In search of lost soldiers

Pakistan
Conflict
India

Indian families are still waiting for the return of men taken prisoner by Pakistan 44 years ago. Over 50 members of the Indian Security Forces remain unaccounted for. With successive Indian governments having failed to establish their fate, the prisoners’ families continue their desperate search for their loved ones.

Though the Pakistani authorities acknowledge they took the men prisoner in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, they have since refused to explain what happened to them, and even denied their existence. However, a number of Indian prisoners of war released in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Indian civilians released from Pakistani prisons, say they have met some of the missing officers.

Rajwant Kaur is the sister of Gurdev Singh Rai, one of the missing prisoners of war. Through her tears, she recalls the brother she admired and loved – who would now be in his early seventies. Rajwant Kaur vividly remembers watching a BBC news report in December 1971 which showed images of the Indian prisoners of war. She pointed out her brother and said: ‘It will be a matter of a week or two before he is released.’ It didn’t happen. Their parents, who had pleaded with the authorities for his release, died still waiting for his return. Not a day goes by without Rajwant thinking about her brother.

Vijay Vasant Tambay was a former Olympian who represented India in badminton in the 1965 Olympics. He had only been married for a year when he was called to duty. His wife Damanyanti has not seen or heard from him since, save for a grainy photograph in the Sunday Observer of 5 December 1971 and a letter she received from him, sent from a Pakistani prison.

None of the families ever received either bodies or personal belongings. Following a petition to the Indian Supreme Court, the families do now receive backdated pensions, and will continue to do so since there is no evidence to confirm that the officers were killed during the war.

As time passes, there are fewer living family members to continue the fight for answers. Indian government attempts to raise the issue under its Bilateral Agreement with Pakistan have been met with denial and a lack of co-operation.

The families’ last hope is to raise the issue at an international level. If the Supreme Court orders the government to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice, a new legal route for the families will be opened. This is the last chance for the officers’ relatives to get answers and closure.