Sarabjit flip-flop: Can Pakistan be trusted?

After its ‘Sarabjit’ blunder, can India trust Pakistan.

Ritesh K Srivastava

The Bhikhiwind village in Amritsar now bears a deserted look. A pall of gloom has descended over the village and all celebrations have suddenly stopped. The enthusiasm has vanished among hundreds of villagers, who had gathered to celebrate the homecoming of Sarabjit Singh from the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore.

For Sukhpreet Kaur and Poonam Kaur, the inconsolable wife and daughter of Sarabjit Singh, who were till Tuesday midnight dancing, sharing sweets and receiving congratulations from the family members, friends and well-wishers, are now in a state of utter shock. Tears are rolling down the eyes of his sister Dalbir Kaur, who had spearheaded an intense campaign to save Sarabjit from the gallows, as his brother has once again become a victim of mistaken identity and is not coming home.

It’s indeed a cruel joke by the Pakistan government, which has rendered Sarabjit’s family members heartbroken, shattered and wondering whether he would ever return home and would they ever see him alive?

No doubt, Pakistan’s dramatic turnaround on Sarabjit’s issue, after it first announced that the Indian prisoner languishing in its jail for the past 22 years will be released soon, has left Indians with a sense of betrayal.

The outrage in India is growing over Pakistan’s flip-flop on his release and the Indian side has renewed demands for his immediate and unconditional release. At the same time, Islamabad’s shameless U-turn has triggered a debate – can Pakistan be trusted? Will India ever learn a lesson from Pakistan’s doublespeak?

Political analysts are pondering whether the diplomatic blunder committed by Pakistan was genuine or something deliberately done to give India a major jolt, especially in view of the arrest of Abu Jundal - a key handler of Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008.

A careful analysis of the recent developments in India and Pakistan clearly establishes a relationship between Abu Jundal’s arrest and Islamabad’s rollback of its decision on Sarabjit Singh.

Interestingly, Pakistan’s Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar’s clarification that not Sarabjit but Surjeet Singh would be released from the Pakistan jail came on a day when the Indian media was prominently rolling the news about the arrest of Syed Zabiuddin Ansar alias Abu Jundal.

And now Indian strategists are viewing Islamabad’s change of heart on Sarabajit as a political masterstroke to change the narrative at a time when Indian investigators achieved a major breakthrough in the 26/11 attacks case.

Clearly, after Jundal’s arrest and the shocking revelations made by him, Pakistan now stands exposed and the international pressure has increased manifold on Islamabad to act against the 26/11 attackers.

Jindal`s alleged confession that "Pakistani intelligence officials were present in the control room from which he directed the attackers” is explosive; if found true, these accusations will undermine an already shaky Indo-Pakistan relationship and tarnish Pakistan`s global image.

Pakistan has always been in a state of denial over the militant groups active on its soil and has dragged its feet on investigating and prosecuting 26/11 suspects. However, if it fails to take action against those involved in the 26/11 attacks this time around, it would only hasten the country`s international isolation and slide toward pariah state status.

What has further angered the extremist Islamist groups and its powerful spy agency, the Inter Intelligence Services (ISI), is Washington’s growing support for India`s efforts to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice.

However, there can be a second aspect to Pakistan’s U-turn on Sarabjit Singh’s release. It is now being speculated that the Pakistan government could have changed the decision under pressure from fundamental groups and the ISI.

Pakistan’s last-minute ‘rollback’ on Sarabjit Singh also indicates the bitter reality of Pakistani politics – its decades old tussle between the civilian establishment and its all-powerful military and the apparent political influence of the fundamentalist on the political system.

Shortly after the Pakistani media first announced that President Asif Ali Zardari had commuted Sarabjit Singh`s death sentence to life imprisonment and ordered authorities to release him if he had completed his prison term, Islamists groups and the ISI began building pressure on the civilian government to revert the decision.

There was a strong sense of displeasure among the Pakistani awam and the extremist groups that Sarabjit Singh, who is seen as the enemy of Pakistan and its citizenry, is being released.

The growing public anger and the enormous pressure built by religious outfits, backed by the ISI, possibly compelled the Pakistani establishment to change its decision and issue a clarification that Surjeet Singh and not Sarabjit would be released.

The "rollback" also indicates that the Pakistani Army can still veto any effort by its civilian government to bridge gaps between New Delhi and Islamabad. It is impossible to say when the civilian establishment in Pakistan will succeed in taming the ISI and fundamentalists, who pose a great danger to democracy there.
The ‘rollback’ also exposes that the Zardari regime is weakening and fast losing its grip, especially after the country’s highest court unseated the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, giving the ruling Pakistan People’s Party a big setback.

Agreeably, the Zardari regime has taken several initiatives to improve bilateral ties with India but it is still not in a position to take on its powerful Army and the ISI, with whom it is engaged in a bitter fight for survival and political space within the country.

Pakistan’s goof-up on Sarabjit is also a major blow to the goodwill gesture shown by New Delhi recently when it freed ailing Pakistani virologist Khalil Chisti, facing murder charges, so that he could meet his family in Karachi. Indian diplomats, who took Islamabad’s first announcement on Sarabjit’s release on face value, are crying foul and terming its U-turn as a diversionary tactics.
A section of our political analysts also believe that the decision to release Chisti was wrong as New Delhi wasted the opportunity to swap his release with that of Sarabjit. Even with India reiterating its demand for urgent release of Sarabjit Singh, it may take forever before Pakistan actually releases him, since he has been in jail for the past 22 years and his fifth mercy petition is still pending with President Zardari.

As the situation stands, chances for Sarabjit’s release are remote and would materialize only when the political whirlwind in Pakistan settles and the bitter power struggle between the civilian government and its military ceases.

Ironically, the cruel twist of fate for Sarabjit Singh and Pakistan’s blunder has brought joy to Surjeet`s family, which welcomed him at the Attari border with great fanfare.

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