The emotive issue of those missing and in indefinite detention in Pakistan’s captivity has been tellingly documented by Chandra Suta Dogra as she uncovers the story of this unethical aspect of the conflict which can perhaps now never be brought to a closure.
One of the first things drilled into any soldier is that you never, ever, leave a man behind, dead or alive! War is a business where often no quarter is asked for or given, but when the dust settles, both sides are expected to play by certain rules. At the end of the day, in 1971 a new nation had been created by the force of arms and India was basking in the glory of one of the finest military victories, however, we as a nation collectively failed a final test – for which we must now forever carry the cross!
The emotive issue of those missing and in indefinite detention in Pakistan’s captivity has been tellingly documented by Chandra Suta Dogra as she uncovers the story of this unethical aspect of the conflict which can perhaps now never be brought to a closure. The book examines all the compelling evidence and credible leads to suggest that abandoned Indian prisoners were undoubtedly in Pakistan. Even Time had shortly after the war carried a photograph of two Indians peering through the bared door of a prison, one of whom was identified as Major AK Ghosh from 15 Rajput.The magazine should have been approached to reveal the location of the prison and pin down Pakistan’s denials. Unfortunately, India failed to ask the ‘right questions at the right time’.
The story of Major AK Suri of 5 ASSAM who was presumed dead in the Battle of Chhamb is deeply poignant; he wrote a hurried letter to his father in June 1975, and succeeded in having it smuggled out of Karachi. MEA had the handwriting examined forensically and declared it authentic. His family received multiple confirmations–including his handwritten notes–of his being in captivity. His father, the Late R.S Suri, a man of ‘rare determination and persistence’ spent the rest of his life in an effort to retrieve information about his son’s whereabouts but always seemed to hit a wall. He even mounted an organized effort for other men similarly missing in action. In spite of securing a visit to Pakistani jails, no progress could be made. He died a bitter man in March 2000.
There are multiple accounts, all backed by exhaustive research including examination of newspaper clippings, official records and several personal interviews. Wing Commander HS Gill or ‘High Speed Gill’,an ace MIG pilot was shot down during the 1971 War near Badin and declared dead. Yet, there were repeated indications by eye-witnesses that not only had he been taken into captivity, but curiously, he had possibly been ‘loaned’ to the US to help unravel the secrets of the Soviet-made MiG-21 aircraft. Incidentally, the head of US Military Advisory Group at Islamabad, Colonel Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier is on record that he had questioned IAF pilots in various Pakistani jails on the technical aspects of Soviet aircraft. Clearly, he would have known the places of their detention but he ‘had a hard unconcealed hatred for Indians. Gurbir Singh Gill, has spent his lifetime pursuing all leads for his brother’s release.
The story of Captain Kamal Bakshi of 5 SIKH is equally traumatic, his body was never found and his unit believed he was captured. An Illustrated Weekly article talked about the Battle of Chhamband his death, probably giving Pakistan the alibi it needed to hold on to him. His father, Lieutenant Colonel Bakshi lived a dispirited life hoping for the miraculous return of his son.The case is now still being pursued by his nephew and classmates from Sherwood College’s batch of 1962.
The families set up the Missing Defence Persons Relative Association. Few of them even visited Pakistan.The two visits were widely spread in years and conduct. During the first visit in 1983, Ajit Doval, then posted to the Indian High Commission was their points man. The second, a ten-day visit in 2007 was far better organized in terms of backing of the Pakistan government but both visits lacked deliverable substance and were pointless. They were not given full access and records shown to them were in Urdu.There was no one from our jails accompanying them so the manner in which these records were maintained could be understood.Further, reciprocity was lacking to the Pakistani delegations in India and the timing of the first visit coincided with Mrs Gandhi demanding the release of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan in Parliament. Simmi Waraich the daughter of Major SPS Waraich of 15 PUNJAB, missing in the battle of Hussainiwala maintained a meticulous record of the unsuccessful second visit. His presence in Pakistan custody had been confirmed to Colonel Dara, the legendary hockey player, by Lieutenant General Riaz Hussain, a former Governor of Balochistan in 1972 and subsequently by Mohinder Singh a returning Indian spy in 1988. Unfortunately, the families always came back dejected.
After the war, India returned all 93,000 prisoners and also protected 195 of them from being tried for war crimes by Bangladesh.Their own men forgotten, India’s focusunfortunately seemed to be entirely on the recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation and the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
Not surprisingly, there is bitterness on the issue regarding these missing prisoners whose names had been announced on Pakistan radio as having been captured. Ironically some of them had been declared dead in our records which were later corrected. India refused to involve the United Nations or any other international forum treating all matters relating to the conflict as bilateral issues to be resolved under the Shimla Agreement. The Governments stand articulated to the Delhi High Court in 1999 by Vivek Katju states it is ‘committed to solve all matters with Pakistan on a bilateral basis without third party intervention’.Relatives who approached ICRC when they found they had declassified old records for the years 1966 to 1975, realised that documents pertaining to this conflict are private till 2035. Fortunately, for Kulbushan Jadhav, Sushma Swaraj as External Affairs Minister decided to go to the ICJ in 2017 in a sharp departure from this policy.
By all accounts, the fate of POWswas indeed grim. Victoria Schofield in her book Bhutto: Trial and Execution refers to Indian POW’s kept in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail. She writes Bhutto ‘was subjected to a peculiar harassment in captivity’ and quoting his lawyer states ‘every night the screams of the Indian prisoners, soldiers detained from previous wars would prevent him from sleeping’. Reports suggest that many of them became insane because of mental and physical torture. It is clear that those who slip ‘through the cracks’ fall into the crevices of the deep state, lost forever and are neither heard nor seen again! Even visits by the next of kin to the various jails mentioned in such cases yield no result. The visits themselves were rare and difficult to organize.
The book talks of the Committee for Monitoring Missing Defence Personnel. In 2009, I happened to be part of that Committee when posted to Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff and worked under Air Marshal Dheeraj Kukreja. It had representatives from Service Headquarters and relevant Ministries and was a platform to push this agenda. There is no doubt that this issue has been raised multiple times at the highest levels by the government including personal involvement by some Prime Ministers, as brought out in the book butto no avail as Pakistan continues to deny their presence and accept any evidence as true and no joint bilateral investigation is possible due to the ‘lack of human aspects of relationship’ between India and Pakistan. Individuals in Pakistan including Ansar Burney a lawyer and human rights activist, have also taken up this cause. Unfortunately, the long arc of the moral universe in this instance has not bent towards justice.
As we are now celebrating the Golden Jubilee of our decisive victory and the creation of Bangladesh, there is also a need to reflect on this dark side of that splendid achievement. Astonishing facts with detailed evidence are embedded in this book.It is difficult not to feel the staggering grief of the relatives who desperately wanted no more than the closure of their endless nightmares.
When the present government came to power in 2014, Colonel N.N Bhatia along with the military historian Shiv Kunal Verma, had taken the matter up with General VK Singh, then Minister of State for External Affairs. He asked for and examined all records. Says Kunal; ‘For Pakistan it was a Catch-22 situation. They had been lying through their teeth on about various issues, be it their non-involvement with tribal lashkars in 1947-48, guerrilla forces in Operation Gibraltar in 1965, involvement in Kargil in 1999 and sponsoring of terrorism in J&K. in this case if they were now to make any concessions, the mask would be off !! It is truly one of the greatest failures of India’s diplomacy.’
The numbers kept fluctuating. Forty POWs from the 1971 conflict was the figure announced in Parliament in April 1979. This was then expanded to 54 as subsequently fresh evidence was obtained, including the names of three prisoners from the 1965 War. Their families were shocked, many of whom had resigned themselves to the idea that these brave soldiers had been killed in battle. Their lives changed forever; paralysed by restlessnessmany have since died in misery having spent their lives in a futile wait for the return of the loved ones.
For all of us, the ominous words of Pink Floyd ‘there is no dark side of the moon really, as a matter of fact it’s all dark’forces us to stop, think and ask–why did it take so many years for a book of such a sad, sensitive and emotive issue to see the light of day? I wonder if there is an answer to that question.
‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett, is a play where Vladimir and Estragoan are waiting for someone who they are not certain will even arrive. It’s a play where ‘nothing happens’. However, this wait for someone who will never appear raises questions about life, death, the meaning of human existence, the cruelty and pathos. A situation well beyond tragic or depressed, in many ways its ‘absurd’. Fifty years in captivity under these circumstances, if they are still alive, would have left them withno resemblance to what they were. For the families there is an impossibility in their situation and a pain that cannot ever be healed.It’s not only a sad story but also one of an unspeakable crime beyond all normative bounds!
We’re waiting for Godot’.