March 18, 2010

Harami Nala

(Green line: Boundary claimed by Pakistan. Red line: boundary claimed by India, source wikipedia)

Locals call it the ‘Harami Nala’ (‘Bastard Channel’ is my closest translation); the rest of the world knows this area, formed by the estuaries of the Indus, as Sir Creek. This hundred kilometer stretch of the Rann of Kutch is disputed; claimed by India and Pakistan for over forty years, the fracas goes back to Partition. The reasons are political, historical and economic: parts of the creek may be rich in oil and gas, and the brackish water makes for good fishing grounds.

It is the arena of fishermen, criminals, smugglers and Pakistani backed infiltration: the terrorists that attacked Mumbai from the sea are thought to have taken the Indian fishing boat ‘Kuber’ in Sir Creek, and Indian Border Security Force officials say that this is a regular infiltration zone with Pakistani terrorists trying to enter India disguised as fishermen. The creek is also the setting of much anguish and despair: hundreds of fishermen are detained every year by both India and Pakistan in a continuing war of attrition that is against all international norms and in contravention of the UN Law of the Sea convention, which bars detention of fishermen even if they stray into hostile borders.

The fishermen are instead kept in Indian and Pakistani jails for years without even any pretence of human rights. Their families only know that they are missing: neither side will often not even release the names of those that it has detained. Not that things are better when the Indians or Pakistanis formally convict these fishermen: as things stand today, an estimated 480 Indian and 100 Pakistani fishermen have completed terms of their imprisonment but have not been released, And, although each side claims that these detainees were fishing illegally in their waters, the fact is that most of the fishermen were on small fishing boats in a disputed area and with no access to modern navigational position fixing systems: they did not know exactly where they were when they were arrested. And of course, there are no lines drawn in the sea or in estuaries that mark marine borders anyway, and the borders in this case are hazy and disputed to begin with.

Guess what? I think that things are going to get even worse for the fishermen.

I say this despite the release, in one of those periodic confidence building measures that both countries seem to love but which accomplish little, of a hundred Indian fishermen by Pakistan in December and around thirty Pakistani fishermen by India in January. I say this despite India and Pakistan both claiming that they will not imprison the other’s fishermen any longer: this is periodic rhetoric that fools nobody (the Pakistanis have subsequently arrested other Indian fishermen). I say this despite other feel good (but, eventually impotent) initiatives like the ‘Aman Ki Aasha (Hope for Peace)- a joint effort by the Times of India and the Pakistani Jang newspapers, one that some hope will address the plight of fishermen as well. I agree with Muhammad Ali Shah, Chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, when he says that both countries are playing a numbers game and nothing more.

I say things will get worse for the main reason that the security situation in the waters of the Arabian Sea is deteriorating and threat perceptions must therefore be raised. For one, the by now infamous ‘Karachi Project’- where Indian nationals are being trained by the Pakistanis as sleepers for future terrorist strikes in India- requires a fair level of illegal cross border movement from Pakistan. The other favourite hunting ground, Kashmir, is far away, and Sir Creek is a logical and tested infiltration theatre; I am sure that Karachi was chosen as the centre for command and control for this reason.

In the broader context, the movement of fighters from Afghanistan and regions of Pakistan where things have got a little hot in the glare of American scrutiny is old news. Amorphous organisations and official elements from within the State of Pakistan are again sending their jehadi foot soldiers out, this time into Yemen, Somalia (including, in some cases, to Somali pirates) and the like: much of this traffic will, again logically, move through Karachi, as it always has. This is nothing new: many of us who sailed in the region a year or two after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US will recall Western naval vessels and aircraft keeping a strict (and unofficial) traffic control system in place in the Western Arabian Sea and southwards. Chatter on the VHF made it obvious that they were particularly interested in ships departing Pakistan- that usually means Karachi. We were regularly requested to report details of our ship and its ownership, cargo, crew and particularly of any stowaways to these navies. German military planes used to buzz us often- and once, when I was ahead of schedule and had stopped engines briefly for a boat drill (but also to enjoy the sight of the hundreds of dolphins that gambol in the warm waters of the ocean), I found a French naval vessel curious enough about my shenanigans to approach within half a mile of me.

There are enough signs already that life will be getting even more complicated for our fisherfolk. Post Mumbai attacks, the Indian Government has, amongst its other sometimes painfully slow anti-terrorist countermeasures, started installing ISRO developed tracking devices on the country’s trawlers; boats can also use these to send out alerts in emergencies, including, I presume, if they are boarded by Pakistani agencies as a prelude to detention. In addition, a census of Gujarati fishermen has been taken and a database is to be setup. In addition to other such actions, and in a move that had the fishermen’s lobby protesting outside Parliament in New Delhi, a new Marine Fisheries Bill is proposed. It gives the Centre greater powers to regulate fisheries in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The proposed legislation intends to effectively amend the Constitution that gives the States the right to govern such activity up to 12 miles from land. Fishermen are particularly angry about the requirement that will make them get a special permit from the central administration for undertaking any fishing activity outside territorial waters.

It is a given that any counter-terrorism measures a country takes will encroach upon the life and freedoms of its citizens; fishermen should be no exception. However, the tit for tat arrest of fishermen that has been accepted as normal in Sir Creek for decades is reprehensible- and illegal in international law. This, too, is criminalisation of those that go to sea to make a living. These fishermen are sailors, like so many of us. Their detention- and sometimes alleged torture- should not be summarily ignored by most citizens of their own countries, as it is today. They should no longer spend years in jail on trumped up charges- or even none. Their families should not have to live in torment, not knowing whether their husbands and fathers have drowned or are alive and being tortured.

This travesty has gone on for far too long already. It must stop at once, before more people start wondering whether it is more than just the nala that is harami.