Going against the Geneva Convention, 54 Indian soldiers captured by the enemy during the 1971 War were never sent back. What’s worse: governments in Delhi have not enquired about their fate or pressurized Islamabad to affect their return
By Bikram Vohra
On June 23, 2016, the advisor, United Front of Ex-Servicemen and chairman, Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM) Maj Gen Satbir Singh, SM (Retd) wrote to Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and the three chiefs of the armed forces bringing up the issue of 54 Indian Prisoners of War (POWs) from 1971 who have never been returned. This, despite the fact that India sent home 93,000 Pakistani POWs in early 1972 who had been captured after Major General Rao Farman Ali had surrendered to India’s Eastern Command through Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora in Dhaka after the 1971 War.
The more cruel fact is that no one really gave a toss about our soldiers or why they were not integral to this hugely imbalanced numerical equation. It is 46 years and if not dead, most of them would be in their dotage. But they are still ours and why is this only becoming public now? It is not even a Congress vs BJP thing. In this time-frame, both have been in power, so both parties are equally guilty of not having made the effort.
Since 1929 when the code of conduct for POWs was legally framed at the Geneva Convention—these have been reframed in 1949 at the third Convention with additional protocols in 1977 to keep them updated—there is a legal fiat that allows for asking the right questions. Since POWs cannot be prosecuted for taking part in the war, their detention should be limited to detaining them from taking any further part in the war effort.
The Convention clearly states they must be sent home once the hostilities end. Quote from the byelaws: “Internment is a security measure, and cannot be used as a form of punishment. This means that each interned person must be released as soon as the reasons which necessitated his/her internment no longer exist.”
Benazir Bhutto had admitted at the SAARC meeting in 1989 that there were 41 POWs deserving of the rights given to them by the Geneva Convention. She promised to have them returned.
The official legal basis is overwhelming: “The Hague Regulations provide for the obligation to repatriate prisoners of war as soon as possible after the conclusion of peace. The Third Geneva Convention requires the release and repatriation of prisoners of war without delay after the cessation of active hostilities. According to Article 132 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, each interned person must be released as soon as the reasons for internment end, while Article 133 provides that, in any event, internment must cease as soon as possible after the close of hostilities.”
You bring your boys back home—that is just how it is done, dead or alive. Every defense minister and defense secretary and every four star chief in the army, navy and air force did very little all these years. This is criminal negligence and even the ex-servicemen’s league is guilty of dragging its feet. Surely, the families must have petitioned the successive governments and got no joy. If you talk of the failure of media, this is it.
General Satbir quotes Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan, at the SAARC meeting in 1989 when she confirmed that there were 41 POWs deserving of the rights given to them by the Geneva Convention. She promised to have them returned. Nothing happened. What makes this even more incredible is that there is a list of names of these POWS (see box below).
Not just that, there is also hard evidence that they were captured. It is inconceivable that some of our troops were not taken prisoner. In a war it happens. I was a war correspondent for The Times of India and I have personally taken photographs of hundreds of Pakistani POWs in the Shakargarh area and interviewed them in December 1971 and have pictures as evidence, many of which were published by Khushwant Singh in The Illustrated Weekly.
So then, besides lists how do we know some of our men were caught? Major Ghosh was shown behind bars in a 1971 Time magazine shot. What happened to him? The famous US pilot General Chuck Yaeger who was the first man to break the sound barrier wrote in his autobiography that after the war ended, he interviewed Indian prisoners of war himself. But they didn’t come home. Victoria Schofield, a close buddy of Benazir and a news correspondent, even pointed out that 50 Indian soldiers were kept in Kol Lakpat jail, Lahore.
What more evidence is needed? Even if we messed this issue up, let’s give the families and next of kin some closure. Let’s at least ask for answers. Get back something, take some action to show we care. After 45 years never mind, it is never too late, what if one of them is alive.
Lead picture: Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw with Indian soldiers during the 1971 war. Photo: UNI