Question mark on India’s 40-year-old ‘POW’ list; Air records show officers killed on Indian soil listed as ‘missing’
On the 40th anniversary of the 1971 operations against Pakistan, the plight of those Missing In Action (MIA) hit a new low.
Till date, the campaign to secure the release of these men has been organised on the basis of an official Govt of India’s “List of 54 Missing Defence Personnel of 1971 & 1965 Indo-Pak war, who are believed to be in Pakistan custody.” However, records accessed using the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005 from the Indian Air Force (IAF) HQ reveals that all is not well with the Govt of India (GoI) list, ATLEAST in three cases.
What the GoI says
“54 missing defence personnel (MDP) of 1971 and 1965 Indo-Pak war, are believed to be in the jails of Pakistan. Pakistan has not acknowledged the presence of India missing defence personnel in their jails till date. The Government took up the matter with Pakistani Government for sending a delegation of families of the MDP on a visit to various jails in Pakistan to facilitate identification of Indian MDP. Accordingly, a delegation of 14 relatives of the MDP visited 10 jails in Pakistan from June 1, 2007 to June 14, 2007. The delegation could not conclusively confirm the physical presence of the Indian MDP.” (Indian MDPs consist of 28 men from the army, 24 from the air force and two others whose details are not fully known.)
In the records maintained by the MoD Flt Lt Ashok Balwant Dhawale 9030 F(P) of 1 Sqn, Flt Lt Manohar Purohit 10249 F(P) of 4 Wing and Pilot Officer Tejinder Singh Sethi have been listed as missing. But these records show neither their date of missing nor the sector they last served in.
Whereas their parent service, the IAF, has determined them as having been killed in action. This is what the Vayu Bhawan records say:
1. Fg Offr Tejinder Singh Sethi F(P) 7207 of the 31 Sqn, failed to return from an operational mission launched in the Sialkot sector on September 13, 1965.
2. Flt Lt Manohar Purohit F(P) 10249 (N) of 5 Sqn went died when his aircraft crashed near the Nal airfield (In Rajasthan) in an air operational mission to Lodhran (In Pakistan’s Punjab province) on December 10, 1971.
3. Flt Lt Ashok Balwant Dhawale F(P) 9030 of 1 Sqn lost his life during a night scramble on December 11, 1971.
This disclosure was made possible because, apart from passing on old data to the ministry, the Air HQ had maintained an independent record of their men killed and missing in action. Unfortunately, the army, by its own admission, has kept no such record. Thus the chances of there being similar cases with the army remain strong.
However, the question for the relatives of these three officers and the nation remains: Which version is to be believed? And how come such opposite positions continue to be maintained for over 40 years?
Vipul Purohit, son of Flt. Lt Manohar Purohit isn’t surprised. “The IAF, even in the immediate aftermath of the war tried its best into making us believe that my father had died. In fact, it almost tricked my mother, who was then only 24-year-old into believing them,” he said.
When Flt. Lt Purohit was returning after bombing Lodhran railway yard in Pakistan, his plane got shot. “While announcing the news of the plane getting show, a colleague of my father informed my mother that he had conclusively heard my father informing his formation that he had bailed out. Sizeable part of the wreckage was found strewn across the Indian border and two bodies of my father’s colleagues, who were with him on that mission too were found. But that of my father was not found,” he added. Purohit went on to narrate the horror that his mother faced when the air force actually informed the family that Flt. Lt Purohit’s body was eventually found and as lying in the coffin.
“But my mother could not believe it and she actually ended up opening the coffin only to find it empty,” stated Purohit. he claims that despite several searches and petitions, his father’s body was never found. “We have no option but to believe my father was taken a PoW,” he mentioned.
Damayanti Tambay, whose husband Flt Lt VV Tambay is also listed in the official PoW list said, “This is an error of coordination that has come about. It simply goes to chronicle how lax we have been as far as getting these men back.”
- Air Chief Marshal (retd) PV Naik, who also participated in the 1971 operations in the Western sector said, “This error seems as if coming from updation of records. I am sure we will very soon rectify. Let me also assure you that we value the lives of our men tremendously. For years now we have been putting in the efforts to get these men out and we will continue doing so.”
- Maj. Gen (retd) Ian Cardozo, who apart from fighting in the ’71 operations, also overcame the handicap of losing a leg and became the first officer in the Indian Army to be approved for command of an Infantry Battalion, seemed aghast. He said, “It is an unacceptable state of affairs. Why is the lack of coordination? If such an instance is highlighted, we will lose our credibility. The worst affected will be the case of the soldiers still in Pak custody.”
- Brig. (retd) Dharam Prakash, who served as a young major in the J&K sector in the ’71 war termed this a result of disinterest from the MoD and armed forces’ side. “A person is listed as missing when he is taken a prisoner or when he has been killed but his body has not been not retrieved. It seems that neither the service nor the ministry has bothered on doing a follow-up on these personnel from the time this list was first made.”
Interesting details online
Even as our authorities grapple with coordination issues, the internet offers some very interesting takes on this subject. In the case of the Flt. Lt Manohar Purohit, conversation 25 on the Pakistan Defence site (http://www.defence.pk/forums/military-aviation/88929-how-paf-will-counter-these-mass-number-su-30mkis-fighters-2.html) gives weight to the argument that may be (unlike others mentioned in that list) Flt. Lt Purohit was indeed taken captive and did not die. As far as Flt. Lt AB Dhawale is concerned, while the lack of clarity in government circles is clear, the Air Combat Information Group (ACIG) on its website mentions clearly that his death was a case of fracticide! (http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_327.shtml)