Boat from Pakistan
One must appreciate the Indian Coast Guards for the alacrity with which they apprehended nine crew members on board a Pakistani boat from the Arabian Sea off Gujarat coast on Sunday. Although preliminary investigations suggest that the crew members are fishermen who had inadvertently crossed into Indian waters, considering the mounting hostilities between India and Pakistan it is essential to maintain tight vigil on the border.
Incidentally, the crew members of the Pakistani boat were apprehended hours after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar claimed that efforts were on to secure the release of a soldier allegedly detained by Pakistan. The boat and the crew members are being escorted to Porbandar for further investigation, according to an official statement.
In any case, the frosty relations between the two nuclear-armed south Asia neighbours should not be allowed to slip into a full-fledged war, though India must exercise all available options to put down terror and neutralize terror launch pads along the Line of Control. The ‘surgical strikes’ on at least seven of over 40 makeshift militant camps inside the Pakistani territory on Wednesday are a case in point.
It is a different matter that Pakistan, caught on the wrong foot, denied India’s claims, saying two of its soldiers were killed from unprovoked cross-border firing at the LoC by Indian security forces. At the very start of January 2015, the Indian Coast Guard destroyed a boat from Pakistan near Gujarat on suspicion that it was laden with explosives and carried terrorists. After much brouhaha, it turned out that the Indian Coast Guard had overreacted to fishermen who ignored warnings.
It is now believed that the Indian Coast Guard may have used disproportionate force in that incident. At that point of time, some even envisioned a terror plot a la 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Fortunately, the issue fizzled out. In all likelihood, this time the nine apprehended persons could be innocent fishermen. If it is so, India must not hold them as ransom for the return of its soldier. There are many diplomatic channels to achieve that objective.
Neither India nor Pakistan should pick on fishermen to settle scores. The arrest of fishermen has become quite frequent for both Pakistan and India. This is because the maritime border in the Arabian Sea is poorly defined. Further, many boats lack the technology to determine their precise location. Recently, Pakistan released more than 300 Indian fishermen who had completed their term, while over 400 others are currently in Karachi prisons.
Reports suggest maritime trespassing, or violation of respective national territorial waters of India and Pakistan in peacetime, is common to both countries with regard to fishermen operating along the coastline of the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh. Most of these violations occur due to the absence of a physical boundary and lack of navigational tools for small fishermen. Although hundreds of fishermen are arrested by the Coast Guards of both nations, securing their release is a tough task, given the ruptured relations between the two nations.
Small fishing boats and trawlers in particular are susceptible to crossing territorial waters, sometimes unintentionally. In certain areas like the Sir Creek in Kutch, where there is no clear officially determined maritime boundary, many fishermen without navigational tools get apprehended every now and then. Unfortunately, in most cases the fate of imprisoned fishermen remains unknown to their home countries and people.
When the ties are fairly good, the Indian and Pakistan governments have taken steps to release imprisoned fishermen as part of confidence-building measures and as gestures of peace and goodwill. Both nations have exchanged imprisoned fishermen. Still, usually there is a lot of distrust and sheer inertia in the processes of securing the release of apprehended fishermen. The Indian government would do well to make better use of the database relating to fishermen and their boats.
There should be proper monitoring of fishing activities in Indian territorial waters alongside Pakistan so as to prevent Indian boats from straying into Pakistani waters. For, Pakistan now can’t wait for the arrival of next boat from India on or along its territorial waters. India must popularize the use of tracking devices developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation on fishing boats operating in the waters off western Gujarat and other problem areas.
The tracking device has the ability to send out alerts for fires on board, a sinking vessel, a medical emergency, and when the boat is apprehended by another country.