Pakistan, on Sunday May 25, released 151 Indian prisoners, 59 of whom were released from Karachi and 92 from Hyderabad. The following day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took off for India to be present at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as prime minister of India.
They had been in jail for an average of six months. Their confiscated boats may not be returned. They had crossed the invisible “water border” into Pakistan. No one knows where the border is in the Indian Ocean because India and Pakistan are deadlocked on the issue. South Asia has unresolved maritime problems, with consequences for fishermen who go to the sea to catch fish and are caught because they have crossed lines they can’t see. The tragedy is that the people who catch them also don’t have a clue. Fishermen, therefore, have become a symbol of the immaturity of the nation state in South Asia. It is a shame that imprisoned fishermen are dramatically “exchanged” every now and then as reluctant CBMs with which to dupe the world.
Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma, in Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (2008), have written a very humane book. It contains the best account, in one place, of the three big maritime muddles that bring a bad name to the subcontinent. Sadly, nationalisms have become attached to the Sir Creek dispute between Pakistan and India, and if you ask a Pakistani or an Indian what the quarrel is all about, she doesn’t know.
India has a coastline 7,417 km long, out of which the Gujarat state has 1,663 km — one-third the entire coastline, which makes Gujarat the principal maritime state of India. Because of a rich delta, Gujarat has the best fishing, and the Gulf of Kutch has the best fish known in India. Next to Gujarat is Pakistan and there are no agreed maritime frontiers between the two. The Maritime Zones Act, 1976 and the Maritime Zones of India Act, 1981, under which the fishermen are caught and punished, don’t conform to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which India has signed. Pakistan is guilty of the same non-conformity.
The rival geographies of India and Pakistan are symbolised by the rival cartographies relating to Sir Creek, a 100-km long estuary in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch, between Gujarat and Sindh. Sir Creek is not a flowing creek but a tidal channel that has no officially demarcated boundary separating Pakistan and India. Till 1954, there was free movement across the Creek. Then came the issue of finding out where the continued…