The celebrations and media excitement over the news that Pakistan's President Asif Zardari had commuted the death sentence of a condemned Indian prisoner, Sarabjit Singh, to life imprisonment and that he would soon be released and repatriated to India soon gave way to gloom and bitterness after it became known that the man in question wasn’t Sarabjit but another Indian prisoner, Surjit Singh. In an era of 24x7 news, with news organisations competing with each other to be the first to ‘break news’, the original story had soon acquired a life of its own and without anyone double checking the authenticity or veracity of the news, it was plastered on TV screens. By the time the clarification came, the damage had been done. While media outfits screamed ‘U-turn’, ‘backtrack’, ‘caving-in by the Pakistani government to pressure of ISI, Islamists and Jihadists’, the roller-coaster of emotions that the hapless family of Sarabjit must have gone through can only be imagined.
The huge controversy that has erupted on the airwaves is centred around one big question: was the cockup a genuine communication error leading to a mix-up over names or was it the result of the government of Pakistan wilting under the pressure of the military, the media mujahideen and the militants? The answer to this all important question lies in the summary that was moved by Pakistan’s law ministry to recommend the release of the Indian prisoner. If the summary was moved in the name of Sarabjit, then it is clearly a case of the government doing a U-turn under pressure; on the other hand, if the summary was indeed in the name of Surjit Singh, then it was most likely a case of misreporting of the news, not necessarily out of malice but probably as an outcome of the old Punjabi ditty: ‘Natha Singh and Prem Singh, one and the same thing’. Given the Pakistani genius for mutilating Indian names, it shouldn’t cause any surprise if President Zardari’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, read Surjit as Sarabjit. Nevertheless, the six hour delay by the Pakistani authorities in clarifying who was actually being released has only added to the mystery and suspicion about what actually transpired between the announcement and subsequent clarification.
Although some would explain away this delay as a manifestation of the sheer incompetence of the administration in that country, the fact of the matter is that while Sarabjit’s case has become a cause celebre in the media of both countries, Surjit’s case was hardly on anyone’s radar screen. Even after the release on bail of the Pakistani doctor Khalil Chishty by the Indian Supreme Court, and amidst a clamour for a quid pro quo from Pakistan on Sarabjit, there was no give from the Pakistani side on Sarabjit. Instead, there were some reports in the Pakistani press that Pakistan would reciprocate by expediting the release another Indian prisoner, Surjit, who has already served his prison term. But since Surjit’s name didn’t strike any bell, no one paid much attention to it. It is therefore possible that even though the Pakistanis were releasing Surjit, it was Sarabjit’s name that started doing the rounds.
The news of Sarabjit’s release was also sensational because of the nature of the case in which he was sentenced. While Surjit was serving a prison sentence on charges of espionage, Sarabjit was put on death row on charges of sabotage and terrorism. As a result, releasing Surjit would not be as big a problem for the Pakistan government as releasing Sarabjit. Notwithstanding the merits of the argument given in defence of Sarabjit – mistaken identity, an innocent man implicated in a heinous crime just so the Pakistani security agencies could claim success in their investigation, etc. – his conviction complicates matters immensely for the Pakistani authorities, especially for the incumbent government which is already reeling under the onslaught of the jihadist judiciary. Having already sacked a sitting prime minister on as frivolous a charge as contempt of court and hell bent on taking away the constitutional immunity enjoyed by the President, what are the chances that the judges would allow President Zardari to commute the sentence of Sarabjit and repatriate him to India?
While politically, it would have been practically impossible for the PPP-led coalition to release Sarabjit – the right-wing, Islamist opposition had already started to bay for the government’s blood after the announcement and before the clarification (or if you will, backtracking) – even legally the government would be on a very weak wicket if it tried to do any such thing. Quite asides the fact that last year the Lahore High Court had admitted petitions against any government move to release Sarabjit and the government had denied any intention to pardon Sarabjit, chances are that the Pakistani judges would have probably invoked Islamic jurisprudence to block any relief for Sarabjit. Apart from the raft of petitions that right-wing lawyers (many with links to terror organisations like Jamaat Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba) would have filed to block Sarabjit’s release, the heirs of the victims of the bomb blasts allegedly carried out by Sarabjit would have resorted to Islamic laws of Qisas and Diyat to demand Sarabjit’s execution. Clearly, Sarabjit’s case was something of a no-go area for the government and it is unlikely if they would have been brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to have released him for winning some brownie points from India.
The timing of the announcement of release of an Indian prisoner also had something to do with the comedy of errors that followed. The Indian media had gone into an overdrive over the arrest of the terrorist Abu Jindal, who is believed to be one of the masterminds and controllers of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. Pakistan was naturally inviting a lot of flak and the mood in India was once again turning quite ugly. Perhaps, the release of Surjit (or was it Sarabjit?) could well be an attempt by the Pakistani establishment to dilute the growing anger in India. This is a tactic the Pakistanis used very often with the Americans – every time the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf was travelling to the US, or some senior American official was visiting Pakistan, the Pakistanis would present the Americans with some Al Qaeda terrorist. But while this tactic kept the Americans happy, it is unlikely to have worked very much with Indians, most of whom are quite familiar with Pakistan's perfidy. And, if this was the plan, then it has clearly backfired because instead of any goodwill, the cockup has only caused more bitterness inside India.
Of course, if Pakistan really wants to do the right thing and the just thing, then there is clearly a case to be made for reopening and reinvestigating Sarabjit’s case. Sending an innocent man to the gallows on trumped up charges might satisfy the blood-lust of the fanatics in Pakistan, but it will be not only be a crime against humanity but will also add to the existing bitterness in bilateral relations.