Are Indian-Pakistani relations in jeopardy after prisoner death?

A Pakistani prisoner in an Indian jail was attacked and seriously injured in a tit-for-tat assault one day after the death of an Indian man in a Pakistani prison.

Prabhjot Gill/AP
Indians watch the funeral procession on Friday of Sarabjit Singh, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Pakistan twenty years ago for his role in the Lahore and Faisalabad bombings of 1990, had died yesterday following the brutal attack by fellow inmates at a Pakistani prison, at Bhikhiwind, India.

The fatal attack on an Indian jailed for spying in Pakistan led to an outpouring of anger and strained ties between the neighbors. It also raised questions of a potential setback in relations.

Twenty years ago, Sarabjit Singh of India was convicted and sentenced to death in Pakistan for his role in the Lahore and Faisalabad bombings of 1990. Yesterday, he died following the brutal attack by fellow inmates.

The Singh case has caused outrage in India and an apparently retaliatory attack against a Pakistani man inside an Indian prison today. India’s opposition Bhartiya Janata Party, meanwhile, has demanded the government recall its envoy from Pakistan. But, while the incident is expected to slow down the recent advances in the peace process, it is unlikely to halt it, say analysts.

“I hope it is a momentary setback and saner voices will soon prevail,” Sushobha Bharve, director of Delhi-based Center for Dialogue and Reconciliation tells the Monitor. “India and Pakistan have no option but to talk,” she says.

Mr. Singh’s family and lawyers claim he was just a farmer living in a border village who had accidentally crossed into Pakistan in an inebriated state three months after the bombings. His lawyer says that he was mistaken for Manjit Singh, for whom Pakistani authorities had actually been looking. 

So loud was the outrage over his death, India gave Singh a state funeral. His cremation was attended by, among others, Vice President of India's ruling Congress party Rahul Gandhi. In a statement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Singh as “a brave son of India” adding, “It is particularly regrettable that the government of Pakistan did not heed the pleas of the government of India, Sarabjit's family and of civil society in India and Pakistan to take a humanitarian view of this case.” 

While Pakistan had refused to reconsider his case, it had also indefinitely postponed his execution. Activists working for his release said they were hopeful he would be spared the noose after Pakistan's general elections, which are due May 11.

Relations between India and Pakistan have improved significantly since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India blamed on a militant group based in Pakistan. Singh's Lahore-based lawyer Awais Sheikh claims his client's death was orchestrated to stir tensions: "This has been done to ruin good relations between India and Pakistan and by those who don't want to see peace." 

Right-wing groups in Pakistan had demanded Singh's execution after India's execution of Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab in November last year and Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru in February this year. 

"Sarabjit had told his counsel in Pakistan Awais Sheikh that inmates at Kot Lakhpat jail had threatened to kill him, saying that his country had hanged Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab," Sarabjit's sister Dalbir Kaur has said referring to two prominent Pakistanis convicted of and executed for their role in terror attacks in India.

Meanwhile, the attack on Sanaullah Haq, a Pakistani prisoner in an Indian prison in Jammu, Kashmir appears to be in retaliation for Singh’s death. In January, another Indian prisoner in the same jail was bludgeoned to death, allegedly by prison staff. 

"Nonstate actors in Pakistan have been trying to sabotage the peace process. Their involvement cannot be ruled out. And the Indian retaliation today marks another tragic episode where prisoners become pawns for tit for tat games," says Raza Rumi, director of Pakistan's Jinnah Institute.

According to the Indian foreign office, there are 272 Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails and 535 Indian prisoners in Indian jails, of which 483 are fishermen.

The Indian foreign office has proposed a bilateral meeting to discuss the suggestions given by the Joint India-Pakistan Judicial Committee on Prisoners.

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