New Delhi: In a development that could put the Union government on the defensive for being insensitive to the families of Indian PoWs, or prisoners of war, in Pakistan, two relevant ministries can’t even agree on the number of such soldiers possibly languishing in jails there.
This, some activists complain, stems from the absence of a consolidated list and details of such PoWs, potentially adding to delays in getting Indian soldiers back home from Pakistani prisons. Pakistan, for its part, has always insisted that there are only Indian prisoners in its jails, not PoWs.
After a meeting of the Pakistan-India Judicial Committee, which was formed in New Delhi to focus on the exchange of prisoners in February, it was agreed that both countries would exchange consolidated lists of the number of prisoners—Pakistanis in India and Indians in that country.
The committee had estimated that the number of Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails is 450 while the number of Indian prisoners in Pakistan is about 500, including PoWs. Pakistan says it released 2,657 Indian prisoners since 2003 while India has freed only 827 Pakistani prisoners during the period. However, India does not subscribe to this figure.
Answering a right to information request, the ministry of external affairs, or MEA, says there are 74 Indian PoWs in Pakistan. But India’s ministry of defence, or MoD, puts the figure at 54. The MEA had obtained its information from the Indian high commission in Islamabad. The MEA also says there are 149 civilian prisoners in Pakistan, apart from 390 fishermen who had strayed into that country and were being held captive. An MEA official declined to comment on any Pakistani PoWs in India.
Harikumar P., an RTI activist based out of Kerala, had sought the PoW information and sent an application in December 2006 to the MEA, MoD as well as the three defence forces. The ministries replied by April.
Meanwhile, in response to the RTI application, the Directorate General of Military Intelligence said information was unavailable on the whereabouts of 19 personnel, including two officers, after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. “Whether these missing persons are in Pakistani jails cannot be confirmed,” the reply said.
During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, 255 Indian army personnel, including six officers, were reported missing. “These persons were later declared missing, presumed dead or confirmed killed,” the army said.
The Indian Air Force headquarters, meanwhile, said in its reply that there is “no such information held by this HQ”.
The navy said none of its personnel has been held captive by Pakistan.
An MEA official, who did not wish to be identified, said that the reason behind the discrepancy in figures of PoWs was that the MoD had taken into account only soldiers considered missing until 1971.
The official said that “the term PoW is being replaced with ‘missing defence personnel’ at the instance of Pakistan, keeping diplomatic sensitivities in mind. And, perhaps, because of the change in lexicon, the defence ministry has been unable to provide the figure of the number of personnel missing since 1971.”
“Pakistan has not acknowledged that any of the missing defence personnel are in its jails. This issue would also come up during the external affairs minister’s forthcoming visit to Pakistan,” the same official said.
“I think it is obvious that a clear and ready-to-refer record of PoWs has not been developed yet,” notes Harikumar.