February 1, 2024

By Jamaima Afridi and Kanika Gupta


KARACHI

Thirty five-year-old Ruqaiyya Begum and her three children, residents of Karachi’s Macchar Colony, have spent the past two years in agony. Begum’s husband, Jashim Khan, a fisherman, was taken into custody by the Indian Coast Guard in 2021.

“Jashim was the sole breadwinner,” she told Voicepk.net. With her husband away, Ruqaiyya is struggling to make ends meet – “Everything is so expensive. The children ask for fruit, and I cannot get any for them.”

Ruqaiyya’s story is that of hundreds of families on both sides of the Pakistan-India border, whose men had the misfortune of accidentally drifting into prohibited waters. Disputes over maritime borders aside, tensions between the two neighbouring countries have complicated the repatriation process, with fishermen remaining detained for several years. In a number of instances, inmates have also died while awaiting return, either due to disease or old age.

In the beginning of 2023, the number of Indian fishermen imprisoned in Pakistan was 654, according to prisoner lists exchanged between the Pakistan and Indian High Commissions. The number fell to 266 in July, 2023 and 184 in January, 2024. On the other hand, India detained 74 Pakistani by July 2023. The number of prisoners increased to 81 in January, 2024.

Muhammad Ramzan, a resident of Ibrahim Hyderi, was arrested by the Indian Coast Guard in 2018. He was released in 2023, after serving his sentence in India. “They did not torture me. They asked me random questions and then locked me in a jail,” he said. But, while in custody, “I would always be thinking of home,” he added.

Pakistan and India have not established any mode of communication between inmate fishermen and their families. Often the only news families receive of their imprisoned family members is when they are repatriated – either as free or dead men.

Such arrests cripple fisherfolks economically. They are not only unable to earn money for their families, their boats, often obtained by spending their life long savings or by taking hefty loans, are also confiscated by the Coast Guard.

Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, a senior official of the Fishermen Cooperative Society (FSC) Ltd, explained, said, “The authorities should award three-month prison terms, confiscate their fish catch, and let them return with their boats. It is unfortunate that the boats are confiscated, as of which the owners have to bear a huge financial loss.”

Nauman, also a resident of Ibrahim Hyderi, told Voicepk.net that his father and older brother were captured by the Indian Coast Guard in 2017 and have yet to return. For the past six years, he has had to juggle studies and work in order to look after his four siblings.

He cannot acquire a national identity card (CNIC) in the absence of his father, which would have enabled him to get formal employment. “I was under 18 when they were arrested. When I turned 18, I went to NADRA to acquire a CNIC but was informed that my father’s thumb impression was required to get it issued. I told them that he is in jail in India. They replied that so long as he is alive.”

In 2023, Pakistan released around 500 fishermen, the highest number of repatriations of Indian fishermen in nearly two decades. Experts say that the reason for this magnanimity was a regime change, and that the upcoming elections will determine whether Pakistan will move toward normalising relations with India and give respite to the fisherfolk community.

This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center

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