End of the tunnel?

Published : Jun 20, 2008 00:00 IST

Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jehangir greets the family members of Sarabjit Singh, in Lahore on April 26. They were in Pakistan to plead for the life of Sarabjit, who is on death row in Pakistan.-K.M. CHAUDARY/AP

Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jehangir greets the family members of Sarabjit Singh, in Lahore on April 26. They were in Pakistan to plead for the life of Sarabjit, who is on death row in Pakistan.-K.M. CHAUDARY/AP

WHEN Indians and Pakistanis meet, they give each other jhappi hugs and talk about the good old times in Lahore and how they if they are old enough hung out at Falettis for coffee and no one cared about being Hindu or Muslim, and how they speak the same language and eat the same food and share the same culture despite the religious differences. Indian and Pakistani diplomats who have fought each other across the table for years manage to become the best of friends. These days even generals meet and swap stories about how they may have fought and killed each other over three wars but were never found wanting when it came to extending a soldier the courtesy of a cup of tea as soon as he was taken prisoner of war even though the rules did not allow for providing immediate refreshment.

But somehow, when it comes to exhibiting similar conduct towards those from the other side languishing in each others prisons, all notions of civilisation seem to vanish and both sides behave like the missing link between the animal kingdom and homo sapiens. The inescapable conclusion is that this is a class thing civilised conduct is reserved for the better off, while human beings in this unfortunate category of human beings are the victims of a yawning evolutionary gap in behaviour reserved in both our countries only because they are poor and have no connections to this general or that Minister in the country of their imprisonment.

The discovery of Kashmir Singh in Lahores Kot Lakhpat prison, 30 years after he was thrown into the clanker on charges of spying and living under a twice-postponed death sentence, and the custodial deaths of three Pakistanis in Indian jails since February this year have highlighted the appalling attitude that each country displays towards nationals of the other serving time in its prisons. The 42-year-old Sarabjit Singh, who has spent nearly half his life in Pakistani jails and has served more years in prison than the maximum term of 14 years, may escape his death sentence, but only thanks to the enormous pressure on Pakistans new government not to start off its relations with India by hanging an Indian.

Mostly poor, cross-border prisoners are jailed for a range of alleged offences from crossing the border to drug trafficking to overstaying their visa to spying, or, as in the case of fishermen, for straying into the waters of the other country. Sometimes years can pass before the government informs the prisoners country that such a person is in its custody. Sometimes, that information is shared only after the person dies and the body has to be sent back, as in the case of the Pakistanis who died recently in India.

Even in cases where India and Pakistan know about their nationals in prisons on the other side, they have wrangled over granting consular access, that is, allowing a diplomatic representative to visit the prisoner in order to verify his nationality and well-being. Fishermen, who are often arrested in large numbers at a time and are usually sentenced to three months in jail, have to wait much beyond that time to see a diplomatic representative of their country. Prisoners whose nationality is verified have to wait for months to be released because India and Pakistan often wait for symbolic occasions to free such prisoners or use them as bargaining chips. And it seems to be a speciality of Indian and Pakistani prisons to turn the inmates of the other country mad, literally.

But all that is set to change, the two governments say after the signing of the Agreement on Consular Access between India and Pakistan during Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjees visit in May. The agreement was signed by the High Commissioners of the two countries, Satyabrata Pal of India and Shahid Malik of Pakistan, as the two Foreign Ministers watched.

The agreement is an upgradation of the 1982 protocol on consular access that governed the treatment of prisoners on both sides. Under the new agreement, it is now incumbent upon both governments to maintain a comprehensive list of the nationals of the other country under its arrest, detention or imprisonment, and the lists are to be exchanged on January 1 and July 1 every year.

The agreement also provides for the immediate notification of any arrest, detention or imprisonment of any person of the other country to the respective high commission. Both sides have also undertaken to expeditiously inform the other of the sentences awarded to the convicted nationals of the one country under arrest, detention or imprisonment in the other country.

Both governments will also release and repatriate persons within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of sentences. And in cases where the person is charged, detained and sentenced on political or security grounds, in other words, spying, each side may examine the case on its merits. In cases that call for or need humanitarian or compassionate considerations, each side may exercise its discretion subject to its laws and regulations and allow early release and repatriation.

It was unclear at the time of writing how this is significantly different from the 1982 protocol, which has many of the same clauses, except that, in diplomatic parlance, an agreement carries more weight. Even so, the proof of humane behaviour lies not in the signing of an agreement but in the implementation, in letter and spirit, of its terms.

Nirupama Subramanian
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment