Pakistan’s release of 300 Indian fishermen raises hopes for detente


June 28, 2012

Pakistan released 300 Indian fishermen who were arrested after crossing the indiscernible border into Pakistan. This marks the largest release of prisoners on a single day in Pakistan, which many see as a sign of improved relations.

June 28, 2012

Pakistan released 300 Indian fishermen who were arrested after crossing the indiscernible border into Pakistan. This marks the largest release of prisoners on a single day in Pakistan, which many see as a sign of improved relations.

At 10am on Wednesday morning, 311 of the inmates of Karachi's Malir district jail squeezed themselves into six crammed coaches and were driven off towards freedom.

Nazir Hussain Shah, the superintendent of the jail, was sad to see them go. "They are nice people, we never have any trouble with them," he said.

Good behavior is probably only to be expected from inmates who were arrested for an activity few people would regard as a crime. Unlike the murderers, terrorists and thieves that make up many of the remaining 2,362 inmates, the departed prisoners were held for months on end for fishing in the uninhabited marshlands between Pakistan and India and getting on the wrong side of an indiscernible border.

On board the buses, the fishermen filled up every available scrap of space, including the aisle between seats. "I'm relieved to be going home," said Jeeva Sheddi, a 50-year-old fisherman. "I haven't been allowed to talk to my family in nine months and have only had five or six letters in that time."

Like most other fishermen who get arrested for international trespass, his boat was impounded and he is unlikely to see it again. And it will not be a speedy return home to their villages, which are no more than 100 miles down the coast from Karachi. Despite the vast shared border of India and Pakistan there is only one land crossing, 800 miles north of the city.

The plight of the Indian fishermen is matched by the large number of Pakistani prisoners held for identical offences on the other side of the border in Indian jails. They too are scooped up by maritime authorities in the salt marsh of Sir Creek. According to the strict reciprocity that governs relations between the two countries, they only get to go home following the release of Indians from the jail in Karachi.

Not a great deal happens in Sir Creek, a 60-mile stretch of winding inlet that feeds into the Arabian Sea and floods a massive area each year. But it is where the Pakistani province of Sindh meets the Indian state of Gujarat. India says its territory starts in the middle of the stream. Pakistan claims it rightfully owns all the water up to the shores of Gujarat.

The creek itself has changed course so much over the years that it now bears little resemblance to the snaking border line on the map. "It's just open water – you cannot tell where you are," said Asween Natho, a 19-year-old who left prison on Wednesday after seven months.

In recent years, the government of Pakistan has shown signs of wanting to fix its outstanding disputes with India. Wednesday's release of prisoners was the biggest ever in a single day: Superintendent Shah believes Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, has a soft spot for the fishermen because he himself was incarcerated in the same prison in the late 1990s for corruption when his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was in exile.

Shah is still in touch with his famous former inmate, even sending him text messages from time to time. "Zardari Sahib has been a big help for the fishermen," he said. "They used to get stuck here for years, but now the process is extremely quick because the government wants to have good relations with the Indians." Given the cost of housing and feeding the Indian fishermen, the prison boss regards the exercise as a waste of resources.

Perhaps more significantly in the strained relations between India and Pakistan, there have been appeals to negotiate an end to the Siachen Glacier dispute, an extraordinarily expensive and deadly standoff in the high mountains of the north. Soldiers on both sides of the dispute regularly die, not from combat but from the altitude and sub-zero temperatures.

Fresh impetus for demilitarizing the glacier came in April when a massive avalanche buried the Pakistani battalion headquarters. All 140 soldiers and civilians were killed, and two months later only a tiny proportion of bodies have been recovered. The tragedy even prompted opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to call for a unilateral Pakistani withdrawal, before watering down his remarks.

Zardari visited India in April and his former prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, has also made a trip. India's prime minister has agreed to return the favor.

Both countries have been pushing to open business links in the hope that any increase in the currently negligible volumes of cross-border trade could rescue Pakistan's collapsing economy and ultimately lead to progress on outstanding political disputes.

But there are fears the process has stalled even before it has begun: a promised liberalization of strict visa rules for business travelers has not happened, and officials say Pakistan is now dragging its feet on other matters.

A proposed meeting of foreign ministers from the two countries has been postponed, in part because of political turmoil in Islamabad, where the government is in a battle of survival against near-daily legal onslaughts from the Supreme Court, which last week sacked the prime minister.

Pakistani analysts are pessimistic about Siachen. "The Pakistan army would love to come down from the glacier, but the Indian army has a veto," said Moonis Ahmar, a professor of international relations at the University of Karachi. "It is all being held back by ego and a very parochial approach to the problem." The release of the fishermen is "just a small gesture in a peace process that is bogged down," he said.

Of the territorial disputes between the two countries, Sir Creek was once considered the easiest to solve. However, what was once a comparatively unimportant strip of water is being talked up as a potential source of shale gas. The nationalistic chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, has called for those energy reserves to be fully exploited.

The dispute baffles those fishing on both sides of the ambiguous border. Mohammad Ali Shah, the chairman of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, has called for small boats from both countries to be allowed to fish all over the creek.

Already he says those fishing the waters from both India and Pakistan treat each other like comrades when they encounter each other. "It is a fight between two governments, not the people," he said.

Courtesy: Guardian