After 23 years in Pak jail, Sarabjit returns amid tears and anger

The Times Of India

After 23 years in Pak jail, Sarabjit returns amid tears and anger
The death of Sarabjit Singh led to countrywide fury against Pakistan on Thursday.
LAHORE/NEW DELHI/AMRITSAR: Sarabjit Singh’s death sparked a countrywide fury against Pakistan on Thursday, dealing a heavy blow to the prospects of normalization of ties with the estranged neighbour in the near run, while exposing the government to a fresh round of attacks for following a “weak” foreign policy.

Even as Sarabjit was virtually proclaimed a martyr with Punjab government deciding to accord him a funeral with “full state honours and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declaring him a “brave son of India”, anger against Pakistan spiked with slogans of “Pakistan hai hai (down with Pakistan) reverberating in both Houses of Parliament.

Both Houses observed silence and passed resolutions mourning Sarabjit’s death in Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital in the early hours of Thursday, at once propelling him into the pantheon of patriots.

A resident of Bhikiwind village in Amritsar who was on death row for allegedly killing Pakistani citizens in a bomb attack, Sarabjit succumbed to serious injuries he had suffered when he was attacked in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail by fellow prisoners. The brutal attack on a death convict expected to be living in complete isolation smacked of connivance of Pakistani authorities.

While this had already fueled an outrage, that the Pakistani authorities did not consult India before taking him off the life support system contributed to the outpouring of anger. Foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin was unusually direct when he commented on the conduct of Pakistani authorities. “We wanted Sarabjit to live for as long as possible. We never were consulted about removing Sarabjit’s life support system,” he said.

Conspiracy theories were rife, with few believing Pakistan government’s account that the prisoner died of cardiac arrest. Punjab government ordered a second post-mortem after the body was brought by a special plane to Amritsar. The cremation is scheduled for 2 pm on Friday.

The depth of resentment was vividly reflected by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who, in a sharp turn from his push for better bilateral ties, contributed to the groundswell against the Pakistani authorities by pointing out that they had cold shouldered impassioned pleas for Sarabjit’s release on humanitarian grounds.

“It is particularly regrettable that the government of Pakistan did not heed the pleas of the government of India, Sarabjit’s family and of civil society,” the PM said even as his government came under attack for failing to secure the prisoner’s release.

Singh also lavished praise on Sarabjit who, according to his family members, had accidentally strayed into Pakistan and become a victim of a frame-up by Pakistani authorities. “I am deeply shocked by the passing away of Sarabjit Singh. He was a brave son of India who bore his tribulations with valiant fortitude,” Singh said.

Saying the nation shared the profound grief of Sarabjit’s family, he added, “May his soul be granted the peace he could not get in life.”

Singh’s generous tribute was part of a larger process of the canonization of Sarabjit, a dalit from Amritsar, that seemed to be fully underway, with the Akali government in Punjab furiously matching the Congress-led Centre’s efforts to champion the sentiment. As the Centre showed rare vigour to dispatch an Air India plane to bring Sarabjit’s body to Amritsar, Punjab government, besides deciding to give him a “state funeral”, also announced jobs for his two daughters. An assistance of Rs 1 crore was also announced for the family.

However, the uniform solidarity for Sarabjit failed to put a stop to partisan finger-pointing, with Gujarat CM Narendra Modi accusing both Indian and Pakistani governments of “misleading people” on Sarabjit’s case. He accused Pakistan of having carried out “extra-judicial killing”, and stressed that the neighbour could not be trusted.

“Sarabjit’s extra-judicial killing is yet another grim reminder that expecting Pakistan to follow due process of law in any sphere is futile,” Modi posted on Twitter even as he accused the Centre of being unable to give a strong answer to Pakistan’s “inhuman acts”.

His party chief Rajnath Singh asked for the recall of the Indian high commissioner in Pakistan and scaling down of diplomatic ties, while leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj termed the death a “cold blooded murder”.

The Akalis, who were already attacking Congress for the acquittal of 1984 anti-Sikh riots accused Sajjan Kumar, kept up the pressure, with both chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his daughter in-law Harsimrat Kaur attacking the government for failing to be tough with Pakistan over Sarabjit.

The bickering, however, only added to Sarabjit’s new-found status as a braveheart and a patriot who was killed by Pakistan on trumped up charges. TV channels ceaselessly showed Sarabjit’s elder sister Dalbir Kaur swaying their audience with her attacks on Pakistan, tugging at the heart strings of many. Sarabjit towered over everybody else as a star cast of politicians competed to serenade him as a patriot. The unfortunate dalit from Bhikiwind village had become the latest symbol of what many saw as Pakistan’s hostility and duplicity.


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