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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

A Masterpiece on India’s Missing Soldiers | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 24 October 2020

by M.R. Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

Title: Missing in Action: The Prisoners who Never Came Back; Author: Chander Suta Dogra; Publisher: HarperCollins India; Pages: 340; Price: Rs 699

This thoroughly researched book is a moving account of the agony suffered by the families of Indian soldiers who were captured in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, never to be seen again. It is not just an indictment of the Pakistani state which remained, over the decades, unmoved by the humanitarian crisis but also of the Indian military and successive Indian governments which either lied or didn’t do enough to bring the men back. And it is terribly cruel to learn that some of these soldiers may have been quietly slipped out of Pakistan to Muslim countries like Oman to do slave labour.

Journalist Chander Suta Dogra has done a fascinating job in putting together a story that is numbing. She also faults Amnesty International and ICRC for doing nothing to have the men freed despite knowing that Pakistan was illegally holding Indian soldiers in its custody, long after the wars had got over and the exchange of POWs had taken place.
It is a matter of debate how many Indian soldiers, including senior officers, were held back by Pakistan although the most frequently number brandied about is 54. The names of some of these men had been broadcast on Radio Pakistan after they were seized but they did not appear on the list of POWs sent to India. Not only did the military and the government not wake up to this but, in some cases, as Dogra reveals, the Indian armed forces went to great lengths to portray some prisoners were killed in action so as to wash their hands off the ugly episode.

In India’s official records, Pakistan took 616 Indian POWs, including eight civilians and 10 IAF officers. But a preliminary list submitted by Pakistan on January 11, 1972 had only 635 names – a difference of 19. Indian pilots who returned after captivity spoke of torture, including humiliating officers in front of their juniors, making them stand in cold water and threatening harm to their private parts. In its eagerness to seek Bangladesh’s recognition, India did not protest. India was also desperate to release the whopping 93,000 Pakistani POWs as holding them was becoming a source of international embarrassment.

The fact that the Indian military was not involved in the negotiations leading to the 1972 Shimla Agreement did not help. In any case, that pact – a highpoint of Indira Gandhi’s career – did not lead to durable peace between New Delhi and Islamabad. India repatriated 770 sick and injured POWs, Pakistan sent back only 35. By 1974, all POWs had been ‘officially’ returned to their respective countries.

“In hindsight, India’s political leadership and its policy mandarins were so obsessed with ensuring that the recognition of Bangladesh went off smoothly that it forgot to make certain whether all of its own people had been returned by Pakistan,” Dogra says. In the process, India’s missing soldiers lost their value, and began to languish in Pakistani jails and detention centres since then.

But the families of the soldiers who had heard about their capture during the war from Radio Pakistan refused to believe the officialdom. Initially individually and then collectively they began to search for their loved ones. The efforts yielded good results. In April 1979, the Indian government admitted for the first time, in Parliament, that Pakistan was holding back 40 Indian soldiers. In later years, the list went up to 54. In 2010, another 20 names were added to take the number to 74 names. The number became 83 in July 2018. The author and the distraught families believe that New Delhi was also getting information from its covert sources.

Although Pakistan at times claimed that India too had detained some of its soldiers, it never produced the kind of evidence New Delhi presented. Pakistan had cleverly classified many of the Indian soldiers as spies, who were not subject to Geneva Convention. Whenever the opportunity arose, India insisted on a none-for-one exchange but Pakistan wanted almost five of its captured spies for each Indian. New Delhi was reluctant to approach the UN or the International Court of Justice although it changed its mind in the case of alleged RAW operative Kulbhushan. In sharp contrast, Israel went out of its way to pay any price to have even one soldier freed from captivity.

On two occasions, families of the missing Indian soldiers visited Pakistan in a desperate attempt to trace them but these officially-sanctioned trips did not lead anywhere. One Indian prisoner (not a soldier) who told the families that he had seen one captive soldier was thrashed by the Pakistanis later so much that he could hardly be recognized when he was actually set free. But the families kept getting information about their loved ones in Pakistani custody, often when low-ranking Indian spies got freed. One such spy, Mohan Lal Bhaskar, was told by a Pakistan Army officer interned in Attock Fort for trying to oust Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that he had seen 30 or 40 Indian officers and they had been there for years, captured either in 1965 or 1971. There were numerous such sightings, often directly by Indian spies who spilled the beans when they were freed, perhaps in exchange for Pakistani spies.

The tragedy is that prisoners are often not seen as human beings with emotions and familial ties but as pawns in a never-ending game blighted with hate and revenge. “Supercilious Indian officials, high on victory, never imagined that Pakistan would have the temerity to hold back some soldiers… (So) India never asked the right questions at the right time.” In the process, Indian Army and IAF officers who got caught ended up in Pakistani prisons. They might have been given assumed names or changed identities, religion and possibly even nationality – tactics the Pakistan state excels in even now vis-à-vis terrorists. It is possible that some or many of the captured soldiers may be dead by now – the 1971 war took place half a century ago. But that is not the point.

Every Indian should read this book. And this should be compulsory reading for every Indian soldier.

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