Prisoners of war: India, Pakistan
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Thank god there was no social media in our time. Social media can be damaging and defeating for the morale of family members of war prisoners,” said Air Marshal KC Cariappa (retd), son of Field Marshal KM Cariappa. Terming social media “insensitive”, Cariappa Jr, who spent four months as a PoW during the 1965 war, said Abhinandan refused to reveal personal details before his Pakistani interrogators but netizens made his identity and family’s address public.
Recalling his time in Pakistani captivity, he said fear of the unknown stalked him in every waking hour. “I had no access to information — whether the war was still underway or had come to an end, I had no clue.” He was then in his 20s. “I was shot down on the last day of the war. I ejected and landed directly amidst Pakistani army personnel,” he said.
Flt Lt Bhargava
3 IAF Pilots Who Fell Into Pakistan’s Hands In The 1965 & 1971 Wars And The Kargil Conflict Recall Their Days In Captivity
Disturbing photographs of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot captured by Pakistani forces, attracted widespread criticism but his videos may have been a lifesaver for him.
IAF veteran Air Commodore J L Bhargava, who crashlanded in Pakistan during the 1971 war and remained in Pakistani captivity for a year, says Abhinandan was lucky the mob filmed him. “Had the video not been circulated by the mob, it would have been extremely difficult to prove he was alive. Islamabad may even have denied his arrest; he could have ended up in a Pakistan jail for the rest of his life. Abhinandan’s fate could have been similar to 54 soldiers who were labelled missing in action in the 1971 war,” says Bhargava.The 77-yearold, now settled in Panchkula, said it was because of the early videos that the Pakistan army had to announce Abhinandan’s arrest and release official footage.
Bhargava added the biggest threat to a pilot in such a situation could also be the mob and that Abhinandan was lucky the Pakistan army rescued him. He recalled how a fellow pilot, Flt Lt Hussain, posted in Punjab during the 1965 war, had crashed into Indian territory. A mob almost thrashed him to death presuming from his name that he was Pakistani. The mob then went to Jalandhar cantonment to donate blood for him, Bhargava added.
Recalling the hours of questioning, he said, “They would not allow one to sleep, would keep asking for classified information. It is difficult to say no to every query. I remember I rattled off names of my siblings and cousins when they asked me for my squadron’s pilots details. I remember they asked me who the best pilot in my squadron was and I replied, ‘He is in front of you’.”
The veteran said pilots are provided with a survivors’ kit, a pistol and some Pakistani currency. Bhargava, a flight lieutenant at the time, said his HF-24 9 was shot down on his first sortie after he took off from Barmer on December 5, 1971.He ejected after ground fire hit his aircraft at 9 am. The aircraft crashed into sand dunes. He retrieved items from his survival pack, buried his G-suit under bushes, set his watch to Pakistan Standard Time and narched away from the plane. He managed 12 hours without being identified as he introduced himself to locals as Mansoor Ali of Pakistan Air Force and showed them his Pakistani currency.
However, the village school’s headmaster was not convinced and questioned him about his native place. “When I said that I was from Rawalpindi, he asked me where? I said Mall Road. He then said I was in an Indian village. I requested him to let me go back to Pakistan, only then did he reply that I was in Pakistan and he was testing me.” But Pakistani Rangers he came across asked him to recite Kalima. “As I failed, I was exposed. I was arrested and handed over to Pakistan army.”
India’s ‘Missing 54’
48 Years Have Passed Since 54 Indians Were Taken Prisoner In The 1971 War But Families Are Still Hoping For Their Return
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, 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.’’
1999: Sq Ldr Ajay Ahuja, Captain Kalia
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is fortunate that Pakistan has owned up that he is in their custody because there have been instances in the past when Indian military personnel were brutally tortured and killed after being captured by Pakistani forces.
Two prominent examples of such barbaric treatment were Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja and Captain Saurabh Kalia during the 1999 Kargil conflict. Just like Varthaman, Ahuja was flying a MiG-21 when his fighter was hit by a surface-to-air missile on May 27 during the conflict.
Ahuja was trying to trace a lost MiG-27, being flown by Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa, when he himself had to eject after his jet was hit by the missile. Pakistan later returned Ahuja’s body but it bore point-blank bullet wounds, indicating he was captured alive and then shot dead.
Ahuja, whose death was called a cold-blooded murder, was conferred with a Vir Chakra posthumously on August 15, 1999. The present IAF chief Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa, incidentally, was the commanding officer of the 17 Squadron, in which Ahuja was a flight commander during the 1999 conflict.
Nachiketa, who was then 26, in turn, was taken prisoner by the Pak Army, tortured in private and publicly paraded on Pakistan TV. Later handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nachiketa shifted to flying transport aircraft like AN-32s and IL-76s before taking premature retirement from the IAF over a year ago.
The 22-year-old Kalia, in turn, had been posted to the Kargil heights immediately after getting commissioned into the 4 Jat Regiment. In May 1999, Captain Kalia was out on a patrol in the Kaksar area of Kargil along with five other soldiers. Well within the Indian side of the LoC, they were caught by the Pakistan Army intruders.
They were kept in captivity for over 22 days and subjected to brutal torture as became evident when their bodies – limbs chopped off, private parts mutilated, eyes gouged out, multiple cigarette burns -- were later handed over by Pakistan Army on June 9, 1999.
1999: Kambampati Nachiketa, fighter pilot
Kambampati Nachiketa, a native of Andhra Pradesh, was a fighter pilot who was held as prisoner of war by Pakistan during the Kargil war. He was released after eight days due to the mounting global pressure. Nachiketa was diagnosed with spinal compression fracture due to the torture by Pakistan army in captivity when he refused to divulge any details.
Nachiketa's father, KRK Shastry, and mother K Lakshmi Shastry hail from Andhra and lived in Delhi. Born in 1973, Nachiketa was a student of Kendriya Vidyalaya at RK Puram in Delhi and went to National Defence Academy.
Nachiketa, who lives in Hyderabad, retired from the IAF as a group captain in 2017 and works as a commercial pilot now. As a flight lieutenant during the Kargil war, he was captured by Pakistani army after he ejected from his MiG 27.
“Wing commander Abhinandan was made a POW (prisoner of war) in a hostile situation. The government and air force must have been in touch with their counterparts across the border which may have resulted in the speedy return of the officer. Like all other Indians, my prayers and wishes were with the family in the difficult moments for the past two days and awaited his return. Abhi is a brave pilot with high professional ethos befitting the IAF air warrior and we are all proud of him.”
Recalling his own captivity in 1999 in Rawalpindi, Nachiketa said, “The MiG 27 I was flying had crashed in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir at Skardu in July 1999. Pakistan army jawans who held me were beating me and even tried to kill me as I had fired on their location from the air. A senior Pakistani officer who came to the spot handled the situation well and controlled the jawans. He took me away. Despite being tortured, my training in the IAF helped me to remain silent.”
On May 27, 1999, during the Kargil war, Nachiketa, then Flight Lieutenant, was captured by Pakistan army after he ejected out of his MiG-27 due to engine failure, following ground fire. The MiG crashed 12 kilometres inside Pakistan. Nachiketa fought with the Pakistan army even after landing, but ran out of ammunition.
Nachiketa was publicly paraded by the Pakistan army, which was aired on television. Later, he was confined in a prison in Rawalpindi. He was released from captivity by the then Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and handed over to the International Committee of The Red Cross by Pakistan foreign office spokesman Tariq Altaf.
Nachiketa arrived at the Wagha border on June 5, 1999. He later met then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee.
He was awarded Vayu Sena Gallantry medal.
Defence and aviation historian KS Nair said, "We are hoping that the Pakistani military returns the captured Indian pilot to his home country in good health. The Indian military had done the same with 95,000 Pakistan prisoners of war that they had taken in 1971."