Sarabjit's death: India has no right to outrage

Last Updated: Tue, May 07, 2013 09:43 hrs

Sarabjit Singh, an Indian national convicted by the Pakistan judicial system for instigating bomb blasts in Lahore killing multiple innocent Pakistani civilians, died in a Pakistani jail recently. More accurately, he was killed in a Pakistani jail - strongly believed to have been the handiwork of other prison inmates. The States of India and Pakistan have for long been engaged in how to handle Sarabjit Singh's future -the options ranged from extraditing him to India, to granting him pardon to executing a death sentence.

The Indian middle class is outraged. Many speak of the Pakistani state having planned his killing in jail to send a signal. Others accuse the parallel rule of jail law that prevails inside prisons worldwide (even a well-discounted reading of Jeffrey Archer's prison diaries in and around London would demonstrate this universal reality). Some others point fingers at the failure of the Indian state to protect an Indian national "falsely convicted" by Pakistan in Pakistan.

While moral outrage is indeed well deserved here, it is quite true that most of those outraged felt no outrage when Afzal Guru was hurriedly hung to death with Presidential pardon being denied in the stealth of the night. Even the basic decency expected of any civil society such as the handing over the convict's corpse to the next of kin was absent.

Guru was an Indian national who had been convicted of masterminding an attack on the Indian Parliament by the Indian judicial system, and had claimed to have often worked as a double agent for the Indian military intelligence.

Custodial deaths are quite common in India, too. Quite recently, the accused in the notorious Delhi rape case was found dead in Tihar Jail. Long ago, even the high-and-mighty Rajan Pillai died in custody, just the way rich Russians commit suicide or die in prisons today.

Indeed, Pakistani inmates in Indian jails come in for seriously rough treatment in Indian prisons. Some have died in jail while others, like Ajmal Kasab, who was convicted in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, had to be given seriously high profile security to ensure that they are kept alive. Indeed the United States protected David Headley, an American terrorist who is alleged to have participated in planning many a terror attack in India and kept him safe by frustrating India's attempts to bring him to Indian shores.

Where does the truth lie? In the opinion of this column, it lies in feeling outrage regardless of who is the recipient of unlawful and unjust treatment.

When one argues in favour of murdering Kasab without giving him the decency of a trial, or in favour of hanging Guru overnight and burying his body without even intimating his next of kin, one loses the right to argue against the gruesome killing of Singh in a Pakistani jail.

If Guru having been a convict in an attack of Parliament justifies the way his life was handled by the Indian State, the moral outrage in the case of Singh's killing in jail gets blunted by reason of his having been convicted for bomb blasts and mass killing in Lahore.

John Kennedy is reported to have said: "Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forbears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." The business regulatory environment is going down the same path in India. Broad approximations of truth (a polite phrase for conjecture that satisfies society's "collective conscience" hold the field not only in enforcement but also with law-making.

Lawmakers pass legislation without even reading drafts, or contributing to much debate. The long-pending Companies Bill was recently passed by the Lok Sabha in minutes with little debate about the serious charge of excessive delegation, just in the comfort that the Bill had been reviewed by Parliamentary sub-committees over time, with no regard to the serious risk of the law being struck down by courts after tortuous expenditure of time and resources in getting the legislation made.

Likewise, dogma and petty turf wars may dominate the debate about the draft Indian Financial Code, even while large parts of it are essentially rules of good conduct and behaviour that regulators should subject themselves to. (Disclosure: this author was actively involved in the preparation of this draft law.)

Similarly, various seemingly well-intentioned but fundamentally-flawed and systemically-harmful regulatory measures in the financial sector are being bull-dozed through the market system taking comfort from findings in the courts of public opinion, eschewing the discomfort of deep thought and meditation on underlying issues.

Most walks of regulatory oversight have become an arena of asking the question: "Are you with the good guys or the bad guys?"

An interesting anecdote in a book -Going to Tehran, by American middle-East analysts Flynt and Hillary Leverett - is an invaluable pointer to the quality of current discourse in policy matters.

Expatriate Irani journalist Amir Taheri, who is said to be a favourite with audiences like fans of Fox News, reported in 2006 in Canada's National Post that the Iranian Parliament had passed a law requiring Jews in Iran to pin strips of yellow cloth to their clothing to identify themselves. This claim had been entirely manufactured.

The National Post had to publicly apologise. Taheri's publicist is said to have defended the falsehood thus: "As much as being accurate is important, in the end, what's important is to side with what's right. What's wrong is siding with the terrorists."

Easy for a journalist to say, deplorable for a policy-maker to adopt.

The author is a partner of JSA, Advocates & Solicitors. The views expressed herein are his own. You can reach the author here:

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