“I want our son back; neither allowances nor any election promises are of interest to us. “I haven’t seen him in two years,” said Ankita Thapariya, the mother of Ankit, a fisherman imprisoned in Pakistan for illegally entering the neighboring country’s water territory.
The situation is no different for the families of 655 fishermen from Gujarat’s coastal region, particularly Saurashtra, Porbandar, Veral, Dwarka, and Magrol, who have been imprisoned in Pakistan for several years.
Gujarat’s assembly elections will be held in two stages, on December 1 and 5.
Family members of fishermen imprisoned in Pakistan say they will vote for parties that promise to bring their relatives back from the neighboring country in the upcoming elections.
“Elections come and go, political parties promise to bring our children back, but nothing happens.” We don’t always know if they’re alive or dead. My grandson was the only earning member, and he is now serving a three-year sentence in a Pakistani jail. We will vote for those who guarantee the safe return of my grandson,” Govindbhai, 72, of Mangrol, whose grandson was apprehended by Pakistan two years ago said.
Lilaben, whose husband has been in a Pakistani jail for the last three years after being caught near the Dwarka coastline area, agrees that the state government’s allowance of Rs 300 to family members of fishermen caught for the first time is a pittance.
“Every month, my husband used to earn around Rs 30,000.” We now get around Rs 9,000 per month as an allowance. We are a six-person family. To support my family, I must work as a maid in remote areas. “The situation is worse for families whose members have been caught a second time because they are not eligible for the allowance,” she explained.
“The state government only provides an allowance of Rs 300 per day to those families whose men have been arrested in Pakistani waters for the first time,” said Veljibhai Masani, national president of Akhil Bharatiya Fishermen Association, explaining the Gujarat government’s policy.
“The government doesn’t provide any allowance if the same person is caught for the second time. It is considered an unintended mistake to enter Pakistani waters for the first time. “However, if you are caught a second time, it is assumed that you did it on purpose,” he said.
According to data provided by the state government in the Gujarat assembly this year in March, approximately 519 fishermen from the state are imprisoned in Pakistan. These fishermen have been imprisoned in Pakistan for one to five years.
“At the moment, approximately 655 fishermen apprehended on the Gujarat coast are being held in Pakistani jails.” In recent months, the figure has risen. I attempted but failed to return the fishermen to Pakistan. I only brought back trawlers. The central government has taken steps, but Pakistan must now act. In many cases, the Pakistani courts have released these fishermen, but the authorities are unwilling,” he told.
Masani stated that fishermen’s families, who account for approximately 10,000 voters, are spread across various assembly constituencies along Gujarat’s coastline.
In January of this year, India demanded that Pakistan release and repatriate 356 Indian fishermen and two civilian prisoners whose nationality had been confirmed and communicated to Pakistani authorities.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) then stated that India had handed over to Pakistan a list of 282 Pakistan civilian prisoners and 73 fishermen in India’s custody. Similarly, Pakistan has shared lists of 51 civilian prisoners and 577 fishermen in its custody who are Indians or are suspected to be Indians.
According to the Gujarat government, the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency regularly arrests fishermen from Gujarat, accusing them of entering Pakistani waters by crossing the notional International Maritime Border Line (IMBL) in the Arabian Sea.
According to international laws, fishermen apprehended in international waters cannot be held in jails for years, according to Madhubhni Soneri, a social activist who works for the development of the fishermen community.
“It’s just because of bitter relations between the countries that these poor fishermen and families on both sides suffer. Fishermen who have just been caught for getting into Pakistani water for fishing can be booked under poaching laws, under which the jail term is just a few months. But here we are, just years later,” he explained.
Soneri said that most fishermen’s households struggle to support their families without their earning members.
“The women work as laborers or maids in various fishing ports to support their families,” he explained.
According to Usman Goni, secretary of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, both nations should put in place a suitable mechanism to guarantee the release of fishermen from both sides.
“There needs to be a proper system in place to protect fishermen. Just for the sake of their livelihood, they enter Pakistani waters. Fish are migrating to Pakistan as a result of the coastline’s rapid industrialization. Furthermore, the majority of those detained own deep-sea trawlers. Therefore, if they return empty-handed, they will no longer be in business, the man said.
Congress, which is in opposition, charged that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power, had not taken the cause of fishermen seriously enough.
state Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said that “The BJP is in power at the state and the Centre, but they have a lackadaisical approach as they are not a vote bank for the party. If we are voted to power, we will ensure the return of those farmers languishing in jails”.
The Congress has promised Rs 3 lakh in financial assistance and Rs 400 in daily allowance to the families of Gujarati fishermen imprisoned in Pakistan.
The BJP dubbed the allegations as baseless.
“The allegations are baseless,” state BJP general secretary Rajnibhai Patel said. We have taken all necessary steps to bring them back and are doing everything in our power to do so.”