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Don't leave spies out in the cold

Sarabjit Singh has been in Lahore’s notorious Kot Lakhpat jail since 1991, when he was convicted and sentenced to death for carrying out a series of bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad resulting in the deaths of 14 people. His family believes that he strayed across the border inadvertently. But instead of being charged with illegally crossing the border, he found himself charged with carrying out the bomb attacks. He was accused of being Manjit Singh and tried under the Pakistan Army Act and received the death sentence which was upheld by the High Court and the Supreme Court subsequently.


Not a spy: At first sight, it would appear that Sarabjit Singh’s case, which dates to 1990, may fall in the category of Indian involvement. But other evidence suggests the case against him is weak

But there have been reasons to believe that his was a case of mistaken identity. Shaukat Saleem who was a witness in his case, retracted his statement. Saleem’s father and brother had been killed in one of the attacks. Pakistani human rights activist, Ansar Burney who has been seeking clemency for Singh, says that none of the four FIRs provide Sarabjit’s name or description. The bottom line is that had Singh been really guilty, the Pakistanis would not have hesitated to hang him, just as we hanged Qasab, because of the heinous nature of the crime he is accused of. Instead he has been rotting in jail for 22 years, even as efforts have been made to get a pardon for him. But the idea of a pardon for an Indian convicted of terrorism is anathema for many Pakistanis which usually finds that the boot is on the other foot where terrorism and involvement of its nationals in terrorism is concerned.

Railroading people for charges, even as serious as terrorism, is not unusual. Lamentably in India as well we have seen too many instances where the police has caught innocent people and the lower judiciary has convicted them all too easily. Fortunately, in India, the higher judiciary is a bit more discriminating. It is for this reason that Professor SAR Gilani and Afsan Guru, who were convicted for the Parliament House attack were acquitted by the High Court.

When it comes to terrorism, Pakistan has a giant guilty conscience with regard to India. Pakistani official finger prints are all too visible in a number of terrorist attacks — the Bombay blasts of 1993, the car bomb at the Indian Embassy in Kabul of July 2008, the Mumbai attack of November 26, 2008 are just the more prominent ones. So, they have found it useful to try and create what can only be called some “immoral equivalence” in claiming that Indians have been involved in terrorist activity in their country.

There are reasons to believe that between 1988-1990 some tit-for-tat attacks were carried out by Indian agents in Pakistan. But in 1991, the then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar banned all such activity and there is no evidence whatsoever of any Indian involvement in terrorist attacks in Pakistan thereafter.

This is despite an intensification of Pakistan-backed terrorist strikes against India in this period. At first sight, it would appear that Sarabjit Singh’s case which dates to 1990 may fall in the category of Indian involvement. But other evidence has shown that the case against him is weak.

Both India and Pakistan conduct espionage against each other. In the main, this is not done through high-level agents as was the case in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. In the India-Pakistan competition, the cannon fodder are usually residents of border areas who may be small time smugglers and criminals who get blackmailed into carrying out low level spying such as keeping an eye on military formations and air bases and so on.

When caught, they are usually tortured and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Their home country usually abandons them to their fate. India and Pakistan should now introduce a new Confidence Building Measure, which is to give succour to these hapless people. This can be done through a process of spy swaps as was the case between the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. We cannot expect terrorists to fall into this category, but the intelligence agencies on both sides know easily enough as to who the spies are and who are the terrorists.

Sadly, the record of our authorities in dealing with our spies is shoddy. More than a decade ago, one Roop Lal Saharia surfaced after spending two decades in a Pakistani jail, in 2008, Kashmir Singh came back from a Pakistani jail after 35 years. More recently, in 2012, Surjeet Singh who had been imprisoned since the mid 1980s was released from a Pakistani jail. All three were involved in spying for India, but there is no evidence that the government agencies bothered to look after their families after they were arrested. This does not behove of a country that sees itself as a big power. It actually reveals the cynical and cruel attitude of our intelligence bureaucracies who treat these people as cannon fodder.

Spying, as has been often said, is mankind’s second oldest profession. It is not a pleasant one. But there is need to deal with it in a humane and just manner.  

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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