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POWs: Dangling Threads of every War


Only a 21 year old then, second lieutenant, Amarjit Singh Behl shared a sense of undiscovered camaraderie with his fellow jawans whenever they would stealthily smuggle hot water once a month for his Kesh in a foreign and abandoned village used as a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp in Tibet of 1962. Dr. RS Suri was informed of his son, Major Ashok Suri's tragic death following his capture by (then, west) Pakistan in 1971, only to be later disoriented (again) by 2 letters from his son dated December 1974 and June 1975. Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja's killing at the enemy's hand in Kargil not only left a palpable void in IAF, but also infuriated the whole country in 1999.

Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa and his colleagues before flying MiG-21 planes in a 'missing man' formation as an aerial salute to honour martyr Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja at Bhisiana Air Force station in Bathinda. Source: The New Indian Express

Following her independence, India has participated in a few full fledged wars and more than a handful of conflicts, with her bordering antagonists which more often than not, concluded with situations of Indian POWs as its grim side-effect. The article intends to revise India’s history of its POWs and how it has been treated as a low-profile issue when it comes to War history or even National history for that matter.

The Third Geneva Convention (1949), Relative To The Treatment of Prisoners of War, blankets a list of provisions to abide by in situations of belligerent conflicts in order to protect and maintain humanitarian ideals. All UN member states along with others are signatories to the Convention (i.e. including India, China and Pakistan). It is, however, interesting to note that any violations of these provisions aren’t directly subjected to punishment to the violating state, while it could still invite moral outrage in local and international fora, and other concomitant reactions. This has, in part, if not certainly, enabled to stretch out the definition of the ideal treatment of prisoners of war (hereinafter, POW).

1962 Sino-India War

‘Hindi Chini, Bhai Bhai', a shibboleth of amity still prevalent today, wasn’t true enough in 1962 (as is the case even now) to prevent India and China from going to war. Much to India's surprise, on 20th October 1962, a swarm of Chinese People’s Liberation Army attacked a rather unprepared India along the western front in Ladakh and along the eastern front in NEFA (now, Arunachal Pradesh). While the War was largely fought over the Himalayan border dispute (that still remains unconcluded) and the Tibet question, it ended a month and a day later with China’s inevitable victory and a loss for India that left a lasting blemish on her military history along with more than 3000 Indian POWs under China’s custody in Tibet.

By 1962, both countries had long ago signed the Geneva Convention (1949), India in 1950 and China in 1956. But their acknowledgement of the fact wasn’t exactly ideal. For starters, China addressed the captured military personnel as ‘captives’ instead of POWs as it deliberately regarded the war as a mere counter-attack skirmish, thus making it difficult for the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) to intermediate between the two for the sake of POWs under China. It was then upto the two countries' national Red Cross organizations to solve the issue. In fact, the Chinese were so persistent about their claims that they blamed the POWs everyday for provoking China. China presented quite a romanticized picture of the whole POW situation to India and the world- publishing a news story about brotherhood and fondness among the two militaries, hosting a farce celebratory function to photograph Indian military personnel as ‘safe and content' under her captivity. The reality was obviously different. In an account by Major General KK Tewari as a POW in Tibet, one of their captors quite nonchalantly dismissed the Convention as an “imperialistic convention by the westerners" when questioned about why they had kept Brigadier John Dalvi of the 7 Infantry Brigade in solitary confinement.

In early December 1962, the first batch of ill and injured Indian POWs was released. The final respite came when on April 4th 1963 the Chinese government announced the repatriation of all the remaining Indian POWs, thus ending the captured Indians’ months-long ordeal. Though for the returning Indian military personnel the experiences and memories were largely distressing and traumatic, for many, their belief and trust in their country, countrymen and comrades grew manifolds, as felt by Second Lieutenant, Amarjit Singh Behl.

Then Second Lieutenant A J S Behl, second from right, at Tsangdhar in early October 1962.

Source: Rediff news

1965 & 1971 Wars Against Pakistan

The consecutive wars of 1965 and 1971 quite blatantly illustrated India’s military prowess against her frequent nemesis, Pakistan. While the former was an indecisive war fought over Kashmir, the latter turned out to be quite substantial, establishing Bangladesh as a new state.

Of what is known about the Indian POWs from 1965 war according to personal anecdotes shared by (retired) Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa, is that, there were around 38 other war prisoners with him in a POW-camp in Pakistan, who survived four months, greatly owing to each other's company and without much to complain about, before their repatriation on 22nd January 1966. However, the extensive war of 1971 did generate a serious POW situation on both sides. At the conclusion of the Bangladesh Liberation War, India housed about 92,000 Pakistani POWs (the largest number since WW2), while Pakistan held about 616 Indian POWs (a few years later, it was discovered that they withheld some war prisoners as a potential negotiation chip). Soon after signing the Simla Agreement in July 1972, both the neighbours promptly exchanged their captured soldiers, except, Pakistan silently held back more than a few unaccounted Indian POWs, grossly contradicting the international humanitarian law that states against prolonged detention of war prisoners. Although the exact number of these POWs kept shifting, eventually they came to be known as the “missing 54”. Despite being identified as missing, the Indian government declared a few of them as “Killed in action". Suspicion, followed by fresh hope over their status grew more when (one of the unaccounted PoWs) Major Ashok Suri’s father received 2 letters apparently sent by his son, dated December 1974 and June 1975. With a handwriting specialist’s assistance the Defence Ministry confirmed the letters were from him. Instances like Ashok Suri's weren't isolated. Major A.K. Ghosh was believed to be photographed by a newspaper reporter later in December 1971. Captivity of Flight Lieutenant L.M. Sasoon, after his aircraft crashed, was heard of in a Pakistani radio broadcast. Families of these men have been stuck in this absurdity over their loved ones' existence since the war of 1971.

2nd letter from Major Ashok Suri. Source: The New Indian Express

Pakistan however always denied captivity of these men in Pakistani jails. There also were a lot of fingers pointing at the Indian government's incompetence to bring back her ace military men from enemy territory to let them resume their much deserved life with dignity. Appeals for official information and legal exchange by POWs' kin to both governments and international intermediaries have sadly fallen to deaf ears. With diminishing hope, families of these men patiently await for closure that might never come.

Indian soldiers captured by Pakistan at a camp in December 1961. Source: BBC news

1999 Kargil War

The Kargil war was a brutal result of provocative and poorly thought out intrusion by the Pakistani Army into the Indian side. Although India yet again proved to be a victor, the Kargil Conflict accounted for deeply ruthless and savage war crimes inflicted upon Indian POWs.

In their course of routine border reconnaissance, Captain Saurabh Kalia along with his party were captured after multiple rounds of firing by the invading Pakistan Army. Three weeks under enemy’s custody, they were put through unparalleled gruesome torture and eventual death before being handed to India on 9th June 1999. The martyrs list included- Captain Saurabh Kalia, Sepoys Bhika Ram, Moola Ram, Arjun Ram, Naresh Singh and Bhanwar Lal Bagaria. In another instance, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja’s aircraft MiG-21 was shot at when he attempted to locate his comrade Flight Lieutenant Kambampati Nachiketa, who had crashed his aircraft moments before. While both were captured as prisoners of war and subjected to vicious torture, Ahuja was killed and repatriated three days later. Nachiketa lived but with lasting trauma. These sinister illustrations of war crimes perpetrated by Pakistan during the Kargil War left India infuriated. After a serious violation of international law and disregarding the Geneva Convention, Pakistan continued to deny any guilt and eluded any responsibility. Tied by the bilateralism vein as per the Simla pact, external bodies were of hardly any help in this case. Yet again, the families and kin of the martyrs were deprived of justice.

Captain Saurabh Kalia. Source: India Times

In a much incongruous case of Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhaman, he was briefly under Pakistan's custody as a prisoner of war early last year. The pressure of his release was more impacted by social media than by the international community. However, as social media is universally accessed, there is a need to have self-regulation guidelines in sensitive cases like the one discussed.

Although the instances mentioned above are far from an exhaustive history, one thing that is common years apart (except perhaps the isolated case of Wing Commander Abhinandan), is India’s lack of sensitivity and empathy toward its prisoners of war. While we have come a long way since our defeat in 1962, in the sense of men, material and capabilities, we are virtually at the same place in case of a POW situation as we were back then. We still need substantial policies around POW repercussions during a war as well as during peacetime to deservedly aid our military personnel and their families. In the same vein, it’s also important to document not just single isolated anecdotes and accounts of PoWs, but in fact, a larger, comprehensive and an objective picture too.




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