One one side, on 16 Dec 1971, the war between India and Pakistan had ended. A huge number of Pak soldiers, estimated at about 93,000, were captivated and taken as prisoners of war. This was parallel to the surrender of the 6th German Army during the Second World War at Stalingrad- numbering about 100,000 prisoners of war.
The difference was, while India tried to give the best of the treatment possible under the circumstances to the Pak POWs, including the visit to prisoners’ camp by the General Sam Manekshaw- then the Chief of the Army Staff and later Field Marshal, Russia used them as labourers with shoddy treatment. Many of them died in prison due to maltreatment. It is mentioned that out of 100,000 only 6,000 POW returned. In 1971 Pak POWs were later honourably repatriated to their country by India.
On the other side: 51 years have passed. India is known to be having a very small number of 54 POWs, unrepartriated, who are believed to be still languishing in Pak jail with no viable information available about them. Anyone aged around 25 years at that time would be 76 years old today. But even today, India still cannot conclusively determine what their fate is: dead or alive? If alive, where are they? Ultimately, we failed to get our approximately 54 POWs (not including POWs from 1965) back home despite accepting the largest military surrender since the Second World War.
The greatest flaw perhaps that was committed by India was not to have carried out a complete search of the Pak prison system before releasing the Pak POWs. That might have greatly cleared the fog, especially at a time when Pakistan was shaken. Even thereafter we should have kept the general officers captivated with us to keep good control in our hands, keep pressure on Pakistan till the issue was satisfactorily resolved.
India is historically always too good or too soft towards enemies, who get the better of us, even to the peril of our own men or country at our cost.
Anyway, 52 years have passed. India did periodically try to resolve the issue and get the POWs back. However, that did not have much consistency and perhaps solid determination, as it is perceived with the flow of the events. To date, there has been nothing conclusive that would confirm whether they are dead or alive!
There have been some efforts. The Pakistan government invited family members to Pakistan to identify, if found, its missing defence personnel in November 1982 when India and Pakistan signed a protocol on the exchange of prisoners when Zia-Ul-Haq visited India. On May 30, 1983, Narasimha Rao said that he would take up the issue at the highest level- the visit of the parents of missing defence personnel to Pakistan. A delegation of six next-of-kin was allowed to go and it was made very clear that this was a classified visit that the press was not invited to. The families left on September 12, 1983, on a Monday to visit Lahore.
This was the first time the Indians had gotten consular access after 1971. The families got to know that some officials of the MEA will also be going with them to Multan jail. Indira Gandhi, at that time, was making aggressive statements in favour of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the MQM movement which was irritating Pakistan. On Sept 14th they flew to Multan, India was supposed to grant Pakistani officials reciprocal access to 25 Pakistani prisoners at Patiala jail which did not happen. The news that was printed in Pakistani papers said that "India goes back on its words". On Sept 15, 1983, the soldiers’ families visited Multan jail. But there was no result.
In 2007- 14 relatives, carrying photographs and other details of the missing men, travelled to Pakistan and visited jails without success. A few of them alleged that Pakistan had stonewalled their efforts to meet the prisoners, something the country denied. During the second visit, the relatives said there was "strong evidence of them being alive and in Pakistan". The Pakistani interior ministry denied this.
Even if they were alive and kept somewhere in Pak Jail, it was very easy for Pak to hide them from the visitors.
Nothing much was done thereafter. Last July, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government told the parliament that there were 83 Indian soldiers, including the "missing 54", in Pakistan's custody. The rest are possibly soldiers who "strayed across the border" or were captured for alleged espionage. Pakistan has consistently denied holding any Indian prisoners of war. We are still hoping influential Modi Government would take some much deserved positive steps. I wonder is the case not strong enough to take UN assistance?
Having read all this, there comes a nagging feeling in our minds - did we do enough for these brave sons of India and their relatives who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of others? What about their freedom? Who would ensure that? Do we write them off? While our relations with Pakistan are known to be not friendly enough, would it provide solace to the minds of those POWs who are unfortunately still alive, and to their near and dear ones, that India as a nation has not been able to get them back? Their mental agony would be unbearable. Every passing moment of their lives would highly torturous!
We must, as a country, keep knocking on all the doors vigorously. We must keep appealing to our leaders, to international organisations to listen to our plea. It will act as a big morale booster for our defence forces that they are not left alone in trying days. In war there always would be possibility being taken as a ‘Prisoner of War’.
Let us all join together and renew our effort and appeal for the freedom of our 54 unsung and forgotten heroes who are languishing still in jail.
As the Government seems to have confirmed existence of 83 POW in Pak jail including 54 of 1971, pray, our cry reaches to our Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Honurable Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and necessary action is initiated for their early release.
About The Author
Lt Col. MK Guptaray is an author of two books; Sri Lanka Misadventure, coauthored with Col Gautam Das and Birth of a Nation on Bangladesh war of 1971. He is a seasoned veteran of the 1971 war; where he had the privilege to participate in the Naogan Sector under 104 Brigade, 19 Division.
He participated in Op-Pawan in 1987 capturing over half the Jaffna Town within 5 days of landing at Palali airport with barely a strength of 220 to start with which reduced to 180 in no time. He has held various A, Q and G staff appointments from Brigade to command level.
He was born on 23rd October 1946 in village Madhabi, Dhaka District, of undivided India prior to partition. Moved into Kolkata in 1950 graduated from Kolkata and joined OTA on 13th April 1968 and commissioned on 12 Jan 1969. Joined 9 Sikh. He is presently having a retired life in Pune.