Fishermen Near Pakistan, Lanka Shores Caught in a Net of Hostility

This story first appeared on The Quint on 11 January 2017.

When 230 fishermen released from Pakistani prisons disembarked in Veraval, Gujarat on 29 December, Dhirubhai Gohil, 28, had been waiting with a picture of his elder brother, Kalubhai, 35. As fishermen embraced their emotional family members with an outpouring of joy, Dhirubhai enviously showed them the photograph of his brother and asked if they had ever encountered him. “None of them knew,” he said. “I keep wondering the conditions in which he is living, and worse.”

Uncertain Fate of Fishermen

In 2008, Kalubhai fell off his boat while fishing in the Arabian Sea and was carried across the maritime boundary where a few Pakistani fishermen rescued him. This is what Dhirubhai was told by another fisherman who was caught with Kalubhai and was released two years ago.

He further told me that his hair has grown very long, and he has become insane because of being beaten up constantly.

Dhirubhai, younger brother of Kalubhai

According to his account, when the Pakistani fishermen released Kalubhai to get back to India, the forces patrolling the sea shot him in the leg. He was labeled a spy and has since been languishing in a Pakistani jail.

Security forces on both sides closely watch the maritime boundary in the Arabian Sea, which is part of a territorial battle between the neighbouring countries. Sir Creek – a 95-kilometre estuary on the border between the countries – is claimed in its entirety by Pakistan, while India claims half of it.

In the waters off Gujarat and Pakistan’s Sindh province, hundreds of fishermen from both the countries have been taken into custody and some have been fired upon, for straying across the maritime border.

The fate of the fishermen comes up in peace talks, where they are used as a tool to display diplomatic magnanimity. Within a span of 10 days – 25 December to 5 January – Pakistan released 447 of the fishermen they had arrested, while 65 were captured on 28 December. Thus, the cycle of arrests and releases continues.

Should the Countries Follow ‘No Arrest’ Policy?

Most of the fishermen are small-time operators. After they are captured, their families survive on the Rs 4,500 they get from the government per month, along with doing odd jobs. With lack of adequate navigation systems on their boats, which are not robust enough to sustain the currents or winds in the Arabian Sea, they unwittingly cross the maritime boundary.

“These fishing boats cannot be anchored in the sea nor turned back,” said senior journalist Jatin Desai, general secretary for the Indian chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy.

Fishermen have to go towards Pakistan. They do not get reasonable quantity of fish on the Indian side because of pollution.

Jatin Desai, General Secretary, Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy

Desai further added that the countries should follow a “no-arrest policy” until they permanently solve the dispute, which is “not too complex”.

Arrests increase as cross-border firing intensifies. The day they are captured, it changes their life along with those of their family members. We should look at it from a humanitarian perspective.

Dhirubhai said whenever he looks at his nephews – aged 10 and 12 – he wonders if they would ever get to see their father again. “They hardly remember him,” he said. “Even if my brother has gone insane or has become handicapped, I want him to come back, so that they can meet him.”

Although they lived in a joint family in Somnath district’s Jamwada village, Dhirubhai, who works in the diamond market, spent most of his time in Surat. Post 2008, he has been spending more time with the family, and the rest, writing futile letters to the administration and politicians regarding the release of his brother.

“My brother’s family is now my responsibility,” he said. “His wife is not very educated. His daughter is 16 and is still studying. We are struggling to make ends meet.”

Fractured Relationship With Neighbours

Veljibhai Masani, president of the Gujarat Fishermen Association, said that international maritime laws mandate that fishermen be sent back to their home countries without being arrested. “Unfortunately, fishermen suffer because of the fractured relationship between the neighbouring countries,” he said.

Pakistan has seized 900 Indian boats and India is in possession of 150, according to rough estimates. And there are 320 Indian fishermen in Pakistan’s jails while 150 Pakistani fishermen languish in Indian prisons. Families of these captives do not know if they would ever get to see them again.

Maritime Dispute with Sri Lanka

A similar dispute is boiling down south as well, where the Palk Strait, a 137-kilometre strip of water separating Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, is the bone of contention between the two countries.

In December, the External Affairs Ministry said that India and Sri Lanka have agreed to set up a Joint Working Group to address the issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu being arrested. But only last week, the Sri Lankan navy detained 10 Indian fishermen in two separate instances. Barring the geographical differences, the quagmire of suffering fishermen and their families’ plight remains the same here too.

Emotional Turmoil of Those Arrested

If and when they return, the emotional turmoil leaves an indelible mark on them. Jagdip Solanki, 33, migrated to Diu and started his own fishing business, while earlier he used to be a salaried employee at Porbandar, earning Rs 10,000 per month.

Jagdip, who has a 10-year old son and two daughters aged 2 and 4, has been arrested twice, and spent 6 months both the times before being released. “The first time I accidentally crossed the border,” he said, adding he did not want to ride his luck further. “The second time I was picked up from the Indian side of the border.”

The experience in jail was unbearable, he said. “We did not get food on time,” he recollected. “We were made to work for hours and would occasionally be beaten up.”

Even after being released the first time, Jagdip went back to the sea, leaving his wife on tenterhooks. When he came back after being released the second time, which happened four years ago, his wife put her foot down. “I took a loan of around Rs 30 lakh, migrated to Diu and set up my business,” he said. “I do not even look at the Porbandar area. But I still have to clear around Rs 8-10 lakhs of the loan.”

Migration is Not A Viable Option

However, not many can take the decision to migrate, or change profession. While the fishermen are encouraging their kids and relatives to study and pursue other vocations, those already in it continue to work due to the financial burdens and lack of other skills.

Vishal Solanki, 25, was one of the fishermen released on 25 December. He managed to reunite with his family after two years just before New Year’s Eve. “It was an emotional moment for the entire family,” he said, referring to his parents and sister. “We could not hold our tears back.”

Being the elder brother, Vishal had taken the responsibility of his sister Bhavika’s studies. Vishal was arrested immediately after she completed her graduation. With his arrival, Bhavika, after a two-year break, will have a crack at her post-graduation. It has only been more than a week since he has returned. But it won’t be long before Vishal is back in the sea.

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