Nila Gosh was just eight months old at the time, but her mother has recounted this story many times. There Nila’s father was – hands clutched around the bars of a prison cell, the smart cuffs of his military jacket replaced with a rough sweater, his moustache still neatly trimmed – staring out from a grainy black and white photograph in Time magazine.
The official story was that Major Arskok Gosh had been killed during fierce fighting the year before. Yet there he was, behind bars in a Pakistani prison, and alive.
Time was reporting on the messy end of a bloody 14-day conflict between Pakistan and India; a military disaster for the Pakistani state which saw Eastern Pakistan, later to become an independent Bangladesh, entirely lost.
A clutch of Indian military personnel were captured during the hostilities. The bulk were swiftly released. Yet the so-called “Missing 54”, Major Gosh among them, have never been set free. That war ended in 1971, and the 54 captured Indians – whose existence is still denied by the Pakistani authorities, whom the Indian government seems in no hurry to recover, and whose families still hope will return – are still missing.
Earlier this week, to try to break this decades-long deadlock, two British human rights lawyers, Jas Uppal and Christopher Wing, flew to Delhi to begin legal proceedings on behalf of the families at the Indian Supreme Court. They will argue that the dispute should be taken out of both Indian and Pakistani government hands and passed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for arbitration. Both India and Pakistan recognise the jurisdiction of that Court, which is backed by the United Nations Security Council.
“The Indian authorities have prevaricated for over four decades and failed to raise the matter at an international level,” argues Uppal, a British Indian of Punjabi origin. “These families have been living in purgatory for 45 years.”
After the war, the exchange of each sides’ prisoners-of-war became a bitter and highly politicised dispute. Ninety thousand captured Pakistani troops represented a third of the country’s ground forces and paramilitary groups, and were only handed back after Pakistan was forced to sign a humiliating peace agreement.
“India was just so happy with the victory, maybe they were overlooked?” Major Gosh’s daughter Nila observes, “And if they were released now it would be a huge embarrassment for both countries.”
Though Islamabad won’t admit Pakistan holds the missing men, Pakistani state radio stations have on several occasions during and since the war alluded to their existence – broadcasting across the border into India. One such case was Wing Commander Hersern Singh Gill, a fighter pilot whose Mig-21 was shot down over Pakistani territory on 13 December 1971. That same day, the Pakistani military bragged it had captured an “ace Indian pilot”.
Some of the families have been tracked down by former inmates in Pakistani prisons, saying they had spent time with the missing men while inside. Like the photo of Major Gosh turning up in Time, a photo of another missing soldier – Captain Ravinder Kaura – made its way to India, and was published by a local paper in 1972. One family even received a note directly from their missing loved one, smuggled out by a released detainee.
More worryingly, British historian Victoria Schoffield wrote in her book Bhutto – Trial and Execution, that prisoners in a Pakistani jail had heard men being tortured, men they believed to be The Missing 54.
“Their screams and shrieks in the dead of night are something I will not forget,” reads a chilling testimonial. Still, with no formal confirmation from the Pakistani government, decades of not knowing has taken its toll on the families.
“He was so patriotic,” Captain Kaura’s sister says, handing me a framed photo of her brother, handsome and resplendent in uniform, as we sit in her home in north London. The last time she saw him was when he dropped her off at the airport for a flight to the United Kingdom, where she was to marry. “He had already done two tours,” she says, “he insisted on doing a third, he shouldn’t have gone.” Mrs Kaur doesn’t hesitate for a second when I ask if she thinks her brother is still alive – “Of course!”
Yet earlier, when we arranged to meet on the phone, she had broken down in tears. In the four and a half decades her brother has been missing, Mrs Kaur saw her father go blind, then die with his wife in 1982. Her other brother died two years later, in ethnic violence which gripped northern India. Mrs Kaur herself is wheelchair bound, after a car accident. She tells me that when, not if, her brother returns, she will buy him a house in India so he can retire. “I could bring him to the UK, but he fought for India,” she explains.
The families complain the Indian government has not done enough. Eight years after the conflict ended, authorities finally published a list of 40 missing personnel, admitting the men could be being held by the Pakistanis. A further 14 were later added to the list. While Pakistan is probably holding them to make a point or as political leverage, Delhi are not keen to rock an uneasy relationship with its counterparts in Islamabad – with frequent border skirmishes still flaring up.
A formal commission was formed to investigate the cases in 2008, but took four years to even interview the families of the missing. Since then the commission has been unenthusiastic and ineffective. Direct approaches to various senior Army and Air Force personnel by the families have been met with indifference.
“Evidence shows these men were last in the custody of Pakistan. Their government must be held to account too,” adds lawyer Uppal. A date for the final decision by the Supreme Court in Delhi has yet to be set.