Prisoners in all countries of the subcontinent, whether India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, are treated like cattle kept in a stable till their release. Even today, the jail manuals lay down special treatment for Europeans and give them more rations and facilities.

Human rights activists have a hard time to ensure more humane treatment for those held behind bars. For some reasons, relations prevailing between India and Pakistan come to include the treatment meted out to prisoners in the two countries.

I know it for certain that some Indians and Pakistani prisoners of 1971 war are in jail even after having served their sentence. India has been forced to set some of them free because it became difficult to detain a prisoner after the judgment by Justice Makandey Katju that it was unconstitutional to keep a person beyond the stipulated period of sentence. However, the mechanism to check this is weak, particularly in India where civil society does not pursue such things.

The Gujarat High Court’s judgment that the 1971 war prisoners should be paid full salary as if they were on duty is historic. I hope the bureaucracy in the Defence Ministry does not tamper with the purport of the judgment. I wish the court had also ordered to comb prisons in the country to find out if some war detainees are still there. I have a nagging feeling that some POWs are there in both the countries.

Clemency plea

Once in a while, the case of mistaken identity comes to occupy centre-stage. I am referring to the detention of Dr Khalil Chisty, an eminent professor of virology at Karachi University, who is at present at the Ajmer central jail. He came to India some 20 years ago at the age of 62 to meet his mother but was embroiled in a family clash which ended in a murder. He, along with other family members, was implicated and arrested for the alleged murder, although released on bail later. The Ajmer District Court sentenced Dr Chisty to life imprisonment recently and his sentence has begun now after waiting for 12 years for the judgment.

This is when film maker Mahesh Bhatt and I were approached by Kavita Srivastava, secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), to meet the Punjab and Rajasthan governor, Shivraj Patil, to plead for clemency since he had been roped in because he was at the spot. We met Patil in Chandigarh. He sounded sympathetic but was keen to know if the government of India would consider Dr Chisty’s release as a price for improving relations with Pakistan. I argued that such fallout was possible. I wrote him a letter when the Rajasthan government recommended clemency for Dr Chisty. But there is no reply even after three months.

I am told by the lawyer who is pursuing the clemency petition of Sarabjeet Singh in Pakistan courts that his client was about to be released but the rejection of Dr Chisty’s clemency petition clouded the whole thing. Dr Chisty has been once again supported by Justice Katju in a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi: “In this connection I may mention that I had made an appeal to the Pakistan government to release one Gopal Das who had been in a Pakistan prison for a long period. The Pakistan government honoured my appeal and released Gopal Das who returned to India. I am sad that while the Pakistan government honoured my appeal, the Indian government has not done so.”

I do not know why prisoners are being used as pawns on the chess board of India-Pakistan politics. They should be released once their term of sentence ends. Bureaucrats not following the constitutional norms should be struck on the knuckles. Here once again the governments on both sides are to blame because they are keeping prisoners on technical grounds.

I have been, however, dismayed by the politics of People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti. She has said that Kashmiris won’t object to the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, who attacked parliament, if the government of India acts against those who killed 120 youngsters in Kashmir in 2010. No doubt, both should get justice. But what I am unable to understand is how the two can be linked. Afzal Guru should have been hanged long ago and even the warning by Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah about repercussions in Kashmir does not serve the purpose of justice.

But the logic of Mehbooba, who is always playing to the gallery, is dictated by politics. Of course, those who are responsible for killing the youngsters should have been brought to book by this time. The slow process to get them justice doesn’t mean that the sentence against Afzal Guru should be kept in abeyance. He is only waiting for the clemency which may commute his sentence to life imprisonment.

Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.                        –Gulf News