Amritsar/Lahore: Sarabjit Singh finally returned home Thursday - for a final adieu. Six days after a murderous attack by fellow prisoners, the Indian death row prisoner died in a Lahore hospital in the early hours of the morning, leaving thousands in India mourning his death and pushing the India-Pakistan equation to a new low.
There were tears and outrage as his body was brought back home in a special Indian aircraft from Lahore to Amritsar. It will be later taken by helicopter to Bhikiwind, his hometown in Punjab.
Crowds jostled to catch a glimpse of the casket of the man who had crossed over 23 years ago into Pakistan and was returning for what is to be a state funeral Friday. A condemned terrorist in Pakistan but a martyr in death in India.
It was at 12.45 a.m. Pakistan time (1.15 a.m. IST) when Lahore's Jinnah Hospital announced that Sarabjit was dead, bringing to an end a saga that began on a fateful August day in 1990 when he entered Pakistan, apparently by mistake.
While Pakistan declared him a terrorist and convicted him for bombings 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 on April 26 was brutally assaulted with bricks and plates in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail 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 and seek his release from Pakistani jails, 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 in New Delhi.
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 two daughters returned from Pakistan Wednesday protesting 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 examination was conducted Thursday morning, said Sarabjit's lawyer in Pakistan Awais Sheikh.
The government of Pakistan's Punjab province also ordered a judicial probe.
Back home, Bhikiwind virtually shut down in grief. Some residents gathered outside the local gurdwara and protested against Pakistan.
The crowds swelled once Sarabjit's sister reached the town by a helicopter from Delhi.
The Punjab government has offered Rs.1 crore in aid to Sarabjit's family and jobs to his 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.