The mystery of the whether Pakistan continues to detain POWs from the war continues. The families of the men missing for nearly five decades believe they are still held captive in defiance of international law in jails in Pakistan.
In the weak December sunlight, the Indian Air Force Hawker Hunter began a second run to strike the heavily defended radar complex set atop the Sakesar Mountain in West Pakistan. Its pilot Flight Lieutenant Gurdev Singh Rai knew the terrain well. He had conducted the same bombing run the previous day dodging the wall of anti-aircraft fire which rose like a curtain from the Pakistani ground forces deployed to protect the base. The 1971 war was only two days old and Rai was part of the enormous air offensive that would decimate its Pakistan Air Force opponents, cripple its navy and allow Indian forces in the east of the country to strike deep into East Pakistan and force the capitulation of its forces resulting in the creation of the new state of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Flight Lieutenant’s Rai’s short war was over. The hail of anti-aircraft fire from the ground batteries fatally wounded his aircraft. Rai crashed, and he was declared missing in action by his squadron later that day.
Two days later and four thousand miles away his younger sister Rajwant Kaur was sitting anxiously in the front room of her modest home in North London. She was watching the BBC’s evening news coverage of the war and alongside her was her husband and their landlord. Suddenly she bolted from her chair and went to the television pointing at the screen. ‘There,’ she said excitedly. ‘Thank-goodness there is Gurdev.’ There on the grainy screen was her dirty and battered but safe brother standing in a line of prisoners of war (POW) guarded by Pakistani troops. Relief washed over her. He would be safe now, however the war went he would come home.
But Gurdev Rai never did come home. Rajwant waited days, then weeks months years and finally decades for news, but she has never seen him or had official news of him since that grainy television picture.
How could this be? Gurdev was a POW and protected by international law. In theory when the conflict ended just a few days later with a decisive Indian victory, completed lists of prisoners should have been exchanged via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As POWs they would have been entitled to mail, fair treatment and should have been repatriated as soon as possible under internationally monitored arrangements. The 90,000 Pakistani POWs were rapidly returned but the unknown fate of Flight Lieutenant Rai is not an isolated one. When Pakistan produced its list of 635 POWs 51 Indian POWs from 1971 were not accounted for leaving their families grieving confused and over time to a large extent forgotten. The earlier conflict between the two countries in 1965 had left three other personnel still unaccounted for.
Suspicion that the men may still be alive and held captive by Pakistan continues. Over the years reports of sightings of the men who served in all branches of the Indian Armed Services have emerged. Dr R.S. Suri’s, father of Major Ashok Suri, captured in the 1971 war at first believed the army when they declared Major Suri as "Killed in action", Then in early December 1974 he received a smuggled note apparently from his son saying that he was well. The note had been carried by a released prisoner in Pakistan who claimed Major Suri was still being held in jail. To raise hope further, a second note from Major Suri arrived and was declared sufficiently authentic by the Indian Defence Ministry to have the officer’s official status changed from “killed in action” to “missing in action”.
Various other sightings of the missing men have taken place.
Major AK Ghosh was caught on camera by a Time newspaper report in late December 1971. A Pakistan radio broadcast in early December 1971 reported that Flight Lieutenant Sasoon had survived the wreckage of his Canberra aircraft shot down whilst on a bombing mission and was in captivity. The young wife of Flight Lieutenant Dhavale received his wallet which included her photograph and his scarf intact, but despite these personal belongings there was no apparent sign of his body near his wrecked aircraft.
Wing Commander Hersern Singh Gill was by reports befriended by two imprisoned Pakistani officers jailed in Attock military prison in 1973-1974 for their role in plotting a military coup. Other reports suggest that up to forty unaccounted for Indian prisoners were held in Attock Jail at that time.
A Sikh prisoner repatriated to India reported a meeting in 1983 with a Captain Kamal Bakshi who he had met while serving time in Multan Jail. Captain Bakshi’s sister is British and still lives in London.
As late as 2003 a Canadian Human Rights representative visiting Lahore Jail was called out to by prisoners claiming to be held from the 1971 conflict but was denied contact with them by his minders. Even more recently in 2012 an Indian carpenter working in Oman reported he had been approached by a fellow Sikh who claimed to be Sepoy Jaspal Singh and that he and four other Indian POWs had been held in Oman since 1975 in what would be one of the earliest cases of rendition.
Pakistan has always denied any knowledge of the men. As the years have passed the families faith in their own Government’s actions in attempting to recover the men have been shaken. In 1982 President Zia the military dictator ruler of Pakistan visited India. In a surprise move he agreed to allow some of the families to have consular access to prisons where it was suspected the majority of the 54 POWs were being held. Six of the families travelled to Pakistan although the heavily controlled visit yielded no sign of their loved ones nor clues as to where they might be.
There is an apparent unwillingness of the Indian Government to internationalise the issue.
In 2015 the human rights lawyer Jas Uppal from the UK charity Justice Upheld petitioned the Indian Supreme Court wanting the matter raised with the International Court of Justice as a matter concerning international law. As a result of her petition the Court received an affidavit from the Indian Ministry of Defence in which it declared that it had no details regarding 54 missing defence personnel believed to be held captive as prisoners of wars (POWs) in Pakistan jails after the 1965 and 1971 wars.
Ms Uppal has had the question of the missing POWs raised in the UK Parliament bringing the attention of the UK Government to the fact that two of the missing POWs have sisters who are British citizens. However, The Foreign Office declined to become involved referring to the matter as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Ms Uppal does not consider that good enough. “Two of the kin of the Indian POWs are British nationals who urgently need the support of their Government to ascertain the fate of their kin. The British authorities have good diplomatic ties to both India and Pakistan therefore Britain is the best placed to mediate in this situation.”
So far, her calls to elevate the case of the men has gone unheeded.
So, what happened to the missing 54 POWs? There is much evidence that these men survived the combat phase of operations and Pakistan has a history which continues of conducting ex-judicial detention. Its jails’ hold detainees which fall into special categories of prisoner which are determined by the Nation’s powerful security apparatus rather than the courts. Many believe that the fear of prosecution by the new nation of Bangladesh for war crimes of members of the former Pakistan military held as Indian POWs meant that a special category of prisoner for use as bargaining chips against such prosecution was created. Over time the prisoners became an embarrassment possibly to both sides as the turbulent diplomatic relationship between the two countries never produced the right time to reveal their existence.
This view may be supported by the decision of The Red Cross to keep its records of the Indo-Pak war of 1971 confidential until 2035. The reasons for this remain obscure but suggest that details of negotiations between the two countries are too sensitive to be made public. That’s only a short step from explaining away the missing 54 as simply collateral damage as the two nations struggle to live next to one another. It’s unlikely all of these men have survived nearly five decades in captivity but it’s quite possible that some did. If so, they continue to wait with diminishing hope that their government and international pressure will come to their assistance and allow them to live the last few years of their lives in a dignified manner.
The men have never faded from the memory of their families who keep hoping to learn the truth of what happened to their loved ones following that short war. Numerous appeals for information and legal applications to both governments and the international community have led nowhere. Sadly, for Rajwant Kaur alone in a North London suburb, a serious car accident has left her confined to a wheelchair. Yet she still waits patiently sustained by the hope that one day her brother will walk into the room and they will be reunited.
Elsewhere when Indians celebrate December 16 as ‘Vijay Divas’ (Victory Day) the feelings of the families to whom the 54 POWs never returned will have mixed and muted feelings as they wonder whether their loved ones remain hidden after all this time behind a Pakistani prison door.
Note to Editors:
1. The Indo-Pak war took place between 3 Dec until 13 Dec when the forces of Pakistan surrendered.
2. Jas Uppal is a UK lawyer who runs the charity Justice Upheld (www.justiceupheld.org.uk).
3. Supporting images for the story are available.
4. The names of those 'Missing 54'.
Major SPS Waraich IC-12712 15 Punjab
Major Kanwaljit Singh Sandhu IC-14590 15 Punjab
2/Lt Sudhir Mohan Sabharwal SS-23957 87 Lt Regiment
Capt Ravinder Kaura SS-20095 39 Med Regiment
Capt Giri Raj Singh IC-23283 5 Assam
Capt Om Prakash Dalal SS-22536 Grenadiers
Maj Suraj singh IC-18790 15 Rajput
Maj AK Suri SS-19807 5 Assam
Capt Kalyan Singh Rathod IC-28148 5 Assam
Major Jaskiran Singh Malik IC-14457 8 Raj. Rifles
Major SC Guleri IC-20230 9 Jat
Lt Vijay Kumar Azad IC-58589 1/9 G Rg
Capt Kamal Bakshi IC-19294 5 Sikh
2/ Lt Paras Ram Sharma SS-22490 5/8 G R
Capt Vashisht Nath
L/Hv. Krishna Lal Sharma 13719585 1 JAK RIF
Subedar Assa Singh JC-41339 5 Sikh
Subedar Kalidas JC-59 8 JAKLI
L/Nk Jagdish Raj 9208735 Mahar Regiment
L/Nk Hazoora Singh 682211303
Gunner Sujan Singh 1146819 14 Fd Regiment
Sepoy Daler Singh 2461830 15 Punjab
Gnr Pal Singh 1239603 181 Lt Regiment
Sepoy Jagir Singh 2459087 16 Punjab
Gnr Madan Mohan 1157419 94 Mountain Regiment
Gnr Gyan Chand Gnr Shyam Singh
L/Nk Balbir Singh S B S Chauhan
Capt DS jamwal 81 Field Regiment
Capt Washisht Nath Attock
Sq Ldr Mohinder Kumar Jain 5327-F(P) 27 Sqn
Flt Lt Sudhir Kumar Goswami 8956-F(P) 5 Sqn
Flying Officer Sudhir Tyagi 10871-F(P) 27 Sqn
Flt Lt Vijay Vasant Tambay 7662 –F(P) 32 Sqn
Flt Lt Nagaswami Shanker 9773-F(P) 32 Sqn
Flt Lt Ram Metharam Advani 7812-F(P) JBCU
Flt Lt Manohar Purohit 10249(N) 5 Sqn
Flt Lt Tanmaya Singh Dandoss 8160-F(P) 26 Sqn
Wg Cdr Hersern Singh Gill 4657-F(P) 47 Sqn
Flt Lt Babul Guha 5105-F(P)
Flt Lt Suresh Chander Sandal 8659-F(P) 35 Sqn
Sqn. Ldr. Jal Manikshaw Mistry 5006-F(P)
Flt Lt Harvinder Singh 9441-F(P) 222 Sqn
Sqn Ldr Jatinder Das Kumar 4896-F(P) 3 Sqn
Flt Lt LM Sassoon 7419-F(P) JBCU
Flt Lt Kushalpal Singh Nanda 7819-F(N) 35 Sqn
Flg Offr. Krishan L Malkani 10576-F(P) 27 Sqn
Flt Lt Ashok Balwant Dhavale 9030-F(P) 1 Sqn
Flt Lt Shrikant C Mahajan 10239-F(P) 5 Sqn
Flt Lt Gurdev Singh Rai 9015-F(P) 27 Sqn
Flt Lt Ramesh G Kadam 8404-F(P) TACDE
Flg Offr. KP Murlidharan 10575-F(P) 20 Sqn
Naval Pilot Lt. Cdr Ashok Roy
Sqn Ldr Devaprasad Chatterjee
Plt Offr Tejinder Singh Sethi