A prisoner of war (POW) is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by the enemy during or immediately after the armed conflict. Captor states hold POWs for any range of legitimate and illegitimate reasons. They are isolated from the operations and released and repatriated on will or under international compulsions like economic sanctions, aid blockades in an orderly manner after the hostilities, to demonstrate military victory, to prosecute and punish them for the war crimes. They are also exploited for their physical labour as conscripts to collect military and political intelligence. The Chinese, North Koreans, Israelis, earlier Japanese and Pakistanis are known to ill-treat and indoctrinate prisoners to mold their political or religious beliefs. In Pakistan, China and North Korea it is believed that many prisoners of war were murdered, severely beaten, sexually abused, given summary punishments, brutal treatment and forced labour.
After the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, India had captured nearly 93,000 POWs from the erstwhile East Pakistan that included both military personnel and civilians. Pakistan also had captured nearly 400-500 Indian POWs primarily in the western sector. Most of the Indian POWs were released by Pakistan in June 1972 and I was one of the officers detailed by the Army Headquarters to debrief them. Likewise, all the Pakistani POWs were released by India after the Shimla Agreement without resolving intricate issues Kashmir, river water dispute, Siachen, Sir Creek and minority Hindus insecurity in Pakistan. That speaks volumes of poor Indian political decision making, conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy aftermath victorious war.
With the result, there are many Indian POWs still languishing in the Pakistani jails for the last fifty years under sub human conditions. Since talks on any issue with Pakistan always remain inconclusive and meaningless as country lacks sincerity, moral courage and is perpetually in the denial mode, these Indian POWs are holed up in the Pakistani jails until death. While capturing the POWs during the war is legitimate activity, the treatment of such war prisoners needs to be governed by the Geneva Convention, 1929. Both India and Pakistan are signatory to the Geneva Convention but who cares.
How Many Indian POWS Are In Pakistan?
It is a million dollar question. Initially, the figure revolved around 84 POWs in Pakistan as there were apprehension many such military prisoners captured in 1965 Indo- Pak War had not been released by Pakistan after 10 Jan 1966 Tashkent Agreement. In 1979, Samarendra Kundu, the then minister of state for external affairs stated in Parliament that there were 54 Indian armed forces personnel held as POWs in Pakistan. In Jul 2019 Modi Government in Parliament stated that there were 83 missing Indian soldiers including 54 of 1971 War. These figures are not sacrosanct or else how Sepoy Jaspal Singh of 15 Punjab believed to be killed in 1971 War is reportedly alive and presently lodged in a jail in Oman, Major Ashok Suri, 5 Assam, was deployed on the west of Munnawar Tawi River in the Chambb sector and in the confusion of the war, believed to be killed and cremated but later found POW in Pakistani jail.
While most of the POWs were captured in the western sector, wife of Hav Dharam Pal Singh, 4 Sikh, in her Civil Writ Petition filed in the court that her husband earlier believed to be killed in action in East Pakistan, was actually captured by the Pakistani Army in the Bangladesh Liberation War, 1971. He was not found along with 93,000 Pakistani POWs who surrendered to the Indian Army after the war. This fact is reiterated by another Indian POW Satish Kumar who was inmate of Hav Dharam Pal Singh in Kot Lakhpat Jail during 1974-76. In the fog of the war, the exact numbers of military personnel missing, dead or captured is difficult to ascertain especially with enemy like Pakistan who has consistently denied holding any Indian POWs and figures keep changing. Many a times, missing victims are thrashed and killed by the remote villagers on either side.
In yet another incident the Supreme Court has asked the Centre to inform it within four weeks about the whereabouts of Capt Bhattacharjee 7/8 Gorkha Rifles stationed in the Rann of Kutch, one fateful day went suddenly missing while on routine patrolling mission with no trail of evidence as in featureless barren desert, navigation, maintenance of direction and bearing in sand storm is the most difficult. Intelligence inputs indicated that the officer went astray and was taken for interrogation by Pakistani army in the outskirts of Hyderabad/Karachi on 28 Apr 1997 and his where abouts ever since are not known. There are numerous similar incidents occurring on both sides of the International Border (IB) that mostly go unreported.
Indian Families Quest To Search Their Kith & Kin
In 1983, Mr GS Gill (brother of Wg Cdr HS Gill whose plane was shot down over Badin on 13 Dec 1971 and Pakistan Radio gave news of his captured alive the same day). Late Dr R Suri (father of Maj AK Suri), late Mr Kaura (father of Capt Ravinder Kaura), Late Mr A K Ghosh( father of Major AK Ghosh), Mrs Damayanti Tambay (wife of Flt Lt VV Tambay) and Mr Surinder Gosain (father of Flt Lt Sudhir Kumar Goswami 8956-F(P)) were sent to Pakistan as official delegation. They were conducted to only one Jail in Multan but could not locate any Indian prisoner. Again, in 2007 a group of 14 family members of the POWs were sent at the invitation of the then President of Pakistan but they could not locate them in the 10 prisons they were conducted to by the Pakistani authorities. There are no specific reasons as to why these POWs could not be located in Pakistani jails but some logical thinking could be as under:-
- Why Indian government released 93,000 Pakistanis, without getting back our all prisoners and resolving Kashmir, river water and minorities issues with Pakistan?
- Indian POWs were shifted from the jails being visited by the families.
- Over 35 years facials of prisoners and their relatives had under gone major changes making recognition difficult.
- The abnormal physical, psychological and medical conditions of the POWs.
- Many may have converted to Islam, changing their names and hence difficult to locate. Some may have adopted aliases or local/nick names.
- Having given up hope and feeling let down by own country, community and families, POWs might have become bitter, changed loyalties to stay put in Pakistan and work as spies.
- Many may have perished in sub-human conditions of the jails or became lunatics failing to recognize any one.
- POWs fear reprisals from the Pak ISI/ police/security forces after these visits. The prison staff and intelligence agencies rough them on giving evidence/information.
- Family members from India looking for their kith and kin were shadowed by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and their hotel rooms bugged and searched limiting free interaction amongst prisoners and the visiting delegates from India.
- During first visit in 1987, only one prison in Multan was visited while during the second trip visit was limited to 10 prisons across Pakistan. There may be no Indian prisoners in these jails or they were shifted prior to the planned formal visits to those jails.
- Documentation in Pakistani prisons had not only been done poorly but also being in Urdu, the visitors were not conversant with the language.
- Capt Ravinder Kaura was missing believed killed in 1971 war in the western sector. His parents had reconciled with his death but in 1989 or so, one petty smuggler Mukhtiar Singh was released from Pakistani jail who in an interview with local papers mentioned that there were many inmates including Capt Kaura in the jail he was lodged in. Ever since the news, the family was restless to know about Ravinder’s welfare and get him released from Pakistani imprisonment. A few years back one Roop Lal was released by Pakistan and he too stated numerous Indian including defence personnel languishing in Pakistani jails. He also said many were in poor health, under nourished, in shock and needed immediate psychiatric and long term complex rehabilitation programmes by specialists. More than that, they needed to be united with their families urgently for their emotional needs. I also came in contact with Mr GS Gill whose brother Wg Cdr Gill and Dr (Ms) Simmi Waraich whose father Major SPS Waraich are still believed to be in Pakistani captivity. The uncertainty, no or conflicting news and the long confinement period has naturally wrecked all the waiting families of the victims. Dr Waraich was just toddler when her father became POW in the western sector and now she has her own grown up college going son who has yet to see his grandfather. I learnt both from Mr GS Gill and Dr Waraich that in 1983 and 2007 official delegations were sent to Pakistan to locate the missing personnel details of which are appended below.
Evidence That Indian POWs Are In Pakistani Jails
- Pakistani government says that there are no Indian prisoners in the Pakistani jails. But the legal, lawful, independent, impartial, authentic, documentary evidence from Pakistan, England, America and India, proves beyond reasonable doubts that certainly there are Indian POWs of 1965 and 1971 wars, who have still been painfully languishing in Pakistani jails for the last 50 years.
- Out of the 54 who went missing, 22 were pilots. Many of them were reportedly seen by Chuck Yeager, the famous former US Air Force chief, after the war while he was on an assignment in Pakistan. Yeager has mentioned this in his autobiography published in 1984.
- Kishori Lal, an automobile engineer-turned-spy now based in Ludhiana who had stayed in various Pakistani jails and was released in 1974, says that during his imprisonment in Kot Lakhpat Jail he had also met Flight Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambe and Major A.K. Ghosh, two of the 54 POWs.
- Maj Ghosh’s photograph behind bars was published in the in a December 27, 1971 Time cover story on the 1971 war is proof he was a POW.
- The name of Major Ashok Suri was mentioned on 6&7 Jan 1972 in Punjabi Drabber programme of Lahore. His father late Dr Ram Swoop Suri of Faridabad had also received three letters from a Karachi jail on Dec 1974, 26 Dec 1974 and 16 Jun 975 stating that he was in Karachi jail along with 20 other officers
- Daljit Singh, repatriated on 4 Mar 1988, said he had seen Flt Lt Tambay at the Lahore Interrogation Centre in February 1978.
- A book published in 1980 from Lahore titled ‘Bhutto Trial and Execution’ written by Victoria Schofield, a senior BBC London reporter, covering the period of 1978 states that the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was detained in Kot Lakhpat jail, Lahore (page No 59) reads: ‘Bhutto’s cell separated from a barrack area by a 10 foot high wall, did not prevent him from hearing horrific shrieks and screams at midnight from the other side of the wall. One of Bhutto’s lawyers made enquiries amongst the jail staff and ascertained that they were in fact Indian POWs who had been rendered delinquent and mental during the course of the 1971 war.
- One Mohanlal Bazar of Firozpur, who was in Pakistan jails between 1968 and 1974 and was repatriated on 9 Dec 1974, wrote a book (I was a spy of India in Pakistan) has mentioned that he spoke to Indian POWs Mr Gill of the Indian Air Force and one Capt Singh of the Indian Army and also mentioned that there were around 40 POWs of the 1965 and 1971 wars who are languishing in Kot Lakhpat jail and had no chances of release in future.
- Mukhtayar Singh, who was repatriated from Pakistan on 5 Jul 1988, said Capt Giriraj Singh was lodged in Kot Lakhpat jail. Singh also reportedly saw Captain Kamal Bakshi in Multan jail around 1983. He said Bakshi could be either in Multan jail or Bahawalpur jail. There are numerous other such eyewitness reports.
- Flt Lt VV Tambay’s name was published in the Pakistan paper Sunday Pakistan Observer on 5 Dec 1971. It said five Indian pilots were captured alive but Pakistan did not include their names in the list of POWs at the time of exchange of prisoners as per Shimla Agreement and the Indian government had committed a blunder and forgot to secure their release.
- Daljit Singh, repatriated on 4Mar 1988, said he had seen Flt Lt Tambay at the Lahore Interrogation Centre in February 1978.
- The name of Flying Officer (FO) Sudhir Tyagi, whose plane was shot down near Peshawar on December 4, 1971, was announced over Pakistan Radio the next day. Ghulam Hussain S/o Hayat Dutt, who was repatriated from Pakistan on 24 Mar 1988, said that he had met FO Tyagi at Shahi Quila, Lahore in 1973.
- Flt Lt Harvinder Singh’s name was announced on 5Dec 1971 on Pakistan Radio that he had been captured alive.
- Capt Ravinder Kaura’s name was announced on Lahore Radio on 7 Dec 1971 during the war time and Mukhtayar Singh, who was repatriated on 5 Jul 1988, said that Capt Ravinder Kaura was in Multan jail around 1981 and then later shifted to Kot Lakhpat jail.
Wg Cdr HS Gill’s plane was shot down over Badin on 13 Dec 1971. Pakistan Radio gave news of his captured alive the same day.
- Flt Lt Sudhir K Goswami’s plane was shot down over Sargodha on 5 Dec 1971 around 7 pm and the same day at 11.30 pm Radio Lahore announced his capture.
- While Maj SPS Warraich’s name was reportedly announced on 5/6th Dec, 1971 as being captured alive after he and Maj Kanwaljit Sandhu were captured on 3/4 Dec 1971 from the Hussainiwala sector and he was subsequently reportedly seen in Multan jail in January 1972. Again, he was seen in 1988 by Mohinder Singh s/o Banka Singh, who was repatriated on 24 Mar 1988. He said he saw him again in Kot Lakhpat jail in Feb 1988. If that be so, then how do we trust the book ‘The Battle of Hussainiwala and Qaisar-i-Hind’ written by Lt Col Habib Ahmed (Retd), CO 41 Baloch who were fighting against 15 Punjab in Ferozepur sector. As per book Major Warraich was taken prisoner by Havildar Khizar but, unfortunately, a machine gun burst from the direction of the railway bandh downed the Major. But this action was not substantiated by the Adjutant of 41 Baloch.
- Time magazine of London, dated 24 Dec 1971, carried a photograph of Indian prisoners behind the bars. The said photograph turned out to be that of Major AK Ghosh, who was not returned by Pakistan with the rest of the POWs.
- 2/Lt Paras Ram Sharma’s father heard his son’s particulars being announced on Pak Radio on 2 & 8 Jan 1972 2 and 29 Nov 1972.
- No 9071130 L/NK Ram Lal (Retd) of erstwhile 2 JAK Militia after his return from Pakistan said that he had met 2/ Lt Paras Ram Sharma in Lahore jail for 5 days from 20 Apr.1973 to 24 Apr1973 while awaiting his repatriation to India.
- Balwan Singh, an Indian prisoner who returned home to India on 3O Oct 1998 after 9 years in Pakistan prisons, claims to have met Indian, POWs of the 1971 war. He said there were seven jails in which the POWs were rotated. He distinctly remembered one of the POWs as Jagdish Raj who was being kept in Fort of Attock Jail with other POWs (L/NK Jagdish Raj figures in the list of 54 POWs)
- General Chuck Yeager of USA, who was on deputation with the Pakistan Air Force for training Pakistani pilots, has written a book of his role during the Indo-Pak war and has written in his book that he had interviewed about 20 Indian pilots in the Pakistani jails.
- Rooplal Saharia had been in various Pakistani jails for 26 years from 1974 to 2000. He says that there were many Indian POWs languishing in various Pakistani jails.
- Bhogal Ram of Kashmir had been in Pakistani jails for about eight years. In the year 1999 he had reiterated seeing many Indian POWS in the Pakistani jails. Jagsheer Singh and Arif Mohammed, who had returned on 10 Aug 2004 after five years in Pakistani jails, stated that there were many Indian POWs who had become very weak and living very critical and painful life in the Pakistani jails.
- Devinder Singh of village Sanbaura, Tehsil Hira Nagar, District, Kathua, Kashmir, was arrested in Pakistan on 20 Dec 1989 and repatriated to India on 17 Mar 2005 through Wagah Border along with 10 other Indian prisoners. He stated that 100 Indian prisoners were languishing in Pakistani jail in very painful conditions. Many of them had become lunatic and insane and had been painfully waiting for their release since 1971 Indo-Pak war.
- As per The Indian Express dated 29 Apr 2011, news heading Indian POW traced, claims Burney, Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney on 28 Apr 2011 claimed that he had traced an Indian prisoner of war captured during the 1971 war in a jail in Pakistan. Burney said the Indian prisoner, whom he identified as Surjit Singh, was arrested in 1971 and his family had been searching for him since then. Earlier, Surjit Singh was sentenced to death but his sentence was later converted into life imprisonment. Actually, Surjit was captured Dec 1981, and released after 30 years and six months and was not part of the 54 missing Indian POWs in Pakistan.
- In the NDTV recording on 25 Aug 2012 by Barkha Datt on the prisoners, prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer Awais Sheikh had confirmed many people are in Pakistani jails and he would keep fighting for their release. He was lawyer for Surjit Singh and also fighting for Sarabjit Singh and many others held illegally in both the countries .He as a friend for similar cause, had assured me repeatedly personally and through emails that he was willingly fighting cases of release of prisoners held in both the countries free provided families give the power of attorney in his favour and details of the prisoner(s). While Sarabjit Singh was murdered in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail on 2May2012, Awais Sheikh fled to Sweden permanently following an alleged abduction bid near Lahore a day before Sarabjit's death where he died on 19 Mar 2018, thus we lost a good Pakistani friend, lawyer and human rights activist.
- The Supreme Court’s three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI), on a petition by an 84 year old Kamla Bhattacharjee, mother of Capt Sanjit Bhattacharjee, captured at Rann of Kutch Indo-Pak border in 1997 is not limiting it just to her son in question and has asked the lawyer appearing for Kamla Bhattacharjee to compile a list of similarly placed officers of the Indian armed forces still languishing in Pakistani jails. The SC is expected to hear the matter 23 Apr 2022.
- Mrs Pal Kaur, wife of Hav Dharam Pal has not accepted Government of India’s decision that her husband died fighting in Bangladesh Liberation War 1971 as the counsel of petitioner Mrs Pal Kaur had referred to an affidavit filed by one Satish Kumar of Ferozepur stating that Dharam Pal Singh was alive as they both were lodged in the same Kot Lakhpat Rai Jail, Lahore between 1974 to 1976.
NDTV Show On The Prisoners
Since May 2012, I am deeply involved in the release of the Indian POWs held in Pakistan since 1971 War. Through massive emailing and writings to both Indian and foreign media, my pleas were heard by two notable journalists both foreigners –Ms Sonya Fatah, New Delhi based Pakistani journalist who wrote for the Times of India and the US based Lt Cdr Tammy Swafford writing for The Daily Pakistan and wrote articles on the plight of the Indian POWs held in Pakistan. Through Sonya’s emails, I learnt for the first time that there were 18 Pakistani POWs holed up in India. She of course could not give me any details about them. Eventually, these lead to the recording of the NDTV show on 25 Aug 2012 by Barkha Datt on the prisoners held by both the countries, highlighting them as the ‘prisoners of hostility’ amongst the large gathering of observers and eminent people from both India and Pakistan.
I along with Justice Katju, former judge of the Supreme Court, Mr KC Singh, former Foreign Secretary, Ms Sonya Fatah, the Pakistani journalist, late Awais Sheikh, lawyer from Pakistan, Dr Simmi Waraich, whose father Major Waraich is still POW in Pakistan, Wg Cdr Grewal who was a POW in Pakistan and was lucky enough to be released after one year’s captivity, sister and daughter of Surjit Singh who got very emotional and some more personalities whose names I could not recollect attended the recording. A mother had come from Mumbai whose young son was missing for 7 years and reported only 4 years back that he was in Pakistani jail. One really wonders how he without passport and visa reached Lahore traveling by Samjhota Express.
Through satellite connectivity Jawed Jabbar, former Federal Minister of Pakistan, Hamid Mir, of the GEO TV, a Karachi girl from Pakistan whose 3 brothers are prisoners (fishermen) too attended the recording. The recording had tense moments as both late Awais Sheikh and the former Federal Minister of Pakistan had heated argument over Sarabjit Singh and Kasab held in India for 26/ 11 attacks. Sadly, Awais Sheikh who was doing yeoman service died in Sweden. Justice Katju gave his views of holding on to Dr Siddique unnecessarily and pleaded passionately that he was caught up in a murder case where no one knows who fired and killed the victim and he was held for so long in detention.
He pleaded to the Indian government for his release for his old age and professional qualifications that are needed for diseases mitigation. Mr KC Singh pleaded for regulatory mechanism that punishment given to petty criminals could be completed in home country. I stated that POWs were not criminals and during war, enemy countries have legitimate right to capture POWs. POWs are governed by the Geneva Convention and both India and Pakistan are signatory to this Convention. I also said that while India released 93,000 Pakistani POWs after Shimla Agreement, 54 of our POWs were still languishing in Pakistani jails. Most probably they were the initially missing believed killed servicemen. I also mentioned that after 1962 Sino- Indian War our POWs were released by the Chinese within one year after the war.
I also highlighted that after I raised the issue of releasing our 54 POWs held for so many years, suddenly Pakistan has raised the issue of 18 of their servicemen held in India but no one had specified in which war they were captured, their units, dates and places of capture and if any initiatives had been taken by Pakistan to get them released. Awais Sheikh, the Pakistani lawyer asked for the list of Pakistani POWs in India and I gave him a copy. This list was sent to me earlier by the India based Pakistani journalist Ms Sonya Fatah. I pleaded that POWs held by both countries should be released.
Dr Waraich gave her sad experiences of the unsuccessful visit to Pakistan in 2007 with other relatives of the Indian POWs to locate them. She highlighted the trauma of uncertain suffered by the POWs families was immense. Wg Cdr Grewal mentioned how he was captured, blind folded, interrogated and released after one year along with other Indian POWs held in Pakistan. The show ended inconclusively with the hope that all prisoners (other than hard core criminals should be released by both the governments. I have written extensively, and sent my pleas to PM Modi, RM, and Delhi CM Kejriwal and also sent many e-mails to Navjot Singh Sidhu to use his contacts with Pakistani PM Imram Khan to resolve the issue but none of them ever replied my requests.
It is onto Indian and Pakistani Governments to deliberate and release POWs held by both sides and put an end to this human tragedy. In case some of them have died, their ashes after DNA tests should be solemnly handed over to their families to put an end to their trauma. In the end, I again request the Pakistani authority that legally, ethically and morally there is sufficient evidence of the unfortunate Indian POWs holed up in Pakistan. Pakistani leadership will do a great service to humanity and would acquire praise worthy statesman ship to unite these unfortunate victims of the war with their families in the twilight of their lives.
Same holds good for the Indian leadership, too to release, if there are any Pakistani POWs on the Indian soil. If our governments do not relent, there is need for media, intelligentsia, human right activists, lawyers, educationists, Sufis, cultural, social and music groups, students- in fact the common masses of both the countries to unite peacefully to improve bilateral relations and confidence building measures. To avoid face-saving, brinkmanship should be avoided. There would be no nemesis to either side by simultaneously exchanging prisoners at Wagah border for which nothing more is required than the positive will at both the ends. May such leadership breed flourishes both sides of our IB!
Hope seldom raises dust or fades..!
About The Author
Col NN Bhatia was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1963. He retired from the Army in 1995 and is now involved as human right and peace activist specially in getting Indian POWs held in Pakistan since 1971 War released. He is a prolific writer and involved in making videos on matters military and national security. He has authored 5 books-Kumaoni Nostalgia (both in Hindi & English), Industrial & Infrastructure Security (2 volumes), Soldier Mountaineer; biography of Col Narender Kumar ‘Bull’- The Colonel Who Got Siachen Glacier for India & Coffee Table Book ‘Reminiscing Battle of Rezang La’.
(This article was originally published in Lahore times, and was submitted to MVI by the author for circulation amongst Indian readers)