They say fact is stranger than fiction. Things in real life are sometimes so weird that they defy the absurdity of the reel world. The more you read of the tragedy of Dr Khalil Chishty, the more implausible it seems. How could an ailing old man suffer for two decades for a crime he did not commit? And why long after the courts, governments and everyone else had concluded that Dr Chishty was innocent and deserved to be set free at once, is he still languishing in his twilight years in a dark prison cell in India? No one seems to have an answer.
The story reads like the plot of an improbable Bollywood flick. Just as that Shahrukh Khan-starrer India-Pakistan love saga, Veer-Zaara, had seemed where our hero is condemned to spend half of his life in a dark prison when he goes to find his love across the border in Lahore. I had found the movie insufferable. How could you lock someone away for years and decades without a trial and without due process, I had wondered. How can the entire system be so inept and corrupt?
But then that’s what more or less has happened to Dr Chishty. Implicated in a murder case just because he happened to be around when an argument between his hosts and neighbours turned into a nasty physical encounter, leading to the accidental killing of one of the attackers, the Pakistani scientist has spent 20 years hanging in a tortuous limbo.
A PhD from Edinburgh University, he had an illustrious career working in the UK, Iran, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia from where he retired in the late 1980s as the director of public health at Jeddah International Airport. He went to India, looking for love, the love of his old mother in Ajmer, the city of saint Moinuddin Chishti. And he hasn’t been able to leave since.
Incidentally, Dr Chishty was born and went to school in Ajmer. He went to college in Karachi where his elder brother was studying engineering. At the time of Partition, the brothers ended up on the Pakistani side while his parents and younger brother Jameel Chishty remained in Ajmer. He, however, visited his parents often, whenever possible or when the fickle India-Pakistan relations permitted.
When Dr Chishty arrived in Ajmer in 1992, little did he realise that he could never return and perhaps meet a painful end in a prison cell away from his family. Which now looks like a distinct possibility considering he is 81 and is seriously ill, as he counts his last days on a prison hospital bed and his wife and children watch in utter despair.
He cannot move. He has a fractured, deformed hip and has already suffered two heart attacks and a brain stroke, not to mention other physical and psychological ailments that make his twilight years an endless nightmare for him and for his family scattered all over the globe.
It was a case of being present at the wrong place at the wrong time. Although he was released on bail 20 days after the arrest, he spent the next 19 years waiting for freedom as the case dragged through India’s notoriously dawdling legal system.
With his passport impounded and no hope in sight, he lived on his brother’s farm outside Ajmer, totally cut off from everyone and under virtual house arrest, eventually turning into a physical and mental wreck. After 19 years of legal ping-pong, justice finally arrived last year – life sentence for a crime that is yet to be identified.
No wonder this absurd case has rankled and outraged just about everyone. However, all efforts and passionate appeals for clemency by his long suffering family, rights groups and many independent voices have so far failed to move the powers that be.
His children have been running from pillar to post, beating their heads against the callous, apathetic walls of officialdom. Their pain hasn’t been able to transcend the toxicity of the India-Pakistan equation. Last year, Indian Supreme Court judge, Justice Markandey Katju, had gone out of his way to appeal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Dr Chishty’s behalf. The good and ever prudent Dr Singh is of course yet to act.
Ironically, a similar appeal by the noble judge, who now heads the Press Council, to President Zardari led to the prompt release of Gopal Das who had spent years on the other side of the border. Finally when the Rajasthan government was persuaded to recommend clemency for Dr Chishty, Governor Shivraj Patil returned the appeal, raising profound questions about the legal and diplomatic implications of the case. Although all his concerns have been addressed, the governor refuses to budge. Clearly, the Congress Party, in power in Rajasthan and Delhi is terrified of being seen as being “soft” on Pakistan or favouring a Pakistani national, even when it is the right thing to do.
When will the governments and politicians stop looking at everything from the distorted prism of India-Pakistan relations? The tragedy is, it is not just the plight of one individual. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Dr Chishties on both sides of the border, who have just disappeared down the legal black hole. Forgotten and forsaken by their countries, some of them have spent half their lives in jail for the cardinal sin of accidentally straying on the wrong side of the border.
Some of them have been there even longer than Dr Chishty, including some prisoners of war captured during the 1971 war. Many of them haven’t been released even after completing their sentence! Last month an angry Supreme Court slammed the Indian government for keeping Pakistani prisoners in jail even after completing their sentence, terming it an “infraction of the human rights of the worst order.”
Observing that “liberty is precious” and justice must prevail over bureaucratic procedures, the court warned the “bureaucrats who sleep over the files and go into slumber.” Things are probably little different on the other side of the border.
When will this change? When will India and Pakistan stop treating people as pawns on their diplomatic chessboard? And how long and how much more will this 81-year old have to suffer before the two governments conclude that enough is enough? Doesn’t he deserve to spend the last few days of his life in peace at his home with his loved ones?
“Every day we fear for the worst. How long can a frail old man survive without any hope on the prison hospital bed?” asks Amna Chishty, Dr Chishty’s Canada-based daughter, in a mail to me. “I appeal to all of you to please help me bring my father back so he could spend the rest of his days with dignity, surrounded by people who care for him.”
Doesn’t he deserve that, Dr Manmohan Singh, in the name of humanity, if not as someone who was born and brought up in this country?
Let Dr Chishty go home, Prime Minister. God knows he has suffered enough. And for God’s sake let thousands of other Chishties rotting away in jails on both sides of the border go home too. They have suffered enough too. Let them go home. In the name of humanity and in the name of all that the people of India and Pakistan once shared. Please!