NEW DELHI—In Pakistan, Sarabjit Singh is an “Indian spy’’ whose death sentence has been upheld by the country’s Supreme Court for his alleged involvement in 1990 bomb blasts in Lahore. In India, Sarabjit is an innocent man, a farmer and father of two teenage girls, who mistakenly ventured into Pakistan 15 years back in an inebriated condition and was picked up by Pakistani security personnel, as happens quite often.
Sarabjit has been in a Pakistan jail since along with hundreds of Indian prisoners, several of whom are said to be innocent—fishermen, petty traders, shepherds, farmers who live along the India-Pakistan border and are regularly detained when they accidentally stumble across. Many never make it back, are thrown into jails, tortured to make false confessions and live in horrible conditions. They are branded spies and terrorists, sometimes even by the country they belong. More are picked up if Indo-Pakistan relations happen to deteriorate. There are perhaps an equal number if not more Pakistanis languishing in Indian jails as well, with similar unfounded charges.
In a way, death (even if in the form of a court sentence) could have been the only means to Sarabjit’s salvation. Apart from his family which has been pursuing his case with the authorities for the past many years, nobody has been interested in his fate and forcefully pleading his plight. Sarabjit’s sister has been knocking the doors of bureaucrats and politicians for more than a decade, to no avail until the death sentence rang a bell and the media spotlighted his case. Now any politician from Punjab, the state that Sarabjit comes from, is seen sharing the media space with her.
Like elsewhere, when the Indian television channels find an issue, whether relevant or irrelevant, it becomes the subject of abundant talk which is very lucky for Sarabjit and his family. The voices of his sister and two daughters now resonate in every corner of the country, which has joined the chorus. Prayer meetings and protest marches have followed; TV channels run a ticker on the messages pouring in from hours of talk on the issue. An organization in Bhopal has organized 200,000 emails to be sent to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
India’s top Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, who recently essayed the role of a person falsely implicated as an Indian spy by Pakistan, has also issued an appeal. In the movie, Sharukh makes it back. Many will wish the same for Sarabjit.
In a live telecast, Sarabjit’s sister handed over a petition via the border security force officials to Musharraf at the Wagah border with Pakistan, near the city of Amritsar. The memorandum urges Musharraf “to rise above political considerations and legal ramblings, considering Allah has bestowed him grace and power to pardon.” She has also appealed to the Indian President.
Predictably, with such attention the power-holders in the country, who had long forgotten the case of Sarabjit and countless others who will perhaps never be heard, have awakened to the pressure. Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said “appropriate messages” have been sent to Pakistan on the issue. Foreign minister K. Natwar Singh has taken up the case with Pakistan High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan and urged him to convey New Delhi’s hope that Islamabad treats it as a humanitarian issue. Cutting across party lines, the Indian Parliament expressed concern at the death sentence awarded to Sarabjit.
In a minor breakthrough Pakistan has granted consular access to Sarabjit for the first time in 15 years, which means that he will be provided with legal help and a fresh look into the facts of the case. Two Indian officials have met Sarabjit. This is significant as Indian officials say that similar consular access has been denied by Pakistan to 107 other Indian detainees. The Sarbjit issue as well as the fate of prisoners will also figure in the ongoing two day home secretary level talks between India and Pakistan.
The path to his release is still long drawn. Apart from the legal route of a review petition to the Supreme Court, Musharraf can pardon Sarabjit. Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri said an appeal for clemency can be made to Musharraf, but it will not be an easy decision, given the various forces, that include the Islamic and the militant, that need to be balanced within Pakistan. Musharraf knows their hold on Pakistani society more than anybody else.
Musharraf’s own Information Minister Sheikh Rashid has said that under Islamic law Sarabjit could be pardoned only by the relatives of the victims of the Lahore blasts. “As per the Pakistan Islamic law, only families of those who died in the bomb blasts can give him pardon and no other person. This is my understanding of the Islamic law. The President cannot pardon the accused,” said Rashid.
Militant outfits have asked the Pakistan government to seek clemency for Mohammed Afzal, sentenced to death in India in the Parliament attack case, before granting pardon to Sarabjit.
“Pakistan should first seek clemency for Kashmiri youth Mohammed Afzal before India seeks release of Sarabjit Singh, whose death penalty has been upheld by the Pakistani Supreme Court for his involvement in bomb blasts in Pakistan,” Hizbul Mujahideen leader and Chief of the United Jehad Council (UJC) Syed Salahuddin said in a statement.
While the negative aspect of Indian prisoners in Pakistan jails or vice versa has been highlighted in the Sarabjit case, there is yet a silver lining to the entire issue.
Like the case of Cindy Sheehan in USA which has rallied the anti-war protesters, Sarabjit now symbolizes all that is possible in the current context of improved Indo-Pakistan relations and peace talks.
In the years of hostility that have marked Indo-Pakistan relations there will be wrongs that cannot be corrected overnight. However, it is important that once errors that have been committed in the past come to the fore, they are dealt with sufficient sensitivity as well as care about the needs of the other nation, its people and the families.
Indian officials say Pakistani jails hold 371 Indian fishermen and 74 other civilian prisoners, while 611 Pakistan prisoners are being held in Indian jails. The peace process has seen both the countries swap prisoners. Pakistan released 589 Indians last year, and India released 182 Pakistanis, according to officials. India has offered to release another 177 Pakistani prisoners whose identities have been identified.
The media has played a stellar role so far in highlighting the case of Sarabjit as well as engendering a public movement for his release. But, given the fickle nature of the media which will quickly move on to the next big news, it becomes important that both India and Pakistan continue to work the channels to eliminate the baggage of history. This includes a fair hearing for Sarabjit given any new evidence and more like him.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.