Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Prisoners of prejudices
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

India and Pakistan have not been able to reconcile with the fact that they came into being nearly six decade ago and it is time to move ahead with peace and reconciliation. It is also a fact that you can change everything but very difficult to decide about your neighbors. Hence making good relations with each other is the only option. Even if the governments 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 the 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 the one who is caught in Pakistan is a RAW agent. They are paraded on their TV channels and embedded journalists’ sale their stories like hot cakes. We also must understand that spying has been a business with most of the powers in the world and hence it is natural when people are caught they are charged with being agents of each others. Unfortunately, such cases in India and Pakistan are not really dealt on a priority basis and taken to a logical conclusion. Even when somebody is caught on a ‘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 and people should be left in exchange of the others.

Some 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 as he was in India to see his ailing mother. One does not know what do we get by keeping an 80 years old man in the prison for murder charges that he did not do. It is not the 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 Pakistani jail.

But the most celebrated prisoner in Pakistani jail is Sarbjeet Singh who was arrested for alleged bombing in a Pakistan city. Police could not frame charges against him and look mistaken identity as suggested by his family and lawyers. The police produced him as Manjeet Singh but ultimately he turned out to be Sarbjeet Singh. Now, the issue is if he has not got fair trial in the Jail, why was he being kept there? It is astonishing how prisoners could be allowed for more than 20 years in jail for petty crimes or no crimes without facing fair trails. When Pakistani president Asif Ali Zaradi was here on his famous Ajmer visit, Sarabjeet’s relatives tried to meet him in Ajmer though they were not given opportunity to do so but media had already raised the issue. At the highest level of talk this issue had come up and it seems that Pakistani government had promised to look into the matter. In fact, the Indian rights activists also asked the President to use his pardoning powers to get Sarabjeet released but that did not happen.

Indian media raised the hype during Zardari’s visit but nothing materialized but Pakistani authorities had promised indirectly that it would be a give and take release. It is unfortunate that no one from India or Pakistan is willing to take initiative towards peace and we are still bargaining people for our political purposes.

It is important that people to people contact be increased so that these falsehoods being spread by the authorities in both the countries could be countered by a strong civil society movement. There is a dire need to find how many prisoners are languishing in both India and Pakistan and to look into the charge sheets and case files against these people. We must lobby to get people released who do not have serious charges against them but it is important that both the countries need to provide exact numbers of people languishing in their jails.

Sarbjeet’s case and that of Dr Chishti actually point out two important things. That innocent people will become victim of the age old prejudices in our minds. Now, 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 used such cases to use as propaganda material for their domestic constituencies. Hence Dr Chishti’s case was important for the hard core infringe groups to blame Indian establishment as anti Muslim and not anti Pakistani while for BJP and like minded parties Sarabjeet’s case reflect Pakistan’s dishonesty in dealing with the case. Every Indian feel he is honest just because he is in Pakistan jail and without any trial. Such sweeping statements and generalizations damage the cause of peace in the subcontinent. It is also important to salute to human rights activists in both India and Pakistan working for the release of these prisoners. 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 raise the issue where they are unfairly being victimized by the authorities. Such issues should not be trivialized by the media to raise jingoism and then handover to groups which will be using them for nurturing further hatred to spread their own political agenda. The legal fraternity should also help the human rights activists in both India and Pakistan to file cases in the courts and get speedy justice to the 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 opportune time when the authorities should settle cases of Sarabjeet and others like him so that we can move ahead with 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 the past prejudices need to be undone and that is why 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. Certain small gestures on parts of people will bring peace and justice in India and Pakistan. It is hoped that these gestures will ultimately make us understand 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 want 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 evidences and because of highhandedness 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 have to work for it so that a stable peace could be established in the region.

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