‘We treat each other’s prisoners like prisoners of war’

Published: May 3, 2011 - 14:38 Updated: May 3, 2011 - 14:55

The case of Dr SM Khaleel Chishty, a retired Pakistani virologist currently in Ajmer prison hospital, has been making the news in India and Pakistan lately. Dr Chishty, 78, who was implicated in a murder case in 1992 when he went to visit his mother, always insisted that he was not involved in the violence which took place before he reached the scene. He was arrested and jailed; his passport was impounded. He was eventually allowed bail under strict surveillance at his ancestral home near Ajmer, denied consular access. His phone calls and visitors were limited, and monitored.

Nearly two decades later, the case gained new urgency after a trial court in Ajmer pronounced sentence, in January, convicting him for life (14 years). As Dr Chishty's failing health generated fear that he would never reach home "alive", his youngest daughter Amna Chishty urged Aman ki Asha, a joint peace initiative in Pakistan and India, "to bring his plight to the forefront like it campaigned for the Indian prisoner recently released by Pakistan."

Indian prisoner Gopal Das had been incarcerated in Pakistan for 27 years, convicted to life imprisonment for espionage after having strayed across the border. Acting on a writ petition filed by Das's brother, the Indian Supreme Court on March 14, 2011, had taken the unusual step of appealing to Pakistan to release Das "on humanitarian grounds". The judgement prompted the Pakistan president to commute the remainder of Das's sentence. 

Article 72 of the Constitution of India empowers the president of India to grant a similar pardon to Dr Chishty. Noted peace activists have appealed to the president of India and the governor of Rajasthan for Dr Chishty's release on "humanitarian grounds". "Our inquiry reveals that he was falsely implicated," says the appeal, signed by film director Mahesh Bhatt, journalists Jatin Desai and Kuldip Nayar, former Indian Navy chief Admiral L Ramdas, and Kavita Srivastava of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL, already following Dr Chishty's case). Nayar and Bhatt have since met with the governor of Rajasthan in this regard. A process has been in motion that may lead to Dr Chishty's release.

Regardless of the merits of the case, the pronouncement of his sentence showed "glacial speed even by the standards of the Indian judiciary," as an April 19 editorial in The Hindu put it. "Even less comprehensible is the Rajasthan High Court's observation while turning down Dr Chishty's plea for suspension of the sentence that 'no leniency' could be shown to him as he was a Pakistani national, even as it granted identical appeals by the three others convicted in the case." 

A senior judicial functionary in India who believes that helping Dr Chishty is "a humanitarian duty" is working tirelessly behind the scenes. Thanks to him, Dr Chishty's family now have court documents and medical reports from the prison hospital that they have not seen. 

A PUCL delegation met the Rajasthan home secretary who was sympathetic, and is facilitating their efforts. After meeting Dr Chishty in prison, PUCL has provided him a wheelchair. The multilingual prisoner now has access to the well-stocked Ajmer jail library, including classics in Persian, Arabic, Urdu, English and Hindi for the remainder of his time in prison. 

"India to release Dr Chishti after 19 years of trial," read the headline of a news report in Pakistan the other day. Although this is factually incorrect, his family can now hope, as Amna Chishty put it, that "soon this will be the actual headline". 

Hopefully, she is right. But the case of Dr Chishty, while it deserves all the attention it can get, is only a symptom of the real problem, which is, relations between India and Pakistan. As Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum says, "We treat each other's prisoners like prisoners of war." 

Both countries must work to change this, and actively build on the perceptible thaw in relations over the last few months. The dialogue process must be, as Mani Shankar Aiyar says, "uninterrupted and uninterruptable." This would be one way of ensuring that no more victims of circumstance, like Dr Chishty or Gopal Das, lose so many precious years of their lives.