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Surjeet vs Sarabjit: When anchors pretend to be diplomats

News anchors have a difficult job to perform. They have to kick themselves to a frenzy over the biggest news development of the day and convince the viewers that they are not faking it. What follows is deliberate grandstanding on issues and brilliant pretension of service to humanity, with decibel power to match. Logic and basic common sense are, of course, go out of the window. These don’t fetch TRPs, thus can wait.

Some manage to pull it off occasionally. But in the case of Surjeet Singh, the Indian national convicted in espionage charges by the Pakistan judiciary and released after 31 years of imprisonment, many ended up tying themselves in knots. They brought up the case of Sarabjit Singh in too much of a hurry -- it was a goof originating in Pakistani media but it was the Indian counterparts which took the entire issue to another level itself.

File photo of Surjeet Singh. PTI

How? On days one and two the television media appeared particularly distressed by the fact that it was Surjeet who was released from prison, not Sarabjit. The impression the anchors sent out is people in the country would have been rather happy had the former stayed in jail. The logic is simple: who knows Surjeet? Sarabjit has some traction among the audience, courtesy the dogged effort of his family members which attracts media attention off and on, and ensures TRPs.

Interestingly, both are charged with and convicted for similar offences: espionage. Surjeet was sentenced to death but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Sarabjit, who has been awarded death sentence too for his alleged involvement in the serial bomb blasts in Lahore and Multan in 1990, has received no presidential pardon after being convicted and sentenced in 1991. There are many other Indian prisoners in Pakistan jails awaiting the harshest penalty but the media stays obsessively focussed on Sarabjit only, reducing a larger issue into a narrow-focus personal topic.

Sarabjit’s case is special in many ways. He was arrested by Pakistani border guards in August 1990 near his village on the Indo-Pakistani border. Sarabjit claimed that he was a poor farmer who strayed into Pakistan territory while in an inebriated condition. However, the security forces ignored his pleadings and implicated him in terrorist bombings which killed 14 people in Lahore and Multan.

One of the key witnesses in the case later said he was pressured by Pakistani police to implicate Sarabjit. In fact, as human rights activist Ansar Burney points out, none of the FIRs with regard to the bombings contained Sarabjit’s name or his description. He is still referred to as Manjit Singh by security authorities in Pakistan. Moreover, his statements in all four FIRs were recorded by a single magistrate, which is a violation of legal norms.

The case against Sarabjit is full of loopholes and he deserves to be a free man. But so is the case of so many other Indian prisoners. The charge of 'espionage' is the most convenient legal instrument with the security agencies in Pakistan to keep Indian confined in jails. The prisoners could be arm-twisted and manipulated to play a role the country's counter-espionage and terrorist game plan at some point in future.

The solution to the problem has to come through diplomatic manouvering, which includes exerting pressure on the country through more powerful global political allies such as the US or through tactical quid pro quo arrangement where prisoners are exchanged between India and Pakistan. India also has a number of Pakistani prisoners in its jails serving jail sentences.

Some television anchors looked in unholy hurry to have a say on what should be a diplomatic matter by making Sarabjit the pretext. What was lost in the ensuing din of aggressive language and macho posturing—the anchors look so brave and fearless in studios!—was the consideration that all this could be damaging Sarabjit’s case. Knowing he enjoys such prominence in India, the Pakistani authorities may hold him back longer, just in case he could used as a bargaining tool later.

In the process, Surjeet was reduced to a non-entity. He deserved it. He does not fetch TRPs.