At least 54 soldiers, pilots and officers of the Indian Army and Air Force were labelled “missing in action” or “killed in action” in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. But many believe they are alive and imprisoned in various Pakistani jails. In a sharp contrast, 90,000 Pak troops captured by the Indian Army at the end of the war were released as part of the Simla Agreement.
Until 1989, Pakistan denied having Indian prisoners in their jails. It was former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who told visiting Indian officials that the men were in their custody. During the regime of President Pervez Musharraf, the claim was denied and a delegation comprising relatives of the PoWs were allowed to visit Pakistani jails in Multan, Lahore, Sukkur, Sahiwal, Faisalabad, Mianwali, Rawalpindi, Swabi and Darghai.
However, the exercise turned out to be futile as a guided tour couldn’t trace the missing prisoners. The families also claimed that on two occasions when they were allowed to visit the Pakistani jails, the guards privately said that Indian soldiers were alive.
“If the cause be just and mind be strong, no force is great, no distance is long. If selfless souls with such a strength, face hazards all, they win at length”— This is a noting in Dr RS Suri’s diary, father of Major Ashok Suri, captured in the 1971 war. The Army had declared Major Suri as “killed in action”.
Then on December 26, 1974, RS Suri received a hand-written note dated December 7, 1974, from his son. The letter contained a slip in which his son had written, “I am okay here.” The covering note read, “Sahib, waalaikumsalam, I cannot meet you in person. Your son is alive and he is in Pakistan. I could only bring his slip, which I am sending. Now going back to Pakistan.” The note was signed by M Abdul Hamid and the postmark was New Delhi, December 31, 1974.
“In August 1975, he received another missive, postmark dated ‘June 14/15/16, 1975, Karachi.’ The letter read: “Dear Daddy, Ashok touches thy feet to get your benediction. I am quite ok here. Please try to contact the Indian Army or Government of India about us. We are 20 officers here. Don’t worry about me. Pay my regards to everybody at home, specially to mummy, grandfather—Indian government can contact Pakistan government for our freedom.” The then defence secretary had the handwriting confirmed as Ashok’s and changed the official statement from “killed in action” to “missing in action”!
Major AK Ghosh’s photograph was published in Time magazine issue of December 27, 1971. The photograph is proof that Maj Ghosh was in Pakistani custody when the war ended. He did not return with the PoWs in 1972 at the time of the Simla Agreement. He may have died in a Pakistani jail.
British historian Victoria Schofield, a friend of Benazir Bhutto, reported that a Pakistani lawyer had been told that Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore was housing Indian PoWs. They could be heard screaming from behind a wall, according to an eyewitness.
Pakistani media also alluded to the men’s existence. The shooting down of Wing Commander Heresen Gill’s
Mig-21 on December 3, 1971, was followed that day by a radio broadcast in which a military spokesperson claimed that an ‘ace Indian pilot’ had been captured.
American General Chuck Yeager claimed in his autobiography that during the 1971 war, he interviewed Indian pilots captured by Pakistan. The airmen were of interest to Americans because at the height of Cold War, the men had been trained in Russia and were flying Russian aircraft.