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Sarabjit or national interest?
September 14, 2005
The case of Sarabjit Singh could be a humanitarian one but has no relevance to the peace process and should be treated as such, both by the media and the policy makers.
But thanks to a highly ill informed media in the grip of a feverish 'breaking news' virus, the case has assumed such grossly inappropriate proportions that it today threatens to undo a substantial amount of goodwill that has been generated between the people of India and Pakistan since January 2004.
The perils of allowing such hyped, mostly artificial, 'emotions,' in the midst of the serious business of peace, are grave and hence it is imperative to step back from the sound byte melee and give due attention to available facts.
Sarabjit Singh, to begin with, is one of the 1,348 Indians lodged in Pakistani jails. Whether he is a spy or a saboteur is not really known. The Pakistan authorities have decided to hang him after due trial. They have charged him in a bomb blast case. There has been no official Indian denial to the charges. India has no locus standi in this case except to make an appeal to President Pervez Musharraf to pardon Sarabjit Singh.
But India should not have made such an attempt, at least officially. It has given President Musharraf a bargaining chip against India. The sensible course of action was to ignore the media-generated public outcry and use the unofficial channels, of which there are a plenty of them around these days, to convey the request for mercy to President Musharraf.
This is not to condone the subsequent actions of Pakistan, broadcasting a fake video of Sarabjit Singh and President Musharraf going live on television pretending to be a benevolent master of destiny, all cleverly timed to neutralise a bad press during the latter's visit to the United States.
The Sarabjit Singh case has raised the level of rhetoric, wholly unwarranted, in the popular domain. This has raised expectations of his freedom in India. In Pakistan, the popular opinion is against such a pardon.
In a way, it has trivialised, in a small but visible measure, the peace process which, even a hardened cynic would concur, is one of the most serious attempts at rapprochement between the two neighbours in the past half a century of acrimony, suspicion and conflicts.
In the popular psyche, the case of Sarabjit Singh is assuming fictional proportions, vitiating in the process, an atmosphere of cordiality which is critical for the peace process to culminate in tangible resolutions of at least some of the contentious issues.
Besides enforcing the old patterns of distrust and suspicion, the case is also proving to be an unwarranted handicap for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whose commitment for peace and stability in the region is unquestionable. In more ways than one, the Sarabjit Singh case is proving to be a repeat of what happened during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999.
The public demonstrations outside the prime minister's residence and the consistent barrage of 'soft' stories in the print (television channels were in a fledgling state) forced the government to abandon 'hard options' in favour of surrendering to the terrorists' demands.
Nothing was more shameful for a nation which took pride in being called a global power in the making to witness its foreign minister escorting a group of terrorists to safety.
A similar story is in the offing in the Sarabjit Singh case.
If Sarabjit Singh were to be freed, it would create headlines for a few days, make a hero out of the guy, maybe generate a whiff of goodwill for President Musharraf, and keep criticism at bay for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But, are we willing to pay the price for his freedom which Pakistan is certain to extract?
Are we yet to learn our lessons from the Rubaiyya Sayeed episode and the Kandahar Hijacking?
Imagine the possible scenarios if Sarabjit Singh were to be hanged in Pakistan. It would immediately chill the warmth in the tenuous relationship that has taken many months, and efforts of many, to generate.
The public opinion in India would turn against the Manmohan Singh government with the media, eager to score TRPs, crying hoarse over 'soft' approach to Pakistan, instigated in no less measure by rival political parties. Although hardly anyone would recall the Kandahar Shame, the same political parties would rail against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His distracters would include some of his own allies.
This would have an altogether different impact in Pakistan where such criticism would be seen as a victory for Pakistan, a much-needed scoring point for President Musharraf. The episode would also embolden the Pakistani establishment to exert pressure on India on other issues.
On the other hand, the domestic criticism on the issue would restrict Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from initiating bold and decisive steps to take the peace process forward in the next few months.
Should we allow emotions to dictate our national interest? This is a question which we need to ask ourselves before making a mountain out of a molehill.
Should we allow the Sarabjit Singh Case to disrupt the peace process?
The answer is a clear no.
Wilson John is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.