Sarabjit Singh has been sentenced to death and his sentence has been upheld by Pakistan's Supreme Court. Sarabjit has been convicted for carrying out bomb attacks in Pakistan. According to the Pakistanis, Sarabjit is an Indian spy. Sarabjit, on the other hand, claims that he is just a villager who strayed across the border after having had one too many. In the world of espionage, if a diplomat is caught spying, s/he is expelled. Diplomatic immunity is something which non-diplomat spies have. If caught, they are usually disowned and left to their own fate.
There are exceptions of course. Jonathan Pollard was a Jewish man working as an analyst for the American Naval intelligence. Caught spying for Israel, he was sentenced for life and continues to be in prison in the United States. For many years, Israel denied all official ties to him, though Pollard managed to get Israeli citizenship while in prison. However, the High Court of Israel ordered the Israeli government to admit that Pollard was its agent. Ever since then, the Israeli government has been trying to free Pollard, but the US has refused to let him go. Israeli has always done more than most other countries in getting in nationals back home. At present it is bargaining with Hamas over a deal that will see the release of almost a thousand Hamas militants for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Pollard is apparently not very happy with this, but then you can’t please everyone.
Even if India doesn’t concede that Kasab was spying for India, there is no denying that he is an Indian national and nothing prevents India from doing more to get him home. The traditional (and generally speaking, the only way) of obtaining the release of someone in Sarabjit’s position is to exchange him for someone else. India has a mixed record in exchanging prisoners for its people held in custody elsewhere. When Rubaiya Sayeed (daughter of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, India’s first Muslim Home Minister in the V.P. Singh government) was kidnapped by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, India released five militants to secure her release, despite the objections of Farooq Abdullah’s state government. Years later, a BJP led government released three top militants so that the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane taken to Kandahar would let their hostages go. One of the militants released was Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad. However, India hasn’t been able to secure the release of PoWs from the 1971 war who are reportedly still held in Pakistani jails.
I want to see Sarabjit released and sent home to India. I don’t know if he was a spy or just a villager who got drunk and lost his way. The Indian government has made various appeals for his release, but can’t it do more I wonder. Is there any Pakistani national in an Indian jail, one held to be a spy by India and renounced by Pakistan, who can be exchanged for Sarabjit? I don’t know. However, I know that India has custody of a Pakistani national who goes by the name Mohammed Ajmal Amīr Kasāb. Kasab is currently undergoing trial in India for having taken part in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Caught on CCTV, the case against Kasab appears to be an open and shut case and a death sentence seems to be very likely. After initial denials, the Pakistani government has conceded that Kasab is a Pakistani national, but it maintains that no Pakistani agency was involved in the planning or execution of the Mumbai attacks last year.
What would be the reaction if the Indian government offers to exchange Kasab for Sarabjit? The Pakistani government is likely to refuse. Sarabjit the official Indian spy has nothing to do with Kasab the Pakistani freelancer who fought for an Islamic militant organisation which is at war with Pakistan at the moment, Pakistan is likely to say. Kasab himself might not want to be exchanged for Sarabjit. However, just as there are many Indians who would like to see Sarabjit return home, there could be many Pakistanis who like the idea of exchanging Kasab for Sarabjit. Kasab was a pawn in a larger game. I don’t doubt for a moment that he is guilty as charged and deserves no leniency. However, if by giving him up, India could secure Sarabjit’s release, it should, in my opinion, do so immediately without wasting a moment.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Sarabjit is due to be executed soon. There are still a few good people working for his release. If you were to lend your support to his cause, he might still make it home.