Pakistani and Indian fishermen are pawns in governments’ disputes

His hands wrapped tightly around the frayed rope he uses to steer his skiff, Lutf Ali is visibly on edge as he scans the horizon. He keeps looking to the left, from where the speedboats always pounce.

“The Indian boats are big and noisy, so when we hear them, we try to get away,” the 50-year-old Pakistani fisherman says of the neighboring country’s coast guard. “If we’re lucky, we’re not caught.”

In the cat-and-mouse game played out every day in the Arabian Sea and in the channels carved into the mud flats of the Indus River delta, Ali is the mouse.

Hundreds of Pakistani and Indian fishermen have been arrested and imprisoned in recent years, high-seas apprehensions that human rights activists say have nothing to do with border enforcement and everything to do with the 6-decade-old hatred between Pakistan and India.

When fishermen from either country are hauled in for questioning, they’re interrogated by intelligence agents convinced that the men are spies. The fishermen are often held for years without a trial.

Officials with the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a human rights nongovernmental organization, or NGO, that focuses on the plight of Indus River delta fishermen, say Indian prisons now hold 175 Pakistani fishermen. The organization’s counterpart in India, the National Fishworkers Forum, says 550 Indian fishermen are jailed in Pakistani lockups.

Fishermen and activists with the Indian and Pakistani NGOs say India’s border enforcement in the Arabian Sea and nearby channels has stepped up sharply since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, which killed 166 people.

Indian coast guard patrols focus keenly on the Indus River delta, fishermen and activists say, because the Mumbai attackers began their journey to India from the delta’s waterways in a small boat, armed with AK-47s, grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The arrests add another layer of misery for families just scraping by in thatched-hut villages, where schools, electricity and paved roads don’t exist.

Since Mohammed Saleh, a 37-year-old Jati fisherman, was arrested more than a year ago and jailed in India, his wife, Zeenat, and two of his older daughters have had to work picking tomatoes and peppers for less than a dollar a day. A 12-year-old son, Sajjad, scours mounds of trash for paper and plastic recyclables.

All that still doesn’t bring in enough to live on, so every day Zeenat sends her three little boys into Jati’s dirt lanes to beg.

“Mohammed went into the sea to earn something for his children and now we’re here alone, and there’s no one taking care of us,” Zeenat says as two of her children tug at a balloon that both want to play with. “Begging is the only thing we can do.”

The Indus River delta is a desolate, salt-crusted wasteland that splays out into the Arabian Sea just southeast of Pakistan’s largest city and port, Karachi. Upstream pollution and coastal erosion long ago killed off much of the delta’s vast stands of mangrove, leaving the region’s clay-filled banks barren and gray.

Its winding tributaries and the sea’s coastal waters, however, still teem with populations of shad, pomfret, catfish and shrimp large enough to sustain the delta’s fishing villages. Most of the delta’s men fish for a living, heading out for two-week trips to haul in catches that largely get shipped to the Middle East. Jati’s population is 120,000, and 50,000 of its residents are fishermen.

Sir Creek, a channel between the Pakistani and Indian borders, is prime fishing territory for Jati fishermen. The demarcation of the channel’s waters, however, has been hotly disputed by India and Pakistan for years. Indian and Pakistani fishermen are arrested either in Sir Creek or in the Arabian Sea, where fishermen have no way of knowing what separates India’s territorial waters from Pakistan’s.

“It’s not like our water is one color and India’s water is another,” says Noor Mohammed, an activist with Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum. “When you’re in the sea, you don’t know where the Indian side starts.”

According to both Pakistani and Indian law, crossing into the other country’s territorial waters should entail, at most, a three-month stint in jail and a $12 fine, Mohammed says. In reality, however, fishermen from both countries are often jailed for a year or more. Their skiffs are routinely confiscated and sold at auction.

Coastal authorities in both countries declined requests for interviews.

Mohammed says border enforcement activity rises and falls with the temperature of Pakistani-Indian relations. When tension rises in Kashmir, the disputed mountainous region claimed by both India and Pakistan, arrests of fishermen pick up.

“It’s all because of this animosity between Pakistan and India,” Mohammed says. “We fall victim to that. There’s a lack of trust by both governments. Whoever crosses over is regarded as an agent of the other government’s security agency.”

Or, as in the case of 24 Pakistani fishermen from the village of Atharki arrested Dec. 2, 2008, they’re suspected of being terrorists. Mohammed Siddiq said he had six other fishermen in his skiff when Indian patrol boats raced toward the men; they were arrested and taken to an Indian jail.

The men spent 13 months in tiny cells, six men to a cell. For the first month, Siddiq says, they were interrogated and beaten by Indian intelligence agents.

“They hung us upside down and beat us with canes,” says Siddiq, a gaunt man with a soft voice and an empty look in his eyes. “They kept asking us, ‘Why did you come to the Indian side? Do you know who carried out the terrorist attacks in Mumbai?’ I said, ‘I don’t know them, I’m just a fisherman.’ ”

The men were released in January as part of an exchange in which Pakistan freed Indian fishermen. Siddiq’s $12,000 boat was never returned, however, and the 35-year-old fisherman must now find a way to keep his wife and eight children fed.

That means heading out to sea again.

“There’s always that fear of being caught again, but we’ve got no other choice,” says Abdul Karim, who was arrested on the same day as Siddiq and also spent 13 months in an Indian prison. “I’ve got four kids, and this is the only way we can survive.”