The Sarabjit Singh Situation

What was that line below the lions again?

The nation has erupted into a state of united mania regarding the death of Sarabjit Singh, an individual whose identity is still disputed in India and Pakistan (farmer…or spy). The reticent PM Manmohan Singh hailed the late Sarabjit as “a brave son of India” and across the nation he has been elevated to the status of a martyr.

What Happened?

In 1990, Sarabjit Singh was convicted by Pakistan authorities for orchestrating bombings in Faisalabad and Lahore that claimed the lives of 14 Pakistan innocents. Pakistan also believed he was an Indian spy (still unverified) whose motives were to infiltrate Pakistani territory and bomb their cities. After languishing in jail for 23 years, on April 26th 2013, Sarabjit was severely beaten by his fellow inmates in Kol Lakhat prison with bricks and blunt instruments. He passed away from his injuries on May 2, 2013.

The Weird Stuff

But that story isn’t as simple as you’d think it is. To start with, Sarabjit’s family claimed that he was actually a Punjab farmer who had strayed into Pakistan territory while drunk out of his mind; he wasn’t an Indian spy. On what basis did Pakistan believe that Sarabjit was a spy? They even gave him a new identity, that of Manjit Singh, the debonair daredevil agent of espionage caught while crossing the Indo-Pak border.

Farmer by day…

…Spy by night

Next, Sarabjit’s criminal trial is as watertight as a sinking ship. He didn’t have a lawyer to represent him in court and the trial was conducted in English while he only spoke Urdu and Hindi (an interpreter was ominously unavailable). The witnesses that showed up didn’t provide their testimonies under oath, the star witness kept changing his version of the events that took place, and apparently most of the witnesses that were called had received instructions from Pakistani police (start here).

Why didn’t the Indian government appeal to Pakistan to give Sarabjit a fair trial for its citizen? Why didn’t they even pay attention to the nonsense that Pakistani officials pulled with their vague circumstantial evidence that hinged on Sarabjit being Manjit Singh? They should have known that Pakistani trials are a bit like these ones:

So that was how Sarabjit ended up rotting away in a Pakistani prison, in a most cruel and unfair manner. Pakistan needed a scapegoat to pin the bombings on, and they picked up an illegal alien to do it. He didn’t give up after going to jail though. He contacted his family and informed them of his plight. He also got obtained legal counsel to get him out of this mess. Neither route helped him in the end.

The April Incident

What’s most disconcerting about Sarabjit’s death was the utter indifference of Pakistani authorities for his safety. On February 9, 2013, the Indian Government hung Afzal Guru, an alleged terrorist responsible for the 2001 Parliament bombings (although the murkiness surrounding this controversy beats the Sarabjit controversy hands down. For more on that, look here and here). Subsequently after this incident, Sarabjit received death threats, according to his lawyer Owais Sheikh, who filed around 15 letters to Sarabjit’s prison Kol Lakhpat. All this heightened activity arrived a month after a similar Indian convict, Chamel Singh, was murdered in the very same prison. Sarabjit should have been placed in solitary confinement, away from the other inmates, and he shouldn’t have been allowed to participate in the hourly recreation along with them, but no such changes were made.

And we all know what happens next in these scenarios if swift precautions are not taken, right? The Pakistani officials didn’t seem to know that:

Why was Sarabjit on death row for 22 years? Maybe Pakistan confused a death sentence with life imprisonment. What’s more troubling and maddening is the apathy India showed in this case, the Indian government didn’t take any hard action at all.

What India Didn’t Do

Regardless of whether Sarabjit was a spy or not, he was an Indian citizen, and he received no help from his government. Apart from contesting his bogus trial, the government could have brought him back by exchanging a Pakistani prisoner for him. Or they could have put pressure on the Pakistani government in some way, it’s not like their hands were tied (it’s amazing how Pakistan isn’t added to the list of international pariahs like North Korea and Iran considering how many terrorist organizations they’ve harbored. Heck, they housed Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad and even leased land to the Lashkar-e-Toiba!). History will add this tragedy to the ineptitudes of the Congress that include their reaction to the recent murders of two Indian soldiers (one victim looks like this) at the Indo-Pak border.

The only action that India took was to appeal to Pakistan to move Sarabjit to his homeland after the April attack, or at least to a third party nation where he could have received better medical treatment (way to insult the nation that has the upper hand). After being flatly denied, Sarabjit died (rumors abound that his ventilator was detached before his actual demise).

India needs to take a stronger role in safeguarding the rights of its citizens across borders; its apathy and lack of interest over such a long period of time, even after the issue had been brought forward by Sarabjit’s family, needs to be harshly criticized, almost as much as Indians are criticizing Pakistan’s actions.

Politics, Politics, Politics

The Pakistan media has termed Sarabjit’s murder as the result of a ‘scuffle’ in the prison, to the irk of the Indian media. Rumors have also abounded that the sole reason why Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s President, would not pardon Sarabjit was that it would be detrimental to his image amongst the Pakistan public come voting time. Any pro-Indian action wouldn’t be in his favor, so say the election pundits.

Is this brutal incident an indicator of the lack of India’s strength when it comes to safeguarding the rights of its citizens? Is this what separates India from hardline countries like America, a country that keeps its money where its mouth is? In 2011, four journalists from The New York Times were captured by Libyan armed forces during the rebel uprising in the country. After the newspaper brought this information to the attention of the US government, the State Department went through the process of bringing them home. These journalists could have easily been labeled as terrorists or extremist forces. They could have been stripped of their US passports and murdered in cold blood. But they weren’t, because every country in today’s geopolitical climate understands what the US is capable of. India isn’t taken seriously because of incidents like this one. But it is only on the basis of these issues that influences how countries perceive India, and only India can choose to be a country to be contended with, or a country to be taken advantage of, as Pakistan has done time and again.


Right now, an inquiry is being launched by Pakistan to find out exactly what happened to Sarabjit and who might have instigated his murder (yeah, that inquiry will be completely legitimate and transparent now, won’t it?). Sarabjit’s body was sent back to India where an autopsy revealed that his skull was fractured, and some of his organs were missing (!), after which he was finally cremated. Debates continually rage on Indian news networks coming to terms with the Sarabjit Singh situation. I find the intense anger and rage targeted at Pakistan from all corners very superficial and reactionary: where was all this rage when Sarabjit was still alive and wrongfully imprisoned? If there was enough anger and rage, maybe things would have changed for him through government action. My only hope is that this rage influences a permanent change to Indian foreign policy for the better, because calm minds and rational logic don’t seem to work for our government.


For those of you who want to see some Pakistani reaction first hand as well as some hilarious debating, check out The Newshour Debates on the Sarabjit issue here and here.


  1. India flag emblem.jpg by Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0

  2. James Bond 007 7 by Themeplus, CC-BY-SA-2.0

  3. Rice Farmer Near Hampi Village – India.JPG by Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0