Missing in Action: the unfinished stories of India's lost soldiers

A table for one, laid out in memory of the missing soldier at NDA every day.
At the entrance to the cadets’ mess at the National Defence Academy in Khadakwasla, Pune, a table for one is set meticulously for every meal. The chair is tilted forward. The candle on the table is unlit. On the bread plate is a slice of lemon, a reminder of the bitterness of fate. There is salt on the plate, symbolising tears. The glass is inverted. 

The soldier for whom the table has been set couldn’t make it for the meal. But his comrades have reserved his place for whenever — if ever — he does. A plaque nearby bears the simple message: Remember.

This message is also at the heart of Chander Suta Dogra’s book, Missing in Action: The Prisoners Who Never Came Back.  Dogra’s is a story of unfinished stories. Of soldiers who went missing during or around the wars with Pakistan — mainly in 1971 and to some extent in 1965. Information about some have occasionally trickled through, mostly the result of the determined and desperate pursuit for answers by some families. For most others, there have only been decades of nothingness.

In official records, the number of soldiers missing in action stands at 83. The initial number was 54 but names were added as new evidence surfaced. Many believe there could be more.

This intensely researched book opens up a crucial and uncomfortable chapter of military, political and diplomatic history that few care to visit. Dogra digs into official records, diary entries, long-preserved letters, newspaper reports as well as personal accounts of the soldiers’ families and colleagues to get some answers. The attempt is to find out why the nation failed these men so miserably, and what we can do about it.

The Geneva Conventions that apply to armed conflicts, even those not necessarily declared as wars (such as the Kargil conflict of 1999), mandate that signatory nations holding prisoners hand them over to their home country soon after hostilities end. There are also rules for the humane and dignified treatment of the captured men — which the public witnessed recently in the case of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. These rules are not always followed, however. For instance, instead of recognising a captured soldier as a prisoner of war (POW), the enemy establishment may choose to categorise him a “security prisoner” (spy). When that happens, the prospect of his return or even tracing his whereabouts become that much tougher.

(1) Flt Lt Vijay Vasant Tambay (2) Maj SPS Waraich (3) 2nd Lt Paras Ram Sharma (4) Flt Lt Ram Methram Advani (5) Maj Ashok Kumar Suri (6) Capt Giriraj Singh (7) Wg Cdr Hersern Singh Gill (8) Capt Kamal Bakshi (9) Sqn Ldr Mahinder Kumar Jain (10) Capt Om Prakash Dalal (11)  Capt Ravinder Kaura (12) Flt Lt Sudhir Kumar Goswami.
Dogra, who is the daughter, wife and mother of defence officers, remains a journalist as she details these realities, placing before the reader facts and steering clear of jingoism that could have detracted from the sensitive subject.

The Indian government is often criticised for not having negotiated hard enough with Pakistan despite its thumping victory in the 1971 war. Besides control over large swathes of its land, India also had in its custody over 90,000 Pakistani POWs, whose release Pakistan was desperate to secure. For India, it was a great bargaining chip. Pakistan had Mujibur Rehman, whose release Prime Minister Indira Gandhi badly needed to meet the political goal for which the war was fought: the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

In the dramatic events that led to and followed the Shimla Agreement of 1972, in the obsession to ensure a deal that would recognise Bangladesh as a separate country and in the subsequent exchange of soldiers, India failed to ensure that all of its own men had been accounted for and returned by Pakistan. Both sides, in fact, have treated their soldiers as pawns at different times. Dogra also raises the issue of Pakistani POWs with India. One of them, Sepoy Maqbool Hussain, who was captured by the Indian Army during Operation Gibraltar in 1965, was released 40 long years later, in 2005. By then, all his family was dead and gone.

Pointed questions are also raised through intriguing stories. One of them concerns Major S K Suri, the quartermaster of 5 Assam Regiment, who was wounded and later declared dead in December 1971. The army cremated his body a few miles from the battlefield in the Chhamb Sector.  That was the official version. But the family kept getting conflicting reports from the army —that he had been wounded, that he had died. Conflicting dates were given for his death, too. 

One day in December 1974, his father received a letter dated December 7, 1972 from a Pakistani resident carrying a note from his son: “I am quite OK here.” Six months later, another letter arrived in his son’s handwriting: “… Please try to contact Indian Army or Govt of India about us. We are 20 officers here.” 

More clues came from cross-border friends but to this day Major Suri’s whereabouts and fate remain unknown, as does the reason for the Indian Army’s handling of his case.

Missing in Action The Prisoners Who Never Came Back.

Mystery also shrouds the case of Wing Commander H S Gill (“High Speed Gill” to his colleagues), an ace MiG pliot who had a premonition that he wouldn’t return. His name was announced on Pakistan radio channels as one of the pilots captured, before Pakistan declared him dead. (Announcements on Pakistani radio were a crucial source of information for soldiers’ families.) A spy back from Pakistan said he had met someone who had seen Gill in a Pakistani prison. Similar stories trickled in from other unrelated sources — one of which indicated Gill had been “loaned” by Pakistan to the US for its top-secret project to train its pilots to fly and battle the MiGs. The mystery endures. 

The limitations of the International Court of Justice and International Committee of the Red Cross in these cases are also evident in the stories in this book. As are the weak efforts of India’s tri-services committee for monitoring missing defence personnel. Dogra also tells us how the US does it differently, coordinating with countries to secure and identify even the remains of each unaccounted-for soldier.

Some changes, though, have been pushed by retired defence personnel, significantly the late Lieutenant General J S Aurora, the face of India’s 1971 victory. One of them is getting the government to recognise the missing men as still alive and serving, rather than “presumed dead”, so that their families continue to receive the salaries due to serving officers; they are also promoted when promotion is due and retired when it is, notionally, time for their retirement.

Much, however, remains to be done. If any of these men are alive, then time is running out for them. And if they aren’t, their families deserve to know. Missing in Action makes a compelling case for this.

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