Indian fishermen embrace freedom

A row of dead eyes meet the crowd’s stare. They are awed by the reception at the Wagah Border, where they will leave from to go back to their home in India. But while activists stand happily holding rose garlands for them, nothing is mirrored in the expression of these fishermen.

The last time Pakistan freed the Indian prisoners from their jails – mostly in Sindh – was back in November 2008. Now, two years afterwards, some others are being freed, but only as a bait to allow the Indian government to free some Pakistani prisoners too.

If any one is affected by the foreign relations, it is the fisher folk, the poorest people in both India and Pakistan. Often when catching fish at night in open seas, they mistakenly cross over to the other country’s borders. At times it has been a storm that has blown them over. Some die, the others are arrested.

“About 120 known Pakistani prisoners are languishing in the jails of India,” says Lal Khan, a peace activist, who has also written a book pondering over whether the Indo-Pak partition can ever be undone. “Out of these the sentence of 80 is over, the rest are under-trial prisoners.”

In the jails of Sindh, a total of 582 fishermen mainly from Gujrat have been caught and jailed. Iqbal Haider, a renowned human rights activist, says that out of these 456 have completed their sentence, and 128 are under trial, but the fate of 14 others is ‘confusing’. “Out of the ones who have completed their sentence, 100 are being freed today.”

On a harrowing trip, in an ordinary 62-seater public bus, from Karachi, the freed fishermen arrived at the Wagah Border where they had to go through documentation and Customs before they left for the other side. But it is sure that they will never want to turn back. Photographs on their documents from before being jailed show a much more animated face. Though they were crushed under poverty, they were at home and could sail the seas whenever they wanted. Now they say that their boats have been confiscated by the Pakistani authorities and they are going back to nothing.

“I used to earn Rs100 a day,” says Bhupat. “I had left behind a mother and my wife and children. I have no idea how they have been making ends meet. And I have no idea what I will do.”

The only fraction of emotion is shown at this point, when Ashok, who stands behind him in line, interrupts and says, his voice trembling: “What can we do besides fishing? This is all that we have done our lives, it the only business in our villages!”

But the rest of the prisoners, it seems, have taken a solemn oath amongst themselves in revealing anything more.

“Yes we have been treated well by the jail authorities,” say about 10 of the fishermen who were interviewed by Dawn, but it is patently obvious that their eyes betray the opposite. One of them musters the courage to say that during his three years in jail, life was more tolerable in the last two years. But he refuses to say anything more.

Thirty-year-old Dheeru when asked if he had anything to say to the states of India or Pakistan, turned his head away in disgust. Turning back, the dead stare stung as he replied: “It is because of them that our three years have been spoilt, our families have lived in hell, and we have lost our only way of earning income. I would never say anything to these people.”

But Ganda, a younger man in his twenties represents a more optimistic thought pattern, perhaps.

“I request the states of both countries to let go of all the fishermen they have arrested over the years. We are brothers, and we are poor people, and have nothing to do with any hostility in the relations of India and Pakistan. Please! Leave us alone!”

— PUBLISHED SEP 01, 2010 12:00AM


Footprints: Where the Law Fails

As Basra Bibi sits in the courtyard of the Edhi Home, tears constantly well up and her eyes are red and swollen — but she is quiet. Pain is evident in her face as she watches her five-year-old son play with a twig.

“The thing that hurt me most is that it was my parents who kicked me out of their house first, and beat me up, even in the police station,” she tells me.

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