Kashmir comes home, bringing hope for other prisoners

March 5th, 2008 - 1:18 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf
By Jaideep Sarin
Amritsar, March 5 (IANS) When the gates of the Attari-Wagah border checkpost parted and Kashmir Singh walked in after spending 35 years in a Pakistani jail, it opened up not just a fresh chapter in goodwill but also new hope for the hundreds of others marking time in the prisons of the two countries. That the man who was labelled a spy and sentenced to death in Pakistan 35 years ago is called Kashmir is, of course, coincidence. But when he came home Tuesday after being spotted by Pakistan’s caretaker minister for human rights Ansar Burney and pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf, he epitomised so much more than the story of one individual. Or a new high in India-Pakistan ties.

For the families of many others trapped unforgotten for decades in the two countries, it opened up new vistas.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson Muhammad Sadiq said last week in Islamabad that 500 Indian prisoners were still in Pakistani jails while 450 Pakistanis were in Indian jails.

India too acknowledges almost a similar number of prisoners though human rights activists say that the figure could be nearly 2,000 prisoners on both sides.

The most prominent case back on the front-burner is that of Sarabjit Singh from the Indian Punjab’s Tarn Taran region who was arrested in Pakistan in 1990 and has been condemned to death after being accused of bombings and terrorist activities in that country.

His sister Dalbir Kaur, who has been pursuing the campaign to get him released, says he is innocent and had inadvertently crossed the border. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had spoken to Musharraf last year to get Sarabjit, called Manjit Singh in Pakistan, released.

Kashmir Singh on his return to India also said there were hundreds of Indian prisoners and the government should make efforts to get them released.

As Kashmir Singh came home, another Indian national has written to Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan with an impassioned appeal that India must own up to “spies” like him who have been languishing in prisons across the border for decades.

Gopal Dass, who was arrested by Pakistani forces on July 27, 1984, and claims to be an Indian spy, sent his letter from the Mianwali Jail in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Dass says the Indian government has virtually forgotten nearly 200 prisoners like him and goes on to detail the plight of four other prisoners, including Kashmir Singh.

The letter forms the basis of the Supreme Court on Feb 18 asking for the government’s response on the plea.

Implicating both India and Pakistan, Dass asks: “How can Indian and Pakistani ministers say that they do not indulge in espionage against each other?”

Human rights activists say that both countries are still not according priority to prisoners on both sides and continue to hide numbers.

“Both governments have never revealed the actual number of prisoners for reasons best known to them. Even after prisoners are identified, getting them released is not an easy task,” pointed out human rights lawyer Ranjan Lakhanpal, who has been actively pursuing the cases of over 250 prisoners from both countries.

Kashmir Singh’s case was one of those being pursued.

“I have been trying to free prisoners from both sides of the border and one thing I have noticed is that (both) governments don’t pay the required attention. In fact, at times they seem to be least bothered about the sufferings of these people and their agonised families.”

The nuclear powers that have fought three wars since 1947 have moved since 2003 when bonhomie between both sides built up.

Pakistan has released 2,657 Indian prisoners since 2003 till February-end this year while India released 827 Pakistani prisoners.

But so much more still needs to be done — Kashmir Singh and Gopal Dass are just two examples.

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