Sometime last year, Dadubhai went out to the sea to get fish. Instead of dead fish, his dead body is going to come home from Karachi. We don’t even know when his body is going to come. There are two flights between Karachi and Mumbai every week. Three such flights have landed in Mumbai since Dadubhai died of brain haemorrhage on July 4. The next flight will be a day before this column appears and there is no guarantee his body will come.

Dadubhai had completed his sentence and was awaiting repatriation. His is not the only case of the apathy with which the Indian and Pakistani governments treat each other’s imprisoned fishermen even in death. Last year, it had taken the body of Nawaz Ali 25 days to reach Karachi from Ahmedabad. This was some months after it had taken 45 days for the body of Ramji Bhai Vala to arrive in Mumbai from Karachi.

We aren’t even talking of living fishermen here — people whose occupational desperation could be overlooked by nationalist Indians and Pakistanis, who would rather inflict as much competitive suffering on each other as possible. It seems that even dead bodies need to be punished, be they of fishermen or soldiers.

Patriotic Indians and Pakistanis must congratulate each other for being so smart that they have divided the fishermen of the Arabian Sea with a border on the waters and our coastguards patrol these waters to prevent us from eating each other’s fish. Often the fishermen genuinely don’t know the maritime border, or cross it because of a storm, or because their GPS devices don’t work. Here is a community that must definitely be fishing in the same waters for thousands of years and it has suddenly been asked to recognise which fish is Pakistani and which fish is Indian.

Contrast this apathy with the way Indian and Pakistani governments and media have acted on the matter of some other prisoners. Recently, Sarabjit Singh and Sanaullah Ranjay’s bodies were both brought back in special flights and both given state funerals. Pakistani prisoner Khalil Chishty was taken home in a special flight, too. What is it that makes the fishermen lesser citizens?

The fishermen live on not just our nations’ peripheries literally but also metaphorically. Even though they belong to the right religion on both sides, they are like minorities that the mainstream couldn’t care less about. What does this say about our nationalism, about our obsessions with the borders that define our maps and ourselves? We’re unwilling to be seen even conceding an inch on vexed territorial issues such as Sir Creek, Siachen or Jammu and Kashmir. You would think that this is because we care about “our” people in these borderlands, their homes and livelihoods. But it turns out, we only care about lines on maps. Do you still need any proof that our nationalism is not what it claims to be — it is not about all our people but our elite and their egos. This is evident in not only how we treat fishermen but other borderland natives — the families divided between Rajasthan and Sindh, the Punjabi spies disowned once caught, the people who get killed and see their homes and farms destroyed across the Line of Control. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, we have made an entire state larger than France a frontier outpost of competing Indian and Pakistani nationalism; the inhabitants of that land are our ammunition.

It may seem that Pakistan is more generous to fishermen because it releases far more Indian fishermen. Not really. It’s just that far more Indian fishermen cross the international maritime boundary from the Indian side, because there’s more fish closer to the Indus delta.

There’s also lesser fish on the Gujarat coast thanks to industrial pollution. Shri Narendra Modi would, of course, think industrial development is more important than the livelihood of fishermen.

Activists like Jatin Desai, who have been working on the issue, have a simple solution: why can’t we have a no-arrest policy on fishermen? Why arrest a man who came looking for fish, put him in jail for six months, not release him even after that? Why not just turn him away?

Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2013.


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