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Home Editor's picks India's missing 54: The 54 'Abhinandans' who never came home from Pakistan

India’s missing 54: The 54 ‘Abhinandans’ who never came home from Pakistan

Pakistan denies that existence of 54 POW, but several pieces of evidence prove they were captured during the 1971 war and kept in various prisons, including Kot Lakhpat near Lahore.

After a day-long wait, Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was finally released by Pakistan on Friday evening. The IAF hero who was in the captivity of Pakistan for two days crossed the international border at Wagha, where thousands of people had gathered to welcome him home.

Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was handed over to India by Pakistan today evening, just two days after he was captured by Pakistan military. He had ejected from the MiG-21 he was flying after it was shot by Pakistani ground forces and he had landed in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir after ejecting from the plane. To get back a fighter pilot, who had shot down an F-16 of Pakistan Air Force, in just two days of his capture is a remarkable diplomatic victory for India. Due to mounting international pressure, as almost all major countries have taken India’s side in the ongoing conflict, Pakistan had to follow the Geneva Convention to release the Prisoner of War so soon.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is fortunate to be back in the country in just two days, but there are 54 Prisoners of War still missing in action, for 48 years. In the 1971 India-Pakistan war that had lead to the liberation of Bangladesh, 54 Indian soldiers, officers and fighter pilots were captured by Pakistan, and they are still ‘Missing In Action’. The Pakistan government had denied their presence in the country initially, but in 1989 then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had confirmed that the POWs were in fact in Pakistani custody. But later president Pervez Musharraf had back-tracked on the issue and denied the presence of the persons in their country.

The 54 personnel include 30 from Indian Army and 24 from Indian Air Force. They were captured during a battle on the western front. The list of missing persons was tabled in the Lok Sabha in 1979 by Samarendra Kundu, Minister of State of External Affairs, in reply to a question raised by Amarsingh Pathawa.

India had won the 1971 war, and it had taken 93,007 POWs on the Eastern Front, of which 72,795 were Pakistani soldiers. And all of them were sent back to Pakistan, as per Shimla Agreement and under the provisions of Geneva Convention on POWs. But surprisingly, the then Indira Gandhi government did not insist on repatriation of the 54 Indian prisoners in Pakistan, and they were never returned.

Shimla Agreement

Although Pakistan denies the existence of the 54 prisoners, there are shreds of evidence that they were in Pakistan.

In 1972, Time Magazine had published a photo a man behind bars in Pakistan, and the family of one of the Indian POW had immediately recognised him. In the same year, a local Pakistani paper had published another photo an infantry officer kept in a Pakistani jail.

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

The Pakistani media also had reported the capture of the prisoners during the war. On 13th December 1971, the MiG-21 of Wing Commander Hersern Gill was shot down in Pakistan. The next day, a military spokesperson had claimed on radio that an ace Indian pilot had been captured. Gill’s plane was hit by ground fire, but he managed to glide down to a safe landing, after which he was captured. While Dhaka based English paper Sunday Observer had reported on 5th December 1971 that Pakistan had captured 5 pilots alive.

Pakistani POWs returning home after 1971 war

An American General, Chuck Yeager also wrote in his autobiography that he had personally interviewed Indian pilots captured by the Pakistanis. Americans were particularly interested in Indian pilots, because, at the height of cold war, Indians had attended training in Russia and were flying Soviet Russian planes.

In 2003, when a human rights group had gone to Kot Lakhpat Jail near Lahore to meet Sarabjit Singh lodged there, they had found that 11 prisoners from the 54 POWs were present there. They had also heard the prisoners shouting that they were the prisoners captured by Pakistan in 1971 war. The group had learned other prisoners were in some other jails and many of them had died.

Few Indians who had spent time in Pakistani jails under spying and other charges have also claimed to have met POWs from 1971 in various prisons.

According to The Diplomat, high-level conversations took place between the two countries over the prisoners, but officially Pakistan continued to deny the existence of them. The Diplomat says that although they saw the notes exchanged between the two sides, yet it is hard to know how seriously the Indians were actually pushing for release, as the minutes of the meetings were private.

The families of the victims were disappointed with the efforts of the Indian government. One sister of a captured pilot had said that the government simply did not bother to secure the release of their own men when hostilities ended.

48 years is a long time and it is probable that many of the captured persons are no longer alive. But with the success of getting wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman in just two days, one hopes that the Indian government will renew the efforts to get the 1971 prisoners back or convince Pakistan to release detail of the persons that may have died so that the grieving families can have closure.

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Raju Das
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