Jakhau is a busy, blue and simmering fair-weather port on the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat’s Kutch district. The waves that touch the port are home to neatly stacked boats with Indian flags. As albatrosses circle the sky above the port, sailors sometimes cast nets into the sea, and sometimes sit with folded hands facing the setting sun.

At the port, Abdul Shah Peerzada is getting ready to sit under a tenement he calls his ‘office’. Dressed in white, Peerzada is the president of the Jakhau Bandar Fishermen and Boat Association (JBFBA). “Since our setups were demolished by the local administration, we have not been able to recover,” says Peerzada, referring to the Gujarat government’s demolition drives. In different villages near the coast of Gujarat, majorly occupied by Muslim fishermen settlements had been demolished, with their houses and boats destroyed and their families displaced from a coast they called their home.

In May 2022, hundreds from a Muslim fishing community in Gosabara, a village in Gujarat’s Porbandar district, approached the state’s high court seeking permission to collectively kill themselves – as they were not allowed to undertake their traditional occupation on account of their religion.

‘Targeted, trapped’

The fishermen claim that in 1947, former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru bestowed great trust in the Muslims of Kutch. Jakhau, being India’s last village on this coast in the Gulf of Kutch, the fishermen recall how Nehru valued them as active participants in the protection of the sovereignty of India.

“Nehru ji told our forefathers that we were the children of this border and its real custodians, but, ever since 2022, we are reduced to an unwanted community here,” said Peerzada. In October 2022, the region’s coastal belt began witnessing several targeted demolition drives of structures and shacks previously sanctioned by the Gujarat Maritime Board. The authorities claimed that the settlements owned by these fishermen were ‘illegally built’ on government land.

In November 2022, after the state government demolished around 300 houses, huts and godowns at Jakhau harbour terming them “unauthorised” constructions, fishermen of the harbour demanded that the government lease land to their association to keep the harbour with an annual turnover of Rs 4,000 crore thriving. Leaders of a fishermen’s association of Jakhau submitted a memorandum to Kutch district collector Dilip Rana, drawing his attention to people living in the open in Jakhau after their homes and huts were demolished even as the weather had started getting cold due to the approaching winter.

The fishermen leaders said that children were also forced to sleep in the open and requested the district collector visit the harbour to ascertain the ground situation.

The fishermen leaders also claimed that they had been paying rent to the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) since 1972 but GMB transferred the power of collecting the rent to Jakhau village panchayat in 2007-08 without any formal order. They demanded that the government lease 10 to 12 hectares land to JBFBA, an association of fishermen of Jakhau for 99 years so that houses, shops, ice factories, cold storages, fish drying yards, etc., can be built and keep the harbour which has annual fisheries turnover worth Rs 4,000 crore going.

Peerzada feels that this exercise to wipe out Muslim existence from a coastal border near Pakistan is not just alarming but painful for them as patriotic Indians. “The government is unable to understand that the port they are targeting because of ideology is a workplace for around 10,000 fishermen from coastal districts like Valsad, Jamnagar, Devbhumi Dwarka, Amreli, Gir Somnath, Union territory Diu as well as local fishermen of Jakhau,” he said.

“Fishing is the only occupation and skill we know. It is traditionally and economically important to us. But with such circumstances, we feel trapped. Sometimes we think death is better,” said Abdur Rehman Shah, another boat owner at the port. Boat owners and fishermen say that around 1,400 boats from Jakhau harbour operate for 10 months every year and provide employment opportunities to 12,000 others.

Losing livelihood and land

In March 2023, Gafur Daud Patel packed all his belongings from his 35-year-old home overnight. Patel, a local from Harshad village, and many others in western India’s Gujarat saw drives to expel ‘illegal occupants’ from the state’s Devbhumi Dwarka district. In Devbhumi Dwarka, another district in Gujarat, more than 200 structures were razed at the Gandhvi fishing harbour – these included homes, mosques, Islamic shrines and shops owned by locals.

A majority of the population in Gandhvi is Muslim and practice fishing as their livelihood. They say that while it is already risky to be a Muslim in the current communally charged atmosphere, climate change has also added to their woes by costing them their livelihoods. The year 2023 was especially traumatic for them as not only did the local administration uproot them and flattened their homes but also flash floods and cyclones restricted their ability to fish. Near the coast, the number of storms and cyclones have increased in the last couple of years.

Back in Jakhau, Jumma Ishaq, another boat owner, has been stressed at the number of fishermen he has had to let go, because of the demolitions. “Ever since our existence at this port comes as a struggle. It is so remote that getting materials here from the mainland is expensive. Now that our settlements have been demolished, we have to spend even more to store fish in a better manner to protect it from animals. Even getting ice slabs delivered here is expensive. Our fishermen also are out of jobs because we can no longer afford to hire them,” Ishaq explained to The Wire.

Narsibhai Tandel is a businessman and boat owner associated with the Port. Originally from Valsad, Tandel has been earning well since the last two decades owing to the kind of exquisite variety of fish that turns up at Jakhau. “The government surely thought that only Muslims live and earn from the Port, that is why their homes and shops were demolished. But even Hindus work and earn here,” Tandel said.

Owing to the same feeling of being trapped, in 2022, 600 fishermen in Porbandar filed a petition in the Gujarat high court seeking permission for mass euthanasia. The plea, filed on behalf of the Gosabara Muslim Fishermen’s Society, alleged that “the government does not provide facilities to people belonging to a particular community”.

“We’re India’s first line of defence”

Arab Ibrahim lives in Koteshwar, a small village in northwest Gujarat’s Kutch District. A large population in the district practices occupations associated with the piscine industry. Ibrahim is a third-generation fisherman who has spent his youth in the waters that sit between India and Pakistan. However, in September 2023, Ibrahim was roughed up by the Border Security Forces, slapped and even threatened after the forces accused him of moving into the waters that were reserved for security reasons. Ibrahim, a patriot, who has often aided the BSF in catching hold of intruders who try to get into India illegally through water routes, feels humiliated.

Ibrahim’s village Koteshwar, which is 90 kms away from Jakhau, is a tricky terrain to exist in, as a Muslim fisherman. The village which is in close proximity to the disputed Sir Creek has time and again witnessed the BSF apprehending Pakistani fishermen when they enter the Indian side of the Sir Creek.

“I have myself informed the BSF several times about intruders near Koteshwar Border Out Post, yet one night when I was out in the waters, I was humiliated and made to feel like a terrorist because I’m Muslim,” Ibrahim explained. Ibrahim Ismail, a boat owner at Koteshwar port agreed with Ibrahim. “Earlier, we were allowed to fish farther from the Port, we were allowed into more nallahs, we were allowed freely in the Kori Creek, Padala Creek. That has also stopped now,” he said.

A member of the Al Jilani Fishermen Union in Koteshwar, Yusuf Badala told The Wire that fishermen from the Port have always stood by the BSF, but because of demolitions, joblessness and harassment meted out to them by the forces, Muslims at the port feel targeted and singled-out. “Why can they not understand that we are Indians by choice, we have been guarding this border since generations. We are not their enemy,” Badala said.

Due to orders by the BSF and demolitions by the government, fishermen on Gujarat’s coasts have been losing business and drowning in the sea of hopelessness. In Jakhau, Abdul Shah Peerzada saw his traditional livelihood being reduced to rubble due to the overnight orders of the government, asking them to surrender their shops or face demolition. Jakhau Port is rich in export-quality fish, but those in the fishing profession have been forced into unemployment, which they claim defies logic.

Peerzada, a boat owner, who hires fishermen for work said that while all those who worked in the waters near the international border line were deeply patriotic, government was hellbent on alienating their community. “We have always supported the Forces, helped them by giving them information about suspicious persons on the border. This is our reward?” he asked.

With shrunken eyes and silver hair shading his tense forehead, Peerzada also recalled how his grandfather paid Rs 37, as a monthly rent for the space at the Jakhau Port in 1947. It is the same space that his ancestors paid rent for to the GMB that was labelled ‘illegal’. For him, the demolitions didn’t just mean the robbing of his livelihood, but they also mean that the Government thought that his religion and the religion of his ancestors and his community makes them non-Indian.