuf. But then, more fishermen are caught by the maritime security agencies of India and Pakistan and incarcerated.
There are variations in the figure for the number of fisherfolk prisoners in India and Pakistan. While the Indian government claims that the prisoners list exchanged under the consular access agreement shows that there are more than 230 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails, its number of 140 for Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails is disputed by NGOs here that cite 245 as the actual figure.
The absence of a bilateral treaty on the issue has allowed the long history of animosity between India and Pakistan to take over. With no money and no connections, the community of fishermen is among the poorest in both countries. When they stray into alien territory, they are apprehended and charged under various laws. These can include the Exclusive Fishery Zone (Regulation of Fishing) Act 1975 and the Maritime Security Agency Act in Pakistan; the Passport Act 1967 in India; and the Foreigners Act 1946 in both countries.
Once sentenced, many spend years waiting for their release, often beyond the time they are supposed to serve. And on release their boats – their sole means of livelihood – are confiscated. It takes them a long time to build new ones when they get home.
Despite the recommendations of a joint judicial committee set up some years ago, there has been little interest shown by either government to take action for the release of even its own citizens. It has been left to citizen groups and NGOs to take a stand.
Last year, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) and Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) filed a petition in the Supreme Court, taking the government to task for failing to “take proactive measures to ascertain the presence and legal status of Pakistani fishermen imprisoned in Indian jails and to ensure their release and repatriation”.
The government knows it is in the dock. “It says that it is taking the matter seriously, but has not provided any detail on how it has implemented the consular access agreement that both Indian and Pakistani ministers agreed to do when they met in 2012,” says Raheel Kamran Sheikh, the lawyer for Piler and PFF. “What is needed immediately are measures to prevent the fishermen from crossing over.”
In the legal and political thicket, one often forgets the agony of families who do not always know whether a missing loved one is alive or dead. Mohammad Ali Shah, who is chairperson, PFF and general secretary, World Forum for Fisher Peoples, describes how families are affected at every level, “emotionally, socially and economically”.
He says: “These fishermen are the biggest victims of Indo-Pakistan tensions.”