As India and Pakistan dither over red tape, fishermen languish, die in prisons on foreign shores

Not for the first time, an Indian fisherman’s mortal remains are languishing in a morgue far from home while his nationality is being verified.

Deva Ram Baraiya, 65, died in a Karachi jail and was taken to the Edhi Foundation morgue on 4 April 2018 – even as the usual red-tape between India and Pakistan played out drearily.

Back home in Kotda village (in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district; taluka Kodinar), his wife, four sons and a daughter waited anxiously for news about when Baraiya’s remains would be sent back. They had received a letter on 10 June from Deva Ram’s companions in the Karachi jail, who sent word of his demise.

Deva Ram was arrested in February this year, when he was out fishing on a boat owned by a Mavibhai Jungi, along with four others. There is no time limit to verify the nationality of an arrested person, only a provision for consular access within 90 days of arrest, according to the Agreement on Consular Access, 2008, points out Jatin Desai, a national committee member of Pakistan India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIFPD), who has been campaigning for the rights of arrested fisherfolk.

Fishermen face the same fate on both sides of the border. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Fishermen face the same fate on both sides of the border. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Fishermen face the same fate on both sides of the border. Some never return and their families can spend a lifetime, waiting futilely. Fifty-five-year-old Noor Alam, a Pakistani fisherman, died in Gujarat on 17 December 2009. However, it took a month for his mortal remains to be sent back to his home. Nawaz Ali, another Pakistani fisherman, died in Ahmedabad on 8 September 2012; it took 25 days for his family to receive his remains.

While there are bilateral mechanisms to resolve such issues, the Joint Judicial Committee with members from India and Pakistan last met five years ago, in 2013, in New Delhi. India has appointed four retired judges of the high court to the Commission; however, Pakistan is yet to do that. The earlier committees were active in visiting jails and meeting prisoners, and convened twice a year (once in each country).

While the long-term issues of fisherfolk languishing in jails in India and Pakistan get short shrift, the only time there is celebration is when prisoners are released. Pakistan did release about 290 fishermen over December 2017-January 2018, according to Jatin Desai, but both countries must adopt a policy not to arrest fishermen for straying into each other’s maritime waters, he added.

Sometimes it has taken nearly two months for the nationality of the dead fishermen to be verified. Bhikha Lakha Shival, 35, from Junagarh district, died in Karachi jail on 19 December 2013; his mortal remains were transported back to India on 15 February 2014 – it had taken two months to complete the requisite paperwork. Another case is that of Ramjibhai Vala, whose mortal remains were brought back to India 45 days after his death in 2012.

Other cases documented by Jatin Desai include:

Arvind Vala, whose remains were repatriated to India 22 days after his death in May 2014

Vaaga Chauhan, died in Karachi on 12 December 2015. Mortal remains repatriated on 14 April 2016

Ratan Das, died on 8 February 2016. Remains repatriated on 14 April 2016  

Dadubhai Makwana’s body was sent back to India 21 days after his death in July 2013. For the family of Kishore Bhagwan, who died on 4 February 2014, there was a 53-day wait in store to conduct the last rites.

Sometimes the final rites are conducted in Pakistan itself, as in the case of Abu Baqr, who passed away in November 2015. However, Baqr wasn’t a fisherman.

Things did look up in October 2017, when India had suggested that Pakistan should revive the mechanism of the Joint Judicial Committee which looks into the humanitarian issues of fishermen and prisoners in each other’s custody. The Committee, first formed in 2007, has met seven times. While appointing four retired high court judges to the Committee in May, the Indian government also asked for dates for the proposed visit of their Pakistani counterparts.

The Pakistan government announced in March that it approved the proposals from India regarding civilian prisoners (notably the exchange of three categories of prisoners: women, the mentally challenged or those with special needs, those above 70 years of age); revival of the Judicial Committee; and facilitating the visit of medical experts (from both countries) to meet and examine mentally challenged prisoners for the purpose of repatriation. The exchange of prisoners above the age of 60 and below the age of 18 was also proposed.

A few years ago, Fishing in Troubled Waters: The Turmoil of Fisher People caught between India and Pakistan, published by Dialogue for Action (an initiative of the Programme for Social Action, New Delhi), looked at the history of fisherfolk being arrested. Since Independence, the Indian Coast Guard and the Maritime Security Agency of Pakistan were active in detecting and sending to jail straying fishermen. Nearly a thousand fisherfolk were arrested by the 1990s and it is only since mid- 2000 that the efforts to highlight their predicament have gained momentum. Activists in India and Pakistan are lobbying for a permanent mechanism to deal with the issues of fisherfolk, and also negotiating their release once arrested. Till a political solution is found, fishermen will continue to languish and die far from home, for little fault of their own.

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Updated Date: Jun 17, 2018 15:33:54 IST

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