One fateful day in 1991 Ronjha and his crew were arrested by men of the Indian maritime security agency -- men they had until then thought to be their compatriots
By Salman Rashid
Mohammad Siddique Ronjha Nakhuda (Captain), native of village Keti Bandar in the delta of the once great Sindhu River, his teenage son and three other men were lucky to make it through that August night in 1995. Others are known to have lost the way and perished in the wilderness. This is the story of hundreds of fishermen from the coastal communities of Sindh -- as well as that of their counterparts from India.
Once Ronjha was a fairly well-off fisherman with his own boat and crew. One fateful day in early 1991, as he and his men were hauling in their nets at two in the afternoon, they saw a boat approaching. Since they had been fishing in Sir Creek which, they believed, was within Pakistan's boundary, they were not alarmed. But this creek in the extreme east of the delta has been claimed by both India and Pakistan and soon Ronjha and his crew were arrested by men of the Indian maritime security agency -- men they had until then thought to be their compatriots.
Time was when a young Ronjha had fished off Jamnagar, Dwarka and even as far as Mumbai. He also recalled trips to Muscat and Iranian fishing villages. All this without a passport and without fear of persecution because, as 'people of the seas we could go where we pleased.' But with the advent of the 1960s things began to change. That was when Ronjha came to know of the first arrests of Pakistani fishermen by Indian authorities and reciprocal action by the Pakistanis.
In 1991 Kutch had long been out of bounds for Pakistani fishermen, yet Ronjha could not believe that he would be arrested from within his own country. Their long ordeal had just begun. Following a remand of eighteen days, they were booked for straying across the border and arraigned in court where Ronjha was horrified to learn that they also faced the false charge of attempting to escape when challenged.
The judge asked Ronjha if he had a lawyer. 'I told him we were in a foreign land without money or friends and there was no way we could hire a lawyer.' He also said that he, his son and his crew were prepared to undergo whatever punishment be meted out to them. But the judge was a kindly man and it was on his orders that a local Muslim group hired a lawyer for the hapless fishermen. The trial dragged on and at one point it seemed that Ronjha and his crew were in for very long jail sentences.
They had already been in custody for three and a half years when the verdict was passed: a fine of two hundred and fifty rupees for stealing fish and illegally crossing the border. In lieu of the fine, they were to undergo an additional thirty days in custody. Ronjha was overjoyed at the idea of liberty so near. At the end of the month, they were moved from the jail to a police station which Ronjha thought was the first step to freedom and returning home. That did not happen; only his son, nine when they were captured and in his teens now, was separated from him.
Six months went by and there were still no signs either of his son or of release. As leader of his team, Ronjha did everything he could think off to get the attention of the authorities. But nothing moved. One day news came of the posting of a new Deputy Superintendent of Police. Ronjha clamoured for an interview. After a couple of weeks of persistent noise he was produced before the officer.
Hearing his sorry tale, the police asked him if his son would make it safely home were he to be released on the border with Badin district of Sindh. Ronjha was horrified. Why, his son was barely into his teens and had never been around Badin. How could such a young child make it across miles and miles of barren wilderness?
The police officer whose name Siddique Ronjha does not remember seems to have been of a rare breed of humans because he personally took up the case of what he considered blameless fishermen. Despite all the good man's efforts, yet another year went by before Ronjha could be reunited with his son. Shortly thereafter, all five of them were driven a couple of hours to a desolate spot, given two water bags and some food and told to follow the sun that was low in the west.
Towards the sun they went and then into a darkling night of a gibbous moon. Presently they entered a forest of acacia and mesquite which, Ronjha affirms was infested with snakes. They were fortunate to make it through to the next morning. As the sun rose higher, they ran into a shepherd and asked him where they were. It took some doing for the man to be convinced that this bunch of ragged men were not Indian terrorists but his own misfortune-bedevilled compatriots.
Assured, the man at last told them they were in Badin district and that a rangers post was just ahead. Te group happily marched on until they saw five camel riders in uniform: law enforcers of their beloved country, they exulted as they hailed them. Their relief and joy were short-lived, however. Ronjha and his mates were arrested once again and led away blindfolded. 'I had thought we would be greeted and sent home to our families, but this is what we got,' Ronjha says, his voice ragged with sobs.
Now they were detained on suspicion of being Indian spies. Since fishermen routinely never carry their national identity cards with them, Ronjha and his group had no way of proving where they belonged. They were sent away to Badin where the five of them were locked in a tiny, windowless hovel – a poor comparison with the 'facilities' they had enjoyed in India. Here they remained twelve days.
Meanwhile, Ronjha somehow contrived to send a letter home. But when his family arrived, they were denied a meeting. All this while Ronjha and his group were hauled from the courts to interrogation cells and back into the dark hovel. Another fortnight dragged by. Then one day the lot was blindfolded and they heard someone being asked if he knew them. The man said yes and he named all five of them. Ronjha recognised the voice of Aziz Memon, the chairman of the Keti Bandar Union Council.
With relief sweeping over him, Siddique Ronjha broke down and wept. But his ordeal was far from over. They were booked and arraigned yet again, this time in front of a Pakistani judge. Seven days of remand and a short trial ended in their release. Yet liberty eluded the hapless five. Late one night, Aziz Memon returned and asked for the Station House Officer to be roused. The bribe that the policeman had sought for releasing innocent men had been arranged. Money changed hands and Siddique Ronjha Nakhuda, his son and his three member crew finally walked into liberty. It was almost five years since they had been arrested in Sir Creek.
But precious little joy his release brought because Siddique Ronjha returned home to poverty. Time was before 1960 that a fisherman caught by India or Pakistan was released together with his boat and catch. But now both countries confiscate vessels of the other and auction them off, the money going to the respective maritime security agencies. Not only was he without a boat, the son that Ronjha had left behind to pursue his schooling had to drop out to labour in a salt works because there was no other source of income. It was to take ten years of hard work captaining other boats before the man was finally able to procure a vessel of his own again.
Engaged in a childish tit for tat game, Pakistan and India are punishing innocent, largely poor and marginalised fisher folks of their countries. Sadly, it is Pakistan that is more in the wrong for having detained and released over two thousand Indian fishermen between the years 2005 to 2008. India, on the other hand, took only five hundred. As of the end of last year, there were thirty-nine Pakistani fishermen in Indian jails as against three hundred and fifty-six of their counterparts in Pakistan.
According to Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), the maritime security organs of both countries, in order to be one-up, sometimes even cross their respective borders to make unwarranted arrests. At the same time, it needs be conceded that fishing boats from both countries lack navigational and radio equipment, neither are there any markers (like buoys) to delineate the borders of the two countries and alert transgressing vessels. Consequently the detention of fishermen who barely make a living, the confiscation of their catch and their boats is a gross crime against suffering marginalised groups.
Article 73 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1983 clearly lays down the following: 'Arrested vessels and their crews shall be promptly released upon the posting of reasonable bond or other security. Coastal State penalties for violations of fisheries laws and regulations in the exclusive economic zone may not include imprisonment, in the absence of agreements to the contrary by the States concerned, or any other form of corporal punishment.'
Under this law, a nominal fine and warning is all that can be inflicted upon an erring boat. Yet, hiding behind domestic laws, the two countries continue to arrest each others fishermen, confiscate their boats and further impoverish already struggling individuals. As late as 1998, fishermen released by India and Pakistan were let loose in the border area of Badin district to find their own way across either the waterless salt flats of the Rann of Kutch or the trackless dunes of the Thar Desert. Many succumbed to snakebite, others to dehydration or hunger. The fortunate ones who made it across were arrested by their own law enforcers as spies of the other country.
The long struggle of Karachi-based PFF led to the current formalisation of fishermen's exchange through the only land border crossing of Wagah. Even so, this release cannot be effected before the fishermen have undergone lengthy incarceration. It still needs considerable doing to bring the authorities of Pakistan and India to agree to release the equipment of the arrested fishermen. If that does not come about, our two countries will childishly continue to inflict poverty on people who depend on the ever-decreasing harvest of the sea.