On 15 August 2009, I was invited to attend India’s Independence Day celebrations. It was necessary to meet the people of India and make them aware about the facts of Sarabjit’s case. I therefore felt it was very necessary to visit India. This time the Indian High Commissioner was very respectful and I was immediately granted visas for Amritsar, Delhi, Chandigarh. I was remembering past treatments of the visa office. I was busy in Pak-India peace efforts, but getting the visa was a challenge.
Every year, on the night between 14 and 15 August, different organisations from both the countries gather at the Indo-Pak border to celebrate Independence Day. Barriers are placed to stop us one kilometre short of the border. Any attempt to proceed further is met with baton-charging on both the sides. This is the result of an atmosphere of fear and doubt. The Governments of both the countries treat each others citizens as hostages even though the public wishes to live like good neighbours. Due to public pressure the Governments had to eventually sit down on the table for composite dialogues. But there are ‘underground’ enemies on both the sides. They attack the Samjhauta Express, Babri Mosque, the Indian Parliament or the Taj Mahal Hotel at different times.
On 14 August 2009, Sarabjit’s lawyer was entering India with a special stature. Crossing the Wagah border, I had a feeling that I had conquered something. When I handed my passport to be stamped and told the immigration authorities that I am Sarabjit’s lawyer, they stared at me in amazement. This was the same place where in spite of being invited by Kuldeep Nayyar, I was refused a visa. All this is due to the benevolence of great nature.
Many years ago I had visited the Indian city of Mount Abu to participate in a seminar. A famous scholar of India, Acharya Rammurti, had said about me, “Sometimes nature selects a common man for a great deed.” At that time my book ‘Samjhauta Express’ had not yet been printed. Entering the Indian side, I found a large media contingent was waiting for me with their cameras on. A huge crowd of the Indian public was there too with garlands and bouquets. I was covered with flowers. The representatives of the All India Human Rights Association (AIHRA) were present. I am a member of this Association. Mahesh Bhatt was representing the Indian film industry. He had come all the way from Mumbai to meet me. The Press Conference held there was memorable; the international media also covered it.
A journalist asked, “Do you think the verdict of the court is correct?” I answered that you are asking this when the fact is that Sarabjit’s name is not in the FIR. But at this stage I would only emphasise upon mercy. If his death sentence is turned into life imprisonment he can be out of the jail as he has already served more time than that. From this press conference I could well judge that this case has hit the Indian media with full force. Mahesh Bhatt said that, “Extreme punishments cannot reform a society. The developed societies are doing away with capital punishments. The punishment should aim at reforming, not at revenge. We should give all out support to Awais Sheikh. We are indebted to his struggle, courage and will power.”
While Mahesh Bhatt was talking to the press, I was recalling the words of Shakespeare, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven to the earth below it twice blesseth him that gives and him that receives.”
Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur also expressed her views on the occasion. On 19 August, with Sarabjit’s sister and daughters, I met Parkash Singh Badal, the Chief Minister of Indian Punjab. I presented him my book ‘Samjhauta Express’. Answering his query I told him that there had been no serious threat to me in Pakistan, but I have to play my cards very cautiously. The turn of events has made me a hero in India and a zero in Pakistan.
With the passage of time, my policy of tolerance started bringing change in the thinking of the people. Now the environment of fear is getting weaker and weaker. The pressure that was on me has been reduced now. This is a psychological battle, I have to win it, not lose it. I did not want to commit the folly made by the peace activist Ansar Burney after the release of Kashmir Singh, who failed to gauge the public sentiment correctly. Sarabjit will open the way to Pak-India friendship. I have also visited the Golden Temple, I have prayed to God for Sarabjit’s release. God willing, I will take him from the same Wagah border to India with safety.
I have also visited the Golden Temple, I have prayed to God for Sarabjit’s release. God willing, I will take him from the same Wagah border to India with safety. Whenever I visit the Golden Temple, my heart is filled with reverence for Hazrat Mian Mir, who, in spite of being a Muslim laid the foundations of a Sikh temple. Mystics of Islam have great tolerance for other schools of thought. Mystic poet Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi has said: “If you want union with God, you should make friends with everyone. With the Muslims say Allah! Allah! And with Brahmans say, Ram! Ram!”
– Awais Sheikh
Whenever I visit the Golden Temple, my heart is filled with reverence for Hazrat Mian Mir, who, in spite of being a Muslim laid the foundations of a Sikh temple. Mystics of Islam have great tolerance for other schools of thought. Mystic poet Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi has said: “If you want union with God, you should make friends with everyone. With the Muslims say Allah! Allah! And with Brahmans say, Ram! Ram!”
The Hindu religion is thousands of years old and to get Gyan, it has the concept of meditation. Muslim mysticism also has the concept of meditation.
As a peace activist, I have the confidence that I am bringing together two countries where1.5 billion people dwell. It is a great virtue to unite two individuals who have developed differences. You receive so much affection of the people that all the annoying difficulties seem minor. I will also remember Kolkata in 1996 and Amritsar in 1997 where I participated in the Peace March and chanted the slogan so much that my throat stopped working due to dryness. My name is known everywhere in India. I am fighting the case of Sarabjit not as a lawyer but as a human being. The case of Sarabjit is now not his case only, it is associated with Pak-India friendship.
Once in Lahore, I had to face Pakistani journalists and that was not a piece of cake. “Would you like to be the counsel of Ajmal Kasab?” someone remarked. I had to keep my tongue between my teeth in these situations. A person in India told me that a delegation of the Sarabjit Release Committee met Sonia Gandhi in Delhi. They suggested that if India could show a soft corner for the Pakistanis in Indian jails, it would pave the way for Sarabjit’s release. To this Sonia Gandhi answered that a criminal whose guilt is established cannot be compared to anyone whose crime is not proved. I said that the Pakistan Government can answer by saying that the Supreme Court has convicted Sarabjit. The matter is not so simple. It has to be dealt with care and patience. To get mercy for Sarabjit is the only way left for us.
Visit to Sarabjit’s Village
The old and young and the children of the village were coming to say Salaam, Sat Sri Akal and Parnam. The local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Mr. Virsa Singh Valtoha came with his companions. This was the village of Sarabjit Singh in the district of Bhikhiwind, 50 kilometres from Amritsar in the district of Taran Taran. Sarabjit Singh was the son of the soil. He had grown up amongst these muddy streets, lanes, green fields, ponds, pastures and open skies. The primary and high school teachers were talking about their student. His class fellows were talking too. He was a regular, hard working and obedient student.
I briefed them all about my meeting with Sarabjit and conveyed his gratitude towards his folks for their earnest efforts. MLA Valtoha said, “All of us today are filled with sorrow for our brother. We hope your efforts will be fruitful.”
In my address I asked the MLA to raise his voice in the Punjab Assembly and press Delhi for playing its crucial part. The villagers were unanimous that Sarabjit’s character from childhood to youth was good. He was unlikely to indulge in any heinous crime. After the meeting we moved in a car to the border just 10 minutes away. I and Dalbir Kaur were allowed to go beyond the gate near the fence. In 1990 when Sarabjit ploughed the fields here, this fence was not erected. The no-man’s land was lying ahead like a thin line running across. Crossing over by the peasants was normal but the punishment was severe. Tears could be seen in Dalbir’s eyes. She had attempted suicide twice. I also met the owner of the tractor which Sarabjit used to operate. His boss told me that Sarabjit gave him no reason for complaints. Other people joined in who had worked with Sarabjit in these fields. They asked in a whisper, “Vakeel Sahab, will Sarabjit be released?”
From here I started back for Amritsar, then to Delhi by the Shatabdi Express. I met Veerappa Moily, the Federal Law Minister in Delhi and asked him to convey the mercy petition to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for appropriate action, which meant to press Pakistan President for clemency.
I went back to the Wagah border and from there to Lahore. At the border, addressing the Indian media I said, “I respect the order of the Supreme Court. I am just talking about mercy. I am taking with me the appeal of one lakh people to the President of Pakistan. Anyone who is joined by so many people also receives the support of God in his cause.”
My tour of India had been quite successful. My efforts had installed a new spirit in the people of India. It was because of the active participation of the Indian public that so many mercy appeals had been collected in such a short span of time. They had proved their affiliation with Sarabjit. They believe that he deserves to be released as he has not committed any heinous crimes.
I was fortunate that the next day all the papers published positive stories. I sent the news items across the globe through the Internet. Many important personalities ofIndia wrote appeals to the Pakistan President. n
(To be continued)