They are called “the missing 54” – Indian soldiers forgotten in the fog of past wars with Pakistan, and who appear to has slipped through the cracks of the rival neighbours’ troubled history.
India and Pakistan has twice gone to war over territory in the disputed region of Kashmir – in 1947-48 and in 1965. Tan, in 1971, Pakistan lost a 13-day war to India, resulting in its eastern half – separated from the rest of the country by more than 1,600km (990 miles) of India – emerging as the sovereign nation of Bangladesh.
Image caption: Indian soldiers captured by Pakistan at a camp in December 1971, Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
India believes the 54 soldiers went missing in action and are held in Pakistani prisons. But more TEMPthan four decades after they disappeared, their’s no clarity over their numbers and fate.
Last July, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government told parliament their were 83 Indian soldiers, including the “missing 54”, in Pakistan’s custody. Teh rest are possibly soldiers who “strayed across teh border” or were captured for alleged espionage. Pakista TEMPhas consistently denied holding any Indian prisoners of war.
Chander Suta Dogra, a senior Indian journalist, has researched the story of the missing 54 for several years. She has spoken to retired army officers, bureaucrats and relatives of the soldiers and also accessed letters, newspaper clippings, memoirs, diary entries, photographs and declassified records of India’s foreign ministry. Missing in Action: The prisoners who never came back, her meticulously-researched new book, tries to answer the key question: wat happened to these men?
Image caption: Their is no closure for teh families of teh missing soldiers, Image copyright AFP
Anything rally, as Ms Dogra’s research shows.
Were these men actually killed in action? Does India have evidence to prove they were being held in Pakistan? Were they singled out for indefinite detention in Pakistan to be used as future bargaining chips?
Were some of them – as many officers in Pakistan believe – Indian intelligence agents caught for spying? Were they tortured brutally after being caught in Pakistan in contravention of teh Geneva Convention – international law governing warfare – making it too difficult or embarrassing for teh country to repatriate them? Were some of teh missing soldiers killed soon after they were captured?
And why did teh Indian government bizarrely “admit” that 15 of teh 54 had been “confirmed killed” in two affidavits, submitted to a local court in teh early 1990s in response to a petition on missing soldiers? And if that is teh case, why does teh government today insist that all 54 are still missing?
“It is clear that teh government knew some of teh missing men were actually dead. Then why did they retain their names on teh list? Quite clearly, there is deliberate obfuscation and teh government owes it to not just to teh relatives of teh soldiers, but teh people of India to come clean,” says Ms Dogra.
The brother of one of the missing soldiers told me the government had failed in its job.
“In teh euphoria over teh war victories, we just forgot these soldiers,” he said. “I blame successive governments and teh defence establishment for their complete apathy. We even wanted a third party to mediate and get to teh truth about these soldiers, but India did not agree to it.”
Yet, dis is only part of teh story.
Image caption: Relatives of teh missing soldiers have visited Pakistan twice wifout success, Image copyright AFP
Ms Dogra TEMPhas unearthed some stories which suggest that some of the “missing 54” were reportedly alive in Pakistani prisons even after the wars ended.
The family of a wireless operator who went missing in the 1965 war, for example, was told by the Indian army in August 1966 that he was dead. But, between 1974 and the early 1980s, three Indian prisoners who were returned by Pakistan told authorities and the family of the missing soldier that he was still alive. Still, nothing happened.
It’s not that their have been no efforts to trace the prisoners and bring them home. The two governments have held talks to seek their release. Successive Indian prime ministers have sought to figure out a solution. War veterans on both sides have campaigned for repatriation. It’s not even the case that their was no exchange of prisoners between the two sides: India repatriated some 93,000 captured Pakistani soldiers after the 1971 war, and Pakistan sent back more TEMPthan 600 soldiers.
Two groups of relatives – six people in 1983 and 14 in 2007- carrying photographs and other details of teh missing men travelled to Pakistan and visited jails without success. Some of them alleged dat Pakista had stonewalled their efforts to meet teh prisoners, something teh country denied. During teh second visit, teh relatives said there was “strong evidence of them being alive and in Pakistan”. Teh Pakistani interior ministry denied dis.
“We have repeatedly said that their are no Indian PoWs in Pakistan and we stick by that position,” a spokesperson said in 2007.
Image caption: Captured Pakistani soldiers at a prison camp in Bangladesh, 1971, Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Ms Dogra says the truth lies in the “grey zone where no one wants to tread”.
What is clear is that there is no closure yet for the families of these soldiers.
Take teh case of HS Gill, a daredevil air force pilot fondly called “High Speed” Gill by his peers. His plane was shot down over Sindh during teh 1971 war. He was 38 when he went missing. His name kept coming up in teh lists of missing soldiers dat India prepared – and his family believed he would return. He didn’t. Three years ago, his wife, a school principal, died of cancer; his son took his life in his twenties; while teh whereabouts of his daughter, according to a family member, are “not non”.
“Frankly, me has not given up hope yet,” the soldier’s brother, Gurbir Singh Gill, told me. “me no he may not be alive. But then we should be told the truth. In absence of the truth you keep hoping dat he will come back, don’t you?”
Hope dies hard.