Our neglected have-nots

By I.A. Rehman ,

THE killing of an Indian fisherman Naranbhai Sosa reportedly by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency on Oct 11 last has again highlighted the enormous suffering caused to the subcontinent’s have-nots by insensitive administrators on both sides of the borders.

Last Thursday, Indian fisherfolk representatives met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to demand a meeting of the Indian Coast Guard and Pakistan Maritime Security Agency representatives and a proper inquiry into Sosa’s killing. It would be good if, without waiting for a move by New Delhi, Islamabad announced its readiness for an inquiry by a joint India-Pakistan team. The Pakistani authorities should also inquire into the killing of an unarmed Indian fisherman, if such an investigation has not already been held.

The Indian fisherfolk leaders have also asked their government to unilaterally and unconditionally release the Pakistani fishermen held in Indian prisons and their boats. The Pakistani fisherfolk will make a similar plea to their prime minister if they could gain access to him.

India is reportedly holding about 200 Pakistani fishermen and their 150 boats, while the number of Indian fishermen and their boats in Pakistan’s custody is said to be 229 and 780, respectively. The hardship caused to more than 400 families is no small matter. Both sides must immediately release the fishermen and their boats.

As a rule, the practice of detaining fishermen for crossing the national limit and confiscating their boats should cease. At the most they may be fined in addition to confiscation of their catch and warned of detention for a subsequent offence.

The problems of fisherfolk have been on the fringe of the Indian and Pakistani governments’ attention for decades. Every now and then they release some captives but the call for creating a permanent mechanism to expeditiously solve the cases of fishermen who stray beyond the national maritime zone remains unanswered.

Humanitarian considerations apart, there is a need to recognise the fisherfolk’s centuries-old rights and practices to make a living by fishing in the open sea. The leaders of both the countries must dispel the impression that their class bias against the poor and resourceless in their communities prevents them from resolving even small issues. Otherwise, the death of a single fisherman on the sea should have sent shock waves across the subcontinent.

The fisherfolk constitute a significant part of the labour force in the subcontinent. Despite the struggles of their fairly well organised unions they have failed to get their due from their national leaderships, although the latter cannot possibly deny that the test of their democratic professions lies in satisfying the modest aspirations of the underprivileged.

The fisherfolk of India and Pakistan form part of a large horde of the poor in these countries who continue to be cheated out of the fruits of freedom and supposedly democratic systems.

Those who suffer more than their compatriots include prisoners from across the border, women caught in trafficking rackets, refugees and migrant workers searching for means of livelihood.

Whatever the position of the two neighbouring states on bilateral disputes and differences, they should not fail to draw up concrete plans to mitigate the suffering of the underprivileged on either side of the border.

A revival of India-Pakistan friendship is one of the objectives on which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is clear, consistent and credible. And now that the Punjab chief minister and his Indian counterpart have shouted ‘kodi kodi’ in unison the call for normal ties between the two South Asian neighbours cannot be dismissed as ranting by subversive elements.

It is clear that pro-poor policies on both sides will generate a strong pressure against the warmongers and hate preachers who have been flourishing by stoking the fires of animosity between the two peoples. The next most rewarding efforts would be a reduction in visa formalities for travel from one country to another to the barest minimum possible, if they cannot be abolished altogether.

Unfortunately, the leaders of both India and Pakistan are often diverted from the road to normalisation by their momentary concerns. The common attitude is that nothing sensible can be done till the Indian general election is over. This is a strange case of a state’s abdication of its duties out of fear that its good deeds may cause it greater loss of votes than its misdeeds.

However, the people cannot be blamed for expecting a thaw in New Delhi-Islamabad relations following Mian Shahbaz Sharif‘s wooing of the Indian public with his poetry recitals.

Consider, for instance, this appeal from an Indian organisation that wishes to exchange peace delegations to its Pakistani friends: “We want to come in Pakistan for best friendship between both the countries. We will invite you people for attend the peace conference at India in our organisation. I have submitted all papers for group visa at high commission office of Pakistan at Delhi. I remain 12 days at Delhi for that work. Last they told me you can try [the] chief minister of Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif. He also wants friendship between both the countries. Allah will help us and [I will] also try [the] home ministry at Islamabad-Pakistan.”

In any case, Pakistan should do its homework and prepare its proposals for making the life of poorer citizens on both sides a little more bearable.

Anyone working on this script will find that people-friendly initiatives can help India and Pakistan solve all their problems – from fishermen’s woes to trade bottlenecks, to disputes on sharing of river waters, even Kashmir.

(The author is chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan)

—(Courtesy: Dawn)

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