By Kamlesh Tripathi
This is a nostalgic account narrated by Dalbir Singh, elder sister of Sarbjit Singh:
- Sarbjit Singh had to spend 23 years in a Pakistani prison for a small mistake he committed unknowingly, and eventually he was murdered there—He headed in the wrong direction, towards Pakistan, at night after working in his fields located close to the LOC in Punjab and was nabbed by Pakistani rangers.
- It is an emotional account of a sister; and pixels well about their relationship.
- Dalbir Singh, Sarabjit’s elder sister considered him as her son. And after Sarabjit was whisked away by Pakistani authorities for 23 years she slept on the floor to please her God for his safe return.
- It is said; sometimes there is success in defeat and sometimes there is defeat in success—it was success in defeat for Dalbir. For one cannot fathom the turbulence Dalbir must have undergone for 23 long years, each time blaming only herself that she hasn’t done enough to save her brother and she must continue with bigger and untiring efforts—so that was her success; and in the end not being able to save Sarbjit, her defeat.
- I liked the account as it reminded me of my defeat, when I too could not save my ailing son from cancer, but like Dalbir the untiring efforts that me and my family had put in gave a whiff of success. For in life one should only try his best and not get intimidated by what is beyond one’s capacity.
It also gives an account of how Indian prisoners are treated in Pakistani prisons.
- Briefly describes how Indian prisoners are treated in Pakistani prisons.
- Soon to be released as a film.
SARBJIT SINGH’S SISTER RECOUNTS THE 3 TIMES SHE MET HIM IN 23 YEARS BEFORE HE DIED IN 2013
I am now determined to tell the world the real story of Sarbjit
Dalbir Singh, 61, is the older sister of Sarbjit Singh, a farmer from Bhikhiwind in Punjab (just 5 kms from the the Indo-Pakistan border). He by mistake crossed over in 1990 while farming, got mistaken as an Indian spy, was given capital punishment in 1991, but was not hanged. He was kept in Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore for 23 years, before he was killed by inmates a few days after the death of Afzal Guru in India. During his 23 years in jail, his older sister Dalbir Singh who treated him more like her son than her brother, made it her life’s agenda to get him released. While she finally did not succeed, she is determined to reach his real story to the world through a film being made based on his life. The film will be directed by Omung Kumar, the National Award-winning director of Mary Kom. Dalbir Singh met her brother only three times in those 23 years. She opens up to us for the first time after her brother’s death in 2013 and recounts the three times she met her brother in jail. Excerpts:
Did instance like the Kargil War affect you?
At the time of Kargil, I got very scared. There is a nearby village called Khasa, where many army officers live. I went to meet them and asked Brigadier sahab, given the situation how it would affect the way Pakistan would treat our prisoners. I was scared that if there would be war, how would the prisoners come out? I met another Brigadier who told me that if there would be war, we would open up the jail and release the prisoners, so that an innocent man should not get bombed and die in jail. But he didn’t know what the Pakistanis would do. We would feel scared that Khuda na kare, if there was a bomb thrown in jail, how would he be able to run? My heart would sink if there was a flood or earthquake in Lahore.
How did Sarbjit actually cross over to Pakistan?
Our village is just about 4-5 kms from the border. I myself have gone many times to the other side while working together with the women from the other side on our fields. We would be working on our respective fields and sometimes, even eat a meal together with the Pakistani brothers and sisters on the other side.
Gradually and slowly, the situation got bad to worse and they first put a rough line to segregate a boundary and then, there were some fundamentalists on both sides who did not have good thoughts. Though I believe that ours were not as negative as the people on the other side. There would be things smuggled in across the borders, but the women had good behaviour towards each other and there was no enemity. However, if there was anybody who went the other side by mistake, they would be caught and put behind bars termed as ‘spies’. That night, we had finished our dinner when a friend of Sarbjit came and took him to the fields to work. The field was right next to the border. As is usually the case in Punjab, the men drink and then work. Sarbjit and his friend too had their full share of drinks and then, Sarbjit put his axe on his shoulder and not realising which direction he was walking, he walked into the Pakistan side. At that time, there was not even a wire to show the borderline. He was caught and blindfolded and only the next morning, he realised that he was in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail, accused of being an Indian spy by the name of Manjit Singh. Sarbjit was very fond of playing kabaddi and he would often tell me, ‘You wait and see. One day the world will know me as this famous pahelwan.’ I didn’t know then that he would one day become world famous, but not as a kabaddi player. When Sarabjit suddenly disappeared, I initially thought that he must have been picked up by a terrorist group. But it was after nine months, later when he was first presented in the Pakistani courts that he wrote a letter to me telling us how he had been arrested accused of being a man called Manjit Singh, who was allegedly behind four bomb blasts. He asked to please get Shri Akhand Sahib path done. After that in every subsequent letter; he wrote to me details of what he went through. I have all his letters kept in a big bag with me. On August 15, 1991, he was held guilty and sentenced to be hanged. But for so many years, they neither released him nor hanged him despite my making so many appeals and requests for his forgiveness, even though he had committed no crime.
Why was it difficult for you to meet him?
I did not even have a passport, but right from 1990, I tried a lot to go but I never got the permission. At times, I would read in the newspapers that yes, his family can come and meet him, but then there was a call from Pakistan that there was news printed there that they would not grant us permission. Finally I met Rahul Gandhi and took his help to get the visa for me and finally got the visa along with my husband, Sarbjit’s wife and his two daughters Swapandeep and Poonam (Swapandeep was adopted by Dalbir as she does not have kids of her own). While we got the visa and reached Lahore, we were still not allowed to meet him. The jail authorities would say that they had not got permission from Islamabad and Islamabad would say that Lahore had not given the permission. After nine days of feeling mentally tortured, living in Gurudwara Dera Sahib there, I decided to appeal in the High Court. The judge was very kind and he immediately granted permission. It was too late that day, but the next day on April 23, 2008, we all went to jail to see Sarbjit.
What happened in jail that day?
He had been kept in a tiny room where you could hardly stand up with tall walls outside with a big lock. A mother can easily recognise her son. As soon as they opened the door to his room for us to go inside, I recognised him. He was standing at an angle and seeing him, my heart was sinking. His eyesight had gone weak and he wore a broken pair of glasses tied with a thread to hold them together: I told him, ‘At least you could have worn proper glasses.’ He said, ‘I got a lot of gaalis to even get this.’ I remembered that in one of his letters to me, he had written how his eyes burn and itch but the authorities would abuse and harass him, but not give him medicines and glasses. I wanted to hug him but I was not allowed to do so even once, so I held his hand and sat down on the other side of the bars next to him. I held his hands and told him, “Sarbjit, I wish I could have turned blind before seeing you like this.’ I cried profusely so much so, that I fell down holding the bars and got hurt in my forehead. That day knowing we were coming to meet him, he had requested the jail authorities to allow him some water, cold drink and ingredients for tea, as he wanted to make tea for me and serve me. They had given him a stove and he had made tea himself, sticking his hands out of the bars, and then kept it in a flask to serve us later. When I fell down, he got hassled and quickly gave me water and cold drink. Most of the 48 minutes went into crying, but fortunately he met his daughters and we talked a little about his case. I also tied him rakhi and he said, ‘I have nothing to give you today.’ He had tears in his eyes, but he tried to hide them from me even though I knew. I fed him with a piece of barfi like I always did and he bit my hand with his teeth. He said, ‘You have come to give me strength, then why are you scared?’ He recognised his daughters as he had seen their pictures through the newspaper reports. He told me how the Indian prisoners would send him newspaper cuttings hidden behind his rotis. And these he stored in the register he had kept. At that time he was sure he would come back. The one regret that I had was that I was not allowed to hug him.
What was his jail like?
There was no fan inside but outside for us, there was a small fan kept. Inside his room, he had a small pot of water with which he had to manage for the whole day, his bathing, washing clothes, using the washroom or drinking.
Did you visit him again?
I met him again in 2011, when he showed me a diary and register, where he said that he had written every word of what had happened to him in those many years. I wanted that diary after he died, as I wanted everyone to know what he went through in jail, but it was not given to me. When his body came in 2013, only that clay pot came with it. I got to meet him for three hours in 2011. And on this visit, I went to visit him twice. Unlike the last visit, this time he had not taken his bath, not prepared anything for me and looked indifferent. He was quiet and I asked him what happened? He said, ‘Didi, for many days, I don’t even eat or sleep or take a bath and I keep thinking why I am in this state and I keep thinking whether I will come back or not. I can’t even tell you what I go through here.’ I felt that if he kept thinking like that, he would get mentally ill. I summed up strength to give him some and wanted to tie many rakhis that I had taken from here, many of which had been given to me by women in the village. He said, ‘Chalo, you give them to me. I will keep tying it up slowly later.’ I said, ‘No, why are you talking like this? You will be with me in our aangan on the next rakhi.’ It’s only when I visited him for the second time that he was waiting for me, ready to serve me lassi that he had made mixing curd and water and the jail dal. He knew that I was the only one he could tell and told me how they would abuse Indians a lot there. If you ask the jail authorities for medicines or glasses or water, they would say, ‘Aaj bahar nikale? Aaj paani pilaye hi dete hain tumhe.’ He said, ‘Sometimes, they would beat me, sometimes I managed by begging them for forgiveness.’
Was it ever proven that Sarbjit had been convicted wrongly?
The sole witness of the Pakistani police Shaukat Ali was once interviewed by an Indian journalist, who managed to find him there and he said, ‘I don’t know whether Sarbjit has done it and whether he is Manjit or Sarbjit. Those days, my father had died and the police had asked me to say that Sarbjit was Manjit and that he had committed the bomb blasts in court and I said it.’
How did he finally die?
Over the years, there were many times when I would wonder if he would ever come back, but then again, I would meet people and get assured that he would come back. I had kept all the navratras, slept on the floor for 23 years, but it was after meeting SM Krishnaji, the External Affairs minister, that I felt most assured that Sarbjit would be released for sure. I don’t know from where I got the strength to fight, but I was determined and had decided that I would fight, come what may. But I quickly trust people and start feeling they are my own, but got cheated each time. Before Sheikh sahab, all the lawyers who represented us took the money from us, but cheated us in court. They did not even present our case of him not being Manjit even though they had the papers proving that. Afzal Guru had been hanged in India a couple of days before Sarbjit was attacked in prison. We learnt that there was a man who would go inside jail and supply sharpened spoons and knives made from sandooks inside jail to the prisoners there. I feel the Pakistani prisoners there took Afzal’s revenge by killing Sarabjit. I was with Swapandeep the day he was attacked. I had been having a severe back problem for two days and was in terrible pain. I could not sleep and was restless when suddenly I got a call from Pakistan telling me how he had been attacked. I screamed and woke up Swapandeep who was sleeping, but I thought we would still be able to treat him and get him back alive. It’s only when I got his body in the hospital in Lahore that I finally broke down and realised that I had lost my son forever: Uss pal meri umeed bhi khatam ho gayi aur intezaar bhi.
Are you free now?
No, I try but I can never forget Sarbjit. I wish he had come back. For 23 years, my only goal was to get him released. But now, I want people to know who he actually was. What happened with Sarbjit inside jail? What happens to Indians inside Pakistani jails? There is an innocent Pakistani prisoner in Tihar, who has paralysis, that Sarbjit would tell me about. Through this film, I want a message to go to all. I could not bring back Sarbjit, but I hope that this Pakistani child in Tihar is released.