The release of Pakistani prisoner Khalil Chishti (80) from Ajmer's central jail this week, after the Supreme Court granted him bail on humanitarian grounds, has rekindled the hopes of families of Indian prisoners languishing in Pakistani jails.
One such prisoner is Bhanudas Karale from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. Bhanudas (58), was arrested on August 28, 2010, for illegally entering Pakistan. He was granted bail on September 21 that year. Since then, he has been waiting to get out of the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore.
On November 2, 2011, the Lahore High Court ordered the immediate release of Bhanudas and 74 other foreign prisoners, including 32 Indians, who had finished their sentence. Since then, 10 prisoners have been released, human rights activists say. The fate of Bhanudas and 21 others now hangs on the thin string of hope that lawyers and activists call political will, which they believe should be strong with Dr. Chisti's release.
Official sources say the Indian High Commission in Pakistan is yet to complete the “verification” of the identity of the prisoners, which will hopefully lead to their release.
The Lahore High Court said in its order that the “repute of the country at the international level is at stake,” and that “further detention of foreign prisoners is a contravention of international law as well as the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973.”
The Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Izaj Ahmed Choudhary, directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “to take immediate measures in collaboration with other stakeholders for the release of foreigner prisoners, and subsequent deporting.”
Last week, this correspondent visited Bhanudas' house at Wadgaon Gupta in Ahmednagar. His wife, Lahanubai, clutches a four-page letter — the latest from him — written in broken English, which came by the morning post. “I am fine here; I am eating and sleeping in jail in Pakistan. Please send me the correct address of my house. I am waiting. Don't worry. Be happy. I will soon come back to India. Your husband, Bhanudas,” it reads. “I never lost hope. I knew he would come back some day, after five years, 10 years. My sons gave up, but I didn't,” she said, with tears.
Bhanudas lost his mental balance after Garware Nylons Ltd., where he worked, shut down in 1996. In fact, it was after a visit to a psychiatrist that he disappeared, on January 3, 2010. The couple have two sons: Vijay, who is in the Army, and Rohidas, who is in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). “Even before he lost his job, we had taken him to…a psychiatrist, in 1993. He would shout unnecessarily and lose his temper. He would hit me, and everyone in the house. Then in 2006, we took him to another doctor. But even after that, he was quite unstable and unpredictable,” she said. “However troublesome he was, I can never wish that any harm is caused to him. He was a little mad, but not a bad person.”
It has been a long journey for the family since he went missing. “We searched for him everywhere. We lodged a complaint with the Wanowrie police station in Pune. We made a list of all villages named Wadgaon in Maharashtra and went there looking for him, in case he had gone there by mistake,” said Bhanudas' nephew Nitin Karale. “We were scared to reveal that his son, Vijay, is in the Army, fearing that getting him back would be more difficult if we say that.”
Finally, help came through another prisoner. Unable to contact his family for more than a year, Bhanudas sent his first letter with Gulab Singh, who was released last year, having been imprisoned in Lahore. An Amritsar-based journalist, Neeraj Sharma, interviewed Gulab Singh and then informed the Karale family of the whereabouts of Bhanudas. He then helped them to get in touch with Jas Uppal, a United Kingdom-based human rights lawyer and activist, and Awais Sheikh, an advocate in Lahore. Nitin sent them the missing person's complaint and Bhanudas' voter identity card, documents which would help the Indian High Commission verify his identity.
Ms. Uppal and Mr. Sheikh then worked on filing a petition in the Lahore High Court for the release of Bhanudas. It was in the course of the hearing of this petition that the court demanded the details of all foreigners who had been languishing in various jails of Pakistan. A list of 74 prisoners was given to the court.
According to Mr. Sheikh, it is the Indian High Commission's responsibility to ensure the fast release of Bhanudas, and the other prisoners. “It is the High Commission that has to verify the identity and nationality of each prisoner. Political and bureaucratic [hurdles] will come in the way. The diplomatic climate at the time dictates the fate of such prisoners,” he told The Hindu over phone from Lahore.
Mr. Sheikh is set to file a contempt of court petition against the Ministry of Internal Affairs for not abiding by the High Court's orders. “It is a shame that in spite of finishing their sentence and the High Court's order, people like Bhanudas are still in prison.”
The Mumbai-based journalist and rights activist, Jatin Desai, who is the joint secretary of the Pakistan India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, also pins the responsibility on political will. “The process of verifying the identity of the prisoners is a long one, which involves bureaucracy from the Indian High Commission to the External Affairs Ministry to the State governments and the local policemen. If there is political will, it can be finished in a month, but it usually takes up to a year,” Mr. Desai said.
In 2008, India and Pakistan signed the ‘Agreement of Consular Access.' Under it, the verification must start within three months of the arrest of an Indian national in Pakistan and vice-versa. Mr. Desai said the agreement was not at all being followed.
Justice (retd.) Nagendra Rai, of the India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on Civilian Prisoners, says civil liberties and human rights find no space in a scenario darkened by suspicion. “Even after the verification is done, the two countries don't trust each other. There is always a suspicion that the prisoner is a spy, so they try to delay the matter.”
“It has been five months now since we were told that he will be released. I don't know what they must be feeding him there. My man has not committed a crime. He has lost his mind, and must have strayed [into Pakistan] without knowledge. Clever criminals are let free, and innocent fools are the ones suffering,” rues Lahanubai.
He was granted bail in September 2010
Indian High Commission is yet to complete “verification” of the identity of such prisoners