Fishing in troubled waters

Lt Col Pratap Save was one of the few soldiers from Gujarat who had served the Indian army for 33 years. He had seen action during the historic war for Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. There had been lucrative job offers from multinationals after his retirement in 1995, but he had chosen to cultivate a five-acre plot at his native Dehri, a quiet village in Valsad district of Gujarat.

The drive on the narrow coastal road, separated from the narrow beach by a windbreak of conifers, felt pleasant at the end of a long highway journey from Ahmedabad. I was nearing my destination, Umbergaon, a small coastal town on the southernmost tip of this western Indian state. The languorous pace of fishing activity on the shores felt a welcome break from the hustle-bustle of big city life. The Arabian sea felt deceptively calm.

The silence of the afternoon sea was broken by the taxi driver reminding me that Ramayana, the Indian television phenomenon of the late 1980s, was shot at this remote location. Even in my faintest memory the Ramayana serial was an epic battle reduced to a crude technical gimmickry of arrows sparkling at their tips colliding mid-air and returning back to their quivers. The episode directors seemed to take a painful lot of time to decide a particular character had to die in a particular episode. But men, women and children remained glued to the television sets, awaiting the twists and turns that the next episode had on offer.

I was in no mood to reminisce on a poorly made television serial dating back to my college days though the taxi driver, a local guy, seemed very keen on discussing the details with his journalist passenger. He wouldn’t stop and I kept nodding. My mind was occupied by something else, a more recent, real-life episode.

I was in Umbergaon to gather facts and understand the circumstances that led to the death of a 1971 war veteran after suspected physical torture in police custody.

India was still celebrating the Indian soldier for achieving a glorious victory for the nation against heavy odds at the Kargil war the previous summer. The war had proved far too costly; more than 400 of India’s bravest men, including 24 officers, had been shelled or shot, after the intrusions by five enemy battalions (about a thousand men) on the unguarded hills across the line of control (LOC) in Kashmir.

Politically the Pakistani counterpart of Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seemed to have done him a good turn by sending soldiers and mujahideen to cross the border at Kargil in what became known as the May intrusions. The intrusions had been a major embarrassment to New Delhi, but the subsequent war had brought the Indian nation together in an upsurge of patriotism and people forgot the collective failure of the leadership — political, military and intelligence — to rally behind Vajpayee at the national polls held in 1999.

Riding on the Kargil fever, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had managed to retain the throne in New Delhi with the slogan, ‘Surakshit desh, Atal sandesh’ (Secure nation is Atal’s message). The state of Gujarat was ruled by the BJP and the Kargil victory was celebrated with shrill nationalist slogans amid some regret that the state known for its mercantile ethos sent very few soldiers to protect India’s borders compared with other Indian states, especially those with a martial tradition.

Lieutenant Colonel Pratap Raghunath Save was one of the few soldiers from Gujarat who had served the Indian army for 33 years. He had seen action as a platoon commander during the historic war for Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971, and later served as a second-in-command of a company to a 1971 Pakistan Prisoners of War camp, platoon commander in Leh-Ladakh, company commander in Punjab, second-in-command of a battalion in Assam and battalion commander in Jammu and Kashmir.

There had been lucrative job offers from multinationals after his retirement in 1995, but the soldier had chosen to cultivate a five-acre plot at his native Dehri, a quiet village a few kilometers from Umbergaon in Valsad district of Gujarat. “Little did he know that what the enemy’s bullet had failed to achieve on the borders, police brutality would in his home state,” wailed an elderly fisherwoman from Umbergaon, who was among those arrested by the police along with Save on the night of April 7, 2000.

Awake inside the cramped police lockup that night, the others had heard his cries inside the interrogation chamber, “Please don’t beat me, I am a heart patient”. Within 24 hours of his detention, Save had slipped into a coma. On April 20, the war veteran died of a brain haemorrhage at a private hospital in Mumbai, some 150 kilometres by road.

A week later at his modest, middleclass home on an isolated plot facing the seashore, freedom fighter Raghunath Hiraji Save sat down beside a garlanded photograph of his son, remembering him as a true soldier who refused to draw a pension because he felt his military service was not a favour to the nation. “The state killed him for organising a peaceful movement of poor fishermen. Even the British never treated our freedom fighters in this manner,” said the grieving octogenarian, who as a young man, had actively participated in India’s freedom struggle against the British colonialists.

Perhaps it was from his freedom fighter father that Save imbibed the spirit of social protest. He led the fisher folk and farmers in Umbergaon and some 50 nearby villages organized under the Kinara Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Save the Coast Action Committee) in March 1999 to resist a proposed Rs 1,250 crore Maroli Port project, which the Gujarat government had awarded to US-based multinational Natelco-Unocal.

The local fishermen’s community feared that a modern port might damage the biodiversity of the area and disrupt fishing and agricultural activities. “Our concerns are real and we are determined to continue the peaceful resistance,” said Arjun Machhi, a fisherman and a close associate of Save. He took me around the town and at the site of the proposed Port, where talking to people and policemen I tried to gather as many details as possible and put them in a sequence to make sense of what appeared to be a senseless murder.

Umbergaon was still in a state of shock after Save’s death. An unknown fear lurked on its streets where men huddled in the corners, discussing the details of a state conspiracy in low whispers. The streets themselves did not look as they would have under different circumstances. In the April heat, something had essentially changed forever among the avenues of tall palm trees and low, tiled-roof houses.

It was around noon on April 7 that the fisherwomen of Umbergaon had spotted jawans of the State Reserve Police Force pitching tents on an open plot of land, a clear indication of the government’s intent to undertake survey work for the proposed Port. As word spread, a mob gathered at the site and the policemen caned and tear gassed them.

When the Samiti activists arrived at the spot late afternoon and decided to stage a peaceful dharna at the Port site, intelligence men asked five of them to accompany them to the Umbergaon police station. Later in the evening, they took five more protestors to the police station. When they did not return till late evening, the mob became restive. The police caned them again and arrested 48 including 13 women and confined them to a dingy lock-up for the night.

It was difficult to ascertain if Save was present at the dharna site. Police said he was there, inciting the mob to disrupt the survey work. But his fellow activists and family members denied the charge. It was well past midnight when Save’s elder son, Gopikumar, had heard a knock at his house. Deputy Superintendent of Police Dr Narendra Amin, who stood at the doorsteps with an inspector and few constables, told Save that he was being arrested on a plethora of charges including inciting a mob, rioting, looting and arson. Save was not even allowed to change clothes.

Save was taken to the police station, where he was pushed inside a room adjoining the lock-up. At around 1.45 am, five activists of the Samiti who were brought to the enclosed courtyard of the police station and roughed up, saw Amin and others hitting Save on his head and chest with their fists and elbows. He was later brought to the lock-up. According to eyewitnesses, Save was in pain and unable to rest throughout the night because there was not enough space inside the lock-up. Nobody got food or water that night, the activists told me.

The next morning, Sunita Pratap Save went to the police station but was not allowed to meet her husband. Later, those arrested including Save were produced before a judicial magistrate and released on bail. But they were all rearrested and sent back to the Umbergaon police station. This time, the women were shifted to another lock-up.

That night (April 8), Save’s condition deteriorated. He was first taken to a private hospital at Umbergaon and then to another at Vapi, a 45-minute drive away. When his family members arrived at the Vapi hospital, he was in a coma. The doctors advised that he be taken to Mumbai, a three-hour drive. Save was admitted to the Hinduja Hospital the next day and underwent two brain surgeries in four days. It was all in vain.

“Save was done to death by the police through brutal assault causing serious injuries on his head and chest which resulted in a brain haemorrhage,” human rights lawyer Bhushan Oza stated in a writ petition filed before the Gujarat High Court in Ahmedabad on behalf of the Samiti. The Samiti also sought a judicial inquiry into the events at Umbergaon on April 7 and 8 and strict action against the police officers involved.

Oza’s senior, Advocate Haroobhai Mehta, asserted that it was a clear case of custodial death.

The lawyers alleged that it was state terrorism unleashed to instill fear among the locals. “We have sufficient reasons to believe that the whole operation was masterminded by Gujarat’s minister of state for home Haren Pandya through DSP Dr Narendra Amin, who was his close confidante,” they further alleged.

Amin refused me an appointment, suggesting I speak to the minister in Gandhinagar. Pandya ushered me straight to the antechamber adjoining his ministerial chamber, which was crowded as usual with visitors in the afternoon. He also requested his staff to leave us alone for some time before settling down to give his side of the story.

A well-built man with a prominent handlebar moustache, Pandya in his mid-forties was one of the relatively young ministers in the corridors of power at Gandhinagar. But his easy smile and friendly demeanour combined with media savvy and high ambition had made him the face of the Keshubhai Patel-led state cabinet. He was very keen to know the situation on the ground but did not seem pleased with the reality.

Pandya defended himself saying he had actually disarmed the reserve police to avert a violent confrontation with the mob at Umbergaon. “So far as the unfortunate death of Save is concerned, I believe his son has confirmed that he was a chronic alcoholic and suffered from hypertension,” Pandya further argued that none of the 48 arrested had complained about police highhandedness when they were produced before a judicial magistrate.

What difference would have our complaints made, countered the residents of Umbergaon. Neither did they care much about the sub-divisional magisterial inquiry in the incident when actions were being ordered directly from the state headquarters.

The locals had reasons to be suspicious of government motives after the police delayed registering a first information report (FIR) by Save’s widow. It was only after Narmada Bachao Aandolan leader and social activist Medha Patkar arrived in Umbergaon that the legal procedure was set in motion. Save’s family was still awaiting the postmortem report even though 10 days had passed since his death.

Save’s son was furious at Pandya for labeling his father an alcoholic to escape responsibility for his death due to physical torture in police custody. “Is this the kind of patriotism the BJP wants to propagate? You have proved yourselves to be the greatest traitors of this nation,” fumed Gopikumar Save when I called him from Gandhinagar.

He said that in the interim, Congress senior leader Rajesh Pilot had rushed in and out of Umbergaon, but the main opposition party did little else to support the fishermen’s cause. The proposed Port project fizzled out without a trace. I kept following it up with Pandya who kept postponing the issue, saying he would divulge the details of what really happened in Umbergaon at the right time. The fishermen of Umbergaon too seemed to have concluded that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie and got back to the daily drudgery of their lives.

Save’s untimely death was forgotten with time and Gujarat’s fisher folk continued to struggle for survival.

The year was 2003. Much water had flown down the bridge since the heady Kargil days. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had started a fresh peace initiative with Pakistan involving the release of prisoners by both nations as a confidence building measure. This had revived hope across Gujarat’s shores.

“We don’t know the fate of our brethren, some of whom have been languishing in Pakistani jails for years,” said Premjibhai Khokhari, the Porbandar-based secretary of the Gujarat forum of National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF). He had written to the prime minister’s office on May 5, seeking early release of Indian fishermen from Pakistani jails. At last count, some 319 of them were in Pakistani jails as against 93 Pakistani fishermen in Indian custody.

Thomas Kocherry of NFF said the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and his organisation have been writing to the leaders of India and Pakistan to settle the matter once and for all. NFF’s counterpart, the Pakistan Fisherfolks Federation, had been pursuing the matter with their leaders. The issue was pending since 1987, when Pakistan first captured 11 fishing boats with their crew from Umbergaon, said Khokhari.

Both countries have exclusive economic zones (EEZs) approved by the United Nations, and fishing boats crossing the maritime lines are seized. Each maritime member country has exclusive rights up to 200 nautical miles (368 kilometers) of territorial seawaters in the Arabian ocean for the purpose of exploration, exploitation, conservation and protection of marine resources. The states and union territories on the west coast of India enjoy fishing rights up to 24 nautical miles (approximately 44 kilometers). The fishing area beyond that comes under the direct purview of the Centre.

The 1,600 kilometer long coastline of Gujarat accounts for 19.68 per cent of the coastline available to the country. Of Gujarat’s coastline, 900 kilometers is in close proximity to Pakistan and this is besides the 99 kilometers creek area in Kutch. The recent years had seen a rise in the number of fishermen captured in the Kutch Sea due to escalating border tensions between the rival nations.

In August 1999, Indian Air Force (IAF) MiGs had shot down a Pakistani Atlantique reconnaissance aircraft suspecting it of snooping over the marshy wastes of Kutch, while claiming it had tolerated eight such intrusions in the previous three months. On November 12, 2000, an Indian Mi-8 helicopter carrying Border Security Force (BSF) officials crashed mysteriously in the marshlands of Kutch, hardly 10 kilometers from where the Atlantique was shot down.

Gujarat had always been sensitive to the enemy across the Kutch border. In 1965 the state had lost a chief minister, Balwantrai Mehta, when his plane, flying on the Indian side of the Kutch border, was shot down by Pakistan. When the Keshubhai Patel government appointed Haren Pandya as its first minister of state for border security in 1998, it had intended to work out a foolproof plan to make the state’s terrestrial border and coastline safe.

Within a year of Pandya taking this additional responsibility besides being the junior minister for home, the Gujarat police in a joint operation with the BSF nabbed five Pakistani infiltrators and seized 24 kilograms of RDX, 63 small firearms of foreign make and explosive accessories from the Kori creek in Kutch. Pandya never tired of reminding the media that the RDX used in the 1993 Mumbai blasts was smuggled through the Gujarat coastline.

A few nautical miles from the Gujarat coastline, inside the Kutch Sea another theatre of war was being enacted but nobody seemed to be bothered of its devastating implications for the state’s 25-lakh fisherfolk. Whenever traveling along the Kutch-Saurashtra coastline, which was devastated by the Kandla cyclone in 1998, one would often hear the locals say: ‘The wind is our enemy. When a strong wind blows over the Kutch Sea the fishermen at sea are in for big trouble, for the wind turns them over to the enemy’.

“We thought we were in safe waters, until the wind changed direction,” recalled 18-year-old Harish Mandan, one of four fishermen from the island of Diu who were spared by the Pakistani Marine Guards after they crossed into their territorial waters on April 22, 2003. Harish recalled that it was around 11 am and they had already spent six days at sea looking for the elusive catch, when the Pakistanis came in speedboats. “They abused us saying, ‘Why do you come here? We are tired of capturing you,’ and took away 21 fishermen. They released four of us — a 60-year-old and three minors”.

It was after this latest incident of Indian fishing boats being captured in the Kutch Sea that I had reached Diu, a former colony of the Portuguese, to meet the local fishermen. Diu has only one overland entrance and exit. Sea surrounds it on three sides. Only to the north does water give way to a marshy creek that separates the island from the Saurashtra peninsula in Gujarat. The Union territory also encompasses a small part of the mainland, but the picturesque island itself is about 11 kilometer long and two kilometer wide. A narrow channel running through the swamp connects it with the mainland.

It is an isolated existence for the 44,000 residents heavily dependent upon fishing in the inland and coastal waters that are rich in hilsa, Bombay duck, shark, prawns and the popular pomfret. Only 20 per cent of Diu’s area is cultivable land growing wheat and bajra (pearl millet), which are suited to the dry climate.

Ramjibhai Solanki, village head of Vanakbara, a fishermen’s village on the island, said fishing activity was on a decline: “Our livelihood is dead. There is no fish left along the coastline. And if you venture out in the high seas, you risk being captured by the Pakistanis. Many of our men and boats have been taken away, leaving the families to starve.”

“How do I feed my four children?” asked Deviben Sidi, who was 27 but looked 40, with worry written all over her ashened face. Her husband, Ramu Sidi, was the ‘tandel’ (captain) of the fishing boat, Nandini Sagar, which was captured by the Pakistanis a few months ago. He had ventured out into the sea a day after his mother’s cremation. “We badly needed money, there was no other option,” recalled his distraught wife. Now she was left to feed their children — Yagnik, 9, Milind, 7, Pinkesh, 4, and Jenil, 2 — from the meager Rs 30 she earned as daily wages.

The family of Chunilal Jiva Sidi, 27, who accompanied Sidi, was relatively better off. His brothers, Sonji and Vijay earned enough to feed his wife and eight-month-old son. Iruben, their mother, was concerned but helpless: “I cannot ask my sons to give up fishing. The currents and tides are part of our lives”.

The illiterate mothers and wives of the fishermen in Diu were not aware of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s friendly overtures to Pakistan. All they wanted of the government was to ensure safe return of their men. “If the government can do something, it will be really good,” Iruben said.

Manish Lodhari, a fishing boat owner from Porbandar in Saurashtra, said: “The captured men are often tortured by Pakistani authorities for no rhyme or reason. The torture had got worse when India defeated Pakistan during the cricket world cup in South Africa. Our men suffered blows for each six or four hit by Sachin Tendulkar and Virendra Sehwag”.

The boat owners complained there was nothing in the sea to indicate the Indo-Pak territorial divide. Nor were the fisherfolk equipped with global positioning system or wireless technologies to guide them in the high seas. The Kolis, Kharvas and some Muslim fishing communities of the Gujarat coast solely depended upon their traditional knowledge of the sea.

Fishing was on its deathbed along the entire Gujarat coast. Increasing industrial pollution and drying up of several rivers had adversely affected the Gujarat shores, once a good fishing ground fed by fresh waters from rivers of the Saurashtra peninsula and the mainland in south Gujarat.

Authorities at the Central Institute of Fisheries Education based at Versova near Mumbai confirmed the quantity of catch had declined considerably over the years. Fish come to the mangroves for breeding, but there are barely any left on the west coast. Where will the fish breed? The recommended size of each fishing net mesh was 2” to 3” so that it traps only the adult fish and not the young. But with rise in human population there had been over-fishing. The fishermen reduced the size of the mesh and often young ones were caught and never allowed to grow up to breed.

The fishermen countered: “What are we supposed to do? Do we save our children or the children of the fish?” Then there was increasing competition in the high seas with globalisation, foreign fishing vessels, import of fish, and lack of marine fishing regulations in the EEZs.

All this was forcing Gujarat’s fishermen to move further northwest, off the Kori creek in the Kutch Sea, to catch pomfret, tuna, shrimp, squid, cuttlefish and prawn, breeding in abundance at the mouth of the Indus. The Gulf of Kutch was the richest fishing ground in this part of the world and fishermen from Umbergaon in south Gujarat and Vanakbara and Bucherwad in Diu, who were known as the best in the business, would head straight to the Okha Custom House in Kutch for the mandatory creek pass. They admitted that most cases of capture were indeed deliberate intrusions by them in hope of a better catch.

“The fishermen of both India and Pakistan have a long history of fishing together and do not believe in boundaries. Nobody can snatch away their right to share the fish resource on either side,” said Kocherry.

India has an agreement with Sri Lanka on the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal allowing fishermen from both countries to share the catch. The fishermen of Gujarat and Diu hoped the external affairs ministry would think of a similar solution with Pakistan. Ramjibhai Solanki, the village head of Vanakbara and a local leader of the BJP, had written several letters to the prime minister, external affairs minister, members of Parliament from Gujarat and the chief minister of the state, but there had been no response.

For the fishermen of Gujarat this was disturbing, like the silence of the high seas. Still they continue to venture out in the high seas in absence of a livelihood option. “For the past few years the catch has reduced by over 50 per cent. In a few years from now the fish would have disappeared from our waters,” said Ramjibhai Solanki.

Many of Diu and Gujarat’s 25 lakh fisherfolk felt like Ramjibhai — ignored by the world, swept up in a gigantic brawl that was being fought largely over their heads, and scrambling to survive.

I was reminded of the old Marathi song, we use to sing during annual socials at school: ‘Me dolkara, dolkara; dolkara daryacha raja (I am a fisherman, fisherman; fisherman, the king of the sea). The fisherman I encountered on Gujarat’s west coast was more a pauper than a king. What had initially felt like a pleasant drive along the west coast had left me depressed. I felt luckier driving down the long highway leading me back to the hustle-bustle of city life.

After getting back to Ahmedabad, I searched for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and reread my favourite lines for the last time….

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking of people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

…. This, I realized, was a mere fantasy of the landlocked.

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