Sometimes, the news makes you shake your head in despair. It’s not because of its grim nature — we are, by now, sufficiently trained to understand that tidings of comfort and joy steer newswheel only occassionally. No, sometimes you shake your head in despair at the stupidity of the news source.
On June 26, via a gargantuan clerical error, the office of the president of Pakistan brought upon itself what this newspaper described as “international embarrassment”. It began with the news that death row prisoner Sarabjeet Singh — convicted terrorist and spy to Pakistan but innocent drunk farmer to India — had been pardoned by President Asif Ali Zardari. His death sentence now commuted to life imprisonment, he was also eligible for release since he had served 22 years in prison.
In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami was outraged. It called the government weak and invoked Islamic law to say that Sarabjeet could only be pardoned by the families of his 14 victims.
In India, the news networks were euphoric about this story. There were scenes of Sarabjeet’s family distributing sweets, commendations to the Zardari government, reports of the Indian foreign minister thanking President Zardari and so on. But they were ecstatic about another development. This was the interrogation of Abu Jandal, deported from Saudi Arabia last week, allegedly a key player in the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai. Jandal, an Indian from Maharashtra, apparently taught the Mumbai gunmen Hindi and had first-hand knowledge of how the ISI directed the operation from a control room in Karachi. He was in Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport — plans for the next attack were being finalised in Riyadh and would have been directed from there, it was reported.
These two stories played out side by side through most of the day. To my bemusement, I must admit, the Pakistani state was being threatened with exposure (for the thousandth time) and instead of the standard ‘show us the proof’, it chose to give its accuser a pleasant surprise. It didn’t add up.
At night, we were told that it wasn’t the math that had led to the problem, it was the spelling. It wasn’t Sarabjeet who had been pardoned, it was Surjeet (or Sarjeet, as some papers have it). His death sentence had been commuted in 1989 and he, too, had already served more than a life term. The president’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, clarified that President Zardari had not pardoned anybody. Sarabjeet’s death sentence, therefore, stands.
The belief that the Pakistani state is malign and unreliable has been cemented in the average Indian’s mind over the last two decades. It will be difficult to convince Indians that a turnaround such as this is just a matter of poor spelling. Sarabjeet’s case has received too much attention since he was sentenced to death. A hundred thousand Indians put their signatures on his plea for mercy. It comes up frequently in bilateral talks. One cannot afford a clerical mistake here and trying to hide behind one only makes Pakistan look even less trustworthy. This is what the pardon that wasn’t end up doing.
But let’s set aside what’s happening in the news-consuming Indian’s head and look at what was happening in the higher reaches of the Indian government through June 26. The foreign ministers of the two countries were supposed to meet in mid-July but the Indian foreign ministry announced a postponement (with no new dates proposed). The official reason is a clash of dates with the Indian presidential elections on July 19. In the background, there are two other factors: a different prime minister in Pakistan and the recent ‘prize catch’, Abu Jandal.
In Pakistan, a fragile government, struggling as it is against the judiciary, had to deal with the reaction of the extremists and the army — both of which oppose any show of clemency towards Sarabjeet.
The postponement of the foreign minister talks came during the course of the working day. The confusion over Sarabjeet was cleared up only around midnight. It was at that time, once the spelling was corrected, that the math added up.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2012.