An Indian Supreme Court judge and a group of eminent citizens of India, approached by the Aman ki Asha initiative of the Jang and Times of India groups, have moved into swift action to try and secure the release of Dr Muhammad Khalil Chishty, a Pakistani prisoner in India. He is 77 and in failing health at Ajmer Prison Hospital. The story of Dr Chishty, once a well-respected virologist in Karachi, is an especially tragic one.
He had been implicated in a case that is widely believed to be false while he was visiting Ajmer in 1992 to care for his sick mother, and after a quarrel with neighbours. (An inquiry by Indian citizens “reveals that he was falsely implicated”). He was finally convicted by a sessions court in Ajmer last December, nearly 20 years later. Throughout this time, held in detention and under strict surveillance at his family house near Ajmer, he had never missed a hearing or failed to follow court orders.
One of Dr Chishty’s daughters wrote to Aman ki Asha seeking to bring about his return. Aman ki Asha approached Justice Markandey Katju, the same Indian Supreme Court judge in response to whose appeal Pakistan had freed Indian prisoner Gopal Das who had spent two decades in jail. The judge set in motion the legal effort for Dr Chishty’s release. The appeal by prominent Indians who have taken up the case with zeal is a follow-up and continuation of this effort.
They have sent a letter to the Indian president urging the release of the aged prisoner. It is signed by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, journalist Jatin Das, retired Indian naval chief Admiral L. Ramdas, and Kavita Srivastava of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, an NGO that has been trying to help Dr Chishty over the past many years. It is hoped that the Indian media too will highlight the case and press for an old man to return home “alive” as his daughter put it. The case of Dr Chishty had once received wide attention. Through the years he has essentially been forgotten, in his own country as well as in India.
The campaign now launched brings the case into the limelight once more. This is the first stage in securing the release of the doctor. Humanity demands that he be set free. No purpose can be served by holding a sick man in a foreign jail. It must be hoped also that the recent thaw in ties between Pakistan and India can work in favour of Dr Chishty, as it did in the case of Gopal Das. He has been convicted by a lower court and a higher court may overturn the sentence. The one thing Dr Chishty does not have, as his daughter said, is time. We hope that the Indian courts will order his release on humanitarian grounds.
The effort being made for the release of Dr Chishty points to the immense importance of groups and people coming together for a cause. We believe such initiatives can make a big difference in the lives of individuals when they inspire people to work to mitigate the plight of their fellow human beings. And if it is true of individuals – and if initiatives like Aman ki Asha are owned and embraced by civil society and political leaders – there is every reason to believe that the two great nations of the subcontinent will benefit immensely from a more collective and social expression of the basic humanity we share with each other.