When prisoners become numbers
Bhaskar Roy, who retired recently as a senior government official with decades of national and international experience, is an expert on international relations and Indian strategic interests. In this exclusive column for Sify.com, he says IndiaĂ‚Â’s civil society should reach out across the border and bridge the divide between the two countries.
Last SaturdayĂ‚Â’s announcement from Islamabad that Prime Minister Syed Makhdoom Yousaf Raza Gillani had recommended to President Pervez Musharraf the commutation of death sentences of all prisoners to life imprisonment came as an answer to the prayers of two Indians and their families.
Sarabjit Singh, an Indian prisoner on death row in Pakistan, has been in prison for around 14 years now. Whatever be his crime or alleged crime, this one action could be a new watershed in the 60 years bitter and acrimonious Indo-Pak relations.
It is true that the new civilian coalition government in Pakistan, led by the Pakistan PeopleĂ‚Â’s Party (PPP), contributed towards a much better bilateral atmosphere, and that the Indian Foreign Ministry had also put in their own efforts on behalf of Sarabjit.
But to SarabjitĂ‚Â’s family, Ansar Burney is the God that delivered him.
I first met Ansar Burney about nine years ago. The meeting was not at a cocktail party or a formal dinner. If anything, a cocktail party is one venue where you would be least likely to meet Burney. A teetotaler (it has nothing to do with his religion) and a non-smoker, BurneyĂ‚Â’s life is concentrated on the humanitarian treatment of prisoners in jail, and the release of innocents and those who had completed their prison terms.
His special focus: the release of Indian prisons in Pakistani jails, especially fishermen who had drifted across to the Pakistani waters, and innocent villagers who had inadvertently crossed the border into Pakistan.
In most countries in this region, including India and Pakistan, prisoners become numbers and often forgotten.
Image: Former Pakistani caretaker minister for human rights Ansar Burney (R) with Kashmir Singh, an Indian prisoner who was arrested in 1973 and handed a death sentence by a military court, at the Central Jail in Lahore on February 26, 2008. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Singh who had spent 35 years in jail on death row on espionage charges. (Copyright AFP. Any unauthorised reproduction is prohibited)