When news broke on Tuesday that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had signed the order of release of Sarabjit Singh, who is on death row in Pakistan for his alleged involvement in acts of terror in 1990, it had all the ingredients of a sepia-tinted, cross-border made-in-Bollywood story.
No less than the Presidential spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, had confirmed that Zardari had commuted the death sentence on Sarabjit Singh to life in prison, the equivalent of time served. Sarabjit Singh would be released after completion of the paperwork, Babar added.
Back in India, the news was received by Sarabjit Singh’s family, particularly his indefatigable sister who has been moving heaven and earth to secure her brother’s release, with understandable elation. And since the announcement had come from the office of the man on top in Pakistan, Indian officialdom accepted it at its face value. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna welcomed the order of release and thanked President Zardari.
Justice Markandeya Katju, who had campaigned for Sarabjit Singh’s release, praised Zardari’s “kindness and generosity” and “act of statesmanship”.
And predictably, the announcement sent eternally optimistic ‘aman ki asha‘ peaceniks in India into a bout of premature gushing. Talking heads on television saw this as the surest sign of Pakistan’s yearning for peace, a defining moment in Indo-Pakistani detente, and as proof that the “big hearts” of “big nations” had prevailed over the pettiness of hawks on both sides.
And since the announcement had come on the same day that Indian media were feeding off the arrest of Syed Zabiuddin Ansar alias Abu Jundal, the Lashkar-e-Taiba operative who handheld the Pakistani terrorists who struck Mumbai in November 2008, a few analysts saw this as a masterstroke by the Pakistani political establishment to change the narrative.
But before the peacenik brigade had a chance to light its candles, a strong gust of Pakistani realpolitik had blown away all hopes of game-changing detente.
By midnight, Pakistani officials were putting out a vastly different narrative. It wasn’t Sarabjit Singh who would be released, but Surjeet Singh, another Indian prisoner in Pakistan who too had faced the death sentence, but which had been commuted.
The same Presidential spokesman who had proudly proclaimed the imminent release of Sarabjit Singh was covering his tracks.
“I think there is some confusion,” said presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar, with no hint of irony. “First, it is not a case of pardon. More importantly, it is not Sarabjit. It is Surjeet Singh.”
It’s worth noting that Surjeet Singh has been in jail in Pakistan since 1982 – and, as with Sarabjit Singh, there has been a campaign in Pakistan for his release. News of Surjeet Singh’s imminent release has been circulating for a while now (more here), and to that extent, it isn’t entirely a surprise.
It is the ”rollback” of Sarabjit Singh’s release at that late hour that is the twist in the tale. And yet, the the last-minute setback is entirely in line with the larger story of Pakistani politics: of the tussle between the civilian government and the military-ISI complex, and of the excessive political influence of extremist Islamist groups.
On Tuesday evening, representatives of Islamist groups in Pakistan had already begun to give voice to their sense of displeasure that Sarabjit Singh, who they claimed had carried out acts of terror in Pakistan and had killed Pakistani citizens, was being released.
The “rollback” manifestly bears the stamp of a veto by the Pakistani Army-ISI of the civilian government’s effort to respond to appeals from India for Sarabjit Singh’s release. And given the civilian government’s recent troubles with the judiciary, which in an extraordinary bout of activism had unseated Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the Zardari government evidently backed down, preferring to live to fight another day.
Hopes for peace, on both sides of the Wagah border, are not entirely misplaced. But any prospects for peace must take into the realpolitik situation into consideration. The Zardari government has doubtless demonstrated a readiness to lower the temperture in Pakistan’s relations with India, particularly at a time when it is engaged in an existential struggle with the Pakistani military and the ISI complex for political space within Pakistan.
But with its latest snafu on Sarabjit Singh’s release, it has shown that it prefers to pick its battles with the military and the ISI and choose its timing. And that considerations of detente with India are secondary to the primary need to ensure its own survival.
It is in that sense that the excessive eagerness to read ‘aman ki asha‘ messages into the effort to release Sarabjit Singh were entirely over the top.
Even now, it isn’t entirely inconceivable that Sarabjit Singh may yet be released, sooner or later. But if and when it does come about, it would be the result of a reconciliation of the tussle for power between the civilian administration and the military within Pakistan. The candlelight brigade in India should guard against reading too much into such moves. Instead, it should read the message from Islamabad, and from Rawalpindi, which signals that there isn’t exactly a unanimous yearning for peace from within Pakistan.