Attari (Punjab): After more than 30 years of incarceration in Pakistan, Surjeet Singh returned home Thursday to a tumultuous and teary welcome from family and friends and promptly admitted that he had indeed been sent to spy for India.
Held in Pakistan on spying charges in the early 1980s, Surjeet, 69, was released from Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail early Thursday and made the road journey to Wagah, on the Pakistan side of the border, before entering his homeland.
"I was a RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent. No one bothered about me after I got arrested. Don't ask me too much...," Surjeet told reporters soon after stepping on Indian soil.
He was garlanded and hugged by family members and fellow villagers from Phidde in Ferozepur district. Dozens of camera crews and media persons jostled with each other to capture the moment.
The crowds were so frenetic that Surjeet, who completed his life term in 2005, couldn't even meet his wife Harbans Kaur. They were taken to Amritsar, where the family offered prayers at Harmandar Sahib, the holiest of Sikh shrines, in separate vehicles.
Smiling and waving to family members, friends and supporters, a tired but beaming Surjeet thanked Pakistani border officials as he walked across the zero line at the international border.
"I am very happy to return after 30 years and meet my children and family," he said.
"Indian prisoners are treated well in Pakistan jails. Sarabjit Singh is also doing well there. I met him recently though I couldn't meet him today before leaving. He has sent no message with me. Leave it to me, I will get him released... Please don't ask anything more," Surjeet said, referring to Sarabjit Singh, also from Punjab who has been in Kot Lakhpat jail.
Downplaying the confusion over the release, he said: "In Urdu, the way they write Sarabjit and Surjeet is almost the same. This led to the confusion. Otherwise, everyone knew that the matter was regarding my release only.
"I will never return to Pakistan again," Surjeet, with a grey flowing beard, told reporters in Punjabi, his head and finger indicating a firm "no" gesture.
"I was arrested earlier for spying charges. If I return again, the security agencies might suspect that I have come for spying again."
Surjeet said prisoners on both sides of the border should be released by the respective governments.
"I was treated well by prison officials and I am thankful to them," he said.
Dressed in a white kurta-pyjama and black turban and carrying two bags, Surjeet had been brought to the Wagah border on the Pakistan side in a prison van.
Though he had been freed, his left hand was in handcuffs. The accompanying policemen got down with him but did not open the handcuffs immediately even as he smiled and hugged his lawyer.
Once the formalities were completed, he crossed to the Attari side of the joint border checkpost, about 30 km from Amritsar, where his family and friends waited excitedly to meet him.
His son Kulwinder, holding a box of sweets, couldn't hold back his tears. The family had given up hope of seeing him again, presuming him to be dead after he went missing near the border in Ferozepur sector in 1982.
"I was only two-three years old when he went missing. This is the biggest day of my life," said Kulwinder.
Surjeet's release came in the midst of the controversy and flip-flop over the release of Sarabjit Singh.
The Pakistan side was Tuesday widely reported to have announced that Sarabjit, who is facing death penalty on terrorism charges, would be released after his death sentence was commuted by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.
In an apparent flip, this was retracted later at night with the government clarifying that it was not Sarabjit but Surjeet who was being freed.