Prisoners of India-Pak conflict


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Feb 16, 2009
When nations go to war, ordinary families pay the price every time a beloved husband, son, brother or father comes home in a body bag. When two nations remain in a constant state of war, it is Everyman who pays the price of appearing to be the enemy.

This week's Special Report chronicles exactly that. It might almost be a remake of Mehreen Jabbar's 2008 film Ramchand Pakistani, which told the story of a low-caste Hindu man and his son, Ramchand, who accidentally cross into India from Pakistan and end up spending five years in a prison. Meanwhile, Ramchand's mother is left wondering what happened to them. One week is a long time in politics. Five years can be an eternity for a family parted it knows not how — or why. It falls apart. The film shows Ramchand and his father as guilty by suspicion because they came from "enemy" country.

As all the reports on this page illustrate, there are many Ramchands on both sides of the border. Prisons in India and Pakistan are teeming with unfortunate "illegal aliens" — Pakistani and Indian — whose only crime is to have entered the neighbouring country by mistake or overstayed their visa. In the sub-continent's colonial neo-officialese, it's called violation of the Foreigner's Act and Passport Act.

The Geneva Convention, which both the countries have signed, requires humane treatment of civilians. In the subcontinent, this convention is followed selectively. When citizens from any country other than India or Pakistan violate the visa law on either side of the border, they are fined or deported. But if an Indian is caught in Pakistan or vice versa, it is Ramchand Pakistani every time.

Now, as the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries meet in the run up to home minister P Chidambaram's visit to Islamabad, is there hope?

He is 16 and a victim of the politics of hate between two countries. Salim has spent two years in a home for juvenile criminals. It's a small house with three dingy, airless rooms. Salim shares a small room with 33 others, aged between 12 and 18. As the mercury rises and electricity supply trips, the three-room house becomes stiflingly hot.

There is no clean drinking water to be had. As the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries meet in the run up to home minister P Chidambaram's visit to Islamabad, Salim is fervent about peace at any cost. "I can only pray to god for improvement in India and Pakistan's relations. Only then I will be able to get out of this place," he says.

It shouldn't have come to this. The son of a farmer in Bahawalpur, Salim crossed the border by mistake at Hussainiwala in May 2008. He didn't have a passport or a valid visa. Arrested by the BSF, the boy, then 14, was sent to the juvenile home. Ever since, life has been hellish for an adolescent who is regarded an enemy agent by the other inmates. Often, Salim gets into fights with those who make caustic remarks about his nationality and religion.

Why is he still here? Salim has served out the sentence for his "crime", the Punjab government has withdrawn the criminal case against him. And yet he awaits repatriation to Bahawalpur. "Salim's case was sent to the Union home minister after withdrawal of all criminal cases against him in Punjab and now the ministry of home affairs is waiting for the nod from their Pakistani counterparts for the verification of boy's antecedents in Bahawalpur," said Chhinder Pal Kaur, chief development project officer in Faridkot and supervisor of the juvenile home.

Salim is nervous. It may take months or years for him to get home. But it says something about the indomitable nature of the human spirit that he doesn't dare to think he never will.
— Priya Yadav & Balwant Garg

One wintry morning seven years ago, Gulam Shabbir's ailing father asked him to borrow some money from the neighbours for food. The family had eaten nothing for days. Unable to bear the sight of his parents' hungry faces, Shabbir left his home in Khiparo tehsil of Sangadh district in Pakistan and started to beg in the villages along the border in the desert.

Thirsty and tired, he got disorientated and wandered among the sand dunes. That was when he ran into a Border Security Force patrol. Before he found out he was in India, Shabbir was in prison in Jaisalmer. He has been behind bars since November 20, 2003.

Each year Shabbir has spent behind bars might have been a decade. He hasn't heard from or spoken to his parents. Sitting in his cell in Jaisalmer prison, he wonders if they are still alive.

Meanwhile, he has fought a grim legal battle, with barely any help from his government, to be sent home to Pakistan. On interrogation, he was declared "innocent" by the BSF and charged with nothing more heinous than "entering India illegally". And yet he remains incarcerated.

Shabbir finished his prison term on February 25 this year. He was released, re-arrested and thrown into his old cell once again. Police sources say he was taken to the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi for identification but Islamabad is yet to accept that he is a Pakistani citizen. "We are desperately trying to deport him but we are not getting positive response from the other side. We are left with no alternative but to keep him in the prison," says S Parimala, Jaisalmer's Superintendent of Police.

If Shabbir made a mistake, it was in wandering across a border without the requisite paperwork. But what of Arjun Ram, who is in prison in India for "violating visa norms" as he fled religious persecution in Bahawalpur, Pakistan?

Ram's family originally belongs to Ranjitpura in Bikaner, but they migrated to West Punjab many years before Partition. In August 2008, Ram and some of his family arrived in India determined to seek citizenship because they felt threatened in Pakistan. Ram's son Gumana, 45, and the rest of his family arrived in Jodhpur on April 6 last year.

With his whole family in India, Ram began the process of resettlement, travelling to their ancestral village in Bikaner to fix a daughter's marriage. But their visas were only valid for Jodhpur and in June last year Ram and his son were arrested under the Foreigners Act and dumped in Bikaner jail. The family, which is unable even to meet the men, still waits for their release. There is no word and appears to be little hope.
Shabbir strayed into India. Arjun Ram arrived here with a purpose. As they remain behind bars, they — and the sub-continent — must wonder about a system that makes criminals of innocent people.
—Vimal Bhatia & Ajay Parmar

Jammu & Kashmir
A saas-bahu squabble can turn into an international dispute in this part of the world. In November 2008, Asiya Bibi left her home in PoK after a fight with her husband. Trekking along the Line of Control (LOC), Asiya entered J&K at Rajouri. Ever since, Asiya, wife of Pakistani army havaldar Mohammad Sajjad, has been languishing in Central Jail in Jammu. She has been charged with crossing the LOC "for the purposes of gathering information about deployment of India troops on the LOC".

Asiya says she was fed up with frequent fights with her mother-in-law. One of these led to a tiff with her husband and Asiya left him and her five-year-old son in a huff, arriving on this side of the border by mistake.
It has proved to be a life-changing mistake. It is one that many make — on either side of the border. Salima Bi, 23, fled her home at Khadim Hussein in Poonch, her husband and in-laws because she was tired of being taunted about being barren. She inadvertently crossed into PoK on December 17. Ever since, Salima has been in prison in PoK.

Asiya and Salima are just two of the hundreds imprisoned on account of the relatively minor crime of visa violation. Many Pakistanis imprisoned in India have served their sentences but are yet to be released. Activists say it is more important than ever before.

"To exhibit the humane face of Indian judiciary, the Supreme Court in April this year ordered deportation of 16 Pakistani prisoners who were languishing in jail even after the completion of their prison term," says Bhim Singh, executive chairman of J&K's state legal committee.

Five years ago, Singh had filed a writ petition for the release of about 124 prisoners from PoK, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All of them had completed prison terms and the governments of India and J&K had no case against them. He says international bodies need to take up the case of Indian prisoners detained illegally in Pakistan.
– M Saleem Pandit

When Gujarati fishermen head for the mouth of the Indus, near Sir Creek, they go in search of 'Lal Pari', a fish that is in demand in Europe. But they often reel in a problem that is symptomatic of the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan. They may unwittingly enter the 95-km-long Creek that's claimed by both countries. They may run into Pakistani naval vessels and be captured, thrown into prison and forgotten.

Hundreds of Indians — fishermen from Gujarat — have languished in Pakistani prisons for years. They are so poor, their stories are piteous. A few months ago, an Indian fisherman picked up by Pakistani naval guards, wasn't wearing clothes but dressed in polythene bags patched together.

To this desperation, add the ignominy and horror of indefinite incarceration. The fishermen suffer in prison and their families suffer not knowing what has become of them.

It is the same on either side of the border — or the Creek. A Pakistani newspaper recently reported the case of Mai Aasi, a 90-year old widow who has spent 15 lonely years praying for the return of her two sons and a son-in-law who were arrested by the BSF while fishing in the disputed area. Her husband died when he heard they had been arrested. Mai became blind in the intervening 15 years since she last saw her boys. Some say she shed too many tears ever to be able to see again. She does not know when, if ever, the boys will return.

Some local NGOs and human rights organizations have campaigned relentlessly to raise awareness of the plight of fishermen imprisoned on either side. But they remain in a perilous limbo, denied basic legal rights and treated like prisoners of war.

In 2007, a heartrending story came to light, that of two young Indian boys Piwash Ramjee and Bharat Baboo who had spent two years in a Karachi prison. Ramjee, aged all of seven and Baboo, eight years old, were caught and arrested along with 15 fishermen in 2005. The boys would constantly be produced before the judicial magistrate in handcuffs. They were released only after a long legal battle fought on their behalf by the Ansar Burney Trust International.

"More than 500 Indian fishermen live in pathetic condition in Karachi's Malir and Landi jails. Some of them have even completed their sentence but they are barred from meeting anyone," says Sarim Burney, vice chairman of the Trust.

In May 2008, both countries signed an agreement making it obligatory to "maintain a comprehensive list of the nationals of the other country under its arrest, detention or imprisonment". The two governments also agreed to exchange lists on January 1 and July 1 every year.

So far so good. But no discernible change occurred. There are far too many Ramjees and Baboos in Pakistani prisons.

Omer Farooq Khan

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