New Delhi/Lahore: Indian death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh died in a Pakistan hospital early Thursday, succumbing to his injuries six days after being attacked by his fellow inmates in jail and pushing the fraught India-Pakistan equation to a new low.
At 12.45 a.m. Pakistan time (1.15 a.m. IST), Lahore's Jinnah hospital announced that Sarabjit was dead, bringing an end to a 23-year saga that began on a fateful August day in 1990 when he crossed over to Pakistan.
While Pakistan declared him a terrorist and convicted him for blasts in Lahore and Multan that left 14 dead, his family claimed that the devoted brother, husband and father from a poor rural family in Punjab had crossed over in an inebriated state when he was just 26.
Most of the years since were spent in anonymity but in death Sarabjit -- who had been brutally assaulted with bricks and plates in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail April 26 and had slipped into a deep coma - became the latest bone of contention between the troubled neighbours.
India's ministry of external affairs did not mince its words either and said Sarabjit's death was "put simply, the killing of our citizen while in the custody of Pakistan jail authorities".
From Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leaders across the political spectrum expressed their deep anguish at the untimely death of the 49-year-old.
"I am deeply saddened by the passing away of Sarabjit Singh. He was a brave son of India who bore his tribulations with valiant fortitude," the prime minister said.
In a strongly worded statement, he said: "It is particularly regrettable that the government of Pakistan did not heed the pleas of the government of India, Sarabjit's family and of civil society in India and Pakistan to take a humanitarian view of this case."
As a string of VIPs, including Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, went to pay their condolences to Sarabjit's sister Dalbir Kaur, the BJP upped the ante and demanded that diplomatic relations with Pakistan be scaled down.
"The level of diplomatic relations should be scaled down and for the time being Indian high commissioner to Pakistan should be called back," BJP president Rajnath Singh said.
Attacking the government on the emotive issue, others spoke out too, including Trinamool Congress' Mamata Banerjee who said: "This is the result of bad handling of the case."
But Dalbir Kaur, Sarabjit's doughty sister who waged a long and hard battle to highlight her brother's case, asked all political parties to come together and strengthen the government's hands.
"He was martyred for India. (Pakistan President Asif Ali) Zardari killed him because of elections," Dalbir Kaur told reporters here.
She said: "The entire country should come together. I appeal to all parties to strengthen the hands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde."
Dalbir Kaur, who along with Sarabjit's wife and daughters returned from Pakistan Wednesday claiming they were not being given information on his condition, claimed Sarabjit had written to her that Pakistani authorities had asked him to undergo training in terror camps.
The post-mortem will be conducted Thursday morning, said Sarabjit's lawyer in Pakistan Awais Shiekh.
The body would be handed over to the Indian High Commission at the earliest, said the Pakistan foreign ministry. The government of Pakistan Punjab also ordered a judicial probe.
The body will be flown home in a special Indian aircraft.
Back home, his hometown of Bhikiwind, about 280 km from the Punjab capital Chandigarh, virtually shut down in grief. Some residents also gathered outside the local gurdwara and protested against Pakistan.
The Punjab government has offered jobs to Sarabjit's daughters and Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal said he would be given a state-level funeral.
Scant consolation for his family. On April 30, 2009, Sarabjit was scheduled to face the gallows but his hanging was postponed indefinitely. Four years and two days later, he died in Pakistan - and not from the noose.