The saga of Indian soldiers missing in action during Indo-Pak wars is an unfinished aspect of those wars, their inconclusive stories and unknown fate continue to haunt the families and colleagues because Pakistan has refused to publicly acknowledge that it has them in 1979, India first tabled a list of 40 missing defence personnel in Parliament. The figure has now gone up to 83 soldiers. This includes 54 soldiers who went missing in the 1965 and 1971 wars, and the remaining are peacetime disappearances from near the country’s borders with Pakistan.
For long, their families and colleagues had been told by the government that nothing much could be done as Pakistan does not admit to having them. But now, there is evidence that some of these men may have been re-categorised from prisoners of war (POW) to security prisoners or spies to enable Pakistan to detain them indefinitely and circumvent the provisions of the Geneva Conventions according to which all captured soldiers must be returned to the home country after cessation of hostilities.
These revelations are contained in a new book, Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back by journalist Chander Suta Dogra that relies on de-classified records of the Ministry of External Affairs and documents from other sources to piece together what may have happened.
On May 22, 1984, foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan met at Murree to talk about a proposed peace and friendship treaty, where the issue of missing defence personnel was also discussed. The Indian side, led by foreign secretary M.K. Rasgotra raised the matter of defence personnel missing since 1971 and said that relatives of some of these soldiers wanted to visit Pakistani jails where Indian prisoners are kept. This, because there was a thinking that Major A.K. Suri, one of the missing officers, may have been detained as a Pakistani prisoner.
Also on the table at the meeting were names of three Indian defence personnel believed to be in Pakistan’s custody, whose names had been given to Indian authorities by recently released Indian prisoners. Addressing these issues, Abdul Sattar, the additional secretary in the Pakistan foreign ministry, said: “There are no Indian prisoners arrested in 1970-71 presently in Pakistani jails, except those serving life imprisonment. All of them including security prisoners were released in 1973-74.” However, in the very next sentence, he elaborated that Pakistan has not been able to identify the three individuals whose names had been given to the Indian side. “There are however some persons with similar names they are security prisoners.”
“There were two admissions by Pakistan here. First that there were indeed some persons in Pakistan’s custody with names similar to the missing officers. This could mean anything from a deliberate distortion of the names in the jail records to conceal their identities to hinting to India that they were close but would have to make more concessions for their men. Second that these persons in their custody were categorized as security prisoners,” says the book.
In the same meeting, Sattar suggested that the two sides agree on a reciprocal basis for facilitating access to security prisoners without which it would be difficult to meet the request of the relatives to search in Pakistan’s jails. Dogra goes on to explain that Indian bureaucrats had always suspected that it became easy for Pakistan to deny that it had POWs because the soldiers who were suspected to be in its custody were kept as security prisoners. A similar stratagem was possibly adopted by India and the book also lists the names of 18 Pakistani soldiers believed to be in Indian jails.
Pilot killed by friendly fire on missing list
While there was always a conviction within in the Indian government – based on evidence that trickled in – that at least 15-20 Indian soldiers, some of them pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF) were certainly in Pakistani custody, for the first time a question mark has been raised on the figure of 54 missing personnel.
After investigating summary reports of the 1971 crashes from Pakistan and IAF sources besides affidavits submitted by the Indian government before courts, the book concludes that some of the names on the list of 54 should not be there as both sides have arrived at the same conclusion. In some cases, the IAF’s official records are at variance with the government’s stand on the issue of POWs. To quote one example from the book where the pilot was actually killed by friendly fire from an Indian MIG fighter but his name is erroneously listed as missing.
“Flt Lt Ashok Balwant Dhavale 9030 F (P) was operating out of Adampur IAF base with the No. 1 Squadron of MIGs. On the night of 11 December, 1971, a night scramble was ordered. Flt Lt Dhavale’s aircraft was reported missing. The last contact with the SU (Signal Unit) was reported north of Dasuya forty five kilometres south of Pathankot. The aircraft wreckage was later found in Indian territory at Sarna, about eight kilometres west of Pathankot. Flt Lt Dhavale’s death was confirmed with official records stating that his aircraft was shot down by an Indian MIG from Adampur airbase. In other words his aircraft became a victim of friendly fire. The officer’s remains were recovered and cremated at Pathankot, on 12th December, 1971, with full military honours. His ashes were handed over to his brother in law Maj SJ Apte at Delhi cantonment on 4th January, 1972. Yet Flt Lt Davale’s name was on the list of forty submitted before Parliament in 1979.”
Then, in two affidavits submitted in 2010 and 2011 before the Gujarat high court, the government admitted that 15 of the army men on the list of 54 are ‘confirmed killed’. Even in the case of the IAF pilots, official records and de-briefing reports of their flying mates affirm that some of them died when their jets crashed in enemy territory or in some cases on the Indian side of the border. If the government knew that some of the missing men are dead then why were the names retained on the list? “Quite clearly there is deliberate obfuscation and the government owes it not just to the next of kin but the people of India to come clean.”
These inconsistencies serve to underscore the confusion and carelessness with which the issue has been dealt with. Not a thought seems to have been spared for the sentiments and lives of so many families who have been living with uncertainty all these years. The book stresses on the need for a proper, independent, investigation. “All available evidence including official summary reports sent by Pakistan must be relentlessly examined, independently corroborated and matched with the IAF’s official record to arrive at the truth.”