54 Indian POWs Versus Sarabjit Singh

Rahul Gandhi may have made a politically rash comment, but even if he had not intended to reveal the truth, it hurts. “Hum jo kaam haath mein lete hain, usey poora kartey hain...chahe woh desh ki azadi ho, Pakistan mein batwara ho ya desh ko ekkiswin sadi mein le jana ho.... (We deliver what we promise, be it the independence struggle, dismemberment of Pakistan or leading the country into the 21st century....),’’ he said. In effect accepting that India was responsible for dividing Pakistan. We are back again to 1971. Too much has happened since and Bangladesh is dealing with its own problems. But one major problem is ours. The state of our prisoners of war. 

Look at the scenario today. One more fast unto death. One more case of emotional blackmail. Dalbir Kaur has this time decided to forgo food until her brother Sarabjit Singh is released from Kot Lakhpat jail in Pakistan. Earlier, she had stated, “Both Delhi and Islamabad should know that Sarabjit will not be the only one who will be hanged. We have prepared five nooses at home, and we will commit mass suicide.”

The Indian government has time for this case. Not for those they sent to war to divide another country or fight for the rights of a regional group, whichever way we choose to see it. There is always the ‘trade is more important than Kashmir’ line being dished out during every Saarc summit. We keep count of the dead (official figures only, please) that die protecting our ‘porous’ borders. We just don’t have the time to think of those who were still living in Pakistani jails for a cause they did not even know about or perhaps identify with.

They just went there as Indian soldiers 36 years ago. At that time Indira Gandhi was hailed as Durga. The goddess was so busy playing the pugnacious deity that she apparently forgot to ask for our men to be returned, while we handed over Pakistani POWs. The irony is that Bangladeshis who we helped free are infiltrating our borders while the families of those soldiers just wait.

There are many who think it is foolish to assume they are still alive – it has been over three decades. Why do some of us who have nothing to do directly with the case continue to persist with it? Every few years I write about it because suddenly when I seem to almost give up I get a letter in the mail from some family member writing to say, “The mystery of the missing 54 POWs should not be allowed to die a natural death. The sacrifice of these warriors must never be seen as being in vain by the present and future generations. If even a single politician's or big industrialist's or media baron's immediate family member had been thus sacrificed, am certain the 'great mystery' would have been resolved long ago.”
Someone asks if I can do something. I cannot. I had sent an email to the Ansar Burney Trust that deals with such issues in Pakistan in January 2002; no reply. So, what can I do as an individual? Is it therefore possible to even imagine the extent of the helplessness the families feel?

My first involvement began in 1992. Evidence of the soldiers were alive was produced in the form of frayed postcards, clippings from old magazines. More importantly, it was in the eyes of those who related the stories. Today, they are willing to concede that their sons, husbands, brothers may not be alive. What do they want? News. As one father, who is now dead, had told me, “I want to see his army belt, his uniform and identification disc.”

They want justice. The Pakistani government insists it does not have any Indian defence personnel in its custody; this has been its stand all along, and India has not pursued to contradict it.

M.L. Bhaskar in his book, ‘I Spied For India’, mentioned the names of some of our defence officers who were in jail from the information he had got from a Pakistani official when he himself was in prison. 
The Indian government is quite certain that our army personnel are still in Pakistani prisons. 
However, every Indian government in power has only made half-hearted attempts. Morarji Desai had got his external affairs minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to talk with General Zia-ul-Haq, but Vajpayee got into technical details about international ratio.

As Indira Gandhi’s home minister, Narasimha Rao had asked families of the missing personnel to visit Pakistan. In 1983 a delegation was taken to a civilian jail in Multan. None of the prisoners recognised them; they were shown petty smugglers, trespassers and illegal entrants.

They have been collecting evidence for years. As one of them told me recently, “Through my studies on the subject, and I can only reasonably conjecture, that soon after the war there was a deliberate 'understanding' by India and Pakistan at the very highest levels, to keep all information on the missing POWs absolutely out of view till the picture clears. The embarrassing disclosures may have been 'protected' within the frame-work of larger peace initiatives redefining boundaries within the subcontinent. After the ceasefire, it’s likely that in the confusion and anger among 'uniformed' Pakistanis for losing the eastern wing, many POW undertrials were randomly scattered, without proper accounting, to remote jails.”

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did hear the cries of some prisoners when he was awaiting his hanging. He was told they were Indian POWs. This was mentioned in Victoria Scholfied’s book ‘The Bhutto Trial and Execution’. Since it was published years after the war, we must ask why the Indian POWs were still behind bars. There could have been a political angle that one of the family members states, “Bhutto claimed to have been disturbed by the screams of demented POWs sharing his prison when he was himself awaiting execution by the military dictatorship that unseated him. That could have been a clever ploy/red herring by him to get India involved to save his neck. It’s quite another matter that we do not know what he did as PM himself after the war to resolve the POW issue.”

Another person is more cautious. He says, “The only and 'extremely remote' possibility of anyone being alive is that a few may have escaped, been caught, and then forced to convert to Islam. This may have been done out of fear and convenience, or when they turned lunatic. This category may have been spared death. Such information will also never be revealed. These living 'zombies' may then be languishing in prisons, along with thousands of other Pakistani civilian undertrials.You must know that close to 80% of all jailed inmates in India and Pakistan are in the 'under-trial' category.”

If, as Scholfied had written, “When the time came to exchange POWs, the Indian government did not accept these lunatics as they could not recount their place of origin. And thus, they were retained at Kot Lakhpat,” then I feel the onus has been on the Indian government, and it has shown complete disregard. Not one political party has included the return of our POWs in its manifesto. Why hasn’t a single government delegation gone to Pakistan? What have our various ambassadors done? What about public opinion?

Yet, when it comes to one individual the highest authorities in the country come out to support an ordinary citizen who happens to be a farmer who ambled across in drunken stupor to the other side of the border, though the Pakistani Supreme Court has sentenced him to death by hanging for detonating bombs five times, resulting in deaths and injuries. He has confessed to being a RAW agent, and yet the then External Affairs minister Natwar Singh discussed the matter with the Pakistan high commissioner in India and reiterated the fact that this was a humanitarian matter and also that there was a strong public sentiment in India for sparing the life of the individual.

Does it mean there is no public sentiment for our POWs? Indeed, except for the occasional TV panel discussion, that too in the past couple of years, and two films which flopped, absolutely nothing is done. Is it because these families are trying to reason and not getting dramatic about it? What if they started going on hunger fasts?

If Sarabjit has already spent 17 years in prison, then what about our soldiers? Were they tortured? Did they lose their sanity? Their memory? Did they die of hunger? Almost every family has been able to produce some evidence that they did not die during the course of the 13-day Bangladesh War. 
Yet no search was ever undertaken. The Indian government would have to look at all possibilities. While the popular theory is that it is merely a political issue, other reasons can also be attributed regarding the missing people. They could be under assumed names, or could have been mistakenly kept back as deranged, or could have been captured a little before the actual outbreak of war, in which case they do not qualify as POWs but as security prisoners or spies. This means that all these categories must be checked.

Can the Indian government be prosecuted and be later pursued in a court of law? A human rights activist lawyer had told me that a prima facie case could be set out if the courts feel the government has not been sincere. The case only gets strengthened if there is evidence to back it.

This is not about false hope, for hope is never false. It is about accountability.

© Farzana Versey