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Prisoners of the past

india Updated: Mar 26, 2008 14:01 IST

Kashmir Singh’s homecoming after spending 35 years in Central Jail, Lahore, will be welcomed by everyone. He was arrested in Pakistan on charges of spying and sentenced to death by an army court. The caretaker Human Rights Minister of Pakistan came across the prisoner and brought it to the notice of President Pervez Musharraf, who pardoned him. So does this suggest an upswing in Indo-Pak relations, given the current political situation in that country? Never mind Pakistan People’s Party chief Asif Ali Zardari dismissing the Musharraf regime’s claims of improving bilateral ties between the two countries.

With khaki rule in Pakistan supposedly on its way out, it’s possible that Mr Musharraf pardoned the jawan to announce his humanitarian credentials. In any case, there’s no denying the fact that this does represent a confidence-building measure in Indo-Pak ties. More importantly, perhaps, this is also a humane reminder of the hundreds of prisoners like Singh in Pakistan who are routinely described as ‘missing’ or ‘declared dead’. Many of them continue to languish in Pakistani jails because of New Delhi’s ‘magnanimity’ after the 1971 war, when India released over 92,000 Pakistani prisoners of war (PoWs), without bothering to check that each of its own men was returned. With India losing crucial bargaining power, Islamabad declared many captured Indian nationals, including PoWs, as ‘untraceable’ (read, ‘dead’). It is sad that so many civilians and soldiers should get caught in the bureaucratic red tape and political compulsions between governments that have no room for the human element in their considerations.

With neither side keen to touch a sensitive issue by admitting the presence of PoWs on its soil, diplomatic denial seems to have become the preferred solution. This is all the more a pity since a bilateral mechanism for prisoner exchange does exist. It suggests procedures for addressing the plight of prisoners by expediting consular access and determining national status. This will help both sides to ensure humane treatment of prisoners and expedite their release. The sooner this is formalised the better for the families of so many ‘lost souls’ like Kashmir Singh.