RIP Dr Khalil Chishty: Lessons from a cross-border campaign “in humanity’s name”

RIP Dr Khalil Chishty: Lessons from a cross-border campaign “in humanity’s name”
Dr Chishty talks to his family and to the media after being allowed bail in India. "Merely because he is a Pakistani, can we treat him differently? We can understand if you say he has links with some terrorist organisation," observed Supreme Court Justice Sathasivam.
By Beena Sarwar

Had it not been for the concerted efforts of a large number of people on either side of the border in India and Pakistan, Dr Khalil Chishty may have died while still imprisoned in Ajmer, India, rather than in Karachi, Pakistan.

The virologist with a Ph.D from Edinburgh University passed away in Karachi last Wednesday evening, aged over 90, with his wife, son, and three daughters around him. One daughter in Ajmer and another in Canada were unable to make it.

It was the youngest, Amna Chishty in Canada who revived the campaign for Dr Chishty’s release in early 2011. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had earlier made efforts to bring attention to the case.

Dr Chishty was professionally active, teaching in Karachi until February 1992, when he took leave to visit Ajmer where his mother was seriously unwell. A brawl in the neighbourhood led to Dr Chishty being falsely implicated in criminal cases, including murder. These charges remained pending since April 1992 in the Court of Special Judge, Ajmer. His passport was impounded by the court and while officially on bail, he has been ordered to remain in Fateh Farms, near village Hatundi, outside Ajmer.

“He is denied freedom of movement and is not permitted to meet people. He does not have access to telephone nor can he correspond, and his mail is censored. It may not be out of place to state in actual fact he is a hostage,” said Brig. (retd.) Rao Abid Hamid of the HRCP’s Vulnerable Prisoners Project, writing to Shahid Malik, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi.

The Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman told journalist Marianna Baabar that the government and the High Commission were aware of the case that he termed “very strange”.

He said that India had been refusing to provide Dr Chishty with consular access. “Now that we have a formal agreement with New Delhi on consular service, our High Commissioner has demanded this right to a Pakistani citizen but it has not been given”, the spokesman said. (Traumatic days of a Pakistani professor held in India, Mariana Baabar, The News, Nov 2, 2008).

On 14 March 2011, a double bench of the Indian Supreme Court disposed of a petition asking the Indian government under Article 32 of the Constitution of India through diplomatic channels “to take immediate and necessary steps for release and repatriation” of Gopal Das, an Indian prisoner held in Pakistan since 1984.

While recognising their lack of jurisdiction over Pakistan, justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra in their seven-page judgement made an unusual appeal to the Pakistani authorities, urging them to remit the remainder of the prisoner’s sentence “on humanitarian grounds”.

The judgement also quoted from the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Portia’s ‘quality of mercy’ speech from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and cited the Pakistan Supreme Court’s order to release 442 Indian prisoners in Pakistan jails.

“The Pakistan Supreme Court deserves to be commended in this connection,” noted the Indian judges. “They requested for similar release of Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails, and the Indian Government generously reciprocated the gesture by releasing many Pakistani prisoners in our jails. Thus there is a humanitarian spirit on both sides, which we applaud.”

A copy of this judgement sent by journalist Jatin Desai in Mumbai formed the basis of my report Indian Supreme Court judges appeal, in Aman Ki Asha, 16 March 2011.

Aman Ki Asha page, 16 March 2011

Shortly afterwards, President Asif Ali Zardari remitted Das’ remaining jail term “on humanitarian grounds”, advised by Prime Minister Gilani to “honour an appeal of the Supreme Court of India to the government of Pakistan,” as presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar told reporters at the time.

This was in the backdrop of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for the cricket World Cup Pakistan-India semi-final at Mohali. Plus the Home and Interior Secretaries of India and Pakistan were to meet in New Delhi the following day for the first in a series of meetings under the umbrella of the “full spectrum of dialogue” between the two countries, marking the formal resumption of the bilateral peace process stalled after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

News of the Gopal Das’ sentence remission spurred Amna Chishty to renew the appeal for her father. In an email to my colleague Lubja Jerrar Naqvi, subject line “A request for Aman Ki Asha” she wrote: “I am desperately trying to bring some attention to his plight. He is 80 years old, in failing health and currently in a prison hospital in India. I am attaching some details of his case hoping that your program can bring his plight to the forefront just like it campaigned for the Indian prisoner recently released by Pakistan” (4 April 2011).

The campaign to free Dr Chishty took months of relentless lobbying in the media and behind-the-scenes by activists from platforms like Aman ki Asha and the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, India, together with individuals like journalist Kuldip Nayar, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and Justice Markandey Katju. When the Rajasthan governor refused to use his powers to pardon Dr Chishty, journalist Shivam Vij wrote, Why is Gopal Das free and not Khalil Chishty? (Aman Ki Asha, 10 January 2012).

Appeal in the name of humanity: Mahesh Bhatt and Kuldip Nayar address a press conference at Chandigarh Press Club, 2012. Photo courtesy: Yuvsatta

In May 2012, following Asif Zardari’s appeal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Indian court took the unprecedented step of granting bail to Dr Chishty and allowing him to return to Pakistan.

Dr Chishty gave an undertaking that he would return for the next court hearing in November 2012. He returned as promised and was acquitted of all charges. Justice Katju has documented the extraordinary story in his piece, The story of Dr Khalil Chishty (Indica news, 21 May 2021).

When another Indian prisoner, Hamid Ansari’s case came up, Amna Chishty remembered her own situation and the pain and anguish that families of such prisoners go through. “In the end it was the support of friends and well-wishers on both sides that helped my family navigate through the complicated world of India-Pakistan relations and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the border” (Aman Ki Asha Facebook page, 19 February 2016).

Without such championing, cross-border prisoners often languish for years, denied even the slight relief that regular inmates look forward to, like visitors, food and amenities from home, recourse to bail and so on.

Dr Chishty has passed on. His story remains as a lesson about what is possible and what India and Pakistan need to do to help their people.

This piece was also published in The Wire, 23 May 2021

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