Duty of GOI to ensure that innocent fishermen are not punished: SC

The perennial tragedy of innocent fishworkers from India and Pakistan, being punished and jailed, for no crime but that they, by virtue of their work, sometimes enter the other country’s water space, has not been effectively mitigated for decades; the SC however dismissed the petition since it involves another country outside its jurisdiction

The serious humanitarian issue of fishworkers who are punitively dealt with by India and Pakistan needs to be effectively pursued by the governments of India and Pakistan, a bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia held on Friday, August 25.

They were hearing a writ petition (PIL) No. 840/2023 PIL-W filed by three fishworker leaders.. The matter involves bilateral relationship and thus invokes the 2008 Agreement on Consular Access, the petitioners counsel argued. He also argued that this is a serious humanitarian issue involving the lives of hundreds and thousands of fishers in India and Pakistan.

The petition made compelling arguments for both Governments of India and Pakistan to follow the 2008 bilateral agreement and to release the fishers who are in each others’ jails, who have completed nationality verification and their due sentence for passports act violation. However, the Hon’ble bench felt that the court was not in a position to interfere with government matters that involved bilateral relations.

Issuing notice to the Government of India would have meant pulling up the government for its violation of the existing agreements and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea). The petitioners, all fishermen leaders from Gujarat and Maharashtra, including leadership of the National Fishworkers’ Forum, believe that a judicial intervention was most important at this stage to compel the governments to act on the commitments they have made bilaterally.

They also wanted the Hon’ble Supreme Court to make an exceptional intervention to save the lives of fishers at a time when more fishermen are dying in the jails of each other. The latest in the unfortunate list is an Indian fisherman, Jagdish, in his thirties, who died in the Karachi jail on 6th August 2023.

Responding to the apex court’s dismissal of the case, activist and researcher on the issue Vijayan MJ, who is also the Indian Chapter General Secretary of Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace & Democracy, said: “it is sad that the Hon’ble SC bench has disposed a meritorious petition by fishers seeking livelihood rights, safety and dignity for the community. Bureaucratic red tapism and national egos of India and Pakistan have unfortunately held the innocent fishermen hostage. The fishermen should not be arrested at sea for fishing, it is just wrong. We are saddened but the efforts will continue. We will continue to study the issue in detail in the hope that the judiciary will be available for other justice resources in future. We hope the governments concerned will understand their duties to find a permanent solution to the issue.”

Journalist and long term campaigner on the issue Jatin Desai stated: “the fishermen are victims of hostilities between India and Pakistan. It is most unfortunate that even the Apex Court of India could not understand the rationale of this petition. We were hoping that the judiciary will come forward to make some important steps to fix the executive in taking coercive measures to provide relief to the fishermen of India and Pakistan.”

Campaign efforts by agencies including the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace & Democracy, Fishermen’s unions from India and Pakistan (NFF and PFF), the National Commission of Human Rights Pakistan, made sure that more than 400 fishers were released from Indian and Pakistani jails in the recent months. However close to 200 fishers continue to languish in jails as on date.

One of the petitioners, and National Vice-President of National Fishworkers Forum- India, Ramakrishna Tandel, said that they will consult with their lawyers and make more compelling strategies for future legal interventions. He thanked Adv Kuriakose Varghese and the KMNP lawyers team for their support to the cause of the fishers.


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