Saadat Hasan Manto should have been around to chronicle the latest tragedy in India-Pakistan relations. Ordinary mortals can’t really capture the inherent capabilities of the two sides to spite each other. You need a Manto.

Just when you think that the two countries couldn’t sink any lower, they pull off a surprise. Defenseless prisoners, sitting ducks in Indian and Pakistani jails, are the new frontier in the never-ending “war” between the two countries.

The murderous attacks on Sarabjit Singh (Indian prisoner in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail) and Sanaullah Haq (Pakistani prisoner in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal jail) were despicable acts perpetrated by people whose humanity quotient isn’t really there to be measured.

Sarabjit is dead and Sanaullah critical.

But is this about the two of them? Or is it about national egos aroused by base television channels and newspapers? Does anyone really care about poor Indians and Pakistanis living in prisons in their own countries, who are probably being bashed up and tortured even as you read this?

Our prison systems must compete for the bottom slot. Our jailers and guards must compete in being negligent, brutal and corrupt. So, the question needs to be asked. Again and again: what is this really about?

In the case of Sarabjit Singh, his sister Dalbir Kaur must get the credit for making her brother’s incarceration an issue in India. She lobbied politicians and governments and fought long and hard for justice.

Her comments about a top Pakistani leader being involved in her brother’s brutal murder are out of order. But, do read what the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had to say about Sarabjit’s death:

Not even the most naïve person can believe that a prisoner like Sarabjit in a death cell inside a jail can be targeted in such a brutal assault by prisoners without the knowledge and support of prison guards and the authorities…It was no secret that Sarabjit faced more threats than other prisoners on account of the charge that he was convicted of and yet his security was so completely compromised…Those in Pakistan who take pride in their vengefulness must feel some shame today, if they are capable of that. Those elements in India who are no less vengeful, intolerant and fond of jingoism than their Pakistani counterparts would no doubt write their own script now.

In the din of madness, one can only be thankful for groups like the HRCP, who are brave and courageous to speak the truth.

In India, Sarabjit’s death was an occasion for Pakistan-bashing. The media, exceptions honourable as ever, went ballistic. The contours of the new frontier were bared in graphic form.

And, the Indian government – both at the Centre and the State succumbed.

It’s possible that Sarabjit’s case was that of mistaken identity. It’s also possible that he did whatever the Pakistani State charged him with – setting off bombs that killed 14 persons in 1990. It’s also possible that he worked for an Indian intelligence agency.

We will never know the truth. Other than saying that Sarabjit wasn’t guilty of the crimes he committed, Delhi hasn’t said anything about him.

But in death, Sarabjit received a state funeral from the (Indian) Punjab government headed by the Akali Dal. His family, the Centre announced, would receive cash compensation.

The Akal Dal attacked the Congress party for letting Sarabjit die in jail, the Congress defended its record and politicians of all hues were present at Sarabjit’s funeral. As election time approaches, the two Akalis and the Congress will use the Sarabjit case against each other.

And, as most commentators on television went for Pakistan after Sarabjit’s death, few spared a thought for the many Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails. What message was the hysterical coverage sending out to other jail inmates? What’s another murder when you are already convicted for another? Or you are on death row?

Just as the Pakistani state and jail authorities failed to protect Sarabjit, the Indian state and jail authorities failed to protect Sanaullah. To my mind, both failures are equally reprehensible. Let’s not weigh them on our nationalist scales.

Sanaullah is in a critical condition, let’s pray he survives. But Sarabjit is gone.

One can only hope and pray that no other prisoner in either India or Pakistan meets their fate. But, as we know, neither country is really interested in the welfare of their own poor citizens – inside or outside jails.

So nationals of the “enemy other” don’t have much hope, do they?

Earlier, there were just allowed to languish in jails, now they are targets for attack. ————————————————————————————————————————————————

Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.

———————————————————————————————————————————————— The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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