Missing Prisoners in India and Pakistan
By RM Pal

"Mubarikbad (congratulations), Roop Lal is all set to return on Friday 14 April by PK 270. Do kindly request the media to cover this event and treat it in a humane manner by emphasizing compassion and humanity. His release should help us in building bridge of understanding (between Pakistan and India)". This fax message and contents of an earlier telephone call to this writer from Brigadier (Retd), Rao Abid Hamid of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non governmental organisation based in Lahore, was the most cheering news in the context of human rights in "building of understanding" between India and Pakistan.

A large number of Indians in Pakistani Jails and Pakistanis in Indian jails have been languishing for years and years together. But, first a brief account of Roop Lal's escape from death in Pakistan.

Mr. Roop Lal was a solider in the Indian army. He resigned sometime in 1971. He entered into the territory of Pakistan in 1971. He was arrested on charges of espionage in 1974, and put to trial. He was sentenced to death. Roop Lal's son- in- law, Mr. Krishan Kumar who came to know of the death sentence succeeded in establishing contact with Mr. Roop Lal. Mr. Krishan Kumar approached the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; he also approached this writer. I then wrote to the Brigadier Rao Abid Hamid of HRCP. Mr. Roop Lal owes his life to Brigadier Rao Abid Hamid and the HRCP in that they succeeded in getting Roop Lal's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

A significant point that emerges from the Roop Lal case is the important role played by non Governmental voluntary organisations in rescuing victims of foreign origin. It is no secret that a large number of Pakistanis have been languishing in Indian jails on espionage charge. Sometime, even after they have served their terms of imprisonment they are not released. I may refer to one such cases by way of an example.

A couple of years of ago, the HRCP wrote to Rajinder Sachar, former President of People's Union for civil Liberties (PUCL), drawing his attention to a member of Pakistanis who had served their sentence but where not, it was alleged, being released by the Indian authorities. Justice Sachar at once got in touch with our national Human Rights Commission and the Government of India. The government of India then informed Justice Sachar that they wanted to release the Pakistanis but the Government of Pakistan did not come forward to accept them. On hearing from Justice Sachar, the HRCP but pressure on the Government of Pakistan which then accepted the released Pakistani prisoners.

A few years ago a Bangladeshi came to Ajmer for pilgrimage. He was alleged to have been taken away to a police station. The Boarder Security Force was said to be involved. He was never traced. It is suspected that the police or the BSF killed him. A habeas corpus petition was filed in Calcutta High Court; it was dismissed on grounds of jurisdiction. The Rajasthan High PUCL has now filed a petition in the Rajasthan Court, Jaipur.

In both the cases - Roop Lal's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and the Pakistanis being released from Indian jails and repatriated to Pakistan - would not have been possible bur for the efforts made by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (through Brigadier Rao Abid) and the People's Union for Civil Liberties (through Justice Sachar).

There are hundreds of prisoners like Roop Lal in Indian and Pakistani Jails. Many of them even including POWS have been "officially" declared untraceable (read, "dead"). I may refer to one such case Captain Avinash Kumar Sharma's boat capsized in the Manavaar Tawi River in Jammu. The boat had possibly strayed into Pakistani territory and Captain Sharma was arrested by the Pakistani authorities. The family has been making frantic efforts to get news of Captain Sharma. The Pakistani authorities maintain, though not in writing, that they don't know of any Captain Sharma but according to Indian Army authorities Sharma is in Pakistani custody-they don't know however, in which jail he is lodged. What is most important that the Government of India and its officials do not treat such cases with compassion. They hardly ever respond to queries, and even when they do, the process is very slow. The official position is that Captain Sharma is missing that nobody knows where he is. There are hundreds of such armed forces men including POWS in jails in India and Pakistan - many of whom do not "exist" officially.

Another lesson that we must draw from the Roop Lal case is that we must not be forced into a situation hopelessness and helplessness; relatives of victims and NGOs must pressurise with vigor, and relentlessly. Any clue we have must be passed on to Pakistan NGOs and vice a versa. We must not give up trying. Second, we in India, while we are moved by the plight of Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails must not forget the Pakistani captured by Indian authorities for whatever reason technical or serious. NGOs in India must make efforts to put an end to the suffering of Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails. The "missing" persons including POWs relatives must set an organisation, a platform, in Co-operation with NGOs and must pursue with the cases with the Government, and more particularly with the national Human Rights Commission. The NHRC must give the utmost importance to the rescue and release of such prisoners.

Patriotism and war and the glories that go with then have no meaning if the agony of hundreds of fathers, mothers, wives, children is not comprehended. If patriotism can not take care of those who are languishing in jails in foreign countries, its values and meaning will suffer.

Understandably when a high a profile Air Force officer Air Marshall Cariappa ( son of late Fidd Marshall Cariappa) was capsular by the Pakistanis his release had been second speedily. Less important officers and men get caught in bureaucratic red tape and communalism of reciprocity between the two governments. The human element is rarely at play. This is when Human Rights activists have to move in. (20 may 2000)


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(PUCL Bulletin,July 2000)