The possibility of an Indian prisoner being put to death in Pakistan could hardly be the ideal way to restart peace talks. But that is exactly how things may stand, unless the Pakistan government rethinks its decision and alters the death sentence on Sarabjit Singh, who is to be hanged in Lahore May 1.
Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is scheduled to meet his Pakistani counterpart Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad May 21. If Sarabjit's death sentence is carried out, the meeting between the two leaders would take place a mere three weeks of the incident. It is not a scenario that Mukherjee or others in the Indian foreign policy establishment look forward to.
Despite minor hiccups, India and Pakistan have stuck to the talks-table for the past four years. There is an agreement between the two sides now to resolve all their differences - including the one on Kashmir - through dialogue. A day before the Mukherjee-Qureshi meeting, the foreign secretaries of the two countries are scheduled to hold talks to review the progress made so far in the fourth round of the "Composite Dialogue", an integral part of the peace process.
A mood is fast building up in India to get Sarabjit released. He has been accused of masterminding a series of bomb blasts in Lahore and other cities of Pakistan in 1990 that led to the death of a large number of people. For the past 17 years he has been lodged in a Lahore jail. The Pakistani courts have found him guilty and have pronounced the death sentence on him.
A number of appeals have been made to the Pakistani government in the past by various people in India seeking clemency for Sarabjit. That has not been granted so far. But neither has Pakistan carried out the death penalty on the Indian prisoner.
Mukherjee has also made an appeal for clemency. He requested the Pakistan government to release the "unfortunate man" who has spent the last 17 years in prison in Pakistan. There were also indications that Pakistan might put off his sentence by yet another month. But a spokesman of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's office has made it clear that Islamabad is not in a mood to postpone the date of carrying out Sarabjit's death sentence any further.
To many in India, the latest Pakistani response could be seen as a snub to Mukherjee. At the best of times, India-Pakistan relations are fraught with pressures from the domestic audience. At a time when speculations are rife in India about year-end elections, it only gets worse. It is not easy for Pakistan. A new government has just come in and announcing the next round of the Composite Dialogue could well be its first major foreign policy decision. But the challenge before the leadership in both the countries is to de-link the Sarabjit issue from the rest of the issues on bilateral relations.
Opinion in India is divided on whether the government should allow the case of an Indian prisoner, found guilty of terrorist activities by a Pakistani court, to come in the way of its policy to improve relations with Pakistan. Many in the government, as well as in the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), don't want the government to meddle. They feel it would compromise India's stand on fighting terrorism. Some Pakistani nationals are also in Indian jails, including those who have been tried and found guilty of terrorist activities by Indian courts.
If India seeks clemency for Sarabjit, could it ignore the plea of others and go ahead and put the Pakistani nationals in its custody to death?
Some recent incidents have only made the situation worse. Last month India handed over the body of a Pakistani prisoner to the Pakistan government. The Pakistani authorities claim the body bore marks of injury indicating that he had been tortured in the Indian prison. The other was over the release of Kashmir Singh. The Indian national was found in a Pakistani jail by former human rights minister Ansar Burney. He was moved by Singh's tale of woe after he came to know that the Indian prisoner has been in the Pakistani prison for the past 35 years. His release became a big media event as he was given a warm send off by the Pakistanis at the Wagah border. But within days of reaching India, he was reported to have told sections of the Indian media that he was indeed a spy and not an innocent man as he had claimed earlier to the Pakistanis.
Pakistani officials in New Delhi argue that if Sarabjit were to be released, many in Pakistan would also raise questions on why the government was yielding to Indian pressure. While they acknowledge the growing opinion in India to seek clemency for Sarabjit, they feel the Indian government should rise above petty domestic politics and respect the decision taken by the Pakistani judiciary.
But it would be easier said than done and indications suggest that the ruling United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi would not be able to ignore the public mood in India on the Sarabjit case. For the Congress-led coalition government, the situation has been complicated further since Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K.Advani has also decided to appeal to the Pakistani government to release Sarabjit.
The Pakistan People's Party-led coalition government in Islamabad recently submitted a report urging Musharraf to commute all death penalties to life imprisonment. Musharraf might go ahead with the recommendation of the new Pakistan government. If that happens, Sarabjit's death sentence could well be commuted to life imprisonment. Under the growing cloud, this could be the best way out for the Indian and Pakistani governments to get out of a sticky situation on the Sarabjit case. But being a willing party to it India might lose the moral high ground in seeking the death penalty for those involved in terrorist activities in the country. New Delhi might end up paying a very heavy price for Sarabjit.
(Pranay Sharma is the strategic affairs editor of IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)