KARACHI: While the release of Dr Khalil Chishti by the Indian Supreme Court on Monday on an interim bail following this weekend visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to India is being considered as a small but positive step towards the normalisation of relations between the two neighbouring nuclear powers, it has once again raised hopes of his family, friends and students that he will soon be with them.
“We have been waiting for his return for the past 20 years,” says Dr Tariqa, one of Dr Chishti’s four daughters, while speaking to Dawn at her residence in North Nazimabad.
Dr Chishti, Pakistan’s first virologist, had gone to India in 1992 to see his ailing mother where he was implicated in a murder case. After an 18-year-long trial, the octogenarian professor was awarded life imprisonment and sent to the Ajmer jail in January last year. Since then, he has been in a hospital due to his deteriorating health though Dr Tariqa speaks well of Indian officials and says her father is being provided good care.
“My mother with some relatives recently met him. We have no doubts that his condition was satisfactory,” she says while acknowledging the support extended to him by the Indian media and people.
Recalling the arrest and judicial custody of her father, she says Dr Chishti had got bail after spending a couple of months in jail. He spent most of the time during the decades-long trial at a family farm house in the suburbs of Rajasthan’s Ajmer city. “His movement was restricted to Ajmer city, but he was never under house arrest nor did he spend the entire period in jail,” says Dr Tariqa while clarifying some media reports to the contrary.
“In the initial months, we didn’t know what exactly had happened to him until we received father’s letter through someone. Running a house and looking after children’s needs in my father’s absence was indeed a very difficult time for my mother though relatives did extend some support,” she recalls.
Yet the family was fortunate in that all the siblings had completed their studies and were about to pursue their careers while her elder brother was already working in Saudi Arabia at that time, she says while recalling how they bore her father’s arrest.
With all her four sisters and a brother now well settled, Dr Tariqa feels that her mother, though not very educated, had successfully managed the affairs and also arranged the marriage of her two daughters in her father’s absence.
“When my two sisters were getting married we sent an application to the Indian authorities to let our father attend the event. But he was not allowed to travel to Pakistan even then,” she adds.
The family has remained in contact with Dr Chishti on the telephone though the communication has not so been frequent since he had been sent to the jail.
Dr Chishti suffered two heart attacks and a hip fracture during his trial. He is unable to walk unaided now, while his ailing mother for whom he had gone to India died 10 to 15 years ago. His wife, Mehrunnisa, has lost her hearing that doctors partly blame on the agonies she has suffered.
“But you can’t imagine the courage my both parents have shown. My father has become very weak but mentally he is very strong. He told my brother-in-law during a recent visit that he was okay and he would fight till his return to Pakistan,” says Dr Tariqa.
Dr Chishti’s students Prof Dr Shahana Urooj Kazmi and Prof Dr Nusrat Jamil both are Karachi University faculty members taught by Dr Chishti.
They speak very high of Dr Chishti as a teacher and scientific researcher and demand that the Indian authorities release him on humanitarian grounds.
The university had launched a campaign last year for his release.
Dr Kazmi, who has served Karachi University as a pro-vice chancellor, says: “He was Pakistan’s first virologist and had received his PhD in Public Health Virology from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1968.
“He set up a virology lab on the campus and later a diagnostic lab near his residence. But the latter couldn’t be run successfully. I was among the last batch of students who were taught by him in 1972,” she recalls, adding that Dr Chishti also had the opportunity to teach in other countries.
Reminiscing about the days when Dr Chishti taught at the university, Dr Jamil, who is currently the dean of the faculty of science, says: “Dr Chishti used to be so absorbed in his work that he sometimes forgot to notice what was happening about him. I remember once he picked up a duster, instead of his handkerchief, from a table and wiped the sweat from his face.
That left the whole class laughing.”