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Sarabjit comes home, dead

Twenty-two years after he left the fields of Punjab, Sarabjit Singh finally came home yesterday, but in a coffin and to an outpouring of grief and outrage. HT reports. State funeral today | Teary village rages in silence | Fury, shock in India | Anguish, outrage

delhi Updated: May 03, 2013 03:11 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times
Sarabjit Singh,Bhikhiwind,India

Twenty-two years after he left the fields of Punjab and his beloved family, Sarabjit Singh finally came home on Thursday, but in a coffin and to an outpouring of grief and outrage.

Sarabjit was murdered by fellow inmates in a Lahore jail in what Pakistan says was a scuffle but what many in India suspect was a premeditated attack.

He was on death row there for his alleged role in bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad two decades ago.

His family always maintained that he was innocent, a farmer who had strayed across the border in a drunken state on a fateful night in 1990.

A special Air India plane carrying his body touched down in Amritsar at 8.30pm, and he was then flown by helicopter to a site near his village of Bhikhiwind, where the Punjab government will give him a state funeral on Friday. Not a single home there lit a kitchen fire to prepare dinner; instead, grief-stricken villagers threw themselves into preparations for his last rites.

His death prompted an anguished reaction from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as Opposition anger at the government’s handling of the case, and threatened to worsen strained ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

An insensitive Pakistani bureaucracy delayed the release of the body by three hours at Lahore airport, adding to Indian indignation.

"It is particularly regrettable that the government of Pakistan did not heed the pleas of the government of India, Sarabjit's family and of civil society in India and Pakistan to take a humanitarian view of this case", the PM said.

External affairs minister Salman Khurshid said: "A sustainable and long-lasting relationship between two countries has to be between people. That relation has been hurt by what has happened today."

Minister of state for foreign affairs Parneet Kaur along with PPCC president Partap Singh Bajwa, deputy chief minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal receiving the body of Sarabjit Singh which arrived from Pakistan in a special plane at Amritsar airport. PTI Photo

Parliament passed a unanimous resolution of condemnation, and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi paid his condolences to Sarabjit's sister Dalbir Kaur in Delhi, hugging close to him the woman who had fought relentlessly, and unsuccessfully, for her brother's release.

The BJP's potential prime ministerial candidate for 2014, Narendra Modi, did not mince his words: "I directly blame the government of Pakistan for the murder of Sarabjit Singh. It is an extrajudicial killing." His party demanded that relations with Pakistan be scaled down. A former ally of the ruling UPA, Mamata Banerjee, placed the blame for the Sarabjit's death on the "bad handling of the case".

Lahore police insist that the attack, carried out by five Lahore gangsters who are in jail for murder, was as a result of a heated exchange between them and Sarabjit. One of the accused told the police that they had attacked Sarabjit to avenge the hanging in India of terror convicts Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab.

Indian high commission officials were handed the body at 4pm Pakistan time, several hours after the death of Sarabjit. Hospital authorities said that the delay was as a result of a post mortem into the death of the prisoner.

Indian officials again complained on Thursday that they had been given limited access to the ailing prisoner and that their request to help with Indian medical assistance was turned down.

To compound matters, the release of the body was delayed at the Allama Iqbal Airport for three hours as first the customs department and then the anti-narcotics force, which is run by the Pakistan Army, said that it did not have a no-objection certificate from the local police and the interior ministry.

Candles are placed in front Sarabjit Singh's photographs in Amritsar. Reuters

It took the local Indian high commission staff a lot of convincing and arguing to have the body finally released after calls were made to the interior minister in Islamabad and a clearance allowed over the phone.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also condemned the attack as a "dastardly act" and called on the government to conduct a thorough inquiry and punish those responsible. "The authorities have obviously failed to do their elementary duty of keeping him safe," the commission said in a statement.

First Published: May 03, 2013 00:42 IST