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Kasab's hanging sealed the fate of Sarabjit

By K C Singh
May 02, 2013 18:26 IST
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Pakistan must get to the root of the conspiracy to eliminate Indian prisoners while in judicial custody, says K C Singh

Sarabjit Singh's death in Lahore's Jinnah hospital early on May 2 has unleashed expected finger-pointing by the opposition, breast-beating by the Akali Dal and an attempt by his sister to hype it into martyrdom. A reality check would be in order.

Sarabjit's death sentence had been on hold since 2009. A false hope was raised last year when Farhatullah Babar, spokesman of President Asif Ali Zardari, announced that Sarabjit had received presidential pardon. It turned out later that in fact it was another prisoner Surjit Singh who was being let off on completing 31 years in jail. The denouement only added to the misery of the family in India.

Two events complicated Sarabjit's case thereafter. The released prisoner Surjit, on entering India at Wagah, perhaps to force the government to belatedly compensate him for his suffering, loudly pronounced that he had indeed gone to Pakistan to spy. This shone the light on an unsavoury methodology used by a plethora of Indian agencies in Punjab which used to co-opt an existing network of vulnerable sections in the border villages, who were smuggling goods across the extensive and till then unfenced border, for information gathering.

I remember in 1979 when I was the Regional Passport Officer at Chandigarh, covering Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the external affairs minister relaxed the grant of passports, without police reports, for a one-time visit to Pakistan for a cricket match. Punjab CID told me later that all the prominent smugglers from the border area had crossed to not watch cricket but meet their Pakistani contacts. Many of these individuals functioned as double or triple agents. Caught in the middle were perhaps some who were apprehended crossing the border mistakenly or out of sheer bravado.

This game was played by both sides but did not spin out of control till Pakistan stared sponsoring cross-border terrorism. It is possible that Indian agencies in a tit for tat reaction did lend support to some criminal acts in Pakistan. In this muddled atmosphere Sarabjit was apprehended for causing terrorist blasts at Multan and Lahore in 1990, in which 14 persons died. Rightly or wrongly his culpability was upheld by Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Apparently Sarabjit's case went unrepresented at that level. What was, the question arises, the Indian high commission doing at that stage? Shiv Shankar Menon, the current national security adviser, was the high commissioner when Sarabjit's review petition was rejected by Pakistan's Supreme Court in 2006. Once again, when the principal witness Shauket Salim retracted his statement in 2008, why was not the case immediately and strongly taken up for presidential pardon.

Unfortunately for Sarabjit, once the 26/11 Mumbai attack took place and Kasab was apprehended it was inevitable that their fates were now intertwined. Kasab's hanging on November 21, 2012, sealed the fate of Sarabjit, the only issue remaining what methodology would be employed by Pakistan's security set-up, sulking as they were over India having exposed their ignominy, for extracting revenge.

For a Pakistani government to have risen above the pressure of Lashkar-e-Tayiba and their political mentors and pardoned Sarabjit would have required a miracle.

A dress rehearsal of where it was headed was witnessed when another prisoner Chamel Singh was assaulted and killed days before his release. Sarabjit's death by official connivance in vigilante action and on the eve of parliament elections when an interim government is in-charge cannot but be the handiwork of Pakistan's security agencies.

What are the implications for India-Pakistan relations? The bilateral relations have been in deep freeze in any case since the beheading of an Indian soldier at the LoC. In addition, the major Pakistani political parties can distance themselves from this incident as Pakistan is under an interim government. An inquiry has been ordered by the Punjab government in Lahore and in due course some responsibility will be fixed. It would naturally never be conceded by Pakistan that a deeper conspiracy was in play.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has still not given up his dream of a comprehensive peace with Pakistan. As Pakistan enters a new political phase after the May 11 elections, the Indian government confronts the possibility of elections this year.

Unfortunately, citizens of either country held by the other have for far too long been treated as hostages rather than as prisoners to whom due processes of law should be the only criteria. The Indian Supreme Court, in the case of Syed M K Chisti, took the unprecedented step of allowing a sentenced person to rejoin his family in Pakistan. It is high time the two nations finalised a transfer of sentenced prisoners’ treaty, which would enable sentenced persons to serve their sentences in their own countries.

It is not possible to seek pardons in each instance and in any case that leads to inordinate delay. In particular the frequent arrest of each country's fishermen by the other can only be avoided by the early finalisation of the maritime boundary in the sensitive Kutch- Sind region, which is contingent on the determination of the Sir Creek demarcation.

That would still leave terror related cases in a separate category. The lesson is that distrust generated by the sponsoring of terror by Pakistani agencies and the lack of political will on the part of successive Pakistani governments to dismantle their terror networks can only result in the avoidable tragedy of first Chamel Singh and now Sarabjit.

If Pakistan wants to ensure that their new government does not inherit a vitiated atmosphere, then they must get to the root of the conspiracy to eliminate Indian prisoners while in judicial custody. This is a matter that Chief Justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhary, functioning often with judicial abandon, needs to mull over.

K C Singh is a retired Indian diplomat

Photo credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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