THE Press the other day carried the sad story of the Pakistani fisherman who had been murdered in an Indian prison. Reportedly, the deceased had been arrested by Indian authorities in 2017 for ‘violating maritime boundary’. This news gives rise to several unanswered questions. The matter requires serious thought. Every now and then, the media carries reports about fishermen from either India or Pakistan having been ‘apprehended’ for fishing in the other country’s ‘territorial waters’. One also comes across (less frequent?) reports about batches of fishermen having been released and repatriated. This is all to the good! A lot has been written about the humanitarian aspects of the question – the miseries of the detained fishermen and their families – but few serious attempts appear to have been made to ferret out the reasons as to why this has to happen in the first place.
To put a finger on the nub of the question, it is obvious that the two ‘distant neighbours’, despite the lapse of some seven decades, have yet to demarcate their maritime frontier; something that could and should have been done betimes. What is worse, they have not yet managed to reach agreement on the ‘land terminus’ that would represent the base-point of the maritime boundary. The International Law of the Sea Convention does define each country’s “Exclusive Economic Zone” (EEZ), but apparently has done little to push abutting countries to promptly reach agreement on the land terminus point, leading to delineation of their maritime boundary. India and Pakistan are perhaps the worst offenders on this score, all due to the non-settlement of what has come to be known as the ‘Sir Creek Squabble’.
Years back, a news item, datelined New Delhi, had, quite understandably, led to observers looking askance. The aforementioned item had stated that, “India will soon erect a ‘floating fence’… along the disputed Sir Creek border area with Pakistan”. ‘Sources’ were reported to have said that the fence would be erected, “despite the (then) ongoing (India-Pakistan) talks, in order to safeguard Indian security interests. What was of particular interest was the fact that by carrying out this project India appeared to be intent on presenting Pakistan – and the international community – with yet another fait accompli that would only serve to further complicate this contentious issue.
A short recapitulation of the history of the dispute may be in order. The United Nations website names the issue as Sir Creek estuary border dispute. This is not entirely accurate. Having been deeply involved in the bilateral negotiations on this issue in the 1990s, one can opine that the dispute has little to do with the Sir Creek estuary or even Sir Creek itself. The dispute happens to be about completing demarcation of the land boundary between the India and Pakistan abutting on the sea. The terms of reference are connected with an historical map relating to the boundary between the (then) Rann of Kachch and the Sind province of British India. This map in question depicts the dotted line demarcating the boundary in question some distance away from (what was at that epoch) the left bank of Sir Creek. The trouble is that this line has never been demarcated on the ground. Sir Creek, meanwhile, has altered its course, as is normal with creeks in that sandy region. This fact should, logically, have no bearing at all on the ‘dotted line’ on the historic map in question.
The squabble that carries the misnomer “Sir Creek dispute” is arguably the most solvable of the contentious issues on the bilateral table. It is also of some significance, since on the settlement of this issue would rest the definition of the land/sea terminus of the frontier between the states of India and Pakistan, as also the extent of Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in terms of the International Law of the Sea Convention. As things stand, Sir Creek region could very well qualify for the Guinness Book of Records as the most surveyed piece of territory ever. Shortly after the wretched composite dialogue commenced and the nauseating cycle of surveys was set in motion, it was the earnest hope of all right-thinking persons that the Sir Creek squabble would be expeditiously settled if only to set the ball rolling. This, regrettably, has not happened.
Reverting to the ‘tragedy of the detained fishermen’, there appears to be hardly a respite on the horizon, unless the two countries show the political will to settle the Sir Creek squabble. As things stand, there is little likelihood of this happening in the foreseeable future. The sorry fate of the helpless fishermen on either side exhibits little possibility of amelioration in the foreseeable future. One way of tackling the human aspect of the question would be to de-link it from the so called Sir Creek dispute. It may be of interest to mention here that in 1997, when the ‘joint declaration’ relating to the composite dialogue was agreed upon, a separate ‘understanding’ on prompt release of fishermen apprehended by either side was also (orally) accepted by the two sides. Sad to report, though, that this ‘understanding’ failed to cross the bureaucratic hurdles in the way of its being put down in black and white. But such is the history of India-Pakistan negotiations. Meanwhile, the human aspect of the detained fishermen on either side will continue to be ignored by either side. So much for the significance accorded to the humanitarian factor in contemporary international relations!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.