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‘Abhinandan Was Brought Home. What About Missing 1971 War Heroes?’

Families of the soldiers who have gone missing since the 1971 war are at the fag end of life, but won’t give up.

Updated
India
5 min read
The late Lt. Gen. JFR Jacob (retd.) (in colour) witnessing the surrender of Pakistani Army in Bangladesh in 1971. Image used for representational purposes.
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Rani Devi was five months pregnant when her husband, Sepoy Jagdish Lal of 2-Mahar regiment, went missing from the Dhaka Theater in the 1971 war. Sepoy Lal had chosen the battlefield over his family in the best traditions of the Indian Army.

Forty-eight summers have passed, and Devi remains hopeful that her husband will return home one day from the Pakistani jail. And this hope was rekindled when Wing Commander Abhinandan was released after his MiG-21 jet was shot down by the Pakistan forces in February 2019.

Rani Devi holding a picture of her missing husband, Sepoy Jagdish Lal.
Rani Devi holding a picture of her missing husband, Sepoy Jagdish Lal.
(Photo: Sourced by Ishfaq-ul-Hassan)

A Quiet Battle For a ‘Lost’ Husband

“So many people have returned from Pakistani jails. There were two prisoners of war who returned after spending 26 and 14 years respectively, in Pakistani jails. They told me that they had met Sepoy Jagdish Lal in Pakistan. It proves that he is still alive, languishing in a Pakistani jail. We want the government to take up this issue with Pakistan and bring our war heroes home just like they did with Wing Commander Abhinandan,” said Devi.

‘Abhinandan Was Brought Home. What About Missing 1971 War Heroes?’
(Photo: Sourced by Ishfaq-ul-Hassan)
For the last 48 years, the 69-year-old has been fighting a quiet battle to trace her husband. Now, at the fag end of her life, Devi’s last wish is to see her husband in flesh and blood.

“I vividly remember that he had come home on leave for 10 days before he got a call to join his unit. We had had two daughters, and third one was in my womb. He was so caring that he did not reveal that he was going to war. In fact, he told his friends not to tell me either. He had told his friends that he did not know whether he would return alive or not,” said Devi.

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A Disappointing Visit To Pakistani Jails

Sepoy Lal is among the six soldiers of the Jammu division who have gone missing since the 1971 war, and their families are yet to give up their struggle for their return.

Take Nirmal Kaur, whose husband, Subaidar Assa Singh of the 5-Sikh regiment, went missing while fighting the Pakistani forces in the 1971 war in the Chamb sector of Jammu region. Despite her failing health, Kaur, 76, has knocked at every door to locate her husband, but to no avail. In 2007, she even went to Pakistan along with family members of other missing soldiers, but had no success.

“It was a disappointing visit. The Pakistani authorities did not allow us to enter the jail to see the prisoners. Nor was anybody presented before us. It was a mere formality by the Pakistani authorities. The jail authorities showed us some files written in Urdu when nobody in the delegation knew the language. We were unable to comprehend anything,” said Kaur.

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Taking The ‘Battle’ To Social Media

Since this year, the families have taken the battle to social media, to prod the government to bring back their dear ones from Pakistan. From Twitter to Tik Tok to online petitions, the families are using social media to its fullest potential to compel the government to act.

Leading the social media campaign for the missing war heroes is Bansi Lal Raja, Sepoy Lal’s son-in-law.
A picture of Sepoy Jagdish Lal, his wife Rani Devi and daughter
A picture of Sepoy Jagdish Lal, his wife Rani Devi and daughter
(Photo: Sourced by Ishfaq-ul-Hassan)

“Why can’t war heroes languishing in Pakistani jails be brought back? If they are alive, bring them back, and if they are dead, please return their mortal remains or ashes so that that there is closure of our pain,” he said.

Lal has been posting videos and reports, and tagging both prime ministers of India and Pakistan, besides other leaders of both the countries. He has also been posting Tik Tok videos of Lal's great-grandson, who was born a few months ago, to draw the attention of the leaders.

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‘The BJP Govt Has Forgotten Us’

“When the BJP was in the opposition, their leaders led several marches and joined us in our struggle. Now that they are in power, they have forgotten us. Pictures do not lie. We have preserved the pictures and newspaper cuttings of the past events when the leaders were part of our movement for the return of these war heroes. If Wing Commander Abhinandan can be brought home, why can’t our dear ones? Aren’t they sons of the same soil? Didn’t they fight for this motherland,” he asked.

Smriti Irani and Navjot Sidhu during one of the marches.
Smriti Irani and Navjot Sidhu during one of the marches.
(Photo: Ishfaq-ul-Hassan)
‘Abhinandan Was Brought Home. What About Missing 1971 War Heroes?’
The only justice that the families received was through the Gujarat High Court, which asked the government to treat the missing soldiers with the same benefits (for their families) as those on duty, and offer them the next rank (as promotion), and other benefits, in 2011.

Leading that fight was Colonel (Retd) RK Pattu, who heads the ‘Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association’, an apex body of the family members of the Prisoners of War. He and others like him had been prodding the Gujarat High Court, and after a 11-year-long legal battle, the court directed the central government to give rank promotions and other benefits to the missing soldiers (and their families).

Rani Devi, her daughters and grandchildren with the picture of Sepoy Jagdish Lal.
Rani Devi, her daughters and grandchildren with the picture of Sepoy Jagdish Lal.
(Photo: Sourced by Ishfaq-ul-Hassan)
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Nearly 54 Indian Prisoners of War In Pakistani Jails

“I provided three books to the honourable judges of the Gujarat High Court. If missing persons do not turn up for some time, they are considered ‘killed in action’. But the judges told the defence ministry that they were not killed in action. The court said they were in Pakistani jails and to treat them as being on duty, and to give them the next rank as promotion, and other pension benefits,” said Colonel Pattu.

Colonel Pattu, who has written a book ‘Indian Prisoners of War in Pakistan’, said there are 54 PoWs of 1971 in Pakistani jails. “There is a written reply to a question in Parliament in which the government has accepted that 74 defence personnel are missing, of whom 54 are from the 1971 war. Even late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, during a SAARC summit, had agreed that 41 PoWs were in Pakistan. It can be easily verified,” he said.

(Ishfaq-ul-Hassan is a Srinagar-based journalist, and has been reporting for the last 23 years. He has worked across newspapers and TV channels, and was most recently with DNA. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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