48 Years Have Passed Since 54 Indians Were Taken Prisoner In The 1971 War But Families Are Still Hoping For Their Return

Neel Kamal & Himanshi Dhawan TNN

Will their loved ones come back to them like Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman did? This is what the families of the 54 men who went missing in the 1971 war are asking today. The pilot’s release and Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh statement on Saturday, urging Pakistan to identify and release 1971 prisoners of war still languishing in its jails, has given them fresh hope.

Government and media attention has long deserted these PoWs, known as the ‘Missing 54.’ The last 48 years have been marked by repeated petitions, letters, protest marches for the families who have got little information from the government. Over the years, there has been the occasional ray of hope when some evidence of the PoWs existence through pictures in Pakistani or international press, prisoner accounts and letters.

Damayanti Tambay, 70, whose husband Flight Lt Vijay Vasant Tambay went missing in the ’71 war, says there was never a concerted effort by the government to find her husband. She was married for barely 18 months when war broke out. ‘’We are just file numbers for the government. We have given them evidence, but they just set it aside,” she says. Tambay lives in Delhi and retired as director of sports from Jawarharlal Nehru University.

Tambay had approached the Gujarat high court, and even succeeded in getting an order to approach the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2013. “However, the Indian government got a stay. We have to fight our own government in court before we can convince the ICJ. It hurts that the government can send legal luminaries to defend Kulbhushan Jadhav (arrested by Pakistan on charges of being a spy) but for people like my husband who risked their lives for the country, they have no time,” she says.

Like Tambay, four aggrieved families from the Malwa region in Punjab believe that their kin are still languishing in Pakistan jails. They plan to petition minister Navjot Singh Sidhu to take up the issue with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan.

Havildar Dharam Pal Singh of Bathinda’s Lehra Dhurkot village was posted near the border of Bangladesh and was captured by the Pakistan army. He was declared a martyr but a meeting with a former prisoner in a Pakistan jail revived the family’s hopes that Dharam Pal Singh was alive and a PoW.

Surjit Singh, from Tehna village in Faridkot, was a BSF constable and posted in the Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir. His wife Angrej Kaur and son Amrik Singh too believe that he is lodged in Kot Lakhpat jail. They have met external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj but to no avail. “I was only a few days old when my father was taken hostage by Pakistan Rangers on December 4, 1971,’’ says Amrik.

In 2017, Angrej Kaur approached the Punjab and Haryana high court to ask the government to take up the matter with Pakistan or approach the ICJ. Her petition was based on a statement by former Pakistan minister Ansar Burney on April 28, 2011, to Jang newspaper that included information that her husband was in a Pakistan jail. The case is still going on.

In 2004, she said there were news reports that her husband was being released, but when she went to the border to receive him, she found that Makhan Singh, who was in jail on charges of spying, had been repatriated to India under the assumed name of Surjit Singh. Makhan Singh too had claimed that Surjit Singh was still in a Pakistan jail.

Bombay Sappers sepoy Jugraj Singh’s daughter Paramjit Singh was barely a year old when her father was declared a martyr. He went missing on December 3, 1971. “After decades, our hopes came alive when a woman named Manjit Kaur from a neighbouring village informed us that she heard the name of Jugraj Singh of Jeeda village in the list of prisoners in Pakistan while listening to news on the radio in 2004,” she said.

Even the relatives of those who went missing in the 1965 war (Amrik Singh of Dalel Singh Wala village in Mansa and Maha Singh of Karamgarh village in Barnala) hold on to a sense of hope.

Despite the length of time, what keeps hope afloat? Damayanti Tambay says, “I have told myself that when I am about to die, I should not regret not doing enough.’’

Angrej Kaur holding a photo of husband Surjit Singh, a BSF constable who was captured in Poonch. She has petitioned the courts many times

Arshinder washing a statue of his father, Dharam Pal Singh, that stands outside their village along the Bathinda-Barnala highway

THE FORGOTTEN PoWs OF 1971

30 Army and 24 Air Force personnel are among those imprisoned in Pakistan

The 30 Army personnel include one lieutenant, eight captains, two second lieutenants, six majors, two subedars, three naik lieutenants, one havildar, five gunners and two sepoys

The remaining 24 from IAF include three flight officers, one wing commander, four squadron leaders and 16 flight lieutenants