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Her brother's keeper? The story of Sarabjit's sister

Dalbir Kaur is the tragic heroine who fought for two decades for her brother Sarabjit Singh only to see him return in a coffin. Then there's the other Dalbir Kaur who's politically motivated and publicity-hungry feeding off his misfortune. Aarish Chhabra writes.

punjab Updated: May 08, 2013 10:29 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times
sarabjit singh,Dalbir Kaur,sarabjit death

Dalbir Kaur, 58, is the tragic heroine who fought for two decades for her brother only to see him return in a coffin. There's the same but other Dalbir Kaur who's a politically motivated, publicity-hungry sister feeding off Sarabjit Singh's misfortune.

The truth is: there's something unsettling about a woman who doesn't fit the stereotype.

Dalbir is smarter than your average school teacher from a rural town, but the problem dogging the urban and misogynist commentators - two seemingly opposite but actually symbiotic creatures who dominate debates - is that she's not as simple as they want her to be.

She is unapologetic about being the "Man of the House", pardon the irony of the expression, even facing snide comments about lighting Sarabjit's pyre. Had he returned alive, whom would he have owed his life to?

The narrative so far focused on Sarabjit, 49, a victim of mistaken identity, spy, terrorist, a martyr or simply a misguided villager? Truth has many versions, facts are classified.

This is the story of Dalbir Kaur.

Signs of flight
Daughter of a lower-middle class hymn singer in Bhikhiwind, Dalbir was a child star as a speaker at religious gatherings.

But enamoured by her long hair - "Don't go by what I have now" - the ambitious teen wanted to fly.

"I applied for an airhostess course. But my parents scared me that I would die in a crash," she says as we meet her less than a week after Sarabjit's death.

Her desire to be a reel heroine crashed too, and she took the "safer option" of teaching after her bachelor's degree.

"I liked playing 'teacher-teacher' as a child."

Her desire to remain in charge made her more of a mother to Sarabjit, born nine years after her.

"He was born because I wanted a brother to tie 'rakhi'."

In 1976, Dalbir got married to Baldev Singh in a nearby village, "the year Laila Majnu released". The marriage didn't work, though Baldev visits her.

"My in-laws did not like me visiting my parents' house. I couldn't live without my brother. Having a child would have bound me to them."

Later, she adopted Sarabjit's first-born daughter Swapandeep.

By 1984, when Sarabjit got married to the stereotypically shy Sukhpreet Kaur, Dalbir was back at her parents' house and graduated from working in a school to opening her own small school in Algon Kothi, 20km away.

Bold, she became a Congress activist too.

Graduating through the ranks, Dalbir helmed the women's wing of the Punjab Congress Sewa Dal in the late '80s, closed the school and took up a job in the state khadi board, resigning in 1992 for the "Save Sarabjit" mission.

First victory
Sarabjit wasn't into studies, working on farms.

"He once told me I would have to take care of his kids," Dalbir reminisces.

On the night of August 28, 1990, three years after his mother Amrit Kaur died and just 23 days after the birth of his second daughter Poonam, he disappeared.

Nine months on, Dalbir got a letter from him, saying he had strayed into Pakistan in a drunken state and was jailed there. She started pulling levers. A year later, he was sentenced to death.

"That's when I braced myself for a long fight. I never thought I would fight tirelessly for 22 years, eight months and four days, but still lose."

Her Congress connection got her an appointment with then prime minister PV Narsimha Rao, who handed her the first of many high-profile but empty assurances.

She went to the Attari border every time Pakistan released Indian prisoners. Father Sulakhan Singh died in 1999.

When Sarabjit somehow sent a photo of him in chains and asked her to get them removed, her diplomatic push through a Vancouver-based human rights body succeeded in 2003.

Turning point
Two years later, Dalbir read the power of the media -"I wanted people to know my pain"-and threatened to hang herself, on camera.

It caught the attention of BJP MPs Avinash Rai Khanna and Navjot Sidhu, who placed her before TV crews outside Parliament and raised the matter inside.

She "joined" the BJP (only to return to the Congress in the run-up to the 2007 Punjab polls).

Meeting PM Manmohan Singh was easier, but she found the media helpful across the border too, where she and the family not only met Sarabjit in 2008 but even some leaders.

Pace was set, diplomacy worked and the Zardari government put off Sarabjit's hanging. In 2011, she met Sarabjit in jail again.

Result came on June 26, 2012, almost. Pakistan announced Sarabjit's release only to backtrack and release Surjit Singh.

"It was cruel," said Dalbir.

Loss and ahead
Less than a year later, hacked by co-inmates, Sarabjit was far gone by the time Dalbir and family reached Lahore. She was as angry as any helpless sister, and even sought the PM's head. Many agreed when she called Sarabjit a victim of dirty politics.

Now, she says she shouldn't have slammed "my own people", but still wants Pakistani artistes out.

"Cut off all relations, trade, people contact. Teach Pakistan a lesson, they have more to lose," the orator comes into her element.

Out of the blue, she flashes a letter of support from the Aam Aadmi Party but slams it.

"Take up real issues, not bijli-paani!"

And she claims to be on her way to "international forums" as "Rahul ji" (Rahul Gandhi, Congress vice-president) may back her case.

Will she float an NGO?

"Certainly, it will also help me fund my mission to save others like Sarabjit."

Will she contest elections? She points towards Swapandeep, and smiles.

She is ambitious. More than that, she's a pragmatic dalit from a non-descript town who's seen enough to value, hence desire, political power.

(With Aseem Bassi)

First Published: May 07, 2013 22:12 IST