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Report by Ahmed Saeed

Every year, during the fishing season, the men and women from the poor fisherfolk community take their boats out to sea so that they can catch fish from the deeper waters of the Arabian Sea. But stormy weather and a rough sea often end up hurtling them across the maritime boundaries of both India and Pakistan. At other times because there are no clear demarcations in the middle of the sea, the fisherfolk loses their bearings and cross over, unaware of being on the other side of the coastal territory.

In the case of Indian fishermen, they are instantly apprehended by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency or the Pakistan Coast Guards under allegations of being Indian spies. Despite international conventions and laws mandating the immediate repatriation of the commercial fishermen who unknowingly trespass into foreign waters, there are no such laws or accords between India and Pakistan due to a history of animosity. And because of the absence of such laws, poor fisherfolk on either side are made to languish in jails for years and years without any sentence or trial.

In 2008, India and Pakistan had signed an agreement to exchange imprisoned fishermen, however, it did not guarantee their immediate release. Under this accord, imprisoned fishermen are only released when they can be exchanged, because of which many of these unfortunate prisoners spend the best years of their lives in detention.

In retrospect, Abdul Majeed Motani, the president of the Karachi division of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), has been among the lucky ones having been arrested for crossing into Indian territorial waters in 1986, a time when the relations between India and Pakistan were not as tenuous, and when Pakistan had Indian fishermen in its prisons for exchange. Motani was able to return home in just three months.

Motani recalled that he had been treated well while in prison in India, however after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, and now more so after Modi’s government was sworn in, Pakistani fishermen are tortured in Indian prisons.

“When Modi came into power, post-2014, their attitudes (toward fishermen) have changed. There is nothing humane in how they are treated now,” he says. “The Pakistani fishermen released in 2015 said they had been battered so badly that there were times that they had thought it was better to just die than to continue bearing such torture. They were not given proper food. They said they were told to confess to having a hand in the Mumbai attacks.”

Motani adds that imprisoned fishermen on either side bear the brunt of the hatred between India and Pakistan. He implores that these unfortunate and poor fishermen be released as soon as possible so that they are not made to squander their lives in imprisonment.

“We are not demanding the release of pirates and terrorists,” he says. “We want the immediate release of underprivileged fisherfolk who are made the unfortunate targets of the hate between these two countries. Their families wither away; sometimes these fishermen die in prison and even their corpses do not make it back to their homeland.”

Due to the prevailing Coronavirus pandemic, different nations across the globe are trying to reduce their prison populations in order to prevent the spread of the potentially fatal virus in jails. As such, Motani is of the view that it is imperative to release innocent fishermen as soon as possible amidst this crisis, and that Pakistan should take a lead in the matter.

Mumbai based Jatin Desai, an activist advocating for the release of Pakistani fishermen detained in Indian prisons revealed that, to date, not a single fisherman apprehended by Indian authorities has turned out to be a spy or a terrorist.

“When the authorities themselves have admitted to the fact that there is overwhelming evidence that these fishermen are not involved in any illegal activity, then why are they not being immediately freed?” he questions.

Desai suggests that rather than imprison these people, they should be issued warnings and forced back into non-restricted waters.

“Both countries need to enforce a ‘no-arrest’ policy. They should be let off with a warning; it is a very simple solution for all parties involved.”

In 2007, Pakistan and India had proposed the constitution of a joint judicial committee to oversee the release of jailed fishermen which has remained inactive since 2016. Muhammad Tahseen, a renowned civil society activist in Lahore, who has been working for the rights of imprisoned fishermen, states that it is important to reinstate that judicial committee to secure the prompt release of these prisoners. However, Tahseen is of the view that the Indian and Pakistani governments were not serious about the plight of these fishermen.

“The ruling political elite on each side are insensitive to the grievances of these fishermen, they are unconcerned with the lives and deaths of the poor,” he says. “This is not a complicated matter, it needs to and can be resolved immediately. If Pakistan can open up the Kartarpur Corridor to facilitate Indian pilgrims, then releasing imprisoned fishermen during the ongoing pandemic will be a diplomatic win for the state. Common people are not a concern for the ruling elite, they are preoccupied with other matters.”

Prisons in India and Pakistan are severely overcrowded a matter which warrants even greater concern than before with the spread of the highly contagious and potentially fatal Coronavirus. Fishermen advocacy groups in India and Pakistan urge their governments to promptly release imprisoned fishermen to not just preserve their lives but to reduce jail populations and prevent a human catastrophe.