When it comes to disputed territory between Pakistan and India, the buck does not stop at Kashmir and Siachen. Sir Creek, a 100 nautical mile strip of water between the state of Gujrat in India and the province of Sindh in Pakistan, has also kept the two countries at loggerheads for decades. In this tug-of-war for territorial control, which has failed to tilt favourably towards either side, it is a third party — the fishing community — that has ended up paying a huge price over the years.
Hundreds of Pakistani and Indian fishermen who take to the sea in pursuit of a living, often find themselves in the midst of this ‘unchartered territory’, consciously or unconsciously. The result in both cases is the same — years of languishing in their neighbouring country’s jails with minimal respite from their own governments.
A fisherman weaves his fishing net at Ibrahim Hyderi, Karachi. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO
The issue picked up momentum once again earlier this month, as on-ground tension between Pakistan and India escalated over the Kashmir issue. According to Manish Lodhari, secretary for the National Fish Workers Forum & Marine Fisheries Cooperative Society in Gujrat, India, 112 Indian fishermen and 18 boats were captured by Pakistan in the last 10-15 days while 21 Pakistani fishermen and two boats were seized by the Indian side. To understand this spillover effect, however, it is imperative to understand where the dispute originates from.
No man’s land
The dispute over Sir Creek can be traced back to 1908, when an argument broke out between the rulers of Kutch and Sindh over a pile of firewood lying on the banks of the creek that divided the two areas. The issue was settled at the time on the basis of a resolution that allowed Sindh ownership of the entire Sir Creek in exchange for foregoing its claim on Kori Creek.
At the time of Partition, Sindh became a part of Pakistan while Kutch remained with India, in compliance with the International Law of uti possidetis juris. The law states that decolonised sovereign states should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had before independence. By virtue of this principle, Sir Creek automatically fell into the Pakistani domain, explains analyst Sultan M Hali in one of his writings on the subject.
It was not until the 1960s that the dispute came alive once again. India rejected the demarcation according to the map drawn out in line with the 1914 Resolution. Till date, it argues that the thalweg of Sir Creek is the actual boundary of the river in accordance with the Thalweg Doctrine international law, which states that river boundaries between two states may be divided by the mid-channel if the two states agree. Hali elaborates that if the principle is to be applied, Pakistan will end up losing a considerable area that has historically been a part of Sindh. Hence, Pakistan rejects the doctrine on the basis that it can only be applied to bodies of water that cannot be navigated. India, however, maintains that the creek is navigable during high tide and is used by fishing trawlers.
The area, due to its immense economic potential and oil and gas reserves, is important to both states, which have had several rounds of talks on the subject since then but failed to reach a consensus. In the meanwhile, fishermen from both countries continue to pay the price if they end up in this disputed area at the wrong time
Sixteen-year-old Gul Hassan is one of the lucky ones. After spending 14 months in a prison in Bujh, India, he finally returned home along with his brother Sikander two years ago. Their fishing vessel, which had a nine-person crew, was fired at by the Indian security forces when it crossed into the Sir Creek area, 24 hours after setting off from Keti Bunder, a little outside of Karachi.
“We had one knife on the boat and we instantly threw it in the water. We knew it could get us in trouble,” shares Hassan while fidgeting nervously. His fear was valid since a majority of those who get caught in this area are often slapped with charges of terrorism or spying depending on the political atmosphere between the two countries at the time, explains Mustafa Gurgaze of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), who is leading the campaign to resolve the issue of detained fishermen.
“The state mechanism takes its cue from politicians and [the] media, and in times of tension, it becomes rigid and inflexible,” says author Aakar Patel. “It victimises the fishermen who are, on both sides, operating in waters that they have been fishing in untroubled for centuries.” As a result, an average sentence for cross-boundary issues that lasts between one to three years can turn into one that lasts as long as 15 to 18 years in some cases. Consequently, the right to bail for these prisoners is also non-existent since there is no one to vouch for them. “They covered our eyes and tied our hands. I had heard so many horror stories about this. I instantly knew what was going on,” Hassan elaborates.
All of them were captured and tossed into jail. It wasn’t until six months after their arrest, that they were identified by the Pakistani embassy. Hassan’s mother, Basra says she had no idea where her sons were during this time. “I just prayed to Allah to keep them safe, if they were alive,” she says. The lack of a mechanism for informing the prisoner’s respective country and family members is a major problem. Families are often left in a state of limbo unless someone who was serving time in the same prison comes back and informs them of their father, brother or son’s condition. If the jailers are kind, sometimes the families receive handwritten letters in Hindi or Gujrati. Things have improved slightly in the past few years due to the efforts of the media and human rights and advocacy organisations like PFF in Pakistan and National Fishworkers Forum for Indian Fishermen, International and Collective Support of Fishermen (ICSF) and Human rights law network in India. The judiciary in both the countries have also played a positive role and taken up the cases for these fishermen.
In some cases, handwritten letters in Urdu and Gujrati are sent back home by the imprisoned fishermen. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO
Apart from the anxiety, families back home often go through very rough times once their breadwinners are put behind bars. “I try to remind myself that things were once comfortable when my husband was around,” says 35-year-old Laila, a mother of eight, whose husband Muhammad Mian has been in prison for the past two-and-a-half years. “It gives me energy to carry on until he returns and we are happy again.” The turn of events left Laila with little choice but to start working herself to provide for her children. Stories like these are echoed in every second household in Ibrahim Hyderi, home to a large community of fishermen in Karachi.
No turning back
Why is it then that fishermen venture into an area where the risks are high and return is not guaranteed? Gurgaze explains that since the area is a contested territory and movement is limited, the number and quality of fish found there is far superior to that found elsewhere. For example, if a fisherman spots a shoal of the soha fish — which sells at excellent rates in the market — he won’t miss that opportunity and follow it wherever it takes him. “These fishermen put their life’s savings into buying diesel (which can cost up to Rs50,000 to Rs80,000) and other supplies for their boats,” he says. “For them, landing a good catch and putting food on the table for their families is worth risking their life and safety for.”
The lack of clear boundaries or demarcation for the disputed territory adds to the difficulty of steering clear of the troubled area. “Fishermen know no boundaries. Their argument is that they are not violating any borders since they are not going into a country,” explains Gurgaze. Moreover, a lack of navigation mechanisms or GPS makes it even more difficult for these men to stay clear of troubled waters. However, the senior fishermen or navigators, also known as ‘nakhuda’, which literally translates to one who knows everything, have their own unique way of working the sea — they can look at the colour or temperature of the water and tell you what’s about to happen. Therefore, while in some instances fishermen are genuinely unaware of where they are treading, in others they knowingly take the risk, hoping they will get away with it.
Pawns in a bigger game?
According to the PFF, there are currently 241 Pakistani fishermen in Indian custody. The number also includes those who have been missing over the years. Conversely, there are more than 400 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails. The discrepancy in numbers is due to the bigger size of Indian boats and the crew they carry.
Gul Hassan, who was captured by Indian security forces two-and-a-half years ago has now given up fishing completely. He now works at a factory. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO
Once fishermen are caught, their boats are also seized. In most cases, they are not returned, even after the fishermen are released, leaving them completely broke and helpless. “In the last 10 years, Pakistan has seized 818 Indian boats,” says Lodhari. More than 100 Pakistani boats are also in Indian custody at the moment. He adds that a single nao(boat) costs approximately INR5,000,000 (Rs9,000,000) and is a source of livelihood for more than 100 people.
Another complication arises at the time of prisoner release. When the foreign ministry of the country where they are jailed confirms it with their counterpart, there is often reluctance by their home countries to own up to them, out of fear of terrorist or negative links. Hence, a lot of them continue languishing in jails even long after their term is over. Those who die while serving their time are withheld from burial for long periods of time for the sake of identification and then eventually buried thousands of miles from home without it. Hassan, whose captain of the vessel died in custody from a heart attack, confirms that. “His body was not buried for 16 days. It had become bluish-black and smelled awful. It was so sad but we were helpless,” he says. There have also been incidents when fishermen who were released and left on the borders to find their way back home died on the way due to hunger or extreme weather.
According to Patel, a joint statement released by Pakistan and India in 2012 — which agreed on several issues such as immediate notification of arrests by either side, consular access to all persons within three months of arrests, release of prisoners within one month of completion of sentence and confirmation of their national status — was “an unexceptionable and progressive document.” “For its part, India should proceed on it and not impose conditionalities as it has recently, using the Pakistani High Commissioner’s [recent] meeting with Hurriyat leaders as an excuse,” he says.
Pictures of fishermen who have been in Indian custody over time. PHOTO: ARIF SOOMRO
To resolve the Sir Creek dispute, the navies of both countries have also come up with innovative ideas such as declaring the area a free zone or leaving the Creek aside and demarcating the sea boundary. “But it is unlikely that the government of India can exercise the will to implement any of those ideas, given that any dispute with Pakistan is more about divisive domestic politics than the benefits of a longer-term bilateral settlement,” writes journalist Ejaz Haider in one of his columns on the issue.
The Pakistani government has also done little on home turf to safeguard the rights of its fishermen. Gurgaze proposes a registration system for fishermen whereby they are provided with identity cards by the government. These records will also create a database for security agencies to verify the identity of those they arrest, thereby reducing the probability of fishermen being tried against false charges. “The fishing community is not more than four million people. Devising a mechanism like this is not impossible but it requires political will,” he says. But like all other issues between Pakistan and India, such as trade, visa restrictions etcetera that are hanging by a thread, the issue of Sir Creek continues to be held hostage by politics as well.