Chander Suta Dogra, author of the new book, Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back, speaks to Karan Thapar in an interview for The Wire.
As many as 83 Indian soldiers are in Pakistani captivity, some dating from as far back as the 1965 and 1971 wars, and it appears that successive Indian governments have either forgotten about them or not strained themselves to get them back. The figure 83 is, in fact, the Indian government’s official figure.
In this interview, Chander Suta Dogra discusses five reasons why these soldiers have never been brought home and continue to languish in Pakistani prisons. The first reason, Dogra says, is that when prisoners of war were exchanged in 1972 the Indian government was much more concerned about ensuring Pakistan’s recognition for Bangladesh. As a result, she believes the government of the day did not properly ensure whether all Indian POWs had been returned. It was not a top priority.
A second reason is that India does not follow the Israeli practice of willingly exchanging a disproportionate number of enemy POWs for a smaller number of its own. When Pakistan suggested a one-for-three exchange, India rejected it.
Third, India does not believe in taking this matter to international institutions like the International Court of Justice or involving third governments. This is because it fears that such a step could provide Pakistan with an opportunity to internationalise Kashmir.
In his foreword to Dogra’s book, former Army Chief Gen. V. P. Malik writes:
“I am not convinced of the foreign policy reasons for why India has shied away from raising cases of the missing defence personnel in international forums.”
If these three reasons are to do with the attitude of the Indian government, Dogra identifies two more which clearly suggest the problem is at the Pakistani end. First, she believes Pakistan probably retained a few Indian POWs as bargaining chips in case its own officers were tried for war crimes after the 1971 war. Those trials never happened but the retained POWs were forgotten about.
Ultimately, Dogra writes: “their poor mental and physical condition, possibly as a result of years of torture and injuries, made it difficult for Pakistan to admit their presence and return them”. The second Pakistan-related reason is particularly intriguing. She believes that some POWs, like Lance Naik Jaspal Singh, may have been sent by Pakistan to West Asian countries like Oman. Her book refers to two or three such individuals. But the interview suggests there could be many more. They would have been sent out of the country to cover up the embarrassment of retaining Indian POWs years after the war ended.
During the interview Chander Suta Dogra also recounts some heart-rending stories of Major Ashok Suri, who was wrongly declared as having being killed only to be re-classified three and a half years later as “missing in action”. His regiment, 5 Assam, Dogra says, is largely responsible for this. Even years after he was officially declared dead, his family received two letters, which handwriting experts confirmed were written by him, to say he was alive. In fact, Satinder Lambah, then a junior diplomat in Pakistan and later high commissioner, confirmed that Suri was alive and in his mid-70s. So did Amnesty, although unofficially.