Mai Bhagi’s troubles are etched on her forehead, her skin creased with the worries of a widowed daughter and orphaned grandchildren. Her feeble fingers fumble with the memories of her younger brother: a fading ID card and letters from Rajkot Central Jail.
“We’ve spent years crying, waiting for our loved ones, wondering what condition they may be in,” says the 70-year-old grandmother who now lives in a thatched house in Rehri Goth, an impoverished fishing village on the outskirts of Karachi.
15 years ago, as Pakistan and India fought a bitter war in the Kargil mountains, a powerful cyclone hit the countries’ southern coast, swallowing several small fishing boats. Four members of Mai’s family, including her brother and son-in-law, survived the storm – only to spend the rest of their lives in an Indian prison.
|Mai Bhagi holding ID cards of her loved ones.
Tensions along the disputed Kashmir border have historically been the focal point of Pakistan and India’s troubled relationship. But the continued suffering of thousands of poor fishermen and their families, some of the worst-hit victims of the hostile relations, goes largely unnoticed.
Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency and the Indian Coast Guards regularly arrest hundreds of small fishermen from Sindh and Gujarat for violating a disputed and unmarked boundary in the Arabian Sea. The prisoners, often the only breadwinners of their families, languish in jail for years until they are exchanged in batches as part of diplomatic ‘confidence building measures’ between the two countries. Back home, the families endure severe emotional, psychological and financial stress.
One of the most heartwrenching tales is perhaps that of Mai’s maternal grandson. Abdul Ghani waited his entire life to see his father, Nawaz Ali Jat, who was captured when the boy was only a month old. At the tender age of 13, Ghani’s hopes were shattered when a plane brought his father’s shrouded body back home. Nawaz, it is said, died of a protracted illness while serving his sentence.
Arwind, a 75-year-old Indian fisherman, met a similar fate when he died of tuberculosis in Jamshoro prison. It took almost a month before the legal and diplomatic formalities of identity verification could be completed and his body sent back to his family.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly how many families on both sides of the border have suffered such testing trials. According to data from the Legal Aid Office in Karachi, Pakistan repatriated over 1,700 Indian fishermen in at least 21 prisoner exchanges since August 2010, with fresh arrests bringing the numbers back up after every release.
A total of 4,516 Indian fishers and 729 boats were apprehended by Pakistan over the last 20 years, according to a 2008 study by the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a Karachi-based grassroots organisation that represents fishermen’s rights.
Currently, there are at least 237 Indian fishermen lodged in Pakistani jails, while at least 116 Pakistani fishermen still languish in Indian prisons.
“These are all poor people in search of a living. This is the only skill that they have. They go wherever the fish take them. You can’t blame them for trying to earn their livelihood,” says Kamal Shah, a PFF activist. When an arrested fisherman is the only breadwinner of the family, Shah says it is the women back home that are left to face the economic burdens of raising the children.
|Shama and Mohammad Ali sit in their one-room house in Karachi's Ibrahim Hyderi area.—Photo by Sara Faruqi
For Shama, a resident of Begali para neighborhood in Karachi’s Ibrahim Hyderi area, the absence of her husband and teenage son meant that her children would be denied an education.
At first, she thought their boat had drowned in deep sea. Two months passed before Mohammad Ali was allowed to write her a letter. “We were worried sick. They were supposed to be back in a week. It felt like forever,” she says.
A mother of eight, Shama was forced to take up sewing, but it never earned her enough to feed the kids, let alone pay their school fee. “First my kids went to a local school, but after my husband was caught, they were thrown out because I couldn’t pay the Rs200 monthly fee. After that, I sent them to a Rs70-per-month madrassa (Islamic seminary), but eventually even they refused to teach my children when I couldn’t pay. My children suffered more than two years like this,” she says.
On the other side of the border, the families of arrested Indian fishermen confront similar hardships. Kanta started cleaning utensils for Rs2,000 monthly when her husband, Gujarati fisherman Jagdish, was picked up by Pakistani maritime forces. Unable to cover the family’s expenses, she too had to pull two of her daughters out of school.
Hanging in the balance
Human rights groups say the issue of border control and fishermen’s arrests needs to be looked at from a humanitarian angle rather than a security perspective.
“Rather than arresting them and seizing their boats, why can’t our maritime forces just send them back? You can’t build a wall in the sea, can you? And if the dispute is over the catch, why don’t the governments of both countries issue passports to the fish? What purpose does it serve to further trouble these poor people?” asks Pakistani activist Ansar Burney. He says that it’s time for the two countries to find a permanent solution to the problem.
Tapan Kumar Bose, a former chairperson of the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Development (PIPFPD) based in New Delhi, feels a long-term solution is unlikely as long as the maritime border dispute remains unresolved.
“The real issue, however, is the manner in which these cases are handled…that can be humanised. These are clearly poor people; they will keep going wherever they get a bigger catch,” says Bose. “The only logical solution is either to send them back with a warning or to fine them for trespassing. There is no need to keep them detained indefinitely.”
In 2007, the two countries formed a committee of retired judges to recommend steps for humane treatment of their prisoners. The committee urged both governments to regularly exchange detailed lists of prisoners, provide consular access to detainees within a month of arrest, and allow cancellations of sentences handed down under special or military laws.
|Dharma waits for his number to be called out.
Dharma, 18, sat cross-legged on the grass patch outside Malir jail as he waited for his number to be called out. He is fortunate, he was told, to be released after only eight months. All he could think about, though, was that his wait would soon be over. He would soon be reunited with his family in Maharashtra.
“Even if I have to sleep on an empty stomach, I’m never taking up fishing again. I’m going to work as a laborer in my village. This is not for me. I can’t bear staying away from my family for so long,” he said. Dharma was one of 150 Indian prisoners released in May as a goodwill gesture ahead of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to New Delhi to attend his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. Modi, who himself belongs to Gujarat and served as the state’s chief minister, reciprocated by releasing 32 Pakistani fishermen.
But, seven years after the judicial committee was formed, and with the lives and livelihoods of the poor fisher folk hanging in the balance, neither the Indian or Pakistani government have yet fully implemented the recommendations.
Mai Bhagi still waits for her brother, hoping against all odds that he will return one day. After Nawaz’s death, she fears he might meet the same fate. “We are poor people, nobody cares about us or listens to us. I just want to see them again,” she says.
Back in their one-room house in Ibrahim Hyderi, Shama and Mohammad Ali narrate their family’s ordeal during his two-year absence.
With a forced smile on her face and the hint of a tear in her eyes, Shama musters the courage to utter the words in front of her husband. “My heart doesn’t accept it. I don’t want them to go to sea again.”
Her husband sighs, and lowers his gaze, as if almost with guilt. A moment of silence follows.
“But, you know, my son doesn’t listen,” she is quick to add. “He isn’t afraid. He’s gone again already on a fishing trip. What else will you do when there’s no food for your little siblings at home.”
“We are fishermen,” says Mohammad Ali. “This is what we do.”
Photos courtesy Ali Khurshid and Sara Faruqi