FORGOTTEN & DAMNED: Indian POWs in Pak Jails
Sunday, 14 July 2013 | Shalini Saksena | in Foray
A crucial hearing in the Supreme Court tomorrow will decide the fate of Indian prisoners of war in Pakistan if, that is, the court cancels the stay the Government has taken on referring the issue to the International Court of Justice. Indian POWs have been a forgotten lot, left to die in Pakistani jails while Government after Government in India has looked the other way. SHALINI SAKSENA talks to some POW families and lawyers and activists from both sides of the border to bring you a soul-searching story
Captain Giri Raj Singh of 5 Assam regiment was captured in Chhamb on December 5, 1971. In a Pakistan Radio broadcast in August 1972, he paid respect to his mother Reshmi Devi and father Chaudhary Man Singh. In 1988, on his return to India , a Kot Lakhpat Jail fellow prisoner Bhaskar said he had met Captain Singh in jail.
Major Kanwaljit Singh, captured between December 4 and December 16, 1971, wrote to former Prime Minister, the late Indira Gandhi, on the demise of Sanjay Gandhi. The letter, written in Punjabi, read: ‘Now that you have lost your own dear one, you can perhaps understand the anguish we suffer, our parents for us and we for our aged parents, our innocent children and our life partners. I pine to meet my daughter.
Major Ashok K Suri was mentioned in the Punajbi Darbar programme on Lahore Radio in January 1972. On August 13, 1975, the Major’s father RS Suri got a letter from his son in which he said there were 20 Indian officers detained in Pakistan. Further information over the years revealed that the Major was shifted from Karachi to Kohat in NWFP. Mukhtiar Singh, repatriated from Pakistan on July 5, 1988, confirmed that Suri was in Kot Lakhpat with him.
Flight Lieutenant VV Tambay was one of the five pilots captured by Pakistan on December 4, 1971. His wife Damyanti had a chance meeting with a Bangladeshi naval officer in 1978 who was taken prisoner during the 1971 war. He said he had met Tambay in Lyallpur Jail. Daljit Singh, repatriated from Pakistan on February 24, 1988, met him at the Lahore Interrogation Centre.
When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was jailed at Kot Lakhpat for his alleged involvement in the conspiracy to murder Ahmed Raza Kasuri, BBC journalist Victoria Schofield visited him for an interview. He told her that he could not sleep at night as he was lodged in a cell next to Indian POWs who had gone mad and would keep screaming throughout the night. Schofield mentions this conversation in her 1979 book Bhutto: Trial and Execution.
The issue of Indian POWs was first raised in the Rajya Sabha in 1978. In 1981, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi acknowledged there were POWs in Pakistani jails. In September 1996, MP Satish Pradhan raised the issue of their release in Rajya Sabha, to which then Defence Minister IK Gujaral said the Government was making efforts to get them back.
During the 1999 summit, former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto admitted to Rajiv Gandhi that there were 43 Indian POWs.
Yet, as of 2013, 40 of these POWs continue to languish in Pakistani jails. The rest of the 55, presumably died in the last 42 years with reports that their ashes are kept in urns there. The 55 included 31 from the Indian Army and 24 from the Indian Air Force. But this number could be higher as there is evidence that a few names that don’t figure on the list. Sepoy Budh Singh of Sikh Light Infantry is just one case in point. His wife and daughter claim he is still in Pakistan .
It all happened in a matter of 13 days (between December 3, 1971 and December 16, 1971). A total of 96,710 Pakistanis were taken prisoner by India during the war. In addition, the Indian Army had occupied 9,047 sq km with 90 villages. Pakistan captured 2,307 Indians. Though the war lasted only 13 days, the anguish and hopelessness of 55 POW families has lasted 42 years, and counting. Till today, these families live in the hope that their husbands, sons and fathers will return.
Nirmal Kaur, wife of subedar Assa Singh of 5 Sikh (JC No 41339), is still waiting. On December 17, 1971, she was told that her husband had died in the line of duty. The subedar, they said, had fought valiantly till death to prevent Pakistani soldiers from crossing into Jammu through the Manawar Bridge . However, on August 20, 1972, some Indian POWs spoke on Pakistan Radio, and subedar Singh was one of them.
“A month later, in September, he spoke again. He took my mother’s name, the name of our village and said that he was alive and in good health. That was the last time we heard his voice,” subedar Singh’s daughter Ravinder Kaur tells you over phone from Jammu . She has never met her father. She is now 41 years old.
“We know what it is to be in the Army. One has to fight for the country and lay down his life to become a shaheed. But for us, everyday is shaheed diwas. This was not something my father had fought for. He gave his life to the nation and the Government has just abandoned him,” Ravinder laments.
Her eldest sister Davinder Kaur, who was in Class VI in 1971, has more to tell about their father. “He was much liked and a compassionate man. He always said one must do what is right. He told my sister that the enemy he had to fight was not his enemy but the enemy of India , and as he worked for the country, it was his duty to fight for her honour,” Davinder recounts.
The absence of a man in the house meant that their mother was in a bed of problems — bringing up five daughters and two sons was not easy for her. Subedar’s family had come to India as refugees during the Partition in 1947. They had no money, no land — everything got left behind in Pakistan . But with sheer grit, subedar Singh managed to buy a small plot of land and built a one-room house for his family.
“When my father went missing, his unit offered to take in my mother and us. They said they would provide accommodation and educate us. But, at that time, my maternal grandparents were staying with us. The unit refused to provide for them. So, my mother had to refuse. But she allowed them to take away my two younger brothers. The unit took care of their education, but only till Class X. They never offered them a job. My mother used to get Rs 323 as pension every three months. Money was always a problem. But despite these problems, my mother’s faith that her husband would be back was not shaken. Till today, every morning, she goes to the nearby gurdwara to offer prayers for his return,” Ravinder tells you.
In 1988, Mahinder Lal brought some good news for this family — subedar Singh was alive! But the happiness was short-lived. The Government did not act on the information and the family felt dejected. In the 1990s, news filtered in that he was in some jail hospital there. Twenty years have passed since then. All is silent. Is he dead? Did he die at the hospital? Or is he still alive? The family awaits answers.
“My mother is convinced he is alive. We all live in that hope. I want him to know we are all married and even though we could not become what he wanted (doctors and engineers), we are happy. We also want him to know that he has 17 grandchildren,” Ravinder says, adding that even though her mother today gets Rs 40,000 as pension, it is no longer about money.
“We’ll happily return all the money the Government has given us if, in return, we get back our father and the Government answers one simple question — Why are there POWs of 1971 in Pakistan till today?,” she asks.
Ravinder is not the only one seeking an explanation. There are many wives, sons, daughters and mothers who want to know why their husbands, fathers and sons remain there? When will they be brought back? Who is to be blamed for these valiant soldiers of the nation dying slowly in Pakistani prison for over 40 years?
“A procedure is followed once the war is over and repatriation of POWs has to take place. The list of the missing or killed soldiers is compiled and exchanged. Once this list is handed over, the Red Cross/Human Rights Activists account for every man. As global practice, the victors get their prisoners repatriated first and only then prisoners of the losing nation are sent back. India won the 1971 war against Pakistan !
“Once a Line of Control is worked out by mutual agreement, the winner decides whether it wants to keep or withdraw from the area he has captured. No repatriation of prisoners takes place unless every single POW from the victorious nation has been accounted for and returned.
“After the 1971 war ended, none of these rules were followed. We not only returned Pakistan ’s POWs but also the 90 villages that were captured. We were winners but we still have around 50 POWs languishing in Pakistan ,” Brigadier Man Mohan Sharma of the Gorkha Rifles and Garhwal Scouts, responsible for looking after 17 high altitude passes on the UP-Tibet border to counter an attack from that side during 1971 war, tells you.
Sharma, who has since written a book Indian Prisoners of War in Pakistan, tells you that the shameful lack of political will and larger selfish interest means that these valiant men who fought to defend the country, and their families, will continue to live in limbo.
“The reason why these families continue to suffer is because they are pawns in a game played out by Pakistan and its then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Unfortunately, our then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi fell for that trap by a wily Bhutto,” he says.
“Subsequent Indian heads of State preferred to turn a blind eye to this issue. Probably, the leadership sees it as a small figure — only 55 men! As opposed to what was being promised by Pakistan at that time — peace with India , ceasefire in J&K and let bygones be bygones as far as India ’s involvement in the creation of Bangladesh was concerned,” Sharma says. The 81-year-old veteran adds that Gujarat High Court’s 2011 direction to the Centre over the release of 1971 POWs had brought a brief ray of hope to these families.
The Bench of acting chief justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya and Justice J B Pardiwala allowed a writ petition on the issue and ruled: ‘The Union of India shall, within two months from today, (December 23, 2011) approach the International Court of Justice alleging breach of the Simla Agreement by Pakistan for not releasing the soldiers as mentioned in the Lok Sabha on August 14, 1978 vide unstarred Question No 6803’.
The court also ordered that the POW families be paid service and retirement benefits in accordance with existing provisions applicable to soldiers, “as if they retired on superannuation on the relevant date in accordance with the respective date of birth available in their official service record.” This, the court said, should be done within three months of the order.
If, on the intervention of the International Court of Justice, any of the POWs were to return, the next of kin was advised to hand over the benefits to them.
This case for POWs was taken up by Rajkot-based lawyer and human rights activist MK Paul in 1998. Paul approached the then Lt Gen, Jagjit Singh Arora, with facts and figures following which Arora filed the petition in the Gujarat High Court in 1999.
“My brother had fought in the 1971 War and I know what these families must have gone through. My mother would always ask how my brother was. I come from a family where everyone has served in the Army. I am the only exception. So when I read that 55 Indian soldiers were languishing in Pakistani jails, I decided to take up their cause. It has been a long drawn out battle. I have met two former Presidents — APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil. Unfortunately, nothing has happened. Our politicians have long given up on these men,” Paul, who is now over 75 himself and ailing, tells you over phone from Rajkot .
Paul had actually started off by taking up the case of Kuldip Kumar Yadav, who has been in a Pakistani jail for 18 years on charges of spying. “When the Gujarat High Court ordered that Rs 5 lakh be given to his mother, news spread like wildfire and more than 40 POW families from all over the country either called or came to meet me and asked me take up their case. ‘Humara bhi beta Pakistan jail mein 1971 se hai. Humara case aap ladiye,’ they said. But then, a case from J&K or Maharashtra would not have been admissible in Gujarat . So, the cases were filed in Delhi High Court which my son Kishor handles now,” Paul says. The activist has been honoured with the Gujarat Gaurav Award for his fight for Indian prisoners in Pakistan .
“We have been fighting for the release of POWs since 1999 — for free. I travel to Delhi for a hearing on my money. It has been my father’s mission and now mine. I want these men to return. We, too, should send back Pakistani prisoners. We can go for an exchange. They have around 500 of our men (POWs, spies and fishermen). We have around 250 of their men, though not POWs. Ten in exchange for 10 would be a good start,” Kishor tells you.
But the Gujarat High Court order, seeking the moving of ICJ, was overiden by a stay which the Government sought and got from Supreme Court. The International Court of Justice was never moved. And the families are back where they started from.
However, Kishor is hopeful that a Supreme Court hearing slated for July 15, 2013, might turn things in their favour. “If SC rules in favour of the Government again, I have a strategy in place. This time, the Government will have to approach the ICJ,” Kishor says without going into details.
Unfortunately, the families are not so buoyant.
Gurjit Kaur was 10 when her father naik Hazoora Singh was captured by Pakistan . A telegram sent to the family on December 5, 1971 said Singh (who was in BSF) had died. The family went into mourning. Then came the news that he was alive but a prisoner in Pakistan . The family waited for the war to end for naik Hazoora to be returned. Fortytwo years later, they are still waiting.
“In 1974, when many POWs came back from Pakistan , we were hopeful that my father would be one of them. But he didn’t. Years passed, the Government gave my mother Rs 144 as monthly pension. It increased to Rs 1,000 by the next decade. In 1981, that too stopped. When I went to enquire why the Government had stopped the meagre pension, I was told my father was not in the Army and the benefit was only for those families whose sons/husbands were in the Army,” Gurjit tells on phone from Jalandhar.
Today, she teaches in a private school. Her husband is an inspector with the BSF. Her two brothers are doctors practising in the US . A sister is married in the US .
But it was not an easy childhood for any of them. Even though the BSF had given the family a place to live, they had to pay a rent of Rs 171. From a very early age, Gurjit Kaur and her sister had to pitch in for the family income.
“I gave tuitions and earned around Rs 200. Out of which Rs 171 went as rent, only RS 29 were left to buy grocery. But my mother was our pillar of strength. She would act as if our father was due to return the next day. ‘Let naik saheb comeback. I will tell him how much trouble you children give me,’ she would say. She would walk to the gurdwara that was 2 km away and read the Guru Granth Sahib. She would do kar seva. She even kept the Karva Chauth vrat till 1978. That is when people asked her to stop keeping the fast. She did whatever people asked her to do to ensure the safe return of her husband. But in the end, all the worrying caught up with her. Her kidney had to be operated upon, her gall bladder had to be removed and she was struck by diabetes and hypertension. When she died in 1997, she was still hoping to see my father one last time,” Gurjit says.
“The hostility between the two countries affects ordinary citizens. Not all are held on spying charges. Apart from fishermen, both countries imprison each other’s citizens for overstaying or straying across the border by mistake. Some time back, with the help of Indian NGOs, we managed to procure the release of a minor who had got on to a train and wanted to go to Mumbai to see Bollywood stars,” Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says. She adds that the other tragic issue is the detention of poor fishermen by both countries when they enter (by mistake or otherwise) each others’ waters.
“Both countries need to treat the issue of prisoners on humanitarian grounds. They should not be held hostage to political point-scoring. Citizens in India and Pakistan need to continue campaigning for exchange of prisoners and their better treatment,” Yusuf says.
My father, Captain OP Dalal, was reported missing when I was only eight months old. With a husband missing, the life of a woman in Haryana, where we come from, is rough and tough. The only way my mother Krishna dealt with the horrors of life was by telling herself constantly that her husband’s suffering would have been much more,” Dalal’s son Ram Singh says. He tills the land his father had sworn to protect from the enemy.
The initial six years were horrifying for Krishna . She worked tirelessly in the family owned fields to provide for herself and her only child. Hope came in 1978 when the Government fixed a pension of Rs 338 per month for her. The Haryana Government gave the family Rs 4,000 as a lump sum settlement.
“Sainik to ek bar shaheed hota hai par hum log to har din shaheed ho rahe hain. But my mother-in-law is convinced that her husband Capt Dalal is alive and will return one day. She dreams of him telling her he will be back soon,” Manjit Dalal, Ram’s Singh’s wife tells you. She takes the phone form her husband who became emotional about a father he has never seen.
She also tells you that even though the Government has given the money, it is the uncertainy — whether Dalal is alive or not — that has made the family’s life a living hell. “Sarkar koi toh jawab de. Par poonchne par bhi koi answer nahin hai unke paas,” Manjit says.