ALL too often, Pakistan and India throw up examples of why normalising relations between the two countries is so difficult. On Tuesday, the Pakistani government set out to announce the imminent release of an Indian prisoner held in a Pakistani prison for many years. The initial indications from the Pakistani side on the identity of the prisoner pointed towards Sarabjeet Singh, a man convicted of committing acts of terrorism on Pakistani soil. Cue the media — in this case largely the Indian media but also joined by its Pakistani counterparts — whipping up a frenzy of coverage and questions. In the absence of a formal confirmation but supported by Pakistani officials with an unfortunate knack for mixing up names, the two countries debated the merits of transferring Sarabjeet Singh to Indian custody. A few hours later, the truth trickled out: the man set to be released was Surjeet Singh, convicted for spying for India during the Zia era. What ought to have been a positive development, then, turned into a fiasco as questions on both sides of the border focused on poor civil-military relations in Pakistan and whether the military had yet again scuttled an initiative by the civilian government. These were questions that could have been easily avoided had government officials here been clearer about whom the government intended to release and the media more careful about verifying the details before running the story.
Having said that, behind the Sarabjeet-Surjeet mix-up lies an important issue: cross-border prisoners in India and Pakistan who have served out their prison terms or are jailed for lengthy periods on flimsy or frivolous grounds. These victims of the Pakistan-India dynamic ought to be spared the personal misery that is heaped on them because the two states cannot work out an arrangement to ensure the timely repatriation of each other’s citizens and, even before that, to ensure that only serious crimes lead to extended detention periods. The 315 Indian fishermen, including 14 teenage boys, who were released yesterday after the intervention of an NGO exemplify the problem: fortunate as they are to be returning to their homes in India, ought they to have been detained and imprisoned for long spells in Pakistan in the first place? The same thing occurs over in India. Surely the two countries can work out some pre-emptive measures at this stage.
Finally, the fierce reaction in some quarters here to the (incorrect) news that Sarabjeet Singh is to be released indicates much work remains to be done for populations on both sides of the Pakistan-India border to better understand and empathise with one another.