Prisoners of Prejudice
India and Pakistan have not been able to reconcile with the fact that though they came into being nearly six decades ago, it is now time to move ahead with peace and reconciliation. But circumstances have become such that even if the government of both the countries make honest move to improve relations, the haws in both the countries thwart the peace process.
Hundreds of prisoners are languishing in jails of both the countries without facing trials, on accusations of spying for either ISI or RAW. Anyone who is caught in India is an ISI agent while someone caught in Pakistan becomes a RAW agent. They are paraded on the TV channels, branded as spies or terrorists while the media houses sell the stories like hot cakes. We also must understand that spying is prevalent in almost all top defense and intelligence organizations and hence it becomes common when people caught from another territory are charged with being agents. Unfortunately, such cases in India and Pakistan are not dealt on a priority basis or taken to a logical conclusion. Even when somebody is caught on ‘duty’ for its agencies, it is imperative for the states to provide them legal aid. Unless, they are indulged in instigating violence or directly engaged in act of terror, such cases should be dealt at the foreign ministry level.
A few months back, Dr Mohammad Khalil Chisthi, an 80 years old virologist from Pakistan was released on humanitarian grounds by the Supreme Court of India and finally allowed to return to Pakistan. Dr Chishti had suffered in Indian jails for over thirty years for allegedly murdering a person which he denies saying he was in India to see his ailing mother. One does not know what comes out by keeping an 80 year old man in prison for murder charges that may not even be true? It is not a matter of criminalization but failure of our judicial system to provide free legal aid to an old person. How can he be a threat to India’s vast security apparatus? In a reciprocal gesture, Pakistan too released an Indian prisoner Gopal Das who was languishing in the Pakistani jail.
But the most celebrated prisoner in Pakistani jail has been Sarbjeet Singh who was arrested for alleged bombing in a Pakistan city. Police could not frame charges against him and took him in a case of mistaken identity as maintained by his family and lawyers. The police produced him as Manjeet Singh but ultimately he turned out to be Sarbjeet Singh. Now, the issue raised is that if he did not get a fair trial in the Pakistan jail, why was he kept there?
It is astonishing how prisoners are kept in jails for more than 20 years, for committing petty crimes or no crimes at all, without facing fair trials. When Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was in India on his famous Ajmer visit, Sarabjeet’s relatives tried hard to meet him in Ajmer but they were not given an opportunity to do so. Media had already raised the issue and it came up at the highest level of Pakistan government who promised to look into the matter. In fact, the Indian human right activists had also urged the President to use his pardoning powers to get Sarabjeet released but that did not happen. It is unfortunate that no one from India or Pakistan is willing to take an initiative towards peace and we are still bargaining for people for our political purposes.
It is important that people from both countries interact with each other so that these rumors and misinformation spread by authorities can be countered by a strong civil society movement. There is a dire need to investigate how many prisoners are languishing in both Indian and Pakistan jails and to look into the charge sheets and case files against these people. We must lobby to get people released who do not have any serious charges against them but it is important that both the countries provide exact number of people languishing in their jails.
Sarbjeet’s case and that of Dr Chishti actually points out two important things. That innocent people becomes victim of the age-old prejudices in our minds. In the name of war against terror, the authorities are picking up people without charges. The political parties in both the countries are jingoistic and use such cases as propaganda material for their domestic constituencies. Hence, Dr Chishti’s case was important for the hardcore infringed groups to blame Indian establishment as anti-Muslim and not anti Pakistani; while for BJP and like minded parties, Sarabjeet’s case reflects Pakistan’s dishonesty in dealing with such cases. Every Indian feels he is honest just because he is in Pakistan jail and without any trial. Such sweeping statements and generalization damages the cause of peace in the subcontinent.
It is also important to acknowledge the efforts made by human right activists in both India and Pakistan, for getting these prisoners released. Can anyone ignore the role being played by eminent Pakistan human rights activist Ansar Burney in trying to get justice for Sarabjeet? Similarly, Dr Chishti’s case in the Supreme Court was heard on the petition filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties. The role of media and civil society is very important in bringing people together and raising issues where they are unfairly being victimized by the authorities. Such issues should not be trivialized by the media to raise jingoism and then handed over to groups using them for nurturing further hatred to spread their own political agenda.
The legal fraternity should also help the human right activists in both India and Pakistan to file cases in the courts and get speedy justice to people. India and Pakistan cannot afford to fight all the time to fulfill the agenda of the ruling elite and political groups, desperate to gain power. It is an opportune time when the authorities should settle cases like Sarabjeet’s and others so that we can move ahead with the peace process without feeling guilty of the action of our agencies as well as glorifications of villains as heroes in certain quarters.
Peace is a process and for that the baggage of past prejudices needs to be undone. Music can play a big role in the reconciliation of our hearts and minds. Sports would have been greater but then commercial pressures on sports are turning them as another version of communal fascist political forces spreading jingoism and fanaticism. Small gestures on the part of people will bring peace and justice in India and Pakistan. It is hoped that these gestures will ultimately make us understand the futility of war and hostility between the two nations, unfortunately divided on communal lines and deepening prejudices, stereotyped by mass media and sectarian political outfits and strengthened by the respective governments to suit their own interest.
Continuation of hostilities in the subcontinent would only gladden the hearts of external forces who wants to use our differences to market their weapons as well as capture our market. Let us build peace brick by brick so that there are no Sarabjeet Singhs and Dr Chishti languishing in our jails for the lack of evidence and because of high-headedness of our authorities. We must note that authorities and governments will only bow to a strong public pressure and time has come when media and civil society works towards it so that a stable peace process could be established in the region.
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