“Vo jinda hai (he is alive)”. That was the first thought that struck the mother and wife of Kulbhushan Jadhav when they saw him in Islamabad this week. This sense of relief was shared by both Indian diplomats in Islamabad, and the Indian government in Delhi. Amid all the hostility shown by Pakistan, when Avanti and Chetna Jadhav, the mother and wife of Indian prisoner Kulbhushan Jadhav met him in Islamabad, the great suspense about his very existence was over and that in itself was an achievement. For, no Indian official or any member of the Jadhav family had any contact with him or had any idea of where he was since his arrest was made public in March 2016.
Jadhav was arrested and tried on charges of espionage by Pakistan. He has been awarded the death sentence by a military court. India has stoutly denied the allegations and has been able to stall Jadhav’s execution by taking the case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
The Sunday Guardian has been able to put together the inside story of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s meeting with his mother and wife in Islamabad this week after talking to multiple sources inside and outside the government. When his mother Avanti and wife Chetna boarded the plane from Delhi to Dubai and then to Islamabad, both were restless and fearful of the unknown as neither of the two knew what laid in store for them. Mother Avanti stayed stronger of the two and took the lead in their journey to Pakistan. She was excited about meeting her son, but was also anxious about visiting a hostile country. As much as they wanted to meet Kulbhushan, they also wanted to return home safe.
The thought even crossed their mind what if Pakistan played mischief and presented a “bahurupia (lookalike)” before them. How would they know he was Kulbhushan?
The Indian establishment’s biggest concern was that Avanti and Chetna should not be interrogated, detained or arrested under any pretext whatsoever. The Indian government was completely distrustful of the Pakistanis and, hence, through back channel negotiations, extracted a “sovereign guarantee” from Islamabad about the safety of the two women.
The two Marathi ladies got the shock of their lives right on the tarmac of the airport in Islamabad, soon after landing. Television cameras started following them, all the way to the Indian High Commissioner’s office. Reporters hounded them even at traffic signals. It was obvious that the Pakistan establishment had laid a trap to stifle them by conducting a trial by media.
The arrangements that the Pakistanis had made for the meeting surprised both Avanti and Chetna, and even the Indian diplomats. The two women were stripped before the meeting and given ill fitting clothes to wear.
The much awaited meeting was more about tension than emotion. On seeing them Kulbhushan smiled, but looked to be under severe pressure throughout. The videos clearly show he had been restrained and was holding himself back. When he saw his mother and wife without bindis and mangalsutras, he asked in
apprehension, “How is Baba (father)?”
All the time he spoke as dictated by his captors. The three of them were not allowed to speak in Marathi and were frequently disturbed by the security men present there. In a way, this was expected. How can a captive who has become a prestige issue in bilateral relations, speak freely? To this, mother Avanti even scolded Kulbhushan by saying, “Maa ke saamne jhoot bolta hai (you are lying to your mother).”
Wife Chetna did not cry even once before the media or the Pakistani authorities, but tears rolled down her cheeks when she saw her husband. Avanti was more composed of the two.
Both women stayed silent when, outside Pakistan’s Foreign Office, the local media started hounding them and asked them questions about their meeting with the qatil (murderer). But inside, both were scared. Indian diplomat J.P. Singh, who was accompanying the two women, was protective of them but appeared tense when waiting for the car soon after the meeting.
It is being said that by unleashing a jingoistic media, Pakistan was unleashing a psychological warfare on India.
But the two Marathans had enough grit to match all that Pakistani aggression. Both managed to put up a brave face when unexpectedly encountering such abusive behaviour.
They were under pressure even when they reached the airport to return home. Reporters managed to approach them, sticking their microphones right under their nose. One video shows how Deputy High Commissioner Singh had to hold their hands literally and run through the crowd of journalists.
Both countries had agreed to keep the visit out of bounds for the media. When Pakistan wanted the ladies to take a question or two from each side, India refused. But the Pakistan establishment was not willing to let go of the opportunity to exploit the visit to the hilt for its domestic audience.
Still, Avanti and Chetna remained unruffled. But when they boarded the return flight a feeling of depression overpowered them as they did not know if they would meet Kulbhushan ever again; if that was their last meeting with him.
Of course, India is hopeful that Pakistan will now tread carefully and will not rush to hang Jadhav.