Prisoners in Pakistan and India

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After news reports emerged of attacks on Indian prisoner Hamid Ansari in Pakistan, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj directed officials to seek counselor access to him. In a positive turn of events, the Peshawar High Court directed jail authorities to take steps to ensure the prisoner’s safety following which Ansari was shifted to a separate room in the Central Prison, Peshawar. Ansari was picked up by intelligence agencies in Pakistan in 2012, and they found him to be in possession of a fake Pakistani National Identity Card. As most of the details of the case are opaque, it is difficult to comment on whether Ansari was involved in clandestine activities or is a victim of a hostile status quo between Pakistan and India. Nevertheless, it is true that there are several prisoners in both Pakistan and India, who for one reason or the other crossed the border illegally and there remains no mechanism for their repatriation. The hostility that exists between Pakistan and India on a regional level must not be made the reason for any wrongful detention. It should not be used as a battle of egos in which ordinary citizens are made to suffer.

There is no doubt that espionage takes place in Pakistan just as it does in India or any other country of the world, and it is hence the responsibility of law enforcement agencies to capture those who are involved in those activities. However, there are plenty of other cases in which people do cross the border but not for this reason. And needless to say this holds true for both Pakistan and India. Whether it is poor fishermen who unknowingly sail through the international water limits, or criminals involved in smuggling goods, not every case should involve the same degree of severity in dealing with it. There are innumerable unreported cases of prisoners rotting in jail on both sides of the border even after the expiration of their prison terms. Many fisherman remain imprisoned in jails on the other side of the border for years on end until that state decides to release them to make a diplomatic gesture. Similarly, ordinary citizens find themselves on the wrong side of the border for one benign reason or the other without realising the terrible fate that awaits them.

The case of Hamid Ansari highlights the need to have more transparency when it comes to Indians arrested in Pakistan or Pakistanis arrested in India. If found to be guilty of merely trespassing, the individual should be sent back with a reprimand without making him feel like a hardened criminal. And if the person is found guilty of a crime, and his extradition is not an option, the due process of justice must be ensured. In the backdrop of an unstable relationship between Pakistan and India, it is important to have a proper mechanism through which all of these cases can be dealt with. This would require both Pakistani and Indian governments to work together so that a proper channel of communication can be opened. Needless to say, they would have to be willing to address each other’s concerns for this to work. Pakistan and India can only resolve their issues if they start to work on these relatively smaller problems, which could go a long way in thawing the icy status quo, and building bridges to fix the trust deficit that exists between the two states. Moreover, this would make the lives of the citizens of both states a lot safer and end wrongful imprisonment of many innocent civilians. These are issues that can be fixed in a short time given the two states show sincerity in resolving them. Not everything must be used for political point scoring and jingoistic eyewash. And it is time that the betterment of citizens be placed ahead of the Pakistan-India imagined enmity.

The apathy shown to nameless and faceless Pakistanis and Indians suffering in the other country’s jails is a testament to the lack of importance governments in this part of the world reserve for the common man. The pain of their families goes unnoticed, as the politics of enmity remain in perpetuity.