Martyr politics

Why was Sarabjit Singh given a state funeral?

Sarabjit Singh has been cremated with full state honours, wrapped in the national flag. Politicians have paid public homage, sombre words were said about him. The prime minister called him a "brave son of India". The Punjab assembly has declared him a national martyr, announced a three-day mourning, offered government jobs and financial aid to his family. But the government has made no attempt to explain exactly what made him a martyr. It would, indeed, twist itself in knots if it tried to explain the precise nature of his sacrifice.

Of course, Sarabjit Singh was a victim in his death. He spent 22 years on death row, many of them in a terrible limbo, not knowing if he would live or die. He was attacked in prison, by fellow inmates, while in the custody of the Pakistani state, and died because of those injuries. Given the loneliness of his life and the brutality of his death in Pakistan, public emotion in India is understandable. The eager involvement of the state, though, needs clearer justification.

Sarabjit Singh was convicted in Pakistan for being a spy and involvement in bombings that killed 14 people in Faisalabad and Lahore. What message does it send to Pakistan if the Indian government openly celebrates someone whom their Supreme Court has convicted for espionage and terror? Or perhaps, the government has information to the contrary. Perhaps it knows for certain that he was not involved in planning the violence. Does it know that he was innocent? If so, this is information the state has not shared with the public so far. The UPA may have rushed in because it didn't want the opposition parties to steal political advantage and accuse it of having failed an Indian citizen in Pakistan. Or because television channels have been outraging, and this government has shown a tendency to jump to their jingoistic tune. But either way, in his death if not during his life, the Indian government has openly embraced Sarabjit Singh. Now it cannot avoid difficult questions about whether or not he was a state actor. Its impulsive participation in Singh's funeral would appear to have complicated its position with Pakistan.

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