Rotting in Pakistani Jails
Government Apathy Towards 1971 Prisoners of War
War means different things
to different people. For business connected with war armament and supplies,
it is an occasion to make quick and big money. For the ruling politicians,
it provides a fertile ground for jingoism to project themselves as saviours
of the nation and to make political capital out of it. Just as prime minister
Vajpayee and his party used the Kargil war to good effect in the recent
elections, Indira Gandhi was able to exploit the 1971 war with Pakistan
to emerge as an indefatigable Durga of the subcontinent.
For nearly three decades, fifty-four families have awaited the return of their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers from the 1971 war. These men were reportedly captured alive by the Pakistan army and have been imprisoned ever since. When the Indian government released more than 92,000 prisoners of war in the aftermath of the Bangladesh war, it did not ensure that all Indian armed forces personnel captured by Pakistani authorities were simultaneously released. Over two hundred Indian soldiers were eventually repatriated from Pakistan, but not those of higher ranks. Though the officers' families went to welcome the train bearing repatriated Indian defence personnel from Pakistan, there was no reunion with their own loved ones. After suffering many years of agony, the families finally took action by forming a Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association, whose mandate was to act jointly to pressure the Government of India to recover the missing officers.
It was on December 3, 1971, that the Indo-Pak war broke out. It lasted for 14 days, culminating in the surrender of the Pakistan forces in the Eastern sector and the creation of Bangladesh. More than 92,000 Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoner by India. Likewise, in the Western sector, some Indian defence personnel were captured by Pakistan. Following the Simla Agreement of 1972, prisoners of war were exchanged, yet some of the Indian prisoners remained unaccounted for, and stayed in detention in Pakistan. The harsh condition of their existence in jail is highlighted by the following words in Victoria Schoffield's book, Bhutto - Trial and Execution:
The Geneva convention on prisoners of war states that they shall be released and repatriated without delay after cessation of active hostilities. Prisoners of war against whom criminal proceedings for indictable offences are pending may be detained until the end of such proceedings, and if necessary, until the completion of the punishment. The same shall apply to the prisoners of war already convicted for an indictable offence. Parties to the conflict shall communicate to each other the names of any prisoners of war who are detained till the end of proceedings or until punishment has been completed. By agreement between the parties to the conflict, commissions shall be established for the purpose of searching for dispersed prisoners of war and assuring their repatriation with the least possible delay (see "The Forgotten Heroes" by Tarun Basu with Asoka Raina; Contour, April 6, 1980). India and Pakistan are both signatories to the Geneva Convention.
There is no record available to us proving that the Government of India did in fact constitute such a commission, either to trace missing Indian personnel in Pakistan, or to assure Pakistan in a transparent manner that there were no Pakistani prisoners in India (as the Pakistan government too had claimed that some of its armed personnel were missing).
On perusing the various documents collected by the Missing
Defence Personnel Relatives Association, it becomes clear that the Indian
government has been about as competent in protecting the interests of the
armed forces as it has been with our other institutions. The repeated,
desperate pleas of the missing personnel's relatives are attended to perfunctorily.
Rather than vigorously lobbying for the return of its missing personnel,
the government seems to ignore every fresh piece of evidence pertaining
to the soldiers still rotting in Pakistani jails. The burden of investigation
has therefore fallen on the families, who have painstakingly collected
information regarding the forgotten officers. (See box for some of these
Not only family members of the soldiers, but also other army personnel maintain that prisoners continue to languish needlessly in Pakistani jails. Lieutenant General (Retired) K.P. Candeth, who was GOC-in-C, Western Command, during the 1971 Indo-Pak war is one such believer. "I am sure they did capture some of our soldiers and have them in Pakistan. They should be declared POWs. At the end of the war, when we sent back all Pakistani prisoners, they also should have sent the prisoners in their captivity back to India. But in this particular case, Pakistan on some pretext or another held them back," he says (see "Indian Soldiers Languishing in Pakistani Jails," Organizer, April 7, 1996). The Indian government also did not unremittingly pursue the trail – then warm. In allowing the trail to go cold, it let down those who sent their loved ones to our fronts with full faith that the Indian people were behind them.
On September 4, 1996, two members of the Rajya Sabha, O.P. Kohli and Satish Pradhan, asked I.K. Gujral, then minister of external affairs, whether the government was aware that as many as 40 defence personnel captured by Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict were still in foreign custody. The minister replied that according to available information, 54 missing Indian defence personnel were believed to be in Pakistan's custody. It was regretted that Pakistan had not responded positively to the numerous constructive proposals made by the Indian side over the years for resolving this humanitarian issue. The Government of Pakistan, however, maintained that there were no Indian defence personnel in its custody.
In an affidavit filed last year in court, Mohan Lal Bhaskar,
who returned to the country following the exchange of prisoners, stated
that "during my stay in Pakistani jails, I came to know that at Kot Lakhpat
jail, Lahore, Indian POWs were rotting in various jails. Col. Asif Shafi
of the Second Punjab Regiment of Pakistan, who was also in jail, confirmed
that more than 45 officers of the Indian Army, including Wing Commander
H.S. Gill and others, were confined to the Fort of Atak and there were
no chances of their release. Most of them had been charged with spying
and were sentenced. In spite of completing the sentence they were not released
from the Pakistani jails. Many Indian citizens, including Army officers,
have been illegally detained in Pakistani jails without a trial. The Pakistan
Government was not respecting the human rights of the prisoners in the
jails" (see "Indian Prisoners in Pak Jails" by R. Suryamurthy and Rahul
Das, The Tribune, March 28, 1999).
Speaking on the Zee TV programme Helpline, Riaz Khokar (the previous Pakistan High Commissioner in India), denied the presence of Indian POWs in Pakistan. "These allegations are totally baseless. There is no reason why we should keep them back," he said. "In every investigation that we have conducted, we have found nothing" (see "Missing," by Anuja Pande, Sunday, February 25, and March 2, 1996). In 1981, as a goodwill gesture, Pakistan had agreed to allow an International Red Cross team to help trace the missing defence personnel. The team came a cropper. And again in 1989, the Pakistanis agreed to conduct a fresh search for the missing men of the 1971 war. In other forums, the Pakistani government has maintained that it does not have Indian POWs, and that the relatives of these defence personnel are welcome to visit Pakistani jails to see for themselves that there are no Indian prisoners of war there.
In September 1983, a delegation of six relatives - including the relatives of Major Suri, Major Ghosh and Flight Lieutenant Tambay–were sent from India to visit Multan jail in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they all came back feeling cheated. "We were allowed to visit only one jail and this jail had none of the defence personnel," says Ashutosh Ghosh.
Some came back even more horrfied. Damayanti Tambay recollects, "In a small cell there were some forty to fifty prisoners herded together. Most of them were in chains and some were tied to pillars." These were Indians allegedly caught for petty crimes like smuggling (see also "Missing," by Anuja Pande, Sunday, February 25, and March 2, 1996).
Disappointed by the government of India's failure to secure
the release of POWs, Dr Suri, father of Major Ashok Suri and President
of Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association, wrote to Justice Ranganatha
Mishra, Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. Justice Mishra
assured the relatives that he would take up the matter with his Pakistani
counterpart as well as with the International Human Rights Commission and
Amnesty International (see "Indian Soldiers Languishing in Pakistani Jails,"
Organizer, April 7, 1996). On August 14, 1999, prominent human rights and
civil liberties activists, academics and defence experts spoke at a seminar
on the plight of POWs and displaced persons, making a strong plea to Pakistan
and Iraq to release the POWs who had been trapped in both countries for
several years. There were more than fifty Indian, and six hundred and five
Kuwaiti POWs in Pakistani and Iraqi prisons respectively, and both countries
had shown reluctance to release them. The seminar was organised by the
Citizens Organisation of Indian Ocean Rim (COIOR) (see the news update
service on indiaserver.com, August 14, 1999).
In response to these reports the investigation carried out by The Nation reveals that no POW of 1971 war is in the custody of the Government of Pakistan at the moment. The officers concerned categorically said only those prisoners who are convicted by the courts could be kept for so long. They said there could be some prisoners held for committing security related offences not on the books of the Punjab Government, but it was not possible to detain a person for so long if they have not been convicted. They said that even those foreign nationals held on security charges are handed over to the home department for trials in the courts of law after the preliminary investigations are completed, but it was out of the question for more than weeks or months to pass before the intelligence apparatus handed over such detenus for regular trial and imprisonment.
The sources in the Punjab Government disclosed that at present there are 56 Indian nationals confined in various jails of the Punjab. As many as 12 of them are internees, 12 are under trial, 26 convicts, four condemned and two detenus. Two of the prisoners (both convicts) who are perhaps the oldest prisoners are in the jails since mid 1970s. They are Kashmir Singh, son of Sansar Singh and Roop Lal (this name is the only one which tallies with The Tribune reports). The good news for the family of Roop Lal, who has been convicted on the charges of espionage, is that his sentence will be completed in 2000. However all other prisoners are held in the recent vintage.
In Indian jails, our own people, even children, are detained without trial. When brought to trial, the criminal justice system is so slow-grinding that many people have spent a longer time in jails as undertrials, than in the term of punishment that is finally awarded to them. The conditions in Indian jails are appalling. Pakistan at one time said three hundred and ninety-five of its prisoners of war were missing since 1971. India has denied that any Pakistani POWs are in its custody. If we had brought about more transparency in our own jails, and then contrasted it with Pakistan's track record, it would have helped. Even if we are in the right, as appears in this case, we don't pursue our cause with vigour, and the government's conduct appears to be tinged with hypocrisy rather than clarity of purpose. It does not seem that we are serious about getting back our nationals who have spent decades in agony after setting out in defence of India.
In April of this year, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the Centre on a petition before it, seeking the Government to place before the Court a report about the steps taken to trace the 54 defence personnel captured by Pakistan during the 1971 war. The petition, filed by advocate K.L. Sharma, stated "Due to the negligence of the government these brave defence personnel were left unaccounted at the time of the exchange of war prisoners." It accused the authorities of declaring them "presumed dead" without going into the roots of the case (see "Centre gets notice on POWs in Pak," The Tribune, April 23, 1999).
Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora, the 1971 war hero,
is presently in the process of filing a public interest litigation in the
Supreme Court. He says that these POWs are neither considered dead, nor
alive. If they are to be considered dead, their families should get all
the benefits that accrue to families of defence personnel who die in action.
If they are considered alive, their families should receive their salaries.
However, these families receive only a meagre pension determined by pay-scales
applicable in 1971. General Arora says that:
A petition was filed in the High Court of Gujarat on the
same lines and Justice S.K. Keshote, taking this case seriously and looking
to the 28 year long correspondence by the families of the armed forces
personnel, issued notice to the Central government. In a recent hearing,
the judge gave three months' time to the Central Government to take a stand
on this matter. The petition was filed by advocate M.K. Paul, the Vice-President
of the Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association.
Retired Air Marshal M.S. Bawa asserts, "I can see some dangerous signals. Only the children of the middle and lower classes are going to the armed forces while the upper classes send their children into positions of comfort and security. Thus a deep chasm is forming between the armed forces and the ruling classes. This chasm can prove to be dangerous in the future. It should be bridged and every section of society should have a relationship with the armed forces." Colonel R.K. Pattu of the Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association adds, "it was not like this before. Both sons of the Maharaja of Patiala were in the armed forces. Brigadier Bhawani Singh of the Jaipur Royal family was also in the army. These people took only one rupee as token salary. The 10th para-commandos led by Brigadier Bhawani Singh were the first to land in Dhaka. He received the Mahavir Chakra for this. These people had not come to the armed forces for money" (see "Nigal Gaeen Unhein Pakistani Jailen?," Krishna Mohan Singh, Aaj Saptahik Visheshank, July 15, 1999).
Colonel Pattu further adds that "in 54 years of independence, India has fought wars in 1962, 1965, 1971 and now in Kargil. A proxy-war has also been going on for a long time. Twenty thousand soldiers have died in these wars who belong to the military and para-military forces. Yet it has seemingly not occurred to us to build a memorial in their memory. Instead, we have devoted several acres of land to the memorials of politicians belonging to the ruling party (we don't include here Gandhiji, who was not part of any political party towards the end of his life). Not only that, national attention and energy is spent in visiting these memorials on birthdays and death anniversaries. We must stop using vast sums of public money to make what are essentially private memorials for individuals."
The Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate was built by the British to commemorate the dead of the armed forces who fought in World War I and II. Thus, those whom we have used like cannon-fodder, those who stood steadfast at the borders while we were safe in our homes, have not been commemorated in national memory. They are largely relegated to the dustbins of history, while those who misruled and misgoverned vie with each other in hogging for themselves and their progeny, our collective national remembrance and homage.
Can the sense of outrage all thinking people will have on this issue be channelled towards ensuring that the Indian State meets its obligations to the country's armed forces in a fair and transparent manner? That we, the people protected by those armed forces, live out of a sense of solidarity with them? That the arduous task of protecting the country internally and externally, is not left to them,' but belongs to us'?
Manushi, Issue 115 Anjana Mehta is a freelance consultant working on issues of urban poverty. Manushi content is reproduced on India Together with permission. Click here to visit the Manushi home page