Even 35 years after
the India-Pakistan war ended on December 17, 1971, the families of 54
soldiers who were declared ‘missing in action’ do not know the
fate of their kin. Simmi Waraich reports
on the trials and trauma of the affected families.
"If the cause be
just and mind be strong,
This is a diary noting in Dr R.S. Suri’s diary, father of Major Ashok Suri, captured in the 1971 war. The Army had declared Major Suri as "Killed in action". Then on December 26, 1974, R.S. Suri received a hand-written note dated December 7, 1974 from his son. The letter contained a slip in which his son had written, "I am okay here." The covering note read, "Sahib, valaikumsalam, I cannot meet you in person. Your son is alive and he is in Pakistan. I could only bring his slip, which I am sending you. Now going back to Pak." Signed M. Abdul Hamid, the postmark was New Delhi, December 31, 1974.
"In August, 1975, he received another missive postmark dated ‘June 14/15/16, 1975, Karachi.’ The letter said, "Dear Daddy, Ashok touches thy feet to get your benediction. I am quite ok here. Please try to contact the Indian Army or Government of India about us. We are 20 officers here. Don’t worry about me. Pay my regards to everybody at home, specially to mummy, grandfather – Indian government can contact Pakistan government for our freedom." The then Defence Secretary had the handwriting confirmed as Ashok’s and changed the official statement from "killed in action" to "missing in action"!
When one gets one’s
son’s letter from a prison in Pakistan, what does one do? Well, R.S.
Suri spent the rest of his life making weekly trips to the MEA where
everyone got to know him well. He worked with the government, careful
not to involve the media because MEA officials advised him that the
missing servicemen were in danger of being killed if they did so.
Damayanti Tambay knew her husband was alive too. His name came in the Karachi Sunday Observer as Flt Lt Tombay among four pilots captured alive. He had told her he would say he was Tombay instead of Tambay if he was captured so she would know that he were alive. Later, T.A. Yusuf, a Bangladeshi Officer, told her he had met him in Lyallpur jail in 1974 along with other Indian defence personnel while he too was in jail.
There are numerous other such stories. Wing Commander Gill, known as ‘High Speed Gill’ for his love of flying at top speed and for his daredevilry, was awarded the Vir Chakra ostensibly posthumously. He was befriended by Major Ayaaz Ahmed Sipra and Colonel Asif Shafi, two Pakistani officers who were interred in Attock jail after being arrested for the "Attock conspiracy"—in which senior Pakistani army officers were indicted for conspiring against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1973. These two officers independently told this to Mohan Lal Bhaskar, a spy who was repatriated in 1974 and wrote a book Main Bharat ka Jasoos tha.
Major S.P.S. Waraich and Major Kanwaljit Singh were captured from Husainiwala sector on December 3, 1971, when the Pakistani army made a full-scale surprise attack. 15 Punjab lost 53 men and two officers and 35 men were taken prisoners. Later, Ashwini Kumar, DIG, Punjab police, was told by General Riaz at the Munich Olympics that Waraich was in Dargai jail, NWFP.
The Indian Army and Air Force have erected memorials to these men as martyrs. They write of them as "killed in action" and their family members were forced to acknowledge that they were killed in action so that monetary benefits could be released. The USA has Missing in Action Day and there is a cell that searches for their men missing in Vietnam and follows up leads where someone may be alive but in India there is no such thing.
Family members of the missing men been working on this incessantly for the last 35 years now. They have met every prime minister, every foreign minister to date but they are repeatedly told, "We believe the men are there but what can we do when they do not acknowledge it!"
Two Chinese soldiers were repatriated from India in 2005, after 43 years in India. The point is to continue to search for the truth.
It is not that the government has not done anything. In 1983, Narasimha Rao, the then Foreign Minister, sent six family members of the missing men to Pakistan after an agreement was reached that they would be shown all Indian prisoners. However, on the way, relations soured as Indira Gandhi made statements on the treatment meted out to Frontier Gandhi. In addition, India which was supposed to show the Pakistanis 23 prisoners in Patiala jail showed them only three. When the Indians reached Multan jail, they were shown only those prisoners already cleared for repatriation and not "all security prisoners". They were told "those who you are looking for are not here." Imagine what the family members went through, they had come this close only to return dejected.
Even if one man is still alive, India needs to transmit to the Pakistanis that it is determined to find out what happened to his whereabouts. It is not enough to merely ask ‘Do you have them.’ Pervez Musharraf said categorically in 2000 that they had no Indian Army personnel when Jagseer Singh and Mohammed Arif were there. If this could happen in 1999, anything could have happened in 1971. Then Pakistan had lost the war and was concerned that it should not be charged with war crimes in East Pakistan. India was in a hurry to repatriate 93000 prisoners of war who were difficult to feed and look after.
India has never set up any commission as per the Geneva conventions according to which, a commission should be set up to handle unresolved cases of PoW. Pakistan tabled a report last year saying it has 182 Indian prisoners since 1971. Who are these men? Even if they are civilians, they may have answers about the forgotten 54 POWs. Is the MEA following this up?
How long will the families of the missing men fight? The services need to account for each man. What happened to Major Ghosh whose photo was published as a POW in Time magazine but whose name was not on the list of prisoners? If Musharraf so wishes, he can answer the question now. It would be a step forward for humanity. After all, these soldiers fought for India and after 35 long years, it is high time the country asks for them to be brought back home.
Doubts continue to hauntfamily members. They do not know whether they should mourn for their loved ones or pray for their return. Can we not have an annual official MIA day? Why has our government forgotten them? Why are the Army and the Air Force so lackadaisical about the case. Are they working on it still? Of what use are the awards, the Vir Chakras? Take them back but find out what happened to these men.