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Tinker, tailor, villager, spy

Surjeet Singh had just dipped his spoon into a bowl of kheer when he was summoned by a jail official. He had woken up with a craving for it that Thursday morning. He had prepared it on the verandah next to his cell when he was suddenly told to pack his bags.

He finally ate some kheer — but miles away from Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. It was cooked by his wife, whom Surjeet had not met for 30 years. When he returned to Punjab’s Phidde village after what seemed like a lifetime in Pakistan, she welcomed him home with a celebratory bowl of kheer.

“I hadn’t even had a mouthful when I was told I was moving out. I didn’t know where I was going,” Surjeet Singh says. He hurriedly picked up his belongings — four sets of kurta-pyjamas and his Gurbani Kirtan (book of Sikh religious songs). “And then I was told I was going home and got into a police van.”

The 74-year-old Sardar, who spent 27-years in Lahore’s jail after three years in custody of the Pakistan Army, is now sitting on a red sofa in his newly constructed home, next to his wife, Harbans Kaur. “He loved kheer then. I am happy that his taste hasn’t changed,” she says shyly.

Surjeet was arrested in Lahore on January 1, 1982, on charges of spying for India by the Pakistan Army. He was awarded a death sentence — which was commuted to life imprisonment in 1989.

The 18km stretch from Lahore jail to the Wagah border seemed like the longest journey he’d ever made. He reached the Indian border on June 28, where he was greeted by his daughter Parminder and son Kulwinder, and hundreds of villagers who escorted him home in Firozpur in a cavalcade of cars and bikes.

Thirty years meant a generation lost for Surjeet, who couldn’t recognise his children. After all, Kulwinder was only two when he last saw him. “It was strange to be introduced to your own father,” says Kulwinder, who farms a two-acre plot of land.

Surjeet took a little while to recognise his 70-year-old wife too. “She had long braids those days, but is now left with a few strands of white hair. Her teeth have fallen too. She looks so frail and so much older.”

And he knows why. “She has suffered the most in these 30 years. She had to do everything alone.”

When Surjeet disappeared, the family thought he had died. They carried on, bearing the vicissitudes of times. The Singhs’ elder son Jaswinder died in 2004, as did Surjeet’s four brothers and two sisters.

When Surjeet heard about the deaths on his return, he says he couldn’t express his grief. “My tears have dried up,” he stresses.

The family had the first inkling that he was alive in November 2005, when a resident of a neighbouring village, who had been jailed in Pakistan on charges of smuggling, returned to Punjab, carrying a letter from Surjeet. “We were overjoyed to know that he was alive,” says Kulwinder.

Kulwinder began a campaign for his release. Things began to move when he met Pakistani human rights lawyer Awais Sheikh in Amritsar last November. Sheikh petitioned the Lahore High Court seeking Surjeet’s release.

Surjeet Singh had already served his life sentence of 25 years in 2010. So he had to be released,” says Sheikh from Lahore. In April, the court ordered that he be released within three months.

Sitting in his tiny cell, Singh used to follow the developments on television. “I watched only news channels because I was desperate to know about my case,” he says.

There was confusion in the air because sections of the media had reported that Pakistan was releasing Sarabjit Singh — another Punjab villager who had also been jailed in Pakistan. On June 26, Singh watched the channels discuss Sarabjit’s imminent release. “I was happy for him but disappointed to know that it was not my turn,” he says.

In Phidde, his family too sat glued to the television. “We were thrilled and relieved when we heard that it was actually Papaji who was being released,” says Kulwinder.

Surjeet claims that he was hired by the Indian Army to spy for India in Pakistan. He holds that he made 85 trips to Pakistan over 10 years. With each trip, he earned Rs 1,500. His job, he says, was to get to know clerks in the Pakistani army and bring in whatever documents he could lay his hands on.

The Indian government has denied his story. “We do not do such spying. We do not accept that he (Surjeet) is a spy,” home secretary R.K. Singh told reporters last week.

But Surjeet insists that he has proof — receipts for the Rs 300 that was given to his family by the army every month. He holds that, as part of his job, he had to cut his hair to look like a Pakistani when he went there. He wore suits bought in Lahore to look the part of a businessman. “The day I got caught, I was wearing a maroon business suit with a matching tie,” he says.

Surjeet says he was arrested after negotiations with a Pakistani Army clerk fell through, and the clerk reported him to the Pakistani police. “For the next three years, I was badly tortured. Red chilli powder was put on every part of my body,” he says.

After he was sent to jail, Surjeet started following a routine. He would wake up at 2.30am and pray till 5am. After his morning tea, he strolled around the campus. Most evenings were spent watching TV news, followed by a game of chess or cards with other inmates who called him “Bapu”.

The inmates were fond of him. In jail, he also met the former interior minister of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, who sent him 10 kilos of sweets and a bouquet of flowers when he was released, he adds.

Surjeet says that he is not going to let the Indian government wash its hands off him. He wants the government to allot him land for farming or a petrol pump. “Will the government be able give back my 30 years,” he asks.

Right now, Surjeet is like a superstar in his village. Within a week of his return, the state government provided his house and farm with 24x7 water and electricity. Neighbours are streaming in. “Do you recognise me,” he is often asked.

He is also coming to terms with the changes that have occurred around him. The road to his village is no longer kutcha. Goods that he’d never seen before are there in every house. Surjeet’s son has given him a cellphone that he is trying to master. “I am learning to use them,” he says.

But for Surjeet, one thing has not changed — and that’s the border between India and Pakistan. “I shall never go anywhere near the border again,” he says.