Omang Kumar’s ‘Sarbjit’ should force us to take a long, hard look at our own broken criminal justice system.
Director: Omang Kumar
Starring: Randeep Hooda, Aishwarya Rai, Richa Chadda, Darshan Kumar
“I was punched, kicked, beaten very badly. In order to humiliate me and to break me down [they] made me stand for long hours and hung me upside down. During the police custody, I was denied all basic amenities and was forced to drink water from toilet. Further on, I was subjected to electric shocks by the police officials and made to repeat what they were saying. The interrogators repeatedly used…name calling, sexually profane abusive language, with me.”
“I unwrapped my son’s face and saw the wounds…When I asked my son if he was tortured, he said, ‘They are hardly going to treat me with love. They want to build the case…They used to make us memorise a story of the police version of the case. We were not allowed to sleep until we could recite the police version.’”
“I was stripped and tied on a table when a snake was let loose in the room.”
None of these harrowing testimonies refer to the custodial torture that contributed to the confession made by Sarabjit Singh to a Pakistani television channel that he had carried out five bomb blasts in the country, weeks after the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in 1991. That torture, if Omang Kumar’s overwrought biopic of the cause célèbre who brought renewed attention to the hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis incarcerated on the wrong side of the border is to be believed, involved locking him up in a crate—in a room filled with similar crates—with a number of live rats, followed by immersing him in water for days, punctuated by vicious beatings and an interrogation working on the presumption that he is notorious Indian spy Ranjit (Manjit in real life) Singh. It involved being sentenced to death without any semblance of a fair trial or access to a lawyer who gave a fuck. It also involved the wilful role of that country’s media in painting an innocent farmer who strayed across the border after one too many drinks into a dreaded terrorist who killed 27 innocent people.
The whole sequence, which forms the bulk of the first half of the movie, is painful to watch. It is the systematic erasure of a person’s dignity and humanity by the powerful forces of the State, the creation of a convenient narrative irrespective of the costs. It is not a fate one would wish upon Sarabjit even if he was indeed a spy. (Despite the film operating under the presumption of innocence, The Hindustan Times in 2012 quoted “intelligence sources” who confirmed he was a captured spy and that his handler went on to head the R&AW.) It felt especially egregious to be munching on cheese popcorn as it played out on screen, though I was by no means the worst offender; the group next to me seemed perfectly happy to chat among themselves and laugh throughout the film, testament not so much of their callousness as it is of Kumar’s inability to mine his compelling source material for anything more than paint-by-numbers melodrama, despite an excellent performance by Randeep Hooda.
That group, along with most of the audience, was definitely riveted by a scene near the end of the film. This takes place after Sarbjit (Hooda) has been killed by fellow inmates, and his sister Dalbir (Rai), whose 22-year quest to free her brother is the main plot of the film, is being denied access to his body and advised by prison guards to leave the country, for the Taliban has declared a fatwa on her. She goes on a tear, accusing the Pakistani State and Islamists of cowardice and preying on innocents, challenging the mullahs to name a place and time for this sardaran to show up and kick ass. “Hum Hindustaniyon ne kabhi peeth dikhana seekha hi nahin hai,” she says, triggering applause in the hall where I was watching.
The whole sequence, which forms the bulk of the first half of the movie, is painful to watch. It is the systematic erasure of a person’s dignity and humanity by the powerful forces of the State, the creation of a convenient narrative irrespective of the costs. It is not a fate one would wish upon Sarabjit even if he was indeed a spy.
Aiyo. I had held out hope until then that the film wouldn’t wrap Sarabjit and Dalbir in the national flag, that it wouldn’t try to pass off their experience as emblematic of some sort of gulf in civilisation and humanity between the two countries. For the most part, the film does not seem to make that case. It acknowledges, for instance—both over the course of the film and in the postscript, in which the director quotes, well, himself—that although there are hundreds of Indians in Pakistani jails, a similar number of Pakistanis have spent decades in Indian jails. It also admits to the use by our intelligence agencies of farmers in border districts of Punjab as spies, and paints both governments as unsympathetic to the concerns of those who slip through the cracks.
Lest we in the audience start playing the game of holier than thou, however, it is pertinent to look at ground realities on this side of the border. In fact, I would argue that it is essential to view Sarbjit’s ordeal as emblematic not of some inherent brutality in the regime that runs our neighbouring country, but of how our two postcolonial societies are so alike, and how easy it is for the powers that be in both countries to manufacture consent for their brutality among the populace by painting those deemed enemies of the state as somehow subhuman, undeserving of the civil liberties we so cherish for ourselves and people like us.
That is where the testimonies I started this review with come in. They are, like I said, not about the case of Sarabjit Singh or even about prison conditions in Pakistan, but from two reports of vital importance about our own system of law enforcement. The first, released in 2011 and called The “Anti-Nationals”, is an excoriation by Human Rights Watch of the abusive counter-terrorism tactics of the Indian security establishment, which relies on arbitrary detention and custodial torture—and fictions leaked to an uncritical media—to investigate and prosecute terror suspects. The second, released earlier this month, is a two–volume project by a team of researchers from the National Law University, Delhi, meant “to address the absence of empirical research on the death penalty in India”, which systematically explains the physical and psychological torture inflicted upon those on death row in Indian prisons, a sample in which those from the weakest sections of our society are grossly overrepresented.
Lest we in the audience start playing the game of holier than thou, however, it is pertinent to look at ground realities on this side of the border. In fact, I would argue that it is essential to view Sarbjit’s ordeal as emblematic not of some inherent brutality in the regime that runs our neighbouring country, but of how our two postcolonial societies are so alike.
Watching the film, I was struck by how almost every indignity faced by Sarbjit and his family is visited upon those targeted by our security forces. He spent 22 years on death row; well, half the inmates included in the death penalty report have spent over 16 years in prison. Like him, their actual guilt or innocence is irrelevant; what is important is what is proven in a court of law, a standard that is given greater importance in the popular imagination than it probably should, given the potential—and fact—of abuse. It’s just that we are wilfully blind to the inequities and predatory instincts of the criminal justice system when it is convenient to us.
For instance, why is it patriotic to assert Sarabjit’s innocence and anti-national to suggest that Afzal Guru wasn’t a dreaded terrorist who deserved to die? After all, they were both tried and convicted by the judiciary, both their sentences upheld by a Supreme Court. Both confessed, but later claimed their confessions were extracted after excessive use of custodial torture. Here are some of the forms of torture inmates reported having suffered in the death penalty report. I shudder to think what constitutes “unexplainable things”.
In the film, the interrogators refuse to entertain Sarbjit’s protestations about mistaken identity, operating from a presumption of guilt based on the fact that he is a Sikh from India. At one point, he is advised by a jailer to convert to Islam in order to receive better treatment, but refuses. (There were rumours that the real Sarabjit had indeed converted in prison.) Such prejudice against Muslims is well–documented in India. The HRW report has the following anecdote:
In Rajasthan, the state police, suspecting that the Pakistan-based militant Islamist group HuJI was behind the blasts there in May 2008, rounded up hundreds of Bengali-speaking Muslims for questioning. After police released them, state officials nevertheless razed their homes, claiming that their settlement was illegal. Many were forcibly put on trains or buses and expelled to West Bengal state, which borders Bangladesh. The police insisted that they were illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, although many of them said they had documents that proved their Indian citizenship. “Whenever there is trouble, the needle of suspicion points toward the minority,” Mohamed Shafi Qureshi, chairman of India’s National Commission for Minorities, told Human Rights Watch.
Why is it patriotic to assert Sarabjit’s innocence and anti-national to suggest that Afzal Guru wasn’t a dreaded terrorist who deserved to die? After all, they were both tried and convicted by the judiciary, both their sentences upheld by a Supreme Court. Both confessed, but later claimed their confessions were extracted after excessive use of custodial torture.
Sarbjit’s family does not know for months what fate befell him after he went missing; Dalbir finds out only after he manages to smuggle out a letter to her. Despite living only a few kilometres from his jail in Lahore—a fact that the film illustrates by having both of them enjoy the same rain shower—they are unable to meet him for years, and when they finally do, it is for a tragically short time. (That scene, and the ones that come before, demonstrate Hooda’s formidable acting prowess, as well as that of Richa Chadda, who plays his wife and makes the most of her underwritten role.) Such heartbreaks, unfortunately, are all too common in the case of terror suspects in India too, as the HRW report shows:
Many relatives also alleged that they were not allowed to meet with suspects. Twice, Abdur Rahman Ansari of Azamgarh traveled 460 miles—a 24-hour journey by bus and train—to meet his son, Saif-ur-Rahman, a suspect in the Jaipur bombings, and both times, the police turned him away. Mohammad Hasim, the uncle of Mohammad Sarwar, whose case is described earlier in this chapter, was twice denied access in January 2009 after making the same journey, and only met him two weeks later after obtaining a court order. In Gujarat, a woman said that in refusing to let her meet with her husband, the police “were angry and rude. They told me he is a terrorist who was part of the blasts.”
Sarbjit is also denied adequate legal representation until the mercy petition stage, with his lawyers never meeting him or even bothering to show up for crucial court dates. Again, this is a common experience among those charged with capital crimes in India. The NLU study found that out of the 258 prisoners who spoke about their interactions with their trial court lawyers, 181—over 70 percent—said their lawyer never discussed case details with them. Over 76 percent said they’d never met their lawyer outside the courtroom, while some 68 percent never met their High Court lawyers. When they did, it was mostly to discuss the payment of their fee. The report quotes US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as saying, “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial…People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”
When he does finally get a competent lawyer who gives a fuck, Awais Sheikh (Kumar), the latter is targeted by the extremists, who ransack his office, burn his scooter, and eventually abduct him and his son. Sheikh was forced in 2013, shortly after Sarabjit’s death, to take refuge in Sweden. Again, this is par for the course in Indian terror trials:
Lawyers defending Muslim terrorism suspects also came under attack for being unpatriotic. After the 2008 bombings, several such lawyers were physically attacked or threatened by Hindu extremists, many of them fellow lawyers. In the high-profile case of Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attack, one lawyer was threatened by mobs, another was removed from the board of a prestigious Muslim foundation, and a third received a death threat for representing the defendant. Two lawyers had to defy the local bar association to defend suspects in the 2010 Pune attack. In February 2010, Shahid Azmi, who was representing a number of IM suspects as well as an Indian co-defendant in the Mumbai attack, was shot dead by gunmen. Police have charged three alleged members of a Hindu criminal gang for the slaying.
Hindus who represented Muslim suspects or protested their abuse also were targeted. In Lucknow, police brutally beat a Hindu human rights activist in a secret detention center because he was demonstrating against the mistreatment of Muslims after the bombings. “The police said…‘You should not be seen with these people, these Muslim people again, and if you don’t understand this, the future will be bleak for you,’” recalled the activist, Vinod Kumar Yadav.
The report quotes US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as saying, “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial…People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”
He is finally killed by his fellow inmates, with the complicity of the prison guards. Again, this brings to mind the case of Ram Singh, the prime accused in the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, who was found hanging in his cell under suspicious circumstances. Similar incidents of violence by fellow inmates are also common, says the death penalty report:
Asad, a prisoner sentenced to death for a high-profile terror offence, was attacked with a blade while his case was before the trial court, making a deep cut behind his ear. He continued to be subject to acts of violence carried out by his co-prisoners as his case progressed through the judicial system. Asad was attacked five times in the 13 years of his incarceration.
Satyanarayanan, sentenced to death for rape and murder in a case that attracted tremendous attention in the state, was beaten up very often when he was initially sent to prison after his arrest. The other prisoners would hardly need any excuse to brutally assault him. Although he complained to the superintendent of the prison, no action was taken for his protection. Even after two years and 10 months of incarceration, the treatment meted out to him by other prisoners continues to be the same. When Satyanarayanan goes to the bathroom, it is quite common that two prisoners accost him and proceed to physically attack him, only to blame him for the altercation later. There have also been instances of prisoners throwing mud in his rice, rendering his food inedible on multiple occasions. While noting that he got no respite from such treatment, an otherwise undaunted Satyanarayanan broke down while describing his experience in prison.
My point in bringing all this up is not to diminish the tragedy of Sarabjit Singh’s long incarceration, or the heroism of Dalbir Kaur’s quest to get the nation to care about his fate. It is to demonstrate that for every Sarabjit who makes headlines worldwide, there are thousands of powerless victims chewed up and spat out by the deeply unfair criminal justice system in both India and Pakistan, whose stories are seldom told outside academic reports. It is also to illustrate that our two societies aren’t all that dissimilar, facing similar challenges of religious fascism, strident nationalism and kneejerk pro-establishment thinking. It is a similar point to that made by Marjane Satrapi to Salon, when she was asked whether she saw similarities between Christian fundamentalists in the US and the mullahs of Iran:
If I have one message to give to the secular American people, it’s that the world is not divided into countries. The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk together and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.
Nationalism exaggerates such differences in order to maintain internal order, just like communalism attempts to unite feuding castes against a common enemy. Like all dogmas, it suppresses our humanity, our ability to care about those not like us. It is designed to stop us from questioning authority, to get us to cherrypick facts and disregard inconvenient narratives, to make sure that when the time comes, we subsume our rationality and join the faceless mob.
As he comes to accept his fate, Sarbjit urges Dalbir to work for the freedom of Pakistani nationals incarcerated in Indian jails. So what if she couldn’t get him out of jail? He’d like his legacy to be that others like him were spared his fate. Let it also be his legacy that we not restrict this empathy to only Pakistani prisoners but for everyone victimised by our justice system, that we force the authorities to evolve from using techniques reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition and curtail the security establishment’s predatory instincts. We owe him that much.