The Sarabjit Singh Dilemma: An Indo-Pak Pawn Story?

He is dead now. India was pleading for the life of a man dying in a government hospital in Pakistan. A prisoner on death row, Sarabjit Singh was arrested in 1991 and imprisoned in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. On April 26, he was assaulted by other inmates. Some reports mentioned blunt rudimentary objects; others talked of sharp objects. Whatever the mode of attack, he was severely injured and slipped into deep coma, surviving on a ventilator. In the early hours of May 2, the support too could not keep him alive.

Burning effigies of Pakistan

The emotive nature of the case has made a closer examination seem redundant to many. The government has announced a compensation of Rs. 25 lakh for Sarabjit’s family. There is a demand for a state funeral. His family wants him to be declared a martyr. This is strange, for they had insisted he strayed into Pakistani territory by mistake. Therefore, he has not laid down his life for any cause. Or, is there a cause the public is not privy to? Due to the charged atmosphere between the two countries people are willing to blindly accept any tale of heroism.  

While the Pakistani authorities immediately granted his family visas to visit him, human rights activist Ansar Burney resurfaced with a theory: “There appears to be a deep-rooted conspiracy to attack Sarabjit ahead of polls which should be investigated.  I see some foul play in it. Pakistan government was not releasing Sarabjit and it couldn’t hang him due to international pressure. So an attack on him could serve the purpose to gain support from fundamental elements during polls.”

The international pressure is, in fact, the very same India-Pakistan peace initiatives that the human rights lobby assists in adding a cosmetic glow to. In the past two decades this is not the first time that Pakistan is going to vote, nor is the fundamentalist pressure new.


There have been instances of fishermen who have been released, just as many have been forced to remain in prison. However, if we look at the espionage cases, it makes one wonder whether in Sarabjit’s case there was more at stake for India than for Pakistan that even his family was unaware of.

Why did the highest authorities in the country come out to support an ordinary farmer who ambled across in drunken stupor to the other side of the border?

Sarabjit Singh was convicted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for terrorist activities.  Did it not strike a discordant note that an Indian sentenced to death for detonating bombs five times, resulting in deaths and injuries, and who confessed to being a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent, managed to bring the External Affairs Ministry into the picture to rescue him? More alarming was the fact that top Pakistani officials engaged in a dialogue on the subject.

Was this a confidence-building measure it was touted as? Or was there some behind-the-scenes hush-hush going on? At the time of the first major initiative in 2005, the Nanavati Report on the 1984 riots was out. It had enraged the Sikhs, so it suited the Indian government to help a peasant from Bhikhiwind in Amritsar to act as a temporary salve and also to dilute the domestic issue. Pakistan perhaps reciprocated for its own ulterior motives.

A Kashmiri separatist organisation too joined in and had appealed for Sarabjit’s clemency in return for the release of one of their men held in an Indian prison. Despite the prime minister’s office earlier issuing a statement saying, “If Sarabjit is really a spy, then we get into a tricky business of handing back and forth spies”, the then External affairs minister Natwar Singh discussed the matter with the Pakistani high commissioner in India. The reason given out was the strong public sentiment in India.

The sister and his daughters appealing for Sarabjit

This was whetted by Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur. “Both Delhi and Islamabad should know that Sarabjit will not be the only one who will be hanged. We have prepared five nooses at home, and we will commit mass suicide.” Were two countries held to ransom or was there more to it?

On Friday, the day he was attacked, she said, “I have been told that Sarabjit’s fellow prisoners said, ‘Hamara Afzal maar diya hai aur tum aaram se reh rahe ho (Our Afzal has been killed and you are living in leisure here).” It is easy to use a prominent case. One might have understood had the prisoners mentioned Ajmal Kasab who was hanged to death in India for his role in the Mumbai 2008 attacks. Afzal Guru is not a Pakistani and while certain fundamentalist organisations and politicians did protest against his hanging there, it is unlikely that inmates, who are themselves being held by their state, would express fealty for him. Besides, Sarabjit was not the only Indian prisoner. Why was there no outrage when Chamel Singh died just a few weeks ago in a Pakistani prison?


There are too many missing pieces and two instances of mistaken identity involving Sarabjit.

A farmer crosses the border in a drunken stupor. He repeats it 17 times. He is arrested on charges of spying as well as killing 14 people. Even if he was forced to confess, we are still left with the confusion over whether espionage work entails terrorist activities as well.

A year after he went missing from his farm, he wrote to his family that he was in a Pakistani jail. Did the Indian government have knowledge about any police complaints filed by them, which would have been the natural course they should have taken? If the government was in possession of that letter in 1991, why did it remain silent?

The mistaken identity theory mentioned that the real culprit was a ‘Manjeet Singh’. Where was/is he? Did Pakistan do away with him? In that event, the Indian government should have tried to locate Manjeet Singh’s family and appealed on his behalf. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time when the mercy plea was sent, was clear that there was no mistake. He had also stated, “The death sentence awarded by the courts can only be changed by the President on a mercy petition.”

However, according to Islamic law, only the heirs of the victims can grant the pardon. The human rights organisations, as well as Pakistan’s d├ętente-trip leadership, played along with the ignorance. It suited both governments, for technically India would have to convince the Pakistani government to appeal to the kin of the 14 dead people to pardon Sarabjit. What would have happened to the argument of mistaken identity and the fact that he was not the person who committed the act? The relatives of the victims could not possibly grant pardon to an innocent man.

The second instance of mistaken identity arose during the purported repatriation of Sarabjit. Hours after the Pakistani media made the announcement, the government clarified that it was Surjeet Singh who was being released. The media blamed the government; the government blamed the media that called it an “international embarrassment”. This was insensitive, considering that a prisoner was being released. Humanitarian concerns seem to be restricted to a few.

On June 28, 2012, the 69-year-old Surjeet Singh was bombarded with questions about the high-profile prisoner. To which he replied, “Indian prisoners are treated well in Pakistan jails. Sarabjit Singh is also doing well there. He has sent no message with me. Leave it to me, I will get him released... Please don’t ask anything more.” He also admitted to being a spy and spoke about the Indian government disowning him: “No one crosses the border just like that. Someone sends them that's why they go… I was sent by the Army.”

Pakistan has in the past released prisoners, especially if they’ve served a long term. They return only to be disappointed by the Indian government. Gurbax Lal was lured with an offer to work for five years as a spy, following which he would get a permanent job with the Central Bureau of Investigation. “Being jobless and a keen reader of spy mysteries, I accepted the offer,” he said.  He remained imprisoned for 17 years. The homecoming wasn’t pleasant.  “I was treated like a napkin, used and thrown…Is this the reward of sacrificing one’s youth in enemy jails in service of our nation?”

The story was not too different for Kashmir Singh, except for the longer stay of 35 years. “I know and God knows that I went there to serve my country and that I did my duty even at grave peril to my life.” The training includes getting circumcised, learning Urdu and the cultural nuances (so much for ‘we are the same’ sloganeers). Like other spies, he changed his name and became Ibrahim. “And while I was there I ate beef and religiously fasted for the full month of Ramzan.”

He did not elaborate on his Indian military handlers. “I did not open my mouth for 35 years in Pakistan. I cannot do so now and I probably never will tell. All I can say is that I was a regular recruit and received a salary of Rs 480 per month till the time of my arrest. After that no one came forward to help my wife and family.”

Upon his return on March 3, 2008, he was hailed as a true patriot and was given a hero’s welcome, largely due to the marketing strategy of the peaceniks, like former Pakistan Minister for Human Rights Ansar Burney, who said, “There was no bargain. This is a bargain of love. In love there are no conditions.  Never have we seen before an Indian prisoner being escorted in a flag car of a minister. This has shown the world that Pakistan is a humane nation.”

Contrast this with his comments following the attack on Sarabjit. Where has the love gone? Or are the occasional placebos designed to obfuscate the open secret of RAW and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) by using an undercover subculture that the governments would not have to concern themselves with?


This leaves room for the flag wavers to run a parallel system that appears to be independent, but may not be. There are hundreds of cases of abuse in police stations, of innocent people being arrested, cases that are pending for more than 20 years without even being heard in our own courts. 
Indian POWS, 1965, in Pakistan

It is disappointing that the service of the nation argument does not work where it should. I had posed this query earlier too. Why is there not as much concern about our prisoners of war when the families of all 54 who disappeared during the 13-day Bangladesh War have produced tangible evidence to suggest that they were in jail? If a spy can be released after 35 years, surely there is a possibility of some of our POWs being alive 42 years later? The governments have permitted visits by their families, but they were taken to civilian prisons or misled. Nobody bothered to look through the list of spies, or those under assumed names. 

The thriving ‘humanitarian’ business cannot hawk this. So, it strives to create martyrs. Instead of independent enquiries into such arrests, they make the public into unwitting toys in the hands of governments that want to sneakily transform such whimsical acts into false peace measures. The body will be handed over. Giver’s and receiver’s hands are clean.

Sarabjit Singh is dead. There are many in Pakistani and Indian prisons who have no memory of their life. We will never know what really happened because no one is willing to tell and, worse, no one wants to know. Truth is the first casualty of heroism. 

Published in CounterPunch, May 3-5


  1. He is dead now but he died a proud Indian - more than one can say of the (screwed-up) Indian politicians, police, judiciary, or media!

  2. Brilliant write up Farzo , It's indded heart felt.God Bless you. Continue your good work.

  3. FV: "former Pakistan Minister for Human Rights Ansar Burney, who said, “There was no bargain. This is a bargain of love. In love there are no condition"

    Good stuff, FV. Don't know if you read about Sarabjit's wife statement that Ansar Burney demanded 25 Crore Rs. for Sarabjit's release. Don't see why she would lie about such a thing, which then leads to all sorts of questions about this Ansar burney.

    FV:"A farmer crosses the border in a drunken stupor. He repeats it 17 times. He is arrested on charges of spying as well as killing 14 people. Even if he was forced to confess, we are still left with the confusion over whether espionage work entails terrorist activities as well."

    Pawns come in various shapes and sizes clearly, like those pawns of the Pakistani Military who got themselves killed on 26/11 in mumbai and took a bunch of other lives while they were at it.

    But I am not sure there is any confusion in the crebility of the pak. government's claims of Indian spies being involved in terrorism, though I can see that they would make such claims so that it appears both sides are equally culpable in creating terrorism in the other country, which is laughable given the kind of leadership India has...but I digress.

    When was the last time the Pakistani government and establishment were credible? This is the same government that has refused to charge the 26/11 terrorists or Salman Taseer's assassin, right? Which exact act of terrorism is he charged with? I mean, how do the pakistanis know which terrorist acts in Pakistan are committed by home grown terrorists and which ones aren't?!

    I would think that If Sarabjit was a spy, then no one is going to admit to him being one for obvious reasons. so I respect the sacrifices he and his family have made for the country. Such people live terrible lives for little pay, and deserve respect. Rest is all noise, as far as I can tell. All this praise for his bravery and making a spectacle of giving him 25 lakh Rs. (which may or may not make it all the way to his surviving family) is along the lines of calling the poor victim of a violent crime "braveheart" and handing her medals of honour to cover up the fact that the justice system and the government is too incompetent to protect its citizens or provide them justice.

    Sarabjit was deliberately targeted for murder in a pakistani prison...but that is as much as can be expected from Pakistan and its government....not to mention its people, going by past history. Predictably, a lot of lip service from the Netas and Babus in the Indian side who refused to do anything for him while he was still alive...now please excuse me while I go hurl somewhere in disgust at all this.


  4. Al:

    Ansar Burney is part of the lib industry there as much as we have our own. Some genuinely believe in peace, but it will remain superficial until the governments get involved.

    Burney is a different piece of work and a publicity hog. Yet, for whatever it is worth, he was instrumental in the release of several Indian fishermen. He obviously has access to people in power. I'm afraid, but Dalbir Kaur has made many claims in the past, and chose to bring the issue of Sarabjit to the fore at an opportune moment. I can empathise with the family's grief personally, but in the over two decades there was silence.

    I've seen some snippets of her on TV recently, and she seems a willing pawn in the political game. We might have issues with the compensation money, but she demanded a state funeral. The Punjab govt declared three days' mourning and some Rs 2 crore.

    Why are the other cases not highlighted as much?

    I have already elucidated on the missing links. Of course, the Indian government is involved.

    However, the analogy with Pakistan in 26/11 and Salmaan Taseer case are different. The timeframe of Sarabjit's acts - real or not - was 1990-1, way before the major terrorist organisations outer themselves. He could have been forced to confess, though.

    I do not see him as a martyr or hero, unless the Indian government accepts that he was sent on a mission. Even then, if he killed to serve his nation, then we will need to reexamine how we view such activities by others, too. If he did not, then one will not know what tactical information he provided the Indian government that has benefited us as citizens.

    It was a death that should not have taken place and the Pakistani government needs to enquire into it. Chances are the case will be closed after a few public displays.

  5. Arshad:

    Thank you. The heartfelt aside, there are researched details and pragmatic questions. These need to be tackled.

    PS: Would appreciate if you address me by my name or initials only.


    Some people seek glory through others. It's an easy way out.

  6. FV:"Burney is a different piece of work and a publicity hog. Yet, for whatever it is worth, he was instrumental in the release of several Indian fishermen."

    These Fishermen being held prisoners seems to be never end -- a new group of fishermen are released as soon as some older group of them are released. For a government that claims to be pro poor, you would think the least they could do is provide fishermen with GPS devices so that they do not stray into enemy waters and go to prison...but then solving problems never wins votes for the most part, unlike Free TVs and pressure cookers and cheap idlis.

    Re: Ansar Burney, the alleged human rights activist, demanding an awful lot of money in private and making a pretense of caring in public seems to be at odds with someone claiming to work for "human rights" -- but if he is connected to people in establishment, he is just another messenger...sort of like the Teesta Setalvads, who make money off other people's misery...it is just another dirty job that pays the bills.

    "I'm afraid, but Dalbir Kaur has made many claims in the past, and chose to bring the issue of Sarabjit to the fore at an opportune moment. I can empathise with the family's grief personally, but in the over two decades there was silence. "

    That seems only natural..when was the last time the Media gave attention to an issue that does not capture public interest. I would think Ms. Kaur took every chance she could get to highlight the plight of her husband stuck elsewhere. Find it hard to be judgemental about the plight of voiceless people trying to grab public attention any way they can. Don't know what other claims she has made, but I can see her asking Ansar Burney for help, and makes no sense to me as to why she would want lie about his demands for such an enormous amount of money...money that AB must knows Ms. Kaur cannot possibly possess, unless the demand was indirectly to the Indian govt. rather than Sarabjit's family.

    "I do not see him as a martyr or hero, unless the Indian government accepts that he was sent on a mission. "

    Exactly, being a spy is a thankless job...unless of course, one is a "spy" of B.Raman's ilk, playing political fixer and spying on hapless civilians and making pretensions to glory with bogus tales that no one can possibly verify.

    If Sarabjit really was a spy, he probably accepted the job with the full knowledge that the govt. would deny any and all connections with him. This kind of deniability is the norm in most spy agencies, as far as I can tell. The consequences of not denying association in order to save the indivudual can be far too expensive for the State...."sacrifice one for the benefit of many" etc.

    My point in bringing about Taseer's example was to point out that the Pakistani justice system and courts are not credible, either because they are powerless in the face of "non-state actors" that assassinate heads of state, or because they actually are on the side of the assassin...I cannot tell which of it is true, as an external observer.


  7. FV:"It was a death that should not have taken place and the Pakistani government needs to enquire into it. Chances are the case will be closed after a few public displays.

    Given the news today of the assassination of the prosecutor of the 26/11 case, who was also responsible for the case of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, it seems to be wishful thinking to expect Pakistani courts and governments have the capability to prosecute terrorists or people belonging to terrorist groups. Clearly, the pakistani government is too weak and feeble to even protect its own.

    In comparison, even the decrepit justice system in India defends officers of the state from harm, such as the person who threw shoe at a judge a couple of days ago (after the 1984 pogrom verdict was announced) -- he was promptly arrested and later released on bail. In pakistan, seems like you can assassinate the Prime Minister or a Chief Minister and still be a free man without any fear of being prosecuted...seems like the thin end of the wedge with respect to a state/government being able to exert its authority.



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