• Saturday, July 26, 2014

They never came home

Syed Badrul Ahsan

"More than four decades on, the sad tale of 54 Indian soldiers declared “missing in action” continues to trouble the collective conscience of men and women in the subcontinent. To these men, to others like them, we owe a debt of gratitude. The sufferings of Bangalees in 1971 prompted them to wage a war in order to end a bad war. They marched off to the fields of armed conflict, never to return to hearth and home again. Many of them may have died; many others grow old, many may not be in proper psychological health. We have not forgotten them, for no brave soldier is expendable. We whisper a prayer --- that they find peace, that their presence be acknowledged, in both Islamabad and Delhi."


Every war changes the way we live. All wars leave us different from the way we were before our zone of tranquility was rudely disturbed. And there are some wars which leave, for long, indeed for time without end, whole families in a condition of permanent trauma.
For as many as 54 families in India, 42 years have gone by since they began their tortuous search for news of 54 Indian armed forces men gone missing after the 1971 Bangladesh war. These men, captured on the western front even as the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini were pulverizing Pakistani troops in a soon to be Bangladesh, have not been heard of or from since the end of the war. No fewer than 93,000 Pakistani soldiers who surrendered to the joint Indo-Bangladesh forces in mid-December 1971 eventually went back home to Pakistan from detention camps in India. Likewise, Indian soldiers, or most of them, taken prisoner in the western theatre were allowed to return home. Those who did not return were the fifty four military officers who have all these years remained somewhere --- that somewhere being prison or perhaps even mental asylums --- in a state of imprisonment.
In bizarre fashion, no Pakistani government has ever acknowledged the presence of these men in their territory despite strong indications of their being prisoners in Pakistan. The well publicized image of Major Ghosh peering out of a Pakistani jail, as it appeared in a late December 1971 issue of Time magazine, is eerily symbolic of what might or could have happened to him and his compatriots at the hands of Pakistan's establishment. Pakistan has not agreed at any point of time that it has the fifty four in its custody. Or perhaps many of these men --- Wing Commander HS Gill, Flt Lt VV Tambay, Major SPS Waraich, Major Kanwaljit Singh and others --- have already perished in the darkness of foreign prisons?
The families of these missing men do not rest. Yet, as they search for news of their men in Pakistan, they squarely blame the Indian establishment for its failure to either get these long-lost personnel back home. There have been sightings of these men in prison, by men who have served time and who have spotted the Indian prisoners in their midst. Pakistan has its lips sealed tight. The Indian authorities have seemingly given up the idea that these men, or some of them if not all, are truly alive. The families of the missing 54 are caught between mourning the dead and waiting for their men to return home.
America continues its search for its missing soldiers in Vietnam. In recent times, India handed over to China men who were captured in Pakistan during the Indo-Chinese war in 1962. Nothing is heard of the fifty four on Pakistani territory. And yet those men, dead or alive, must not be abandoned. They waged war in the service of their country. They lost their future in order to ensure a future for the people of Bangladesh.  We in this land recall them in deep gratitude.
The search for these men --- for those who live, for the remains of those who may have passed on in the terrible loneliness of foreign prisons --- must go on.

Published: 12:01 am Friday, January 31, 2014

Last modified: 1:43 pm Saturday, March 15, 2014

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