Death of a fisherman

Beena Sarwar

On Friday, October 11, a fisherman died out in the Arabian Sea, killed by bullets fired by maritime security personnel. Some fellow fishermen escaped and brought his body back to their village. The security personnel arrested 30 others and impounded five boats.

This story is often repeated on the maritime border between India and Pakistan although usually without loss of life. 

In this case, Naranbhai Sosa, the 30-year-old fisherman who died, and the arrested fishermen, were Indian; the security forces were Pakistani. It is sometimes the other way around.

Pakistan arrests more Indians, not because it is more brutal but because more Indians cross over to the Pakistan side. This is because the coastline and waters on the Indian side have been destroyed by industrial pollution and over-fishing by commercial trawlers, say Indian fish workers. The Pakistan coastline and waters are relatively unspoiled, although fast catching up.

Pakistan currently holds around 280 Indian fishermen and around 780 Indian boats, while India holds around 180 Pakistani fishermen and 125 Pakistani boats, according to activists.

Interestingly, the Pakistani fish workers have no objection to the Indians coming over to “their” side to fish. These waters have been their shared hunting ground for centuries. The man-made border is barely six decades old. Besides, there are no markings out at sea to show where one country’s territory ends and the other’s begins.

The bullets fired at sea on October 11, 2013, had echoes far away at the Line of Control (LoC) in distant Kashmir, where firing from the Indian side killed an 11-year-old child on the Pakistani side that day. A few days later, on October 15, Pakistani firing claimed the life of an Indian soldier.

And so it goes on. And has been going on, for some time now, despite the 2003 ceasefire. Each side accuses the other of starting it.

 The Pakistani fish workers have no objection to the Indians coming over to ‘their’ side to fish. These waters have been their shared hunting ground for centuries Death of a fisherman

Who is behind these exchanges of gunfire? Who ordered shots to be fired out at sea and why?

I find it unlikely that the intent was to kill — this is the first such case in a very long time. Naranbhai Sosa — injured, dead or dying — was in a boat that escaped. It was only after the escaped fishermen reached their village in India that Sosa’s death made the news. That is probably also when the Pakistani authorities learnt of it. They have denied killing anyone.

The people-to-people forum, Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace & Democracy (PIPFPD) established in 1994) has urged both governments to arrange an urgent meeting of the task force that consists of the Indian Coast Guard and the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (MSA), as well as a proper inquiry into the case and punishment of the guilty.

Both governments must also implement the recommendations made by the India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on Prisoners in Lahore on April 30, 2013. The recommendations include repatriating arrested fishermen by sea along with their boats. At present, when they are repatriated via the Wagah/Attari border, they have to undertake a long bus journey from Karachi or Gujarat prisons where they are held. Activists also urge both governments to institute a ‘No Arrest Policy’.

With political attention focused on the LoC, the poor fish workers continue to work in hazardous conditions, risking arrest, imprisonment, and even their lives when they venture out to sea for their of livelihoods. Yet, this issue remains one of the least discussed, notes PIPFPD general secretary Jatin Desai, a senior journalist based in Mumbai who has been doggedly following the issue for years.

Many “severe situations have come up but incidents of firing have hardly taken place,” says the PIPFPD. “This issue can either be used by warmongers who are undoubtedly capable of ruining the fragile peace process, or it could be thought of as an issue that both countries could work towards positively in the light of it being a strong Confidence Building Measure (CBM).”

The PIPFPD’s sane, reasonable position is in stark contrast to that espoused by the political opposition in either country, particularly India, in the run-up to the elections; they are clearly more interested in making political capital out of each life lost rather than working to develop steps to stop these lives being lost in the first place.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013