New Delhi has done well to indicate to Pakistan that executing Sarabjit Singh — on death row for his alleged involvement in the 1990 bomb blasts in Lahore and Multan — is not the best way to deal with the issue. Reports suggest that India has also sought consular access to Mr Singh who has been languishing in prison for the last 17 years, and appears almost certain to be executed on April 1. His family denies he was a spy as claimed by Pakistan and insists he accidentally strayed into Pakistani territory. When Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected his plea for clemency in March 2006, Mr Singh apparently sent a mercy petition to President Pervez Musharraf, seeking release on the grounds that he was innocent and wrongly implicated. Indeed, from all accounts, it does seem he was just a poor farmer who strayed from his border village into Pakistan and became a victim of mistaken identity.
It appears a reprieve for Mr Singh, even at this eleventh hour, could be possible if the Indian government got involved and appealed to Pakistan. This makes sense for more than one reason. It is inarguable that as an Indian citizen, Mr Singh is no less dispensable to the government than any other and, therefore, no effort should be spared to seek his release. Even if it’s a question of prisoner swap, it will be worth it, given the government’s moral duty to redeem its citizens, whatever it takes. After all, even a State like Israel — that has a no-compromise policy on hostage takers — does sometimes exchange prisoners for kidnapped soldiers. This shows how much it values the lives of its citizens. There’s no harm in India taking a leaf from this, unless it is too embarrassed by its own system of trying prisoners, which is so flawed that the award of capital punishment — however seldom — hardly justifies the long trial preceding it.
In any case, there should be no place in civilised societies for capital punishment as a means of meting out justice or deterring crime. It will be sad if, despite many new-thinking clerics in Islamabad, Pakistan chooses to remain closer to extreme methods of punishment such as the death sentence (that unfortunately, India too has yet to do away with), than the promise of new freedoms.