Death and honour

The honours showered on Sarabjit Singh following his murder in a Pakistani prison raise the question whether all this was the Indian state’s reward for a spy/terrorist for a job well done.

Published : May 15, 2013 12:30 IST

Sarabjit Singh’s coffin being carried for cremation at Bikhiwind village, 45 kilometres from Amritsar, on May 3.

Sarabjit Singh’s coffin being carried for cremation at Bikhiwind village, 45 kilometres from Amritsar, on May 3.

SARABJIT SINGH was different from all other Indian prisoners in Pakistani prisons. Not simply because he was on death row; there are two more Indians here facing a similar sentence. For some reason that no one seems to be able to put a finger on, he stood out among the Indians incarcerated here and managed to be referred to by name while the rest remained just numbers. What is more, he also managed to have an international campaign going for his release.

Was this because of the loopholes in the prosecution’s case, or because of his contention that it was a case of a mistaken identity and that the man Pakistan was looking for in the 1990 case relating to the blasts in Faislabad and Lahore was a Manjit Singh and not Sarabjit Singh? Or did he get all this attention in India because he was reportedly assigned by India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), to plant bombs in Pakistan to avenge its support for the Khalistan movement?

The RAW angle is not one of the many conspiracy theories that float around Islamabad. This has been reported in the Indian media. In hindsight, Indian officialdom may now call these decisions of RAW mindless, but if indeed Sarabjit was sent to Pakistan to plant bombs, then it does make India an exporter of terrorism.

And, in the Pakistani mindscape, this does somewhat help make sense of the Indian reaction to Sarabjit’s killing. As the Indian media went into overdrive and the government kept conceding the high-pitched demands of a section of the people, spearheaded by Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur, it reinforced the deep-seated suspicions the Pakistani right wing has about India: that New Delhi, which otherwise plays the victim in the global discourse on terrorism, has an agenda to destabilise Pakistan.

Declaring Sarabjit a martyr, announcing huge cash awards for his family, and sending a special flight from New Delhi to take his body to Amritsar, which is just a hop, skip and jump away from Lahore, not only seemed a bit over the top but signalled a national appreciation for committing an act of terrorism inside Pakistan. “We did not react like this when India executed Ajmal Kasab for the Mumbai 2008 attacks; in fact, there was no reaction, neither from the state nor society,” is an oft-heard refrain here.

Aside of the fundamental questions, the special flight raised questions about the futility of the exercise as it only delayed the return of Sarabjit’s body. Handing the body over at the land-crossing at Wagah would have been so much simpler and faster but, no, India had to make a statement. But was that statement in support for an innocent man caught in the middle of a bitter relationship or a badge of honour for a spy/terrorist for a job well done?

Whose case is it? And, why was this special treatment only for Sarabjit? Why was no special flight sent for Chamel Singh, the Jammu native who died under mysterious circumstances on January 15 in the very same Kot Lakhpat Jail of Lahore? After all, the Pakistani media have reported that his preliminary post-mortem report showed torture marks and eyewitness accounts claim he was beaten up by prison guards. Or is it that Chamel Singh’s family did not have a persona like Dalbir Kaur and that the Government of India now takes its cue from television sound bites? If this is the case, then both the government and the media need to reflect on how vulnerable it makes the Indian state, especially in a possible hostage situation.

These are questions that will keep repeating themselves for years to come just as they have in the past 23 years since Sarabjit Singh was arrested from near the international border at Kasur on the night of August 28, 1990. He was sentenced to death in 1991 for the two blasts and this decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Sarabjit’s version was that he had strayed across the border drunk. He petitioned for mercy five times, and all the petitions were turned down. But the Asif Ali Zardari-led dispensation stayed his execution despite pressure from the right-wingers.

Although the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin, reiterated the Indian government’s position that Sarabjit’s was a case deserving of humanitarian and sympathetic consideration, that statement did not get much traction. What did get traction, however, was an unnamed official’s remark that Sarabjit was a spy sent with the agenda of spreading terror in Pakistan.

Given that Sarabjit’s case was raised even at the prime ministerial level during Manmohan Singh’s summit-level meeting with former military dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2005, it cements the perception that the Indian state was behind the Lahore and Faislabad blasts which killed 14 people. Put the unnamed official’s statement along with the honours accorded to Sarabjit after death, and it weighs heavily against the MEA’s line that the Government of India would not ever have pursued this case if it considered him guilty of what Pakistan had convicted him for.

States’ failure Whatever Sarabjit may have been —and for that matter Sanaullah, the Pakistani prisoner who was beaten up in a jail in Jammu in retaliation the day after Sarabjit succumbed to his injuries—it does not condone the violence unleashed on both prisoners under the watch of the authorities in Pakistan and India. (Sanaullah died a few days later.)

In both cases, the prison administration should have been more mindful of the threats. Sarabjit, according to his lawyer Awais Sheikh, had named prisoners who had been threatening him about three weeks before the attack. The prison officials were well in the know of this threat as also the growing demands for his execution after India hanged to death Afzal Guru for his role in the December 2001 attack on Parliament House. Why Sarabjit, even Sheikh has been threatened for taking up the cudgels for him. Such is the power of the religious right-wing organisations that the Lahore Press Club withdrew the permission granted to the lawyer to release his book on Sarabjit on its premises in February end.

Likewise, Indian prisons should have anticipated retaliatory attacks and redoubled efforts to secure Pakistani prisoners under its watch, particularly since the two countries operate on a cynical principle of reciprocity in all matters. For instance, if someone from the Pakistan High Commission is picked up in New Delhi, then it is a given that someone of the same rank will get the same treatment in Islamabad.

The media’s role Assuming that both Sarabjit and Sanaullah were guilty of what they were convicted for, they were just pawns in a game played elsewhere. Even if there was no grand design to kill them —although how they can be so brutally attacked inside a prison without some help from their minders defies logic—care should be taken about the impact of the new agenda-setter in bilateral relations: the media.

Be it the cross-Line of Control clashes in January or the prison attacks, it is the media on both sides that have decided the narrative. In comparison with the Indian media, Pakistani television channels have been relatively less aggressive, although that could well be on cue from the powers that be who do not want things to heat up on their eastern border in view of the developments along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and further west.

Given how easy it is for an increasingly jingoistic media to instigate—and prisoners in both India and Pakistan are sitting ducks in such a scenario—both countries now need to look for new ways to deal with the issue of prisoners. Clearly, the existing mechanism is not working. The India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on Prisoners has been going through the motions of its annual ritual of visiting prisoners in both the countries—in fact, members arrived for the Pakistani leg of the inspection the day Sarabjit was attacked—but successive joint statements are testimony to the negligible progress made on the recommendations.

Such being the harsh reality, the South Asians for Human Rights has reiterated that India and Pakistan must use this chapter in bilateral relations to adopt a policy to allow repatriation of prisoners with long-term sentences to undergo imprisonment in their own countries. But this is easier said than done in a relationship that moves four steps backwards for every forward step.

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