Afzal Guru a Kashmiri incarcerated in the notorious Tihar jail for allegedly storming the Indian parliament in December 2001 was hanged in the small hours of a cold winter morning early this year. He and was buried in the prison compound. His next of kin learnt of the hanging two days later because that is how long it took the ‘speed’ letter to reach them. They were also denied the comfort of burying him according to their wishes. Guru had been on the death row since 2002. He was slated for execution on 20 October 2006. His mercy petition was rejected by the Indian president on 3 February and three days later he was dead. There was uproar from human rights activists because it was strongly felt that he had been denied full access to justice. Curfew was imposed in Kashmir because the Indian authorities feared violence.
Nearly three months later on 2nd May, Sarabjit Singh died in a Lahore hospital. Singh a convicted spy had been on the death row since 1991. Almost ten years before Guru he was charged for terrorism. On 26 April he was attacked by fellow inmates in the Kot Lakhpat jail. Sarabjit’s head injuries proved fatal. His sister, wife and daughters were given emergency visas and were allowed to visit him as he lay in coma. His dead body was quickly returned to India, where he was cremated with full military honours in his native village Bhikhiwind, near the border with Pakistan. The Indian government and media went into an overdrive blaming the Government of Pakistan for willful neglect. They called the attack ‘barbaric’ and ordered the lowering of the national flag for three days. There were allegations that it was in retaliation to Guru’s hanging.
Bad as Sarabjit Singh’s killing was for the bilateral relations of the two countries there was a tragic response to it. In a coldblooded replay of what had happened to Sarabjit, a Pakistani prisoner, Sanaullah Haq was attacked by a fellow inmate at the high-security Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu, in Indian held Kashmir. Sana suffered critical head injuries and like Sarabjit went into coma. He was admitted to intensive care at a Jammu hospital. His chances of recovery appear slim. He had been in Indian prison for the past 17 years on militancy-related charges. His attacker was a former Indian army soldier convicted of murder. Pakistan government issued a statement expressing ‘deep concern’ over the attack and ‘immediate consular access’ was demanded. The attack was ‘obvious retaliation’ for the killing of Sarabjit Singh, it was added.
Regrettable as these tit for tat killings are, there is a need for both sides to exercise caution and display maturity. The potentially inflammable tirades are good for political point scoring and to send the domestic gallery into fits of indignant frenzy but at risk are vulnerable prisoners. The exact numbers of inmates are not known but there are many Indians and Pakistanis languishing in each other’s jails. Sub-continental jails are not model correctional facilities and prisoners whether local or foreign are not meted out fair treatment as per jail manual. The case of prisoners merit serious attention. Many fishermen and inadvertent line crossers are apprehended now and then by India and Pakistan and their release becomes a long and tortuous process. NGOs usually take up their cases on individual basis. Governments also discuss the issue from time to time but real earnestness is never displayed.
It is if the prisoners are left to their fate. Many find freedom once they die or go crazy. Exact statistics are not known but there is a dire need to exchange information and release prisoners who have either served their sentences, or are innocent or no longer a threat to the society. The octogenarian Dr Chishti is a case in point. It is the duty of both countries to ensure that prisoners under threat should be provided complete security. It is time that our politicians include the prisoner’s issue on their election manifesto and display genuine concern for them by seriously taking up the matter with their Indian interlocutors once in power. Convicted or innocent Pakistanis in Indian prisons are the Government’s responsibility. Last but not the least what about the next of kin of those lost in the vicious net of India Pakistan rivalry. Who is looking after them? Who will be responsible for the family of Sana, when he is no more? Does anyone know where his family resides in Sialkot?