There is considerable speculation as to who persuaded Narendra Modi to change course and Nawaz Sharif to respond to the former’s gesture with unusual alacrity. The issue is not altogether unimportant as accords made under third-party goading are more than ordinarily tenuous. Yet the prospect for broad-based negotiations can only be welcomed.
It has been noted that both Pakistan and India have tried to accommodate each other’s point of view – Pakistan by agreeing to discuss terrorism in Bangkok and India by agreeing to talks in an enlarged format in Islamabad.
Not everybody, however, is happy. An Indian expert says the compromise has benefited Pakistan while a Pakistani expert says his country has lost much. Such analyses are likely to poison the minds of people on both sides and encourage leaderships to revert to confrontation.
Caught in the crossfire
While the two sides will address the issues dividing them in due course there is an urgent need to ease the plight of individuals who have been caught in the crossfire. They include fisherfolk and persons detained in the other country’s prisons. And there are victims of confrontation and hatred at the levels of officials and citizens – such as Hamid Ansari of India and Zeenat Shahzadi of Pakistan
Hamid Ansari was picked up by security agencies from a hotel in Kohat on Nov 14, 2012 and has been missing since. His tale of old world chivalry is worth telling.
The 28-year old IT Engineer and MBA from Mumbai was known for his desire to promote education and peace and had discussed with Rotary friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan plans to open an education centre for professional courses.
He had some online friends in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata, especially a girl from the tribal area. She had been given away in marriage under a jirga decision on a tribal feud. Hamid decided to help her and was assured of full support by his Pakistani online contacts.
Unable to get a visa for Pakistan, Hamid Ansari managed to arrive in Kabul, ostensibly for an interview for a job that was to take place on November 4, 2012. He somehow arrived in Pakistan around November 12, 2012 and stayed with one of his online friends, till another friend got him lodgings in a hotel in Kohat. From there, a police officer took him away on November 14, 2012 and handed him over to an officer of a security agency.
Attempts to register an FIR for his arrest and detention failed till Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances ordered the registration of one in 2014. At the same time, a habeas corpus petition was moved in the Peshawar High Court.
The names of Ansari’s Pakistani online friends are known. Some of his conversations with them are on record along with the statements of the police officers who picked him up from the hotel and collected his bag.
At the time of his arrest, the only charge that could be brought against him was that he had illegally entered Pakistan. The maximum punishment for that offence is six months and Ansari’s detention period has already exceeded three years. If the Pakistani police had found a missile or a couple of IEDs in his travel bag, he might have been booked for espionage, sabotage, terrorism and what not. But there is no evidence of Ansari being accused of any such offence, or any offence at all.
Three years is a long time to solve a well-documented case of enforced disappearance that is also on the roster of the Peshawar High Court.
We may now move to another case of involuntary disappearance, that of Zeenat Shahzadi, described in the record as a journalist from Lahore.
How and why did Shahzadi get interested in the Hamid Ansari case is not known but she succeeded in securing in August 2013 a special power of attorney from Ansari’s mother, Fauzia Ansari. She pursued Ansari’s case in the Peshawar High Court and the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances both. She was to appear before the commission on August 24, 2015, but before that she was picked up from a bus stand near her house in Lahore on August 19, 2015. A few days earlier, she had been held by the police for a short while after she had met the Indian high commissioner at a public event.
FIR is filed
Shahzadi’s brother got an FIR registered and the matter was also raised before the commission which asked the Punjab home secretary to set up a joint investigation team (consisting of police and intelligence agencies) to trace his sister. The commission has held several hearings. It has also recorded the evidence of a rickshaw driver who had seen Shahzadi being taken away by a couple of men in a white car.
At each hearing before the commission, the JIT has been reporting its inability to find any clue to Shahzadi’s whereabouts, and the police reiterate their incapacity to do anything. At the last hearing in November, Shahazadi’s defenders found a family that had been pursuing the case of an enforced disappearance for four years, and their hearts sank.
The cases of Ansari and Shahazadi are unforgivable instances of poor governance and failure of the law and order machinery. They also expose ordinary citizens’ suffering for no reason other than callousness on the part of those who are paid out of public money to defend citizens’ basic rights and freedoms.
The process of normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan will be greatly strengthened if the cases of individuals in distress are expeditiously and justly settled, the work of the joint committee on prisoners in one another’s jails is revived, and the recently raised barriers to people’s travel across the border are demolished.