Roop Lal Shaharia, Indian Army

Roop Lal Shaharia

Roop Lal holding his granddaughter Shruti

On April 14, 2000, Indian national Roop Lal Shaharia(57) detained on charges of spying in Pakistani jails for the last 26 years, was released in Lahore. Roop Lal, said to be an Intelligence field officer, was sentenced to death in 1977 on charges of "espionage and possession of secret documents''.

On June 25, 1998, in a rare show of compassion, the then Pakistan Army Chief, Gen. Jehangir Karamat, commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. In a letter to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan(HRCP), Gen. Karamat stated: "Roop Lal was indicted on eight counts under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and sentenced to death after a fair trial. However, in view of his failing health and appeal for mercy, I have ordered commutation of his death sentence.''

In May 2000, Roop Lal was slated for release. On April 14, Accompanied by Mr. T.R. Jatav, First Secretary in the Indian High Commission, Roop Lal arrived at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi by a PIA flight from Lahore. Waiting there was Roop Lal's daughter, Ms Sunita, who was only six months old at the time of his arrest in 1974, and who had been trying, along with her husband, Dr Krishan Chawla, a Delhi- based dentist, to secure his release. They had approached both the Pakistani authorities and the HRCP.

Radiating joy, emanating from the sweet taste of freedom, Roop Lal had a gleam to his eyes as he was wheeled out of flight PK-270. Over 25 years of incarceration, repeated torture and a paralytic attack in Pakistan had not robbed him of his vitality. "I cannot believe I am back in my country with my own people", he exclaimed as he emerged from the arrival lounge of the airport.

"Being in prison for life in an alien country was hell,'' Roop Lal said as he spoke, eyes sparkling with energy, not as one who had been through hell but as one who had overcome it. And he plans to write everything down. Not only about his 26 years in jail but all he learnt about why India's closest neighbour is such a stranger to it.

He sat amid a crowd of media persons in the courtyard of his only daughter Sunita's house in Harinagar, sitting one granchild on his lap and his daughter and son in law seated on his either sides. He said that he came to know of his release on April 12 but was not sure if it was true till it happened and he finally left the jail at Suhawal 160 km from Lahore for the airport. Asked what he would do now that he was back in his country, he said that he knew that he had got the unexpected. "This life for me is like a bonus and I owe it to my daughter and my son(son in law),'' he said, adding that he would devote it to their happiness.

He said that his daughter was his biggest weakness which even his captors could have exploited. For me she was always a little child. But the day I came to know that she had got married, I suddenly felt liberated and free. I was not vulnerable any more, he says. And I am so lucky that my daughter has got an educated husband too, he said.

Roop Lal said that he was accused of espionage. "I was not captured once, but several times," he says. "You see, it was a dangerous life I was leading. The only difference the last time in Punjab was that the entire Pakistani ring was also caught, and they named me during an identity parade. The game was up." He said that he was subjected to all kinds of torture including electric shocks and canings in jail.

There were around 150 Indian prisoners in Kot Lakpat jail in Lahore and he prayed for their release. He says he saw other Indian prisoners of war in detention in Sialkot, Multan, Sahiwal and Lahore. "There are around 50 such prisoners, called pagal[mad] Indians, most of whom have lost their mental balance due to years of physical torture. Even if their terms have ended, they cannot be sent home because they don't remember their addresses."

Saharia said there were three Indians in the jail, who had been awarded death sentence for espionage. He said he met three other Indian spies in prison. They had converted to Islam. There was a persistent attempt to convert him too. "But I knew that man dies only once and I was not prepared to do anything merely to save my life. I was keen to die in my faith,'' he said. There were many Indian Hindu prisoners who easily succumbed to pressures to convert. "They became Muslims to get better facilities in jail," he said. "If and when they come back, they will become Hindus again. They wanted me to convert as well so that I wouldn't be able to tell people in India about their hypocrisy. But I never agreed. I stood my ground though I belong to a Scheduled caste,'' he said.

"I told my captors that I have nothing against Islam and would have converted if it helped my country. But saving my life was not motive enough,'' he said. He said that they tried to force him to eat meat but he would fast and resist all pressures. There were people there who would provide him with good unadulterated food. He said that he spent all his time reading the Gita and doing exercises. "That is what Gandhiji had also advised as to how one must spend time in confinement,'' he said.

He said that he would write about his experiences in Pakistan as he knew it more closely than many journalists would know. He said that people there have been misguided to think of Indians as their enemy. If any Pakistani praises India, he is called a desh drohi, he said.

And as he spoke in his daughter's courtyard, while Sunita smiled, a little child once again, it began to rain putting an end to what was a long summer noon.

Roop Lal with his daughter and son-in-law
Roop Lal offers prayers

Since returning to India, Roop Lal has married a CRPF soldiers widow. He is busy writing his memoirs and hopes to release the book soon.

In May 2000, Roop Lal was awarded the "Brave Son of India Award" by Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front(AIATF). Roop Lal could not contain his happiness. "After spending 9,490 days in jail, I did not think I would return to my homeland even at the time of death, let alone earlier," he said. On hearing the plight of families of soldiers taken prisoners in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Roop Lal said: "I have returned from after a harrowing experience and, now, I will work to get soldiers, imprisoned for far longer than I was, back".

In May 2001, the Bharat-Rakshak team presented Roop Lal with a large cheque. The money was donated by various members of the BR Forum, who were touched by Roop Lal's suffering at the hands of Pakistan. Unable to bear the generosity of total strangers, Roop Lal broke down into tears and thanked them.

Roop Lal gets a hug from Punjab Congress Chief Amarinder Singh on joining the party at Chandigarh.
(pic:India Times)

On December 18, 2001, Roop Lal joined the Congress Party. Punjab Congress Committee president Capt. Amarinder Singh said Roop Lal had joined the party only to serve it and was not a contender for a party ticket. He said the party would use Roop Lalís services for campaigning during the forthcoming Assembly elections in the state.

Roop Lal, who hails from the Mahasha community of Gurdaspur district, said he was joining the Congress as he felt that its policy on Pakistan and Kashmir were better and stronger than the BJP's.