External Affairs

As Another Fisherman Dies Across the Border, India and Pakistan Need to Work on Their Priorities

Not only are fishermen punished harshly for crossing a border they cannot see, once detained they are treated like prisoners of war by the other country.

Bodies of fishermen who die across the border are often returned to the families only months later, with India and Pakistan blaming each other for the delay. Credit: Reuters

Bodies of fishermen who die across the border are often returned to the families only months later, with India and Pakistan blaming each other for the delay. Credit: Reuters

Imagine you are a fisherman, born into poverty in a small coastal village in India – or Pakistan. You lead a tough life, following the profession of your father and grandfather. You are barely literate. You spend your life eking out a bare existence for yourself and your family, chasing the depleting shoals of fish that the wind and tide drive further out to sea.

Somewhere in that sea is an invisible boundary. Your boat has no device to gauge distances. Suddenly patrol boats show up. You are in enemy territory, poaching in their waters. They arrest you and your fellow fishermen, herd your boats to their country and dump you in a prison. Even when you are eventually released, your boats stay at the ‘enemy’ harbour, further impoverishing you.

For now, your frantic family has no clue where you are – you may have died in a sea storm. Word trickles out to them months later through fellow prisoners who have served their term and been freed, or when members of the Joint Judicial Commission for Prisoners visit the jails as they are supposed to do once every six months. The committee hasn’t met since India convened one on October 25-30, 2013.

Your ‘host’ country slaps charges of illegal border crossing on you if you are lucky – or of espionage and terrorism if you’re not. You are sentenced to a few years in prison if you are lucky, several if you’re not. In any case, it is only when you have served your sentence that the ‘host’ country’s officials inform your country’s embassy of your presence. Your country’s officials need to verify your nationality before you can be released and repatriated. A process that should be completed in days drags on for months, each side blaming the other for the delay.

“Heartening news is Pakistan will be releasing 77 Indian fishermen and 1 civilian prisoner on 10th July 2017. It is a good news otherwise in a depressed scenario. As of today Pakistan has 493 Indian fishermen in their custody (sic).”

That was an email from journalist Jatin Desai on July 1, 2017, addressed to a few friends who have been working on the cross-border prisoner issue.

The Indian fishermen to be freed had completed their prison sentences in Pakistan on May 23 2017, after they were detained and sentenced for violating the international maritime border. They couldn’t be released until the process of identity verification from the Indian embassy was completed. Why does it take so long? While not going into the specificities of this case, typically, each side blames the other. Pakistani officials claim they send the information to the Indian embassy. Indian officials say they didn’t receive the information on time or were not granted consular access.

Tragically, Kana, the son of Lakhan Chauhan and one of the fishermen to be released, never made it home.

After Kana reportedly complained of chest pains, prison authorities sent him to a hospital. The 37 year old died on July 5. His body lies in the Edhi Foundation’s morgue in Karachi. There has been no post mortem to determine the cause of his death.

The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963, mandates that a foreign national who is arrested or detained be given access to his or her country’s consulate. India and Pakistan typically either grant the permission belatedly or simply drop this courtesy when it comes to each others’ prisoners. As Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum says, we treat each other’s prisoners like prisoners of war.

The matter remains mired in bureaucracy. Gujarat fisheries minister Babu Bokhiria told The Indian Express that he had learnt about the incident two days earlier from a caller from Una – Chauhan hailed from Paldi village of the Una taluka in Gir Somnath, a district of Gujarat – but had not been given any official confirmation. The caller informed him that a fisherman had died in Pakistan and that his body had not been repatriated.

“I requested the caller to send me details of the victim. However, the caller has not got back to me till now,” said the minister. He said his office had not received any official communication from the central government either. “But once I get basic information about the fisherman, I shall write to the central government.”

All these bureaucratic processes. Why can there not be a more direct system of communication?

“Neither was he repatriated when he was alive nor has his been body been sent back almost two weeks after his death,” commented Desai, who is also general secretary of the India chapter of Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, the largest people-to-people lobby group in the region.

This is not the first time that an imprisoned fisherman has died in captivity on the other side, the tragedy compounded by the delay in sending home his mortal remains. One can only imagine the anguish of the bereaved family.

“Whenever a fisherman who has been arrested from the other side of the border dies, it takes at least a month for his body to reach his relatives back home,” points out Desai.

Indian fishermen Vaaga Chauhan and Ratan Das, both from Una, like Chauhan, died in prison in Karachi on December 12, 2015 and February 8, 2016 respectively. Their bodies arrived in India months later, on April 14, 2016. Similarly, Pakistani fisherman Nawaz Ali, held captive for 13 years, died in an Indian prison in 2012. His body reached Pakistan a month after his death.

“These men were not criminals or terrorists; small errors on their part and hostilities between their nations cost them their lives,” Desai says. “Yet, not even a fraction of the concern and outpouring of emotion for the deaths of brave jawans (soldiers) is extended to these fishermen; there is no uproar, no debate. Perhaps this has something to do with their low economic status, semi-literacy and invisibility to the public in both countries”.

On May 8, 2017, Pakistan International Airlines suspended its twice-weekly direct flight between Karachi and Mumbai, reportedly due to low traffic causing financial losses. The current slowdown in visa acceptances makes this “low traffic” hardly surprising. This means that Chauhan’s body will have to be flown to Mumbai via a Gulf hub like Doha or Dubai, or another circuitous route like Karachi-Lahore-Delhi-Ahmedabad.

However it finally happens, until it does, a grieving family will have to wait for the body of their loved one. Can’t we do better than that?

Beena Sarwar is the editor of Aman Ki Asha.