The cameras are gone, the fervor has abated. Finally, there’s space to ask an uncomfortable question: why was India’s reaction to Sarabjit Singh’s death reduced to such an indiscriminating pantomime? As news speeds faster, more frantic and furious with every passing day, every breaking headline suggesting the nation is on the edge of cataclysmic disaster, perhaps the best time to draw lessons of reason is always a week later.
The brutal attack on Sarabjit, incarcerated on death row in a Pakistani jail, was certainly condemnable and tragic. But the media and political establishment’s response was utterly bewildering. Sarabjit was wrapped in the tricolor, given a 21-gun salute, and declared a national martyr. The Punjab Assembly announced three days of state mourning. The PM called him a “brave son of India”. The BJP slammed the government for its “diplomatic failure in not ensuring his safety” and the Congress and the Akali Dal literally squabbled to honour his body. One Air India flight and two ambulances went to receive him; several high-security convoys banged into each other in narrow village lanes. And one TV channel, in particular, demanded on the hour, every hour, that India make Pakistan apologise.
Let it be reiterated again: the clobbering of Sarabjit in a Pakistan jail was indeed a matter for strong condemnation. All countries must demand — and have a right to demand — that their citizens be treated humanely on foreign soil. Sarabjit’s murder by fellow inmates was inhuman. India should certainly have made its censure unequivocally clear. But what is embarrassing is the hypocritical mythologising that has followed.
There are two narratives around Sarabjit. According to the first, he was a low-ranking Indian spy sent across the border to gather information. Pakistan believes he was also involved in two terror blasts in 1990 that killed 14 people. Sarabjit was convicted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court for this and sentenced to death. His involvement in the blasts will remain a matter of conjecture, but off-record, intelligence officers have confirmed he was a spy.
Officially, both India and Sarabjit’s family claims all of this is a lie, a case of mistaken identity, and that he was merely a farmer who had strayed across the border because he was drunk.
Both these narratives are vastly different, but how do either of them make him a martyr? By definition, a martyr is someone who suffers persecution — even death — but refuses to renounce his beliefs. If Sarabjit was a spy, he clearly didn’t think twice before denying his identity or pleading for mercy when he was arrested. This precludes him being called a martyr. If he really was involved in a terror attack that claimed innocent lives, we should cringe at claiming him as one. And if, as his family claims, he was just a farmer who bumbled across the border, it makes his 22 years spent in jail a colossal mistake and a human tragedy, but how does his alcoholic haze make him a national hero deserving of the tricolor?
The hysteria and doublespeak around Sarabjit’s death is proof of how cynical a nation we have become. Imagine a reverse situation. How would we react if someone Indian deemed to be a Pakistani terrorist, someone our Supreme Court had convicted as a terrorist, had been honoured in Pakistan with gun salutes and declared a subject of national mourning? In what terms would we have described that Pakistani reaction?
Tellingly, within a day of Sarabjit’s death, a Pakistani prisoner called Sanaullah Ranjay was brutally attacked in a retaliatory assault by an Indian prisoner at a jail in Jammu. (The prisoner has since died) Indian commentators who had been calling the attack on Sarabjit “barbaric” failed to show the same outrage for Sanaullah. Of course, there’s no clamour in India to send him to Pakistan on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
Why have we left such little place for self-reflection? Sarabjit’s life had many lessons: we seem to have taken none of them. If reports are true, there are scores of lowly spies risking life and liberty for country, who are cynically abandoned by the agencies if they are caught. There is no policy to compensate their families (even covertly); and, often, there is no interest in helping them get out.
As for custodial deaths? The latest unpublished NHRC data lists 4,285 custodial deaths in India in the past three years. This staggering figure does not include cases of torture. Nor the thousands of people languishing in our own jails for more than 22 years.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan needs many catechisms. But surely we should be in a position to read it to them.