Families of Pakistani fishermen languishing in Indian jails eagerly await their loved ones’ return


“My family has had no bread earner for 22 years”, says Mai Bhagi, 75. She belongs to the fishing community of Ibrahim Hyderi. Four members of her family are locked in Indian jails on charges of illegally fishing in Indian waters. The Rehri Goth resident says the men in her family were arrested by the Indian Navy from Sir Creek in 1999.

“I live with a teenage grandson. We face many economic challenges daily,” she says. Mai Bhagi used to live in Keti Bandar, Thatta, with her family, but after her brothers and nephews were arrested in 1999, she moved to Karachi.

“My brother, Usman Suchoo, brother-in-law, Zama son of Haji Muhammad, and nephew, Usman, are still in an Indian jail. Nawaz Ali, one of my nephews, died in the prison. His body was brought to Karachi a few months after his death,” says Bhagi.

“A few years after their arrest, we had received a letter from Ahmadabad Jail. I do not know where they are kept currently,” she adds. She says, “no one cares if we go without food and have no shelter or basic health facilities. The conditions are getting tougher with each passing day.“ “The state does not support the families of poor fishermen locked up in Indian jails,“ she laments.

The 75-year-old Mai Bhagi awaits her family members’ return. She has made several visits to Islamabad and met with Foreign Office officials. No one, she says, had a satisfactory response to her queries.

Relatives of many Pakistani fishermen are in Indian prisons. Fishermen from Pakistan and India are routinely arrested in the disputed waters. There is no border demarcation in the sea. Currently, more than 105 Pakistani fishermen are detained in Indian jails. More than 575 Indian fishermen are in Pakistani custody, locked up in the Malir district jail.

Lacking a stable source of income, the fishing community living along Karachi’s coastline is facing tough times. On the other side of the border, the situation is quite similar. Most of the fisher folk are surviving on very little. In households with no male workers, the situation is even worse.

“I live in a rented house in Korangi with my three children. We earn hardly Rs 150 daily,” says Rashida, 30, whose husband Mushtaq was arrested while fishing in Wari creek, near Sir Creek on February 11, 2018. Since then, she says, her family has received no support from Fishermen’s Cooperative Society (FCS) or the government.

The mother of three says her husband was the only bread earner in the family. She says no one came forward to help them after his arrest. Rashida’s children have left school because she could not pay for their schooling. “The government of Pakistan should bring my husband and other fishermen back. Many of them have been in Indian jails for several years now,” she says. The FCS should provide financial support to their families, she adds.

The arrest of fisher folk became more frequent in 1995. The tensions on the Line of Control (LOC) after India revoked the special status of Kashmir on August 5, 2019, resulted in suspension of diplomatic contacts between the two countries, including the issuance of visas and exchange of prisoners.

Earlier, the Pulwama incident had led to difficulties for the fishing communities on both sides. Most of the Pakistani fishermen held in India currently are at Rajkot jail. Some of them being held in temporary investigation cells in Porbandar in Gujarat.

Earlier still, tension had heightened after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, recalls Kamal Shah, a spokesman for Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum (PFF). “Fishing has been the primary source of income for us. Having family members arrested for making a living can take a toll on not only the financial situation of a family but also their mental health,” he tells TNS.

Lacking a stable source of income, the fishing community living along Karachi’s coastline braving tough times. The situation on the other side of the border is quite similar. Most of the fisher folk are surviving on very little. In households with no male workers, the situation is even worse.

According to Shah, the Indian High Commission provides support to Indian fishermen when the Pakistani Maritime Security Agency (PMSA) arrests them. He says Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and the Foreign office do not take the matter seriously. After providing the relevant documents, he says, it takes years to prove that the arrested fishermen in Indian prisons are Pakistani citizens. He says India and Pakistan should have a no arrest policy for the fishermen and provide relief to the low-income families.

Lakhima, a woman from Diu, a union territory in India, tells TNS, “life has become difficult for us as my two sons are in a Pakistani jail. I am waiting for the day when they will return home.”

Rizwan Sheikh, a Pakistani, was captured by the Indian Coast Guard on November 30, 2017, from Wari Creek near disputed seawater boundary of Sir Creek. Ameer Hussain, 58, a resident of Korangi tolls TNS that he used to make fishing nets. He says his ability to make a living has diminished as the years go by. Weakening eyesight seems to be the culprit. “I have been living in poor conditions for the last four years. No financial aid is provided by the Sindh government or the Fishermen Cooperative Society,” he says.

“The FCS provided Rs 10,000 to help my family soon after my son was arrested by the Indian authorities,” he says, adding that a majority of the arrested fishermen’s families are living in abject poverty.

“The Sindh government’s FCS department is taking measures to resolve the issues of the fishing community in Sindh,” Zahid Bhatti, the administrator of Fishermen Cooperative Society (FCS) tells TNS.

“We have gathered documents of the fishermen who are in Indian prisons,” he says. “I have recently joined the department. I will take appropriate measures to resolve the issues of the families. We will financially support them. We are trying to send the documents and information about the arrested Pakistani fishermen to the Sindh government and federal government for their early release from

Indian custody,” says Bhatti. He says the Fishermen Cooperative Society (FCS) will soon restore basic facilities and monthly support funds for the arrested fishermen’s families that were provided in the past.

The FCS has eight non-fishing related sector directors working under the provincial government who do not sympathise with fisher folk, claims Saeed Baloch, the senior vice chairman of Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum. The other seven who understand the turmoil of the fishing community, have little say in the matters concerning the imprisoned fishermen’s lives and their families’ livelihood.

“During the period from May 6, 1999, to May 2003, each of the arrested

fisherman’s families used to receive Rs 3,000 per month for rations,” says Baloch. But no financial support is provided any longer, he says.

“The families of arrested fishermen suffer the worst. The women have to look after children, so they go out for work,” says Jatin Desai, Indian journalist and a member of the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIFPD) based in Mumbai. “These women do not earn much but have to look after finances, take care of children and in-laws too.” The Indian government provides little to no support to these women if their loved ones are arrested, adds Desai.

Besides arresting fishermen, the coastal security agencies in India and Pakistan confiscate fishing boats and launches, making the fishermen families poorer, Desai says. He says, “Pakistan should immediately appoint four retired judges of the higher judiciary to the joint Judiciary Committee on Prisoners to resolve the issues of prisoners.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached   on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5