Was Sarabjit Singh, an Indian prisoner in Pakistan critically injured from an assault on 26 April, deliberately set upon? Pakistani authorities are struggling to answer the question even as the incident has blown into yet another diplomatic face-off between the traditional rivals. “We have identified two suspects and are questioning them,” Malik Mubashir, deputy inspector-general for prisons in Pakistan’s Punjab, told Tehelka on telephone. He denied that the prison management was culpable in failing to prevent the attack. “Two prison guards were also injured trying to save him. We did our best.”
Police claim two death row convicts in a prison in Lahore, where Singh has been incarcerated since 1990, attacked him with iron rods and bricks. As Tehelka went to press, doctors at the Lahore hospital where Singh, 49, lies in coma on artificial respiratory support, had not ruled him out of danger. With public anger against Singh’s assault mounting in India, New Delhi talked tough. “We reiterate that the attack… be thoroughly investigated to identify those responsible and ensure they are punished,” tweeted Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs.
The police said they have identified the attackers as Aamir ‘Tanba’ (copper in Urdu) and Mudassar. An official told Tehelka that Tanba was a contract killer responsible for the murders of several policemen as well as his mafia rivals. Tanba is also accused of illegally grabbing land for the powerful. He was caught in 2007 after he shot a local official and his bodyguard in Lahore. Officials say Tanba is a ruthless criminal who killed for money and patronage. This has added credence to the view that powerful and radical elements may have spurred Tanba to attack the Indian in the prison.
Singh indeed had a premonition of the attack. In a letter he sent to Congress President Sonia Gandhi in August 2012, he claimed prison officials were torturing him and he feared for his life. In another letter he wrote to his sister in India at the same time, Singh claimed another Indian prisoner named Karpal Singh, who, too, also on the death row like himself, was a “total nuisance who gives false information about me to the jailers”.
A Pakistani Internet-based activist group named Let Us Build Pakistan, formed five years ago to counter Islamic radicalisation in the country, has claimed that a terror group named Sipah-e-Sahaba, which was banned in 2002, had “incentivised” Tanba and Mudassar to attack Singh. A Peshawar-based journalist, however, said this appeared improbable since that terror group is entirely focussed on attacking Pakistan’s Shia minority, who the hardline Sunni extremists consider as heretics. Such claims cannot anyway be confirmed or dismissed until the police complete the investigation.
India and Pakistan have always disputed the facts of Singh’s arrest by Pakistani officials in 1990. Accused of conspiring for bombings in Lahore and Faisalabad, which killed 14 people that year, Singh was promptly convicted and sentenced to death the next year. He spent years in solitary confinement, which led his family in India to claim that he had suffered heavy psychological damage. The family believed the danger to Singh’s life increased after Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani who was convicted for the killings of over 160 people in Mumbai in November 2008, was hanged in India in November.
According to a Pakistani journalist in Lahore, who does not wish to be named, Tanba attacked Singh in a bid to be hailed as a “national hero” in Pakistan before he is eventually hanged. Sources say he may have sourced the iron rods and bricks from the material being used for sewage construction inside the prison. But the ease with which he acquired them points to obvious help he may have got from others in the prison. And Tanba chose to target Sarabjit Singh even though Karpal Singh is lodged in the next cell. “The media hype over Sarabjit made him a high value target,” says the journalist.