Sailing into danger

January 5, 2020

The latest prisoners’ lists reveal that 366 Pakistanis are languishing in Indian jails, while 282 Indians are in Pakistani custody. Here’s an insight into the lives of the arrested fishermen and their families

Following India’s revocation of the special status of Kashmir on August 5, scores of fishermen from India and Pakistan find their lives and livelihoods in jeopardy. Their lives had already become more difficult after the Pulwama attack as Pakistani and Indian security agencies started arresting those fishing in open sea.

“Indian intelligence agencies interrogated me for more than one month in a congested torture cell after I was arrested by Indian Coast Guard (ICG) from Wari Creek in Sir Creek area in 2013,” recalls 60-year-old Muhammad Sabir, a fisherman and resident of Ibrahim Hyderi, a coastal area of Karachi. Sabir spent three years in an Indian jail in Gujarat. He was later moved to Rajkot jail and spent more than a month in a torture cell, he says.

“I was mentally and physically tortured by Indian law enforcement agencies during interrogation. They asked me where my forefathers had belonged to, and for what purpose had I entered Indian waters,” Sabir tells The News on Sunday. “The Indian government released me after three years, in 2016, but the coast guard kept my boat which had been worth Rs4 to 5 million,” he says.

Sabir’s son was also taken into Indian custody and has not been released yet.

“I have nine children. We live in a small rented house in an under-developed area. There is no electricity. I now work as a sailor on someone else’s boat. I am paid Rs 8,000 for every fortnight spent on the boat fishing in the sea. I am still unable to feed my children two meals a day.”

According to First Post, an Indian media outlet, Deva Ram Baraiya, 65, died in a Karachi jail and was taken to the Edhi Foundation morgue on April 4, 2018.

Fishermen prepare their nets before leaving for deep sea fishing in Karachi harbour.

Back home in Kotda village (in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district; taluka Kodinar), his wife, four sons and a daughter waited anxiously for news about when Baraiya’s remains would be sent back. They had received a letter on June 10 from Deva Ram’s companions in Karachi jail, who sent word of his demise.

Deva Ram was arrested along with four others last February, when he was out fishing on a boat owned by a Mavibhai Jungi.

“My husband, Bhavaji Masani, is in Karachi jail since February, 2017,” says Diuben Masani from Porbandar in the western part of Gujarat. Her husband was released in April 2019 by Pakistan, and brought to Wagah border but was then taken back to Karachi because of inadequate documentation.

“It was heart-breaking for us,” she says.

Diuben says that the only contact with him was through letters and due to Indo-Pak tensions, the Pakistani government has now stopped the exchange of mail.

Although fishermen from both sides continue to suffer because of the long-standing animosity between India and Pakistan, “when tensions between the two countries heighten, they suffer even more”, says Jatin Desai.

“I can’t read or write but whenever I received letters from my husband, my children would read them to me and reply to their father languishing in a jail in Karachi,” she says.

“We are only providing shelter and food to the foreign prisoners in jail,” Aurangzeb Kango, superintendent of Malir District Jail tells TNS. There are 219 Indian fishermen in Malir Jail awaiting consular access and their documents which Indian government has to provide to the Pakistani Foreign Office, explains Kango.

“I spent 26 months in Hindukush, an interrogation centre of Indian security agency in Gujarat,” says Abul Kalam, a 41-year-old Pakistani fisherman who has recently come back to Karachi after being released from Gujarat. He says that the Indian coastal guards did not shift him to jail, but kept him with foreign prisoners in the interrogation cell, says Kalam.

A policeman counts Indian fishermen sitting in a lock-up at a police station in Karachi.

“The compound was messy and the food unhealthy, while we were in Indian custody. The authorities took me to Rajkot Jail three times for meetings with Pakistani diplomatic officers who collected my details for confirmation of my identity,” he says.

Danesh, 22, an Indian fisherman in District Jail in Malir tells TNS that he was arrested by Pakistani Maritime Security Agency (MSA) near Sir Creek 21 months ago.

“I miss my home and family members,” says Danesh, adding that Pakistan and India should make it a matter of policy not to arrest fishermen.

“A majority of fishermen don’t even have adequate knowledge of maritime boundaries,” says Danesh.

A Mumbai-based Indian journalist Pragati Bankhele, who has been covering stories about fishermen, discloses that there are 256 Pakistani fishermen, in Indian jails.

“The Pakistani fishermen have spent 4 to 6 years in Indian jails. Some Indian fishermen were released within a year by Pakistani government,” says Muhammad Ali Shah, the chairman of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF).

“After the Mumbai attack, the arrests of fishermen increased,” he says, adding that Pakistan has released 360 Indians, including 355 fishermen, and five other civilians on April 15, 2019, after the Pulwama attack.

“Meanwhile, Pakistan has received bodies of several dead fishermen from India who had died during custody. Many had been tortured brutally in jails,” says Shah.

80-year-old Noorul Amin, a resident of Ali Akbar Goth in Karachi succumbed to the injuries inflicted on him by Indian jail staff when he was in custody in Gujarat on March 26, 2019. His body was returned via Wagah border a week ago, adds Shah. Another fisherman, Sohail Rasheed, a resident of Muhammadi Colony in Karachi was captured by Indian Coast Guard in 2017. His body was received on April 26, 2019.

Four residents of Rehri Goth in Ibrahim Hyderi — Usman Suchoo, Nawaz Ali, Usman and Zaman — were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard in 1999.

“The Indians alleged that these four people had been involved in smuggling. One of them, Nawaz Ali, died in an Indian prison after several years in custody. His body was returned to Pakistan after a few months of his death. Three of them are still in Indian jail,” he confirms.

Although fishermen from both sides continue to suffer because of the long-standing animosity between India and Pakistan, “when tensions between the two countries heighten, they suffer even more”, says Jatin Desai, a senior journalist and a member of Pakistani-India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIFPD) based in Mumbai. “Ideally, they should not be arrested. Fishing has been their occupation traditionally. For most fishermen, it is their only source of income,” he adds.

Then there are instances of fishermen dying in the ‘enemy’ country. “It takes at least a month to send the body to his home country. The body must be sent immediately,” he says.

Desai, however, denies claims of torture by Indian authorities. He says that India and Pakistan have formed the India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on prisoners in 2007 consisting of four retired judges of the superior judiciary from each country. This committee is working well, he says.

“The committee members used to visit each other’s country and meet prisoners. The last such meeting was held in October 2013. Last year, both the countries decided to revive the committee,” he adds.

He says that India has nominated four judges for the purpose but Pakistan has yet to nominate judges to represent them.

“Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid was the most active in the last committee. Pakistan must nominate their four judges,” Jatin says.

Justice Zahid says he was a member of the committee in 2007 and that the committee is no longer functional.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan

Indian, Pakistani fishermen find their lives in jeopardy due to strained ties