By Sanjay Pandey
It was 10am, but the sky was dark and menacing thanks to the low rain clouds hanging over Gosaba, a remote village in the east Indian state of West Bengal. Bobbing in the creek’s choppy waters, as black as the clouds, a 20-metre-long wooden boat with seven fishermen set sail. It was heading into the Bay of Bengal, its six-cylinder outboard motor spluttering as it chugged away.
The fishermen were hoping for a good catch despite the gloomy weather and sang Bengali folk songs as they sailed. But barely 30 minutes into their trip, they abruptly stopped after one of the men, Subhas Mondal, whispered: ‘Silence.’
The fishermen cowered, suddenly glad for the dense cloud cover. ‘Nobody make a noise,’ Subhas, 55, ordered. ‘I think pirates are heading our way. Turn the boat around. Now.’
But it was too late. Before they could alter course, a speed boat raced up to them with four masked men pointing guns. ‘Don’t move or we’ll shoot,’ one of them threatened, in Bengali.
The fishermen had never seen pirates up-close before – they had managed to sneak up under cover of the fog. Desperate to escape, they revved the motor and tried to head back to land, but their boat was no match for the pirates’ modern speedster, and they were unarmed when the firing began.
Subhas took a bullet in his right shoulder before he instinctively pushed his only son Bapi, 28, down to save him. A few seconds later, another bullet hit Subhas’ mouth, knocking out a tooth.
As he shrieked in pain and fell on the floor of the boat, he saw that his colleague Haripada was hit in the right thigh and bleeding profusely.
Fortunately for the fishermen, at precisely that moment, the pirates’ boat stalled after the motor choked, giving the fishermen enough time to race to the shore.
Haripada, 33, and Subhas were rushed to the hospital, where they spent two weeks getting their wounds treated.
Now, nearly five months later, sitting by the door of his small hovel, Subhas looks out to the sea, glad to have lived to tell the tale. ‘We were lucky,’ he says. ‘If the pirates had caught us, they would have taken us hostage and demanded a huge ransom from our families.
‘One of our neighbours was taken hostage last month and his wife had to pay Rs200,000 (Dh11,329) for his release. They threatened to kill him if she failed to deliver the money in a fortnight.’
For a family of four that subsists on around Rs300 a day, the ransom will leave them debt-ridden for years. ‘She had no option,’ says Subhas. ‘She had to sell everything – her house, cattle, the little jewellery she had – to buy his release.’ Sadly she is not the only wife to be left penniless by ruthless pirates who prey on fishermen risking their lives to earn a living in the dangerous waters off the coast of West Bengal.
According to news reports, in the past year alone, pirates have kidnapped more than 20 fishermen and extracted around Rs3 million. In February, eight fishermen were injured after pirates shot at them during an attack on their trawlers. There are no records of when piracy began along the coastline. But stray incidents have been reported for at least a century, locals say.
As per government records, incidents of piracy spiked in the mid-Seventies after Bangladesh, which shares its border with West Bengal, became independent in 1971. Security agencies find the 305km-long riverine border tough to patrol, making it easy for pirates to operate.
In 1989, a gang of pirates captured 20 fishermen and demanded a ransom of Rs2 million. In a showdown with coast guards on Kedodweep Island, 15 of the 30 pirates were killed; the rest fled, and all the fishermen were rescued. Maritime Security Review, an online source of maritime security information, issued a warning early this year that ‘Bay of Bengal remains highly dangerous for fishing vessels’.
‘The Bangladeshi pirates are a threat to not just fishermen but also national security,’ says National Fishworkers Forum secretary Pradip Chatterjee.
The pirates’ favoured months to strike are June to September – the fishing season – when around 150,000 fishermen, who live on the numerous islands around the area, set out to fish. ‘On a good day we – a group of say, seven fishermen – can net around 50-60kg [of fish]. We can sell a kilo of hilsa for Rs600-Rs800, so it is something that we look forward to,’ says Subhas. Sadly for them, this is also the time when pirates, mainly from Bangladesh’s Khulna and Jessore regions, which are close to the Indian border, get active.
‘They not only kidnap the men, but also loot their vessels, steal their boats and torture them mercilessly if their demands are not met,’ says Subhas, who is still nursing the bullet injury in his shoulder.
Tejendralal Das, the head of a local fisherman’s group, concurs. ‘The Sundarbans [the largest mangrove forest in the world] is rich in hilsa, a popular fish in Kolkata, pomfret, lobsters, tiger prawns and crabs,’ he says.
‘Very often, pirates attack Indian fishermen when they are returning with their catch. They loot the boat and kidnap them for ransom. Although coastal police stations have become functional, many lack speed boats and other equipment to tackle the pirates. If they did, such incidents would surely stop.’
Sita Mandal agrees. The 36-year-old’s eyes well up as she watches her husband Ramesh get ready to set off with four others in his small motor boat.
‘Please promise me this will be the last time you go to sea,’ the mother-of-one says, biting back tears. ‘I can’t bear to live with the stress until you return.’
He nods. ‘I promise, this will be the last time,’ says the 40-year-old. ‘I’ll get a good catch, earn enough so I can quit and migrate to the city maybe and do some odd jobs.’
Sita has reason to be terrified. In April, Ramesh and a group of 12 fishermen were kidnapped by pirates while fishing near the Sundarbans. ‘We were returning in our boat after a huge catch of crabs and fish when a gang of 14 armed pirates appeared from nowhere and attacked us,’ Ramesh says. ‘The group kidnapped us at gunpoint and took us to the Bangladesh side of Sundarbans in Atharophanki. They released nine people and the boats, but held three of us, including me, hostage. They sent a message through the released men informing our families to pay a ransom of Rs100,000 each if they wanted to see us alive.
‘Throughout our week-long captivity, we were constantly beaten and tortured and given just enough food to survive.’
The families were devastated when they received the message. Too poor to even imagine such a huge amount of money, they begged the pirates to reduce the ransom.
‘After much pleading through intermediaries, the pirates agreed to Rs50,000 per person,’ says Sita. ‘I didn’t know what to do. We did not have any savings, having spent everything on our daughter’s marriage last year.
‘We were also warned not to report it to the police and that if we did, we’d never hear from our husbands again.
‘I was aware that if they didn’t get the money, the gang wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. I knew of the fate of another woman in my village whose husband was shot dead because she was unable to raise the money for his ransom.’
Desperate, Sita sold all her valuables, ‘including my mangalsutra – wedding chain – which was so precious to me, all the brass utensils I had and our two cows to raise the amount.’
However, that was still not enough. ‘I had no option but to take a loan of Rs15,000 from a money lender at around 30 per cent interest.
‘At that time I didn’t think of how I would be able to pay off that amount. All I wanted was to save my husband’s life.’
Once the money was handed over to the pirates via an intermediary, they hijacked a Bangladeshi boat, put the hostages on it and told them to go back.
‘It takes us around two years of hard work to save Rs50,000,’ she says. ‘But we can lose that and more in a day in the case of a kidnapping. That’s why I’ve been pleading with him to stop going to sea and go to a bigger city in search of a better life.’
Sita is not alone. Her 28-year-old neighbour Moumita looks sullen, seated at the door of her small, one-room house. Her 34-year-old husband Nimay Jotdar is on a seven-day trip at sea. ‘Whenever my husband goes to sea, I cannot sleep properly because I get nightmares about him in some untoward incident. In desperation, I observe a fast and pray that he will be fine.
‘I know how dangerous fishing is turning out to be. But if he does not go to work, we and our two children will die of starvation. I guess we can only pray that our husbands will return safe from what has now become a dangerous mission.’
So serious is the piracy threat that hundreds of people living on the islands in and around the Sundarbans have migrated to cities. Several more are preparing to leave. ‘It is a battle of survival here in the Sundarbans,’ says Subhas. ‘If you don’t go to sea fearing pirate attacks, you will starve to death. And if you do go, there is a huge risk of becoming bankrupt. I cannot see my family dying in front of my eyes. That’s why I returned to sea within a month of being shot by pirates. My only son accompanies me but I keep praying that nothing happens to him.’
Another fisherman, Nagen Mandal, 48, who has been attacked by pirates three times, says, ‘The sea is our only hope of survival. I’m ready to take on crocodiles or stormy seas… But if you’re kidnapped, the pirates will break your financial backbone.’
His last encounter was in 2011. The pirates snatched everything he and his team had – rations, fuel, net and the day’s catch. ‘I was hit on the head with the butt of a rifle because I tried to attack them,’ he says. ‘They also took away my motorised boat.
‘In all, I lost around Rs100,000 including the boat, which had cost me Rs60,000. Two years of my earnings gone in a flash.
‘I had to start from scratch to rebuild my life. Last year, I bought a new boat with a loan; I don’t know how to do anything except fish.
‘I’ve two sons – 25 and 28 – and I don’t want them to inherit this business. It’s just too dangerous. It’s not worth it.’
Pradip says there are a dozen pirate gangs active in the Sundarbans. Three – Raju Vahini, Noah Vahini and Jehangir Vahini – are the most dreaded ones, each having around 100 pirates in their ranks.
‘We do indulge in occasional gang wars over territorial issues,’ says Baki, the leader of Noah Vahini, by telephone from Bangladesh. His group is active in the West Bengal border areas. ‘Yes, we intercept Indian boats and kidnap fishermen [for ransom]. But we never snatch away their boats or fishing nets. It’s only the rival gangs who do that.’
Baki claims his group has sources in India who pass on information about fishermen’s movements. ‘Acting on the information, we attack their boats and take them hostage,’ says the 32-year-old. ‘See, it is a battle of survival. If we don’t loot them, we won’t be able to survive.’
The fishermen’s forum has been demanding an immediate crackdown on the pirates and permission to equip fishermen to cope with such attacks. But the West Bengal government is yet to take action.
‘In many instances, the fishermen prefer not reporting kidnapping cases to the police as they could be booked for trespassing into the core area of the protected forest,’ says Pradip.
Meanwhile, for the fishermen, every day is a struggle and filled with risks. Two months after the attack on his boat, Subhas and his crew are back at sea. ‘As our boat inched closer to the area where we encountered the pirates, we said a silent prayer and sped past,’ he says.
Thankfully, there were no pirates chasing them. ‘I guess one has to live a day at a time.’