May 02, 2008
As I write, Dalbir Kaur is appearing before the television cameras, to plead with the government of Pakistan for the life of her brother, Sarabjit Singh. The family -- Dalbir Kaur and her husband, Baldev Singh, Sarabjit Singh's wife, Sukhpreet Kaur, and their daughters, Swapandeep and Poonam -- say that Sarabjit Singh was nothing more than a farmer who wandered across the border while he was drunk; the Pakistani authorities insist that he is a terrorist.
Whatever the truth of the case, what strikes me is not what Dalbir Kaur is saying as where she is saying it from, in Lahore [Images], not far from the gates of the Kot Lakhpat Jail, where her brother currently sits behind bars. It is difficult enough for someone to get to meet a condemned prisoner in India, it must be a magnitude of order tougher to obtain permission from a foreign country.
There is a mountain of paperwork to climb before even a journalist can meet an ordinary prisoner, leave alone someone on death row. The meeting simply could not have taken place without the explicit consent of both the president and prime minister of Pakistan.
That, I should add, is much the same in India. Sixty years ago, in 1948, there was a famous instance when such permission was actually denied. The editor of the newspaper The Hindustan Times wanted to meet Nathuram Godse before the sentence of death was carried out. The gentleman holding that post in those days was Devdas Gandhi, the Mahatma's youngest son and Rajaji's son-in-law.
The matter was considered so sensitive that it landed up on the prime minister's table. It is a matter of record that Jawaharlal Nehru rejected Devdas Gandhi's plea.
I cannot find any record of Pandit Nehru's reasoning. (As a matter of fact, several records from that time, including Nathuram Godse's statements in the court seem to be unavailable.) Nor can anyone be certain so late in the day what Devdas Gandhi hoped to achieve by meeting his father's murderer; by all accounts, Godse was unapologetic to the very end. However, the fact remains that Devdas Gandhi was refused permission.
Playwright Pradip Dalvi got it completely wrong in his controversial play Me Nathuram Godse Bolte, where he showed Devdas Gandhi actually going to meet Godse. (And even shaking hands with him!)
Occasionally, however, truth can be stranger than fiction. It is on record that Pope John Paul II entered an Italian jail to meet Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish man who had shot him in 1981. In the year 2000, the Pope went farther, pleading with the Italian authorities to release his would-be assassin. We will know what the two spoke of unless Mehmet Ali Agca tells us since the late Pope simply refused to say anything.
The point is that all these are matters of record; whether it is Sarabjit Singh's family, or the Pope, or Devdas Gandhi, whether permission was granted or denied, there is always a paper trail. That is why I am a little bemused that a Chennai lawyer, D Raj Kumar, has actually used the Right to Information Act to enquire why Priyanka Vadra met Nalini Sriharan, one of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
Priyanka Vadra's movements are strictly controlled by her Special Protection Group guardians. And in this instance it is not as if she was going to a temple in Tamil Nadu, she was going to Vellore Jail! I am sure that she could not possibly have done so without the permission of both the prime minister and the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
It is a bit strange that Rajiv Gandhi's daughter received permission to do precisely what her great-grandfather had denied to the Mahatma's flesh and blood, but we live in a very different age from the India of sixty years ago. I suppose both Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] and Thiru Karunanidhi thought that Priyanka Vadra could hold her own.
It is also a matter of record that the Nehru-Gandhi family made its peace with Nalini Sriharan long ago. The last surviving member of the assassination squad, Nalini Sriharan was actually sentenced to death; as I remember, a plea of clemency from Sonia Gandhi [Images] herself was instrumental in commutation of that sentence.
So, really, all the superintendent of the Vellore Jail has to do is to send copies of all the relevant official documents. It should be a simple thing, there are bound to be copies -- filed in triplicate if I know anything about Indian bureaucrats -- in Delhi, in Chennai, and in Vellore. Just give those documents an airing before the public gaze!
There are no State secrets involved here. Priyanka Vadra was open about her visit to Vellore Jail. Nalini Sriharan's permission must have been obtained. It is not as if Priyanka Vadra, a level-headed young lady by all accounts, would have been silly enough to barge in without permission. So, just release those pieces of paper, Mr Superintendent, and end this controversy!
I remember a joke from the days of the Communist regime in Russia [Images]. A man whose friend had been jailed asked how he could get to visit him. Pat came the answer, 'Commit a crime yourself!'
Sarabjit Singh's clan and Priyanka Vadra have it easier. Filling out long forms may be cumbersome but you don't commit a crime by visiting someone behind bars.
T V R Shenoy