Prepare yourselves for a bit of a shock and it has nothing to do with the coronavirus. But it is, nonetheless, distressing. As many as 83 Indian soldiers are said to be in Pakistani captivity, some from as far back as the 1965 and 1971 wars, and it appears successive governments have either forgotten about them or not strained themselves to get them back. In fact, 83 is the Indian government’s official count.
Chander Suta Dogra’s book on this tragic, if bewildering, situation reveals a story that hasn’t got the attention it deserves. ‘Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back’ is full of heartrending accounts of soldiers wrongly presumed dead, others said to be missing in action when there’s credible proof they’re in Pakistan, and some who are now certain to be dead but we continue to tell their next of kin they’re prisoners of war (POWs).
Nothing illustrates this better than the story of Major Ashok Suri. Initially, it was said he died in action on December 5, 1971, only for his father to receive four telegrams saying something else while Radio Pakistan claimed he was alive. After personal enquiries seemed to affirm that, his family received two letters which handwriting experts confirmed were written by him. Satinder Lambah, then a junior diplomat in Pakistan but later high commissioner, is certain Suri was alive in the mid-70s. Unofficially, Amnesty International concurred. Yet it took the government over three years to change his classification from killed to missing-in-action. If it had done so earlier, Dogra says, we might possibly have got him back. But as long as India maintained he was dead, Pakistan felt no compulsion to return him.
Dogra’s book discusses five reasons why these 83 soldiers languish in Pakistani prisons. First, when POWs were exchanged in 1972, the Indian government was more concerned about ensuring Pakistani recognition of Bangladesh. As a result, it did not properly ensure all Indian POWs had been returned. This was not a top priority. Second, India does not follow the Israeli practice of exchanging a disproportionate number of enemy POWs for a smaller number of its own. When Pakistan suggested a one-for-three exchange, India rejected it. Third, India doesn’t believe in taking this matter to the International Court of Justice or involving third governments because it fears this could provide Pakistan an opportunity to internationalise Kashmir.
If these three reasons reflect the perverse attitude of Indian governments, Dogra identifies two more which suggest Pakistani mischief. First, Pakistan probably retained a few Indian POWs as bargaining chips in case its own officers were tried for war crimes after the 1971 war. Those trials never happened but the retained POWs were forgotten about. Ultimately, she writes: “Their poor mental and physical condition, possibly as a result of years of torture and injuries, made it difficult for Pakistan to admit their presence and return them.”
The second Pakistan-related reason is particularly intriguing. She believes some POWs, such as Lance Naik Jaspal Singh, may have been sent to West Asian countries such as Oman to cover up the embarrassment of retaining Indian POWs years after the war ended. Once out of sight, they were also out of mind.
However, pause before you jump to nasty conclusions about our neighbour. The opposite story is equally true. They believe 18 of their soldiers are in India’s custody. And we’ve been just as unhelpful! There are times when our governments are uncannily similar.
Now think of the families devastated on both sides. Sometimes they’re told their kin are dead only to get hope they’re alive, or missing in action only to discover they’re prisoners, or listed alive only to receive posthumous awards for gallantry. They’ve suffered for decades because their governments can’t be bothered to establish the truth, while soldiers who fought for their country are forgotten by their countrymen. The Kohima War Memorial says “for your tomorrow we gave our today.” In this instance, a better epitaph would be “for our today we denied you a tomorrow.”