Take a guess.
How many Indians are languishing in Pakistani prisons?
Well, the answer is close to 800. Of these, nearly 600 are innocent fishermen who inadvertently crossed into Pakistan controlled waters.
Now, how many of the 800 can you name?
As far as I am concerned, I only know of the late Sarabjit Singh. Or the other man - Surjeet Singh whose similar sounding name saved him from the gallows in a freak chance of good fate.
And if this is the scenario today, it is only because of the courage and unrelenting fight of one woman to save her brother – Dalbir Kaur.
Had it not been for the passionate battle of this lone audacious sister, Sarabjit Singh’s death would not be blazing our television screens.
Unfortunately, the man at the centre of the Indo-Pak tussle is dead now. But thanks to his sibling and her effort to highlight the trauma of her possibly innocent brother, Sarabjit Singh’s body was at least carried across home in a special plane, and he would be accorded a state funeral.
The story unfolded in 1990 when Sarabjit Singh is supposed to have mistakenly strayed into Pakistan in an inebriated state from his village Bhikhiwind. As luck would have it, he got entangled in a legal case where he was branded a terrorist and accused of being a spy who helped carrying out serial blasts in Punjab province that killed 14 people. Tortured into a confession that he later retracted, Sarabjit Singh was condemned to death without evidence, though he actually set foot into Pakistan three months after the blasts had taken place!
Sarabjit’s fate came into the limelight for the first time in 2005 when his sister took up the case, and since then has knocked at every door that could have helped.
In her own words she says, “I went from pillar to post, travelled in buses and trains, did everything possible to bring Sarabjit back, but I failed.”
That is the tragedy of the story. The sister wanted her brother back. She wanted him back also so that his two daughters could have a father and Sukhpreet a husband. Back with them in their small home in a remote village of Punjab. Even with their small means, they would have been happy because at least they would have been together.
Five mercy pleas later, when his case had become a live wire between the two countries, President Asif Ali Zardari on June 26, 2012 ordered his release as a reciprocal gesture to India pardoning Pakistan virologist Khalil Chisti. However, just hours later the Pakistan President was forced to retract the order due to domestic pressure and attribute the news to a faux pas of name. Surjeet Singh today can thank his stars that there was one brave sister who was fighting for her brother’s freedom.
Dalbir Kaur’s happiness then had been short lived. All the Live pictures of her celebrating the release of Sarabjit and sweet distribution had come to a naught. She wished Surjeet Singh well but did not give up hope for her own brother. She went on and on with her crusade to bring Sarabjit to India as a free man.
Alas, it was not to be. And as much as one would not like to admit it, possibly her exceptional struggle played a role in his ultimately heart-rending end.
Possibly because of the focus that Dalbir Kaur brought on Sarabjit’s case, he became a visible symbol of conflict between the two countries and a high stake pawn. His fate would decide the diplomatic victory of one country or the staunch patriotic fervour of another. Remember Imran Khan’s bloody call to hang Sarabjit after Ajmal Kasab’s death.
It became impossible for Pakistan to release him, as that would look like it was bending to India. To hang him would have meant a diplomatic impasse with us. His death by dubious means has earned an unpopular President and his faltering party some brownie points before general elections.
How else does one explain prisoners in the fortified Kot Lakhphat jail getting access to bricks and blunt weapons inside a prison? Why have only two people - already on death row - been booked when there were six attackers?
Dalbir Kaur has come up with some dirty facts about this even murkier drama that extinguished the life of an innocent Indian. That human rights activists in Pakistan ask for bribes to ensure freedom of the dispossessed. That nurses and doctors laughed when Dalbir Kaur asked about the medical condition of her brother. That Sarabjit was taken off ventilator support without information about who sanctioned such a move.
In life, not all wins and defeats are so. In her loss too, Dalbir Kaur has won respect across both sides of the Radcliffe.
It is a tribute to Dalbir Kaur that Pakistan had to wait for this ‘Sister Courageous’ to cross the Wagah border into India before it had the guts to declare that Sarabjit was dead.
This blog is salute to that lone woman. A salute to her belief that she could bend governments, which have a history of complex and strained relationships.
Her faith that sibling love alone was enough to move mountains and the Medina.