India, Pakistan and the 1971 War POWs

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India, Pakistan and the 1971 War POWs

Indian POWs from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 remain a sore point in bilateral relations.

India, Pakistan and the 1971 War POWs
Credit: REUTERS/B Mathur AH/AT

The Indian government is coming under pressure to lobby Pakistan for the release of 54 missing prisoners of war, held since the 1971 conflict. While 90,000 Pakistani troops were captured by the Indian Army at the end of the war, and then released as part of the Simla peace agreement, 54 Indian soldiers, officers and pilots continued to be held by Pakistan.

Four and a half decades on, two British human rights lawyers are taking a case to the Supreme Court in Delhi on behalf of the missing men’s families. Successive Indian governments have done little to recover their missing military personnel – perhaps for fear of rocking an already fragile relationship between the two countries. The families are now hoping the Supreme Court judge will rule that the case be handed over for independent arbitration by the International Courts of Justice, a body backed by the United Nations Security Council.

The families have approached both the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross in their four-and-a-half decade campaign, but neither body was able to offer assistance.

Pakistan completely denied holding the prisoners until 1989, when then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto finally told visiting Indian officials that the men were in custody. Years later, Pervez Musharraf would go back on this, formally denying their existence while he was in office. Long periods of denial, with occasional but short-lived reversals in admitting culpability, have made the job of Indian officials lobbying for release much harder. The prisoners are believed to have been discussed at the latest meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Ufa, Russia.

Captured Alive

There is compelling evidence to suggest the men were captured alive.

In 1972, Time Magazine published a photo showing one of the men behind bars in Pakistan. His family believed he had been killed the year before, but instantly recognized him.

The same year, a photo of another captured infantry officer was published by a local paper. It appeared to have been taken inside a Pakistani prison and smuggled out.

In her biography of Benazir Bhutto, British historian Victoria Schoffield reported that a Pakistani lawyer had been told that Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore was housing Indian prisoners of war “from the 1971 conflict.” They could be heard screaming from behind a wall, according to an eyewitness account from within the prison.

Pakistani media outlets have also alluded to the men’s existence. The shooting down of Wing Commander Hersern Gill’s Mig 21 on December 13, 1971 was followed that day by a radio broadcast, in which a military spokesperson claimed that an “ace Indian pilot” had been captured. Gill had led a four-plane sortie into Pakistani territory, but the planes had missed their targets. Returning to Indian airspace, Gill suddenly turned back to take another run, alone.

Once back in Pakistani territory, and closing in on his target, he was shot down by ground fire, but according to Indian Air Force sources, he may have managed to glide to a safe landing. Shortly after that, he appears to have been captured.

An American general, Chuck Yeager, also revealed in an autobiography that during the 1971 war, he had personally interviewed Indian pilots captured by the Pakistanis. The airmen were of particular interest to the Americans because, at the height of the Cold War, the men had attended training in Russia and were flying Soviet designed and manufactured aircraft.

The families also claim that on the only two occasions when the Pakistani authorities have allowed them to visit Pakistani jails, prison guards privately attested to the men being alive – before more senior Pakistani officials ushered the relatives away.

One family member speaking to The Diplomat described these tours as “a sham,” saying they were carefully stage managed. The family member suspected the prisoners had been moved so as not to be discovered. A separate testimony from a released prisoner-of-war describes the prisoners being moved regularly between seven separate prisons, while another witness claims the men were at one point held in secret cells under Bahawalnagar Airport.

Behind Closed Doors

It took until 1978 for the Indian authorities to finally publish a list of the missing. The approach of the government since has generally been to negotiate behind closed doors and make limited announcements to the media.

A letter from the Indian ambassador in Islamabad, dated March 1984 and seen by The Diplomat, advises a family member: “We have to continue our efforts in a discrete fashion because any premature publicity can harm our overall cause.” Further memos circulated by the Islamabad embassy, also seen by The Diplomat, claim high-level conversations have taken place privately on a number of occasions, always instigated by Indian officials, but the Pakistani government continues to officially deny the men’s existence, making progress difficult. A memo between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her ambassador in Islamabad suggests the matter was being discussed behind closed doors, yet it is hard to know how seriously the Indians were actually pushing for release, as the minutes were private.

Still, the families remain disappointed with the Indian government’s performance.

“They should have been released when the 90,000 Pakistanis were released,” says Rajwant Kaur, sister of one of the missing. She remembers her brother flying low over their house close by to the military airfield, and him dropping her at the airport as she flew to meet her new husband in the United Kingdom. That was the last time she saw him. He had volunteered to do a third operational tour. “He didn’t need to go again,” Kaur remembers. “I’m very angry at the Indian government,” she adds, claiming they simply “hadn’t bothered” to secure the release of their own men when hostilities ended.

Analysts have mixed views on what impact the Supreme Court case could have on relations — currently overshadowed by terror attacks, and the release on bail of a Taliban leader thought to have orchestrated the deadly Mumbai shootings. Last month, Khalistani separatists launched a terrorist attack in Punjab province, with many Indians believing the attacks were supported by the Pakistani intelligence services.

Harsh Pant, a leading scholar in international relations at Kings College London’s India Institute, sees the missing prisoners of war as an opportunity for reconciliation.

“The relationship has been in limbo for a long time, and there is now an appetite both from Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif to try and move things forward. The PoWs case probably won’t change realities on the ground too much, but it could change public perceptions of the talks and help build confidence,” he argues, adding that Pakistan had probably held back the prisoners as political leverage. “It’s a humanitarian case, so it’s very unseemly of both governments.”

‘Pregnant With Dereliction’

Raoof Hasan, executive president of the Regional Peace Institute in Islamabad, which conducts civil society diplomacy efforts between the two countries, was damning of both governments, saying the virtual silence over four and a half decades was “pregnant with dereliction.” He argued the Indian government had failed in their duty to retrieve the personnel, but is skeptical that even with an International Court of Justice ruling, the case would move forward, saying Pakistan had already shown itself willing to “violate international norms.”

“Any new outcomes would be hugely embarrassing for both; nevertheless the best course remains back-channel efforts,” Hasan told The Diplomat, adding that his organization would now be offering its support to try and broker a deal.

“Taking the case to the International Court of Justice is a good idea,” says Zubair Ghouri, a Pakistan security analyst and author of The Media-Terrorism Symbiosis: A Case Study of the Mumbai Attacks. Like Hasan, Ghouri believes that “with recent events, this is not an issue that could be brought up in front-line diplomacy, but it could still be sorted out via back channels.”

“The 1971 war is still taken very seriously,” Ghouri explains. “Simla was a humiliating agreement Pakistan was forced to sign. If there is any truth to the PoW claims, the Pakistani government may be engaged.”

Maroof Raza, editor of Fauji India magazine and a leading Indian defense analyst, says the release of the prisoners would be “a great humanitarian gesture” by Pakistan, but believes it would not help improve relations — thanks to bad blood over the Kargil War and Mumbai attacks.

“To improve any relations,” Raza told The Diplomat, the Pakistani polity has to “show definite intent in containing cross-border terrorism by its so-called non-state actors.”

Key witnesses giving evidence to the Supreme Court trial, who can’t be named for legal reasons, told The Diplomat they have already been approached by Indian military personnel offering bribes to withdraw their testimony. Another relative claims that former Army comrades had warned her to “drop it, they’re dead – time to move on.” Though the Indian government has been reticent for diplomatic reasons, there may have been military errors made leading to the men’s capture which current or retired soldiers want covered up.

Though no date has been firmly set, the case is expected to proceed later this month.

Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist focused on human rights and injustice. You can follow him on Twitter @AlastairSloan.