A dispute that begs resolution

Officials who have monitored phone conversations in the disputed waters off Sir Creek say the area could be among the world’s most active drug trading centres

March 16, 2016 02:07 am | Updated 02:07 am IST

The dispute may have its origin in just a pile of firewood, but the >Sir Creek stand-off’s lingering legacy is turning out to be one of India’s biggest security headaches, with policymakers yet to come up with a nuanced response to it.

The Sir Creek dispute between India and Pakistan, which got its name from the British representative who negotiated the original dispute over firewood between the local rulers, is now turning out be more than just an unresolved border. The 96-km estuary between India and Pakistan, cutting through where Gujarat State and Sindh province meet, has had a dramatic impact on Indian security, though it’s always been seen to be relatively simple to resolve.

With both countries unable to agree on the exact boundary, the differences flow into the Arabian Sea creating a vast stretch of disputed water, where fishermen’s misery, terrorist designs and global drug syndicate interests are all converging.

Pakistan claims the entire Sir Creek based on a 1914 agreement signed between the government of Sindh and rulers of Kutch. India claims that the boundary lies mid-channel, as was depicted in a map in 1925 and implemented with pillars placed to mark the boundary.

Over the years, the creek has also changed its course considerably. If one country agrees to the other’s traditional position, then the former will end up losing a vast amount of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rich with gas and mineral deposits. A country has special rights to EEZ under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that includes exploration and use of resources there including via deep sea mining, in which there have been exciting new breakthroughs.

Catch-22 for fishermen Because of various factors, the Sir Creek area is also a great fishing destination for hundreds of fishermen from both India and Pakistan. In the desperation for a great catch, many of their boats stray across the perceived boundaries, and they end up being arrested by the other side.

In the summer of 2015, when Pakistan released 113 Indian fishermen, they brought along an appeal from 18 others who have been languishing in a Karachi prison for more than two years.

According to Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser, Islamabad has sent a memorandum to India to give a concrete shape to the understanding reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Sharif in Ufa last year about releasing fishermen within two weeks arrest. Mr. Aziz told Pakistan’s Senate recently that 1,530 Indian fishermen have been released in the past five years, while India has freed 380 Pakistanis. According to his estimate, another 457 Indians remain in Pakistani jails, many of them fishermen caught in the choppy waters off Sir Creek. He added that 460 Pakistanis were in Indian jails, 113 of them fishermen.

Occasionally, fishermen fall prey to deadlier forces than just the rival nations. One such instance occurred in November 2008, when 10 terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba left in a Pakistani boat for Mumbai. They captured an Indian fishing vessel, Kuber, off Sir Creek, and used it to attack Mumbai. Of course, the disputed nature of the sea off the area was one of the reasons why the terrorists decided to capture the boat there.

Exploiting blurred boundaries Unlike the capture of Kuber, many developments in the disputed waters are not known at all. The unknown must worry policymakers more than the known.

When the Indian Coast Guard claimed that a Pakistan fishing trawler went up in flames off Gujarat coast on January 1, 2015, the official stand was that it was linked to some terrorist mission. It soon became clear that the official claims were full of loopholes, and that the boat may have been part of a drug syndicate that exploits the blurred maritime boundary. The two Thuraya satellite phones that were tracked by Indian agencies continued to be active even after boat went up in flames, raising questions not only about Indian claims, but also about the spread and network of the groups operating in those disputed waters.

Officials who have monitored phone conversations in the disputed waters off Sir Creek say the cartels make it a point to transact their business in the disputed waters, so that they are beyond the reach of both Indian and Pakistani agencies. Indications are that it is mostly drugs that they are trading, and the quantity and frequency show that the area could be among the world’s most active for trading centres.

There are ominous signs that India has learnt precious little from the harrowing experience of 26/11. Starting some time in November last year, at least eight Pakistani fishing vessels have washed ashore on the Indian side in the Sir Creek area. There is much speculation, but no clarity. One of the possibilities is that the boats could have been used by drug syndicates.

When Pakistan recently alerted India about a possible terror threat, it was said terrorists may have sneaked across through the Sir Creek area.

On August 10, 1999, just a month after the Kargil war, an Indian fighter plane shot down a surveillance aircraft of the Pakistan Navy, killing all its 16 occupants. India said the Pakistani aircraft was deep inside its boundary; Pakistan disputed the claim. It was flying over Sir Creek.

There are enough red flags being raised in Sir Creek, and the disputed seas off it. It is for India to grab the earliest opportunity to find a solution to what is a low-hanging fruit among the many India-Pakistan bilateral disputes.


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