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Prisoners of War: Our men in Pakistan

For nearly three decades, fifty-four families have awaited the return of their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers from the 1971 war. These servicemen were reportedly captured alive by the Pakistan army and have been imprisoned ever since.

It was on December 3, 1971, that the Indo-Pak war broke out. It lasted for 14 days, culminating in the surrender of the Pakistan forces in the Eastern sector and the creation of Bangladesh. More than 92,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoner by India. Likewise, in the Western sector, some Indian defence personnel were captured by Pakistan. Following the Simla Agreement of 1972, prisoners of war(POWs) were exchanged, yet some of the Indian prisoners remained unaccounted for, and stayed in detention in Pakistan. The harsh condition of their existence in jail is highlighted by the following words in Victoria Schoffield's book, "Bhutto - Trial and Execution":

In addition to these conditions at Kot Lakhpat, for three months Bhutto was subjected to a peculiar kind of harassment, which he thought was especially for his benefit. His cell, separated from a barrack area by a 10 foot high wall, did not prevent him from hearing horrific shrieks and screams at night from the other side of the wall. One of Mr Bhutto's lawyers made enquiries amongst the jail staff and ascertained that they were in fact Indian prisoners-of-war who had been rendered delinquent and mental during the course of the 1971 war. When the time came to exchange prisoners, the Indian government would not accept these lunatics, who had no recollection of their place of origin, and so they were retained as prisoners to eke out their existence in Kot Lakhpat. Bhutto did not forget the sleepless nights he spent and referred often to the lunatics in other letters of complaint. `Fifty odd lunatics were lodged in the ward next to mine. Their screams and shrieks in the dead of night are something I will not forget,' he wrote.

From Schoffield's account, it thus appears that it was the Government of India who did not accept these Indian prisoners of war, even though they were offered for exchange by Pakistan following the Simla agreement. The Geneva convention on prisoners of war states that they shall be released and repatriated. Over two hundred Indian soldiers were eventually repatriated from Pakistan, but not those of higher ranks. Though the officers' families went to welcome the train bearing repatriated Indian defence personnel from Pakistan, there was no reunion with their own loved ones. After suffering many years of agony, the families finally took action by forming a Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association, whose mandate was to act jointly to pressure the Government of India to recover the missing officers.

In 1981, as a goodwill gesture, Pakistan had agreed to allow an International Red Cross team to help trace the missing defence personnel. The team came a cropper. And again in 1989, the Pakistanis agreed to conduct a fresh search for the missing men of the 1971 war. In other forums, the Pakistani government has maintained that it does not have any Indian POWs, and that the relatives of these defence personnel are welcome to visit Pakistani jails to see for themselves that there are no Indian POWs there.

In September 1983, a delegation of six relatives including the relatives of Major Ashok Suri, Major A.K. Ghosh and Flt Lt V.V. Tambay were sent from India to visit Multan jail in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they all came back feeling cheated. "We were allowed to visit only one jail and this jail had none of the defence personnel," says Warrant Officer(Retd) Ashutosh Ghosh, father of Major A.K. Ghosh.

Some came back even more horrified. Flt Lt Tambay's wife, Ms Damayanti Tambay, of the Relatives of Missing Defence Personnel Association, recollects, "In a small cell there were some forty to fifty prisoners herded together. Most of them were in chains and some were tied to pillars." These were Indians allegedly caught for petty crimes like smuggling.

Not only family members of the soldiers, but also other army personnel maintain that prisoners continue to languish needlessly in Pakistani jails. Lieutenant General(Retired) K.P. Candeth, who was GOC-in-C, Western Command, during the 1971 Indo-Pak war is one such believer. "I am sure they did capture some of our soldiers and have them in Pakistan. They should be declared POWs. At the end of the war, when we sent back all Pakistani prisoners, they also should have sent the prisoners in their captivity back to India. But in this particular case, Pakistan on some pretext or another held them back," he says. The Indian government also did not unremittingly pursue the trail then warm. In allowing the trail to go cold, it let down those who sent their loved ones to our fronts with full faith that the Indian people were behind them.

On September 4, 1996, two members of the Rajya Sabha, O.P. Kohli and Satish Pradhan, asked I.K. Gujral, then minister of external affairs, whether the government was aware that as many as 40 defence personnel captured by Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict were still in foreign custody. The minister replied that according to available information, 54 missing Indian defence personnel were believed to be in Pakistan's custody. It was regretted that Pakistan had not responded positively to the numerous constructive proposals made by the Indian side over the years for resolving this humanitarian issue. The Government of Pakistan, however, maintained that there were no Indian defence personnel in its custody.

In an affidavit filed in court, Mohan Lal Bhaskar, who returned to the country following the exchange of prisoners, stated that during his stay in Pakistani jails, he came to know that at Kot Lakhpat jail, Lahore, Indian POWs were rotting in various jails. Col. Asif Shafi of the Second Punjab Regiment of Pakistan, who was also in jail, confirmed that more than 45 officers of the Indian Army, including Wing Commander H.S. Gill and others, were confined to the Fort of Atak and there were no chances of their release. Most of them had been charged with spying and were sentenced. In spite of completing the sentence they were not released from the Pakistani jails.

Many Indian citizens, including Army officers, have been illegally detained in Pakistani jails without a trial. One such prisoner is Captain A.K. Sharma, who was reported arrested by the Pakistani authorities on August 15, 1996 when his capsized boat strayed into Pakistani territory from Jammu region. Sharma has been away only five years. After the recent release of 20 fishermen from Pakistan, a foreign ministry spokesman said there are about 115 more Indian fishermen languishing in Pakistani prisons. The Pakistan Government is not respecting the human rights of these prisoners in their jails.

"We have approached the Pakistani government, but it has refused to acknowledge his presence in their jails," says Dr R.M. Pal, of the People's Union for Civil Liberties(PUCL), which is now working on securing the freedom of Captain Sharma. Dr Pal says he has definite information on Captain Sharma "we have been informed by the Indian intelligence officials privately that he is lodged in a Pakistani jail and also from friends in Pakistan, who have heard of the missing Captain from those released after serving their terms."

According to Pal, there are unknown number of prisoners in both the countries whose presence the authorities deny and also do not care much for. A redeeming factor, however, is that human rights organisations on both sides of the divide have taken up their cause at the behest of the relatives of such people and met with success too. In fact Roop Lal(recently released from a Pakistani prison), says the PUCL activist, owes his life to Dr Pal and Brig(retd) Rai Abid, who is an advisor to Pakistani Human Rights Commission(PHRC).

"Roop Lal's son-in-law approached me when he was sentenced by a military court and I wrote several letters to PHRC and contacted Abid, who is a personal friend of mine and he helped out," recalls Pal, who migrated to India from east Pakistan during partition. It was Brig Abid who pleaded Roop Lal's case with the then Army Chief Jehangir Karamat and got his death sentence commuted to life term.

But for many others life has been less fortunate, say human rights activists noting it's time for putting in place some institutional mechanism to ensure the whereabouts of such missing people and ensure their safe return. The activists categorise such people into three classes : those caught for spying, POWs and those who inadvertently strayed across the boundary. It is those in the first two categories who are put to severe torture in bids to extract information, they say.

The main hurdle is that Pakistan not only refuses to deny the presence of the POWs but has also accused India of holding back 300 POWs - a charge India has vehemently denied repeatedly. Mr Y.P. Chibbar, general secretary of PUCL suggests that New Delhi take the initiative and unilaterally release all Pakistani fishermen and civilian detainees. PUCL, quoting external affairs minister Jaswant Singh say "that India has been repatriating Pak people unless found to be in violation of any of our law." Former Delhi High Court Chief Justice Rajender Sachhar, who had also written to the government on this count and was informed by the Indian authorities that although it was willing to release the prisoners, the Pakistani government was earlier unwilling to accept them till a later stage when Indian authorities persisted.

Dr Pal advocates the formation of an organisation comprising the kin of such prisoners who would take up the issue at the international level. "Pakistan's is an authoritarian society whereas we are a democratic country, whose Constitution provides rights to foreigners. And so we should lead the way and release their prisoners even if Pakistan doesn't reciprocate." "While we do not concern ourselves with those caught for acts of terrorism, it's the prisoners in the other mentioned categories that should be released." "India should not only come clean but also convince the world that it is clean," he says, noting if that were to happen it could unleash enough forces that would ensure the freedom of those, who never came back even at the cessation of hostilities.

It was in pursuance of this objective that Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif and premier Vajpayee agreed to address bilateral humanitarian issues with great urgency and sympathy during the Lahore Summit in 1999. The Lahore process, however, was frozen by Pakistans Kargil adventure in mid 1999.

During the Kargil conflict, Pakistan amply demonstrated its hospitality towards prisoners of war. The brutal torture and then cold blooded murders of Lt Saurabh Kalia and Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja were just some of the Pakistani brutalities exposed to the world. While India handed Pakistani POW's over to the International Red Cross and burried dead Pakistani soldiers according to Islamic traditions, Pakistan chose to torture, maim and then brutally kill Indian POW's.

Indian Sepoy Bajinder Singh and Flt Lt Nachiketa paraded as POW's on PTV during the Kargil conflict.

With the Lahore process frozen as a result of Kargil and the military coup in Pakistan, it was left to the good offices of the human rights activists that prisoners kins looked for happiness. Mrs Sushila Tyagi, mother of Fg Off Sudhir Tyagi, a POW, said Roop Lal's return had given hope to her and others, whose kin were languishing in Pakistani jails. She urged Ms Asma Jehangir, chairperson, Pakistan Human Rights Commission to pursue these cases.

The media hype generated by the release of Roop Lal has long died down, but people instrumental in getting his death sentence commuted and ensuring his return to the motherland are still working overtime to ensure the release of many other military and civilian prisoners on both sides of the divide, on whom information is available in tit-bits even as governments deny their presence. Former Youth Congress chief and anti-terrorism activist M.S Bitta, said even as the country was happy at the return of Roop Lal, it was waiting for the day when 54 other POW would return home. "We will have to highlight the issue, otherwise for all practical purposes the government has closed the chapter," he said. As part of a mass awareness programme, Bitta is planning to hold seminars.

All India Anti Terrorist Front(AIATF) leader M.S Bitta supporting the US led anti-terror war in Afghanisthan.

When Bitta met External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh recently, the latter assured him that the matter would be taken up with Pakistan. However, as the government has been claiming for the past three decades, although they have repeatedly requested Pakistan to release the 54 POWs, Islamabad has remained non-committal.

Roop Lal's release from Pakistan showed just how callous the Indian authorities were to the serious matter of Indians in Pakistani jails. Roop's release came about through the ceaseless efforts of his daughter and son-in-law and the labours of Ms Asma Jehangir, chief of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. The Indian government was a mere spectator!

Damayanti Tambay says, "What do these politicians know of the pain of not having one's loved ones near one. Only I know how I spent every moment of the last 28 years. My husband was caught by the enemy fighting for our country, not for himself. Is it not the responsibility of this country's politicians to get him back"? "When I said this in a talk show, Pranab Mukherjee from the Congress got angry and said, "You are being very aggressive." I then asked him whether any of his sons, daughters or sons-in-law were in the armed forces. You tell me which politician's son is in the army? Pranab Mukherjee became quiet after that. If any of these politicians' sons had died in the war, or gone to the enemy's prisons, then they would have known the pain of the families of the defence personnel."

Colonel R.K. Pattu, President of Delhi-based Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association, agreed. "Things would have been so different if we sent the children of politicians to battlefronts," he said. "At least the maharajas led their soldiers in wars; these cowards only loot in the name of democracy." In the 10 years that he has been vigorously pursuing the cause, Pattu hasn't seen even one soldier return home.

"If the country failed to secure the release of the POWs, at least it should pay their dues", said Pattu. The families receive only a meagre pension determined by pay-scales applicable in 1971. In 1999, Lt.Gen Aurora, the 1971 war hero, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court saying that the kin be given their rightful income."These POWs are neither considered dead, nor alive. If they are to be considered dead, their families should get all the benefits that accrue to families of defence personnel who die in action. If they are alive, they are still in service and they are serving the country in much tougher circumstances than officers within the country," General Aurora said.

Retired Air Marshal M.S. Bawa asserts, "I can see some dangerous signals. Only the children of the middle and lower classes are going to the armed forces while the upper classes send their children into positions of comfort and security. Thus a deep chasm is forming between the armed forces and the ruling classes. This chasm can prove to be dangerous in the future. It should be bridged and every section of society should have a relationship with the armed forces." Colonel Pattu adds, "it was not like this before. Both sons of the Maharaja of Patiala were in the armed forces. Brigadier Bhawani Singh of the Jaipur Royal family was also in the army. These people took only one rupee as token salary. The 10th para-commandos led by Brigadier Bhawani Singh were the first to land in Dhaka. He received the Mahavir Chakra for this. These people had not come to the armed forces for money".

Colonel Pattu further adds that "in 54 years of independence, India has fought wars in 1962, 1965, 1971 and now in Kargil. A proxy-war has also been going on for a long time. Twenty thousand soldiers have died in these wars who belong to the military and para-military forces. Yet it has seemingly not occurred to us to build a memorial in their memory. Instead, we have devoted several acres of land to the memorials of politicians belonging to the ruling party(we don't include here Gandhiji, who was not part of any political party towards the end of his life). Not only that, national attention and energy is spent in visiting these memorials on birthdays and death anniversaries. We must stop using vast sums of public money to make what are essentially private memorials for individuals."

India Gate

The India Gate was built by the British to commemorate the dead of the armed forces who fought in World War I. Thus, those whom we have used like cannon-fodder, those who stood steadfast at the borders while we were safe in our homes, have not been commemorated in national memory. Except for a few soldiers, whom were awarded medals and memorials made in their name, the majority were largely relegated to the dustbins of history. While those who have misruled and misgoverned vie with each other in hogging for themselves and their progeny, our collective national remembrance and homage. Its Outrageous!!!

So whats new

There was great hope and expectations in the lead up to the historic Agra Summit between Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee which was held on July 14-16, 2001.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh promised that India would again press for the release of POWs during the summit. "We have time and again taken up this issue ...We have again taken it up now," he said. During the Lahore process, the two Govts had decided to depute Ministers who would visit the jails in each other's countries to sort out the matter. "But unfortunately, that government(of Nawaz Sharif) is no more," Singh said.

Activists from the All India Anti-Terrorist Front(AIATF) and family members of Indian POW's shouted anti-Pakistan slogans during a demonstration near the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi on July 10, 2001. They were protesting againt the upcoming visit of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. (pic: Hindustan Times)

On July 14, 2001, on the eve of the Agra Summit, the families of four POW's held a Press conference in Agra to urge the visiting Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to heed their plea and release all POW's. The four families were of Flt Lt Sudhir Goswami, Flt Lt Manohar Purohit, Sqn Ldr Mohinder Kumar Jain and Captain Dalgir Singh Jamwal.

Relatives of the POW's display photos of their dear ones during the news conference.
(pic: India Times)

Vipul Purohit(30) was born the day his father Flt Lt Manohar Purohit was taken prisoner by Pakistani forces during the 1971 war. He has spent much of his adult years fighting for the release of his father and 53 others like him. "We are most hopeful now. The lead-up to the summit and the atmosphere are most positive. After waiting for 30 years, it is about time someone listened to us. No one will be able to make up for the childhood spent without my father, but maybe my children will be able to play with their grandfather," he said.

Poonam Goswami still remembers the day she waved goodbye to her husband for the last time. "Sudhir was posted at the 5 Squadron in Agra. We were yet to get an accommodation and were sharing a flat with his friend at the air base. I would see him off at the airfield each time he went for a sortie. On December 5, when he left I never realised that I would never see him again,'' she recalled, tears in her eyes.

Poonam Goswami displays a photo of her husband Flt Lt Sudhir Goswami.
(pic: India Times)

On July 15, carrying placards demanding release of 54 POWs, around 50-60 human rights and social activists besides relatives of POWs took out a procession from Amar Vilas Hotel, around two kms from Jaypee Palace, where the Vajpayee-Musharraf Summit was being held. The procession, in which there were members of the Human Rights Action Committee of Agra and Pehchaan, a social organisation, was stopped at the Amar Vilas itself. "We wanted to meet Musharraf and apprise him of our plight," said Vipul Purohit.

Demonstrators protest in a street of Agra. (pic: Reuters)

On July 16, the last day of the summit, the POW issue was again brought up during Musharraf's breakfast meeting with senior newspaper editors in Agra. In response, Musharraf promised to personally look into the matter. "I am a soldier. I would be the first man to release prisoners of war. But still this issue is being raised again. .. So I will certainly personally look into it," he said.

Following Musharraf's commitment to get to the bottom of the matter, Vipul said: "For the first time in years I see hope of my father's return this time." Vipul bravely believes that the troubled neighbour fears being seen as a violator of the 1949 Geneva Convention for retaining POWs for three decades. He suggests a solution for Musharraf and Atal Behari Vajpayee: "Call them smugglers, illegal entrants, trespassers, fishermen, spies...anything. Just give them back to us," he said.

In September 2001, after a Cabinet meeting, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf asked his foreign ministry to facilitate the visit of the Indian families who would be allowed to search Pakistani jails for their relatives missing since 1971. Musharraf said that as a military man he would have no desire to keep such prisoners of war and that he would launch another investigation into the issue. Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar confirmed that an investigation was underway and said the move was a humanitarian gesture by Musharraf.

"We will help them all the way to find out their relatives, if they intend to visit Pakistani jails," Pakistani Army spokesman Rashid Qureshi said. Qureshi, however, reiterated the Pakistani stand of denying the existence of POWs there. However, Vipul Purohit was hopeful: "The outcome(of the invitation) depends on the integrity of Musharraf. If he is honest in his intention, we will surely progress towards a solution and some success.''

Reacting to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's invitation to visit the country's jails and scrutinise records, Damayanti Tambay said, "It is not surprising that they are denying, but it is disappointing." "Records can be concocted. If Pakistan, or for that matter any government doesn't want to help, such issues cannot be resolved. So if the intention is not clear, these actions(invites) are serving no purpose." "They can be located anywhere, if Pakistan can help us locate them and repatriate them, it would be great," Tambay said referring to her earlier visit in 1983 when they were taken to a jail in Multan and showed "some 17-18 people, but they were all civilians."

Pakistan conducted a fresh inquiry into missing Indian soldiers. Following the investigation, Pakistani interior ministry told Cabinet that it had checked all the prisons but did not find any Indian POW. Intelligence agencies, including the ISI, had combed the prisons for the Indians, it was told. Delhi had earlier sent photographs of the reportedly missing soldiers. "No Indian prisoner-of-war is held in any prison or jail in Pakistan," a press release issued by the foreign office after meeting said.

On Sep 7, 2001, in a TV interview with Reuters, Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar denied Pakistan was holding any POW's. "Our government, quite clearly there is nothing to be gained by holding the poor soldiers who were taken prisoner in 1971, 30 years ago," he said. "We released the Indian prisoners that we had soon after the war ended in accordance with the requirements of international law."

Sattar said hundreds of Pakistani troops were still listed as missing from the 1971 war with India over Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan. "We accept the Indian response, namely that India is not holding any Pakistani prisoners from the 1971 war," he said. "We wish that the government of India would accord similar credibility to what we are saying and I think that would also help assuage the continued doubts in the minds of the families of the missing soldiers," he said.

Sattar said he had been involved in probes in the 1970s and 1980s as to whether there were still Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails. "We came to the finding(then) that no Indian prisoners of the 1971 war were held under detention anywhere in any prison or jail in the country," he said. "But the families of these missing Indian soldiers still believe that their sons, soldiers are held in prisons," Sattar added. "If they think their soldiers are hidden anywhere in Pakistan we would open that jail to the family of that missing person."

And so, the pain and suffering of the POW's families, continues.

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