The Sarabjit Singh incident is a reminder that India and Pakistan must evolve mechanisms for humane treatment of each other’s nationals in their custody

As Sarabjit Singh fights for his life in a hospital in Lahore, his plight is a reminder that we need to establish a humane and forward looking mechanism for treating Indian and Pakistani nationals in each other’s custody. Though it is not going to be easy, we need to move in this direction. But first the Sarabjit matter.

The Pakistani authorities have done well to immediately order an enquiry regarding the assault on Sarabjit at the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore. They have also booked two prisoners for the attack and suspended some jail officials for negligence. There was no reflexive prevarication on their part of the kind that continues to be seen in the Chamel Singh case. A credible enquiry should be conducted expeditiously and transparent action taken against the accused as well as the jail officials concerned. The quick clearance of visas for Sarabjit’s family was also a positive step. It will be a pity if the Pakistani establishment allows entrenched negative approaches take over this good beginning and now undertake a cover-up.

All this action, of course, cannot absolve Pakistan from a clear failure to protect Sarabjit especially when there was an obvious threat to his life after the Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru executions. Given the media attention that the Sarabjit case had attracted, they should have known that an incident of this kind would, at a minimum, give rise to misgivings, if not generate stronger feelings among many Indians. It is also not unnatural for many in India to feel that the attack was either inspired by a section of officials or the Jihadi groups. These views also arise as the wounds of the Mumbai attack have not healed. However, Track II interactions between retired Indian and Pakistani officials indicate that most Pakistanis simply do not comprehend the lasting impact of the Mumbai attack on the attitudes of many Indians towards their country.

Making distinctions

Questions need to be asked also if sufficiently high-level démarches were made with the Pakistanis both in Delhi and in Islamabad on the need to provide full security to Sarabjit in the present circumstances. It would be wrong to make this a political issue but with India already in almost an election mode, it is hardly possible that the Opposition would let the opportunity slip by. It would be too much to ask that the political class looks at the system of dealing with prisoners but that is what is truly required. And now to the general issue of treatment of prisoners.

It is necessary to distinguish between terrorists and ordinary prisoners. Terrorists cannot expect to be treated as those charged with other crimes, including espionage. While the law must be applied to them impartially, national security has to be kept in mind while dealing with their cases.

In cases of ordinary prisoners and fishermen, information flows regarding arrests of each other’s nationals, consular access and establishment of national identities of those who do not have papers have all to be speeded up. Above all, the focus has to be on the early repatriation of those who have completed their sentences.

Acting defensively

In the normal course, such prisoners should be handed over to the respective High Commissions to be sent back home. It is here that the peculiar nature of the India-Pakistan relationship comes in. Diplomats of the two countries act defensively. They are aware that the law prescribes that those whose sentences are over cannot be kept in jail but there is the gnawing fear that if the other side does not reciprocate likewise the fate of their nationals would be uncertain and they would be blamed by their own people for being naive, if not worse. The Supreme Court has directed that those whose identities have not been accepted by Pakistan should be taken out of jail and lodged in detention centres where they not treated as prisoners. This is a good but insufficient step.

It would be helpful if the oversight of the fishermen and the prisoners issue is given to the National Human Rights Commission on the Indian side and a similarly empowered body on the Pakistani side. They can evolve mechanisms in consultation with the two governments to ensure fishermen are sent back speedily and that cases of other prisoners are dealt with humanely and speedily. Those involved in terrorist cases should be left out from the purview of these cases. If necessary, the two countries can enact laws to empower the commissions where required.

From Iran to Lahore

Here, it is worth recalling an incident to show why empowered human rights commissions would be the right agencies to handle the issue. In the mid-1990s, a European nun living in Lahore contacted the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to convey that two Indian men around 20 years old were with her. One was from Mumbai while the other from Jharkhand. She said that they were sailors on a UAE vessel which had sunk off the Iranian coast.

They were rescued by the Iranians, who after keeping them in custody for some months, had pushed them into Baluchistan from where they made their way to Lahore. (This was not the only case where the Iranians had pushed Indians into Pakistan.) The High Commission asked that they be brought to Islamabad where they were sent to the Pakistani authorities who took them into custody. The next day’s papers carried stories about the arrest of two R&AW agents in Islamabad. The men were tried and sentenced to about three years imprisonment.

The mother of the young man from Mumbai was a widow and he was her only child. She used to visit the Foreign Office often. The Ministry’s efforts to convince Pakistani diplomats about the genuineness of the case did not cut any ice. Finally, the men were released after serving their sentences. The mother brought her son to Delhi to thank officials and he had this story to tell.

In addition to the two sailors, there were three others who were on the vessel and all five were pushed into Baluchistan by the Iranians. They came to Lahore by train and left the station in two tongas. The tongas got separated and the two who were in one tonga panicked. The Mumbai man who was a Christian suggested that they go seek the help of a church where they met the nun.

The other three went to Karachi from Lahore where they went to the port area and met some seamen. They convinced them of their bona fides and the Pakistani seamen decided to help them on the condition that they would never share what had happened with any Indian official. The three were smuggled onto a ship sailing to Mumbai and they reached home. The Mumbai man had met them on reaching India.

The story was fascinating and this writer expressed a desire to meet them only to hear it at first hand but the three kept the promise they had made to their Pakistani comrades of the sea. They contacted no Indian official.

(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.)

More In: Comment | Opinion