Sarabjit’s harbinger of hope
Sarabjit Singh, the Indian on death row in Pakistan for over 21 years for bomb attacks he denies carrying out, is a tough man.
Even in the bleakness of Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail, Singh has his humour intact.
Singh’s relatives would promise his Lahore-based lawyer, Awais Sheikh, that they would pay him currency equal to his body weight if he managed to get a pardon for Singh.
On a lighter note, Shiekh once told Singh he regrets losing some weight of late, because that would mean losing a lot of money. To this, Singh replied: “Koi gal nehin, tumhe lohe ke joote pehnake tolanga (Don’t worry, we’ll let you put on iron shoes to make good the loss.”)
Shiekh, 60, calls India “a friend” and Singh his “brother”, whose case he took up as part of his Pakistan-India Aman Tehreek (Pakistan India Peace Initiative, an organization he founded).
It simply takes a call to find out Shiekh’s passion for Indian music: he has Jeena Isee Ka Naam Hai, a song from a Raj Kapoor film, for a his cellphone caller tune.
There was confusion this week when Pakistan said Sarabjit Singh would be freed, but later clarified it was Surjeet Singh. Talking over the phone from his Lahore home, Sheikh said it was impossible for Pakistan’s government to mix up the two.
“I was fighting both their cases. These are totally unrelated. How it happened is a mystery,” he said.
Many here believe Pakistan reversed its decision to free Sarabjit Singh under pressure from hostile radical organisations, which, Sheikh says, “is a possibility”.
He now plans moving a fresh mercy petition and hopes Singh would be freed on August 14 – Pakistan’s Independence Day — when the President customarily pardons condemned convicts.
Over the years, Sheikh has developed a deep bond with Singh. “I get him food and medicines whenever he needs them.” On one occasion, he trawled Lahore’s markets for a herbal drug Singh had wanted.
Sheikh vigorously pursued Singh’s sister Dalbir Kaur’s plea to visit him in jail, which was finally granted by the Lahore High Court in June 2011. This was only the second time in 21 years that he had been allowed a prison visitor.
Like many Pakistanis whose roots lie strewn across the border, Shiekh’s ancestors had migrated from Amritsar, a city in India’s Punjab.
He is among many on either side of the border who romanticize permanent friendly ties between two countries that have fought three wars since 1947, when Pakistan was created out of British India.
A few months after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which 10 Pakistani terrorists killed hundreds, Sheikh traveled to Amritsar to campaign for peace. He followed this up with a book titled ‘Samjhauta Express’, an account of his many travels to India. Sheikh plans to add a memorable epilogue to his book when Singh finally manages to walk across the border a free man.