An eye for an eye policy has driven both India and Pakistan crazy. These two bitter and hostile neighbours find it easier to catapult their way from one crisis to another than negotiate lasting peace in a rational and sane manner. The prisoners saga, egged on by hysterical anchors and TRP-driven news channels, is perhaps the most telling example of the dangers inherent in this ‘tit for tat’ approach where it dramatically transcends the ‘no visas for us so no visas for you’ approach to outright murder where blood is drawn to appease nationalist sentiments and teach the other a lesson.
The Pakistan authorities were, or should have been, aware of the threats to Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh’s life and given the circumstances should have taken special measures to protect him from harm. Clearly nothing was done and India was perhaps not wrong in insisting that the attack on him by fellow inmates was instigated. He was left in a comatose stage and eventually died without seeing his family who he had yearned to meet for 23 long years.
India of course, took the high moral ground and there was a great deal of talk on television discussion shows about democracy, the rule of law, with comparisons being freely drawn between the two countries. All fell strangely silent when a Pakistani prisoner in Indian jails Sanaullah Khan was attacked in a similar manner, again supposedly by fellow prisoners, and is currently lying in hospital in a coma with little chance of recovery.
Sarabjit, as a section of the print media has reported, was an intelligence operative and as is the normal practice his arrest in Pakistan was virtually ignored by his handlers here. For 23 odd years he was in Pakistani jails, like many other Indian prisoners, ignored and forgotten, except, of course, by his grieving family. Their pleas fell on deaf ears and while there was some movement recently for his release, the Indian authorities played a lukewarm hand on this front.
He sprang into the limelight after the terrible attack on him with television news anchors running the story like no other. In fact all other news was overtaken by Sarabjit, as news channels virtually waged war against Pakistan, aided and supported by right-wing analysts and pro-war worthies of the so called strategic establishment. Within minutes reason fled, and was overtaken by emotion, sentiment, hype all being projected as ‘nationalism’ as anchors urged nuclear India to take retaliatory action against its nuclear neighbour.
New Delhi instead of walking a sober path (as it did really in the recent confrontation with China) moved into the emotional juggernaut, issued veiled threats and after Sarabjit’s death declared the former RAW recruit a national hero and arranged for a state funeral in what was a totally unprecedented move.
Within days, Sanaullah was attacked in an Indian prison, sustained similar head injuries and is currently in a critical condition. He is unlikely to survive the attack and perhaps the only question that remains to be answered is whether Pakistan too will accord him a state funeral. The ghastly attacks might have given additional advertisements to the money-crazy television channels, but they have left large sections of society on both sides of the border aghast.
This silent majority, heard more on the social media than in the mainstream media that has no place for peace and sanity, is now asserting itself in asking where these policies of hate will take both the nuclear armed countries, what cause will these serve, what interests will they fuel.
Perhaps the last is easier to answer, as clearly vested interests of various kinds including right-wing political groups have developed stakes in animosity and conflict, and are reluctant to allow peace to prevail between India and Pakistan. And thus, in their effort to bloody the other’s nose have crossed all limits where human beings have become fodder for sinister games and machinations on both sides. The attack on the two prisoners, leading to the death of one and possibly the other, is a manifestation of a new turn in India Pakistan relations, for the worse of course where human life is discarded as dirt if it belongs to the ‘other.’
Civil rights and peace groups in both India and Pakistan have been asking the two governments to formulate a prisoners policy that looks compassionately at the hundreds of poor fishermen and shepherds who crossed the invisible borders by mistake and are now rotting in the ‘other’s’ prisons. Suggestions of setting up a joint mechanism under eminent persons and human rights experts to oversee quick review and trials of the prisoners have been ignored by both the governments who do share a commonality when it comes to ignoring those committed to peace and progress.
The media, of course, is not interested as these hard recommendations are not as ‘sexy’ as blood and gore, with the result that there is little to no pressure on the rigid governments to usher in a policy that allows innocent prisoners of the other country to go free in record time. In the 24 hour reporting and discussions on the Sarabjit case not a single journalist or his or her guest on the channel suggested the need for a joint mechanism to usher in reforms and some relief for those (many totally innocent) serving time in hostile prisons, fearful of their every hour.
Somewhere, along the way, the governments of India and Pakistan have erected even more barriers as the prisoners saga has demonstrated, to a point where the voices of reason urging peace and rational action are actually dubbed anti-national. Nationalism has become a mix of this strange jingoistic desire for violence, and a rah rah flexing of muscles designed to destroy, certainly not build. Perhaps in this case Albert Camus has the last word when he said, “we used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives — inside ourselves.”
The writer is a senior journalist and author.