By seema guha May. 20, 2016
Shimji Babu Rathor spent eight months in a Pakistan prison for catching the wrong fish: the story of a small man caught in big politics.
It was a clear day in Porbandar, the port city of Gujarat. The October sun beat down as 42-year-old fisherman Shimji Babu Rathor, said goodbye to his mother, wife, and two children. As part of the crew of a fishing trawler, he would be gone for close to a fortnight.
The sea was calm as Shimji and the crew set sail. The trawler stopped nearly every hour to check if they had netted enough good quality fish. If they were lucky they would find the perfect spot within 24 hours. In over-fished waters, a good catch could be a long way out.
It took them two full days and nights, before they could cast their huge nets. And then came the wait. The hours passed playing cards, singing, and gossiping. Sometimes they could watch television, with the permission of the trawler owner.
At dawn, Shimji helped reel up the nets. He sorted the catch, an abundance of paplet, surmai and jhinga. A little over 10 tonnes, this haul would fetch ₹10 to ₹15 lakh. Shimji’s share: ₹20,000. He was a happy man: A poor catch could mean little or no pay. It was time for breakfast of puri sabji. And then they would head home.
That’s when they spotted the speedboat.
It was Pakistani Maritime Security Agency. Two weapon-carrying men in crisp white uniforms came aboard, asking for the captain. Shimji trembled at the sight of the guns. He eyed the weapons and prayed silently for deliverance for he knew what was coming. They had strayed into Pakistani waters and were now going to pay the price.
The trawler was searched thoroughly. The fishermen were asked to walk in a single file, hands-up and heads down and made to board the maritime police vessel. They were settled in and were offered soft drinks. And then the questions began.
“Fishermen were brutally assaulted. They were given biryani and many suspected that beef was served. Nowadays it is more civilised on both sides. They are treated well and jail authorities serve vegetarian meals.”
Balubhai Socha, Samudr Shramik Suraksha Sangh
They had GPS, did they not know they were in Pakistani waters? Didn’t they realise they were flouting international law? Why were they asking for trouble? Gujarati fishermen knew the rules, so what did they want? The questions came hard and fast in Urdu as the crew tried to answer without giving themselves away. Of course they had GPS. But they had to go where the fish was aplenty. They ventured into Pakistani waters frequently and even the Pakistani fishermen crossed over. But both parties warned each other if either the Pakistani marine patrol or the Indian Coast Guard was around.
As the vessel roared to the Pakistani shore, Shimji had no idea what was coming next. But one thing was clear—he wasn’t going to be heading home anytime soon.
After a day in police lock-up, Shimji and crew were taken to Karachi’s Central Prison that already had several Gujarati fishermen. Behind bars, everyone talked at once, firing questions. Which village did they come from, what had happened. He recognised none of them but it was a relief to hear Gujarati.
The Central Prison was a giant complex, and Shimji and crew were kept separately from the Pakistani prisoners. As days passed, their fears subsided. None of them were beaten or ill-treated. They got their meals of extra large rotis, dal, and sabji daily and spent their time watering plants and cleaning the garden.
The weeks passed peacefully. But Shimji thought often about his wife. It could have been days before she found out what had happened. He knew it wouldn’t be easy on her. For many women like her, whose men had disappeared into the sea, their very identity hung in balance as they remained unsure about whether they were widows or not. He just hoped that she wasn’t facing any harassment from the men in the village. He knew of Saviben Sosa whose husband was still missing. She’d once said, “To live without a husband is to exist like a container without a cover. Everyone in the village considers you the ‘bhabhi’ of the village and looks at you with strange motives. Being a widow is better. At least you have a fixed identity.”
There was also the question of income and survival of the family. Thankfully, the Gujarat government, following Tamil Nadu’s precedent, had started paying families compensation. His family would be receiving ₹4,500 for each month he spent in jail.
Shimji wasn’t confident he would make it home but unknown to him, the wheels of his release had already started moving in far-off Russia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, met in Ufa for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in July 2015, and decided that the two national security advisors would meet later in the year ahead of the peace talks.
That meeting was the beginning of Shimji’s safe return home.
Shimji and crew served a relatively dignified prison sentence. This treatment of Indian fishermen has become the norm only in recent times. Balubhai Socha, who runs the Samudr Shramik Suraksha Sangh out of Junagadh, had seen prison conditions in Karachi first-hand. “About five years ago, the situation was very different,” he said. “Fishermen were brutally assaulted. They were given biryani and many suspected that beef was served. The prisoners went on hunger strike. Nowadays it is more civilised on both sides. They are treated well and jail authorities serve vegetarian meals.”
Fishermen are released only as a goodwill measure when the two nations want to hold talks. In the past, Pakistan has usually returned the fishermen but not the boats. Indian boats in the hands of Pakistan remain a security concern for New Delhi. There is the constant fear that boats with Indian markings could be used by terror groups.
Seven months and three weeks passed without any movement and life continued in jail. And then one day, an official from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad came to talk to Shimji and crew—asking for their names, addresses, village, and taluka. They were told they would go home as soon as the details were verified. The man was true to his word. The release orders for the fishermen came about ten days after.
On August 2, 2015, Shimji was among the 163 fishermen released by Pakistan with a grand gesture of farewell. On their last day, they saw the sights of Karachi on their way to the railway station and were given gifts for their families, and ₹5,000 each by a maulana, whose family had lived in Gujarat before Partition. Armed with gifts and stories of his time away, Shimji was taken from Karachi to Lahore. At the Wagah border, they were given travel documents and a formal reception by Gujarat government officials. Exactly eight months after their arrest, Shimji and crew were welcomed back to India by the Border Security Force.
While Shimji’s story had a happy ending, others still await theirs. More than 350 fishermen still languish in Pakistan waiting for the next upturn in relations between the neighbours, to make their way back home.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist writing mainly on India’s foreign policy. She has covered conflict situations in the northeast and has reported extensively on the ethnic war in Sri Lanka. She also contributes to openDemocracy, a prestigious international website.