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Fishermen Cross an Imperceptible Line Into Enemy Waters

Saba ImtiazNew York Times

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Fishermen bustled through a ramshackle harbor, a knot of narrow streets and one-room houses on the edge of Karachi, as they prepared to set out to sea for the summer fishing season. But one man was going nowhere. As other fishermen mended their nets in a field, Abdul Shakoor hunched outside his front door, weaving a rug.

After 15 years on the boats, Shakoor said, he was seeking a new profession - a decision his wife, Zahida, heartily endorsed. “He’s getting into a boat again over my dead body,” she said firmly. “I won’t let him go.”

Shakoor, 34, returned to Karachi recently after a two-year spell in an Indian jail. He is one of several thousand fishermen, both Pakistani and Indian, who have been arrested at sea in recent years by the opposing countries’ navies. The fishermen are accused of crossing a border they cannot see and whose exact location is in dispute.

The quarrel goes back to the 1960s, when Pakistan and India first disagreed on the status of Sir Creek, a channel that separates Sindh province in Pakistan from the Indian state of Gujarat. Since then, the argument has broadened into a wider dispute over how the land borders should extend into the Arabian Sea.

Over the years, in a bid to break the impasse, the two governments have commissioned surveys, held talks and proposed compromises. When Gen. Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan, he claimed to have come close to a settlement during secretive talks with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. But Musharraf was ousted in 2008, and, like so much between India and Pakistan, Sir Creek remains unresolved.

Today, the two governments cannot even agree on which map to use when discussing their sea borders, lawyers say. And where diplomats have failed, fishermen are paying the price.

Every year, dozens of fishing boats from both countries are detained by the Indian or Pakistani governments on charges of trespassing into enemy waters. Flung into jail, the fishermen often languish there for years, only to be released as part of the spasmodic peace process between the two countries. Currently, 249 Indian fishermen are being held in Pakistani jails, while 131 Pakistanis are being held in India, according to the Pakistani foreign ministry. A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that comparable figures were not readily available.

Although treated as criminals, the fishermen are better described as victims of history and geography, unfairly penalized for having to ply their trade on a map without borders, their advocates say.

“The purpose of the arrests is to demonstrate the governments’ authority, and to make a symbolic protest that the other state has allowed its fishermen into their water,” said Ahmer Bilal Soofi, a Pakistani lawyer who has worked on the Sir Creek dispute. “But it is the fishermen who suffer unnecessarily.”

In the fishing village of Ibrahim Hyderi, boats painted in the floral style of Pakistani trucks crowded the harbor one morning recently, their flags fluttering in the breeze. On the “Mamoon,” a goat sat quietly amid the commotion. Crew members said they would slaughter the animal once they set sail and smear its blood on the bow. “To ward off the evil eye,” explained Shahid, a 16-year-old deckhand.

When it comes to the India border at sea, however, more than luck is required. A half-submerged shipwreck, known locally as “kaajal,” is used by Pakistani fishermen as a marker; a handful of well-off boats use GPS devices. Even so, arrests are frequent.

Shakoor said that his boat was near the shipwreck when it was impounded by the Indian navy in 2012. Five other boats were captured that day and escorted to a port in Gujarat, which was then led by Narendra Modi, now the country’s prime minister.

The Indian authorities booked the six ship captains, Shakoor said, and threw their crews in prison. There, they met other Pakistanis, one of whom told Shakoor that he had been behind bars for 20 years.

Conditions in the prison were miserable, Shakoor said, and a Pakistani diplomat visited just once during his two-year incarceration. All the time, Shakoor worried about the plight of his family back in Pakistan. “I would think about the terrible condition they must be in,” he said.

His worries were well-founded: The wives of other men, still in jail, described a life of penury and struggle.

“My children are crying for clothes and food,” said Laila, a mother of nine, whose husband has been in an Indian jail for two years and whose children crowded around her as she spoke. “My tears are running this house.”

A fisherman’s life used to be less threatening. As recently as 10 years ago, several of them said, Indian boats were able to work freely off Manora Island, a small peninsula just south of Karachi. But in recent years, the fishermen have become pawns in a bigger diplomatic game.

Both governments use them as political leverage at critical points. This May, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan released 151 Indian fishermen before he flew to New Delhi for the inauguration of his Indian counterpart, Modi. India released 353 Pakistani fishermen from 2008 to 2013, according to the Pakistani Interior Ministry, compared with 2,079 releases by Pakistan in the same period.

(Pakistan appears to have arrested a greater number of Indian fishermen, which partly explains the discrepancy.)

The Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, an advocacy group, says the arrests violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both Pakistan and India have signed. Soofi, the lawyer, said the legal situation was murky, but noted that the rival governments could protest by issuing formal warnings to the trespassing vessels instead of arresting their crews.

But for Pakistan and India - neighbors who have fought three wars and amassed large nuclear arsenals - the fishermen are just the latest expression of an old fight. “Old enmities are played out through us,” said Kamal Shah, a spokesman for the Fisherfolk Forum.

The fishing season was well underway by Independence Day celebrations, which fell in Pakistan on Aug. 14 and in India a day later. But the border is not the only challenge facing the fishermen.

At Ibrahim Hyderi, where fishing crews transferred large blocks of ice onto their boats and stocked up on vegetables for trips of up to a month, fishermen explained the steep odds of their trade. In a good season, a haul of pomfret and prawns might earn each crew member $240. But in a bad season, it could be $20.

Still, Shakoor, weaving his rug, said he yearned to return to the sea.

“He doesn’t know anything else,” said Shah of the Fisherfolk Forum, sitting with the Shakoor family. “What will he do, become a thief?”

But Shakoor’s wife, Zahida, stood firm. “At least he’ll still be here,” she said, recalling the day he returned from the Indian jail, a bedraggled figure in filthy pants. “I won’t even let my son become a fisherman when he grows up.”

Declan Walsh contributed reporting from London.