The cliché about adding insult to injury never resonates more sickeningly than when “goodwill gesture” is used to describe the authorities in India and Pakistan –in alphabetic order –releasing fishermen of the other side who had been apprehended after straying across the unmarked maritime border off the north Gujarat coast.
The most recent example being orders to set free 220 Indians from detention centres in Karachi shortly after the Indian Prime Minister wished his Pakistani counterpart a happy birthday. If that goodwill was genuine, why would another 219 Indian fishermen continue to languish in captivity and a demand be made for a reciprocal release of 156 Pakistanis, including 13 children, being detained in India for similar crimes? That crime being fishermen traditionally following the shoals to boost their “catch” –their livelihood.
According to one report the 220 men who are expected to set foot on home soil in the next few days have been in custody for over a year: which means that both sides treat the fishermen as worse than pawns in the political power-game, wait for an “occasion” to release them without any formal negotiations for their release.
The “severity” of the hardships they endure during detention is directly linked to the gravity of the prevailing bilateral ill-will. And when they are sent back “home” it is without their boats, nets and other “tools of the trade”. That hardly qualifies description as “goodwill”.
What is downright uncivilised is that such disturbing conduct has been in vogue for several years, the detention and release of fishermen has become so routine that it finds scarce attention in the media. And hardly impacts the overall bilateral relations.
The economic hardships the fishermen suffer and the human distress their families have to endure does not count for much in the power-centres in New Delhi and Islamabad. Though both governments have endorsed the United Nations conventions on the laws of the sea they totally ignore the provision that fishermen who cross maritime boundaries be returned, not arrested.
Although thousands of fishermen have been detained over the years there have been very few cases of them being involved in espionage, terrorism or criminal activity. When Mr Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat he was “alive” to the situation, had promised a scheme to have GPS devices fitted to all fishing boats to avert inadvertent crossing of the maritime frontier, but has shown little interest in the project after being “elevated” to Raisina Hill.
And with terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and “hot” land borders occupying centre-stage, the plight of the simple fishermen arouses little concern. The subcontinent continues to demean itself by confusing cruelty with goodwill.