Kabaddi was the leitmotif in the story of Sarabjit Singh, who died days after being attacked by inmates in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail, which is widely believed to be a tit-for-tat reaction to the hanging of key 26/11 perpetrator Ajmal Kasab and Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.
This 28-year-old farmer, wrestler and kabaddi expert from the border town of Bhikhiwind, strayed into Pakistan after getting drunk following the celebrations of his team’s victory in a kabaddi match.
In a kabaddi game, the team sends a raider to the other team’s half, who keeps holding his breath and chanting the word kabaddi and returns to his side after successfully tackling the opponent. Sarabjit was an expert raider on the field, but in his real life battle, he lost his breath before he could reach his country.
But his brutal end and the untiring campaign to save him, spearheaded by his brave, doughty sister Dalbir Kaur, made him a tragic hero, whom everyone empathised with. His death catapulted the forgotten prisoner incarcerated in a Pakistan jail to a martyr, who was given a state funeral, even as the people of the nation watched on television.
This lanky man made friends easily, a trait which helped him even through the long years he spent in the overcrowded Pakistan jail. His friends and family in Bhikhiwind remember him as someone who was extremely loyal and patriotic. In a testimony to his friendship, his pal Manjinder has kept the tractor used by Sarabjit in a working condition for 23 years, waiting for him to return home.
A father who did not see his daughters grow up or get married, he tried to make up by sending them letters from jail, trying to be a part of their lives. Despite his sister’s sustained crusade to get Sarabjit released from Pakistan jail, his fate largely depended on the hope of a presidential pardon or the state of Indo-Pak ties. In June 2012, it seemed that the impossible had happened when his release was announced by Pakistan, and his family excitedly began preparations for his return home.
But their hopes were dashed that very night when Pakistan clarified that it was Indian prisoner Surjeet Singh who was being set free.
The death of the dalit prisoner and the huge uproar it generated in India, made him a priority of all parties.