BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Saturday, 8 March 2008

India's families still hoping for answers

As an Indian man is pardoned after spending 35 years languishing forgotten in a Pakistan prison, other families continue to look for loved ones who went missing during the India-Pakistan war. The BBC's Chris Morris in Delhi meets one woman who has been waiting for news of her husband since 1971.

Damayanti Tambay
Mrs Tambay wants more support from the Indian government

She pulls the newspaper carefully out of a folder.

It is slightly crumpled, fraying at the edges and the paper is turning a little yellow.

It is a copy of the Sunday Pakistan Observer, dated 5 December 1971.

Under the headline "Pakistan Air Force Bags 46 Indian planes", it states the name of one of the pilots captured alive: Flight Lieutenant Tambay.

"That's my husband," she says.

Next out of the folder comes a copy of a page from an old edition of Time magazine.

A photograph captures an Indian prisoner of war staring out through the bars of his cell and, in the background, the partly obscured face of another man.

"That's him," she says. "I'm convinced of it. So where is he now? And if he's dead, where's his body? Has anyone seen one?"

Thirty-six year search

These are the questions which go through Damayanti Tambay's mind every day.

For my husband's sake this is the least I can do, and the most I can do, as long as I'm still here
Damayanti Tambay

She and her husband, Vijay, had been married for little more than a year when his Indian air force plane was shot down over Pakistan during the 1971 war between the two countries.

For more than 36 years she has been looking for him and her folder has slowly become thicker.

There are elusive hints in books and old letters, and the recollection of one former prisoner who remembers a man using a stone to scratch the name Tambay on a wall.

'Death row' pardon

"Every so often," she says, "I tell myself I'm going to destroy all these documents and not feel guilty that I haven't done enough. And then something like this case comes up."

Kashmir Singh (C) after his release from prison
Kashmir Singh was convicted of spying in Pakistan in 1973

She turns towards a television screen in the corner of the room which is showing live pictures from the India-Pakistan border.

A man named Kashmir Singh, lost on death row in Pakistan for more than three decades, has just been reunited with a family he thought he would never see again.

"This only confirms what we've been saying," Damayanti murmurs. "Other people could be there, just like him."

More than 50 families are still looking for army and air force officers missing since the 1971 war, when India helped Bangladesh win its independence from Pakistan.

Lack of support

So how much help have the families had over the years from the Indian government?

"Very little, very late is the best way to describe it," she says.

Successive governments have said they do care about the missing, but they have never followed through with any persistence

We're sitting in her flat on the leafy campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where she is the sports director.

"I wish we were more like the Americans," she smiles.

It is an obvious comparison: the unceasing efforts of the US military to follow up any lead, however small, in the search for soldiers missing in action after the Vietnam War.

Why does the Indian system not appear to care to the same extent?

Is it because this is a place which has to think in larger numbers, a place which is so big that the individual, almost by accident, counts for rather less?

Or is it part of society, in a place where the welfare of the Indian family or the community or the caste generally takes precedence over the welfare of the Indian individual?

Perhaps it is a bit of both.

Vast scale of India

"My experience," Damayanti says, "is very typical of the way we function here, especially in government."

"You have to start with the conviction that you're dealing with human beings, that this isn't just another file sitting on the table."

But the vast scale of everything that happens in India can make that difficult.

When the government writes off the debts of small farmers in its pre-election budget, it covers 40 million people. A bus crash in which 20 die barely merits a mention in the local press.

How can the system possibly have time to worry about a long-lost individual, who may well be dead?

Successive governments have said they do care about the missing, but they have never followed through with any persistence.

Another request has recently been forwarded to the Pakistani authorities to search for the missing, to look again into the darker corners of their prison system.

Need for 'closure'

Miracles can happen, but the families are not expecting much.

For most of them, it is about lack of finality, about the need for what the Americans call "closure".

Not knowing always leaves a nagging doubt. And there is a belief in fate.

"If you're destined to be alive, you're alive," Damayanti says calmly, smoothing down the hem of her purple sari. "And we haven't had the kind of support we deserve in trying to find out the truth."

"But for my husband's sake, this is the least I can do, and the most I can do, as long as I'm still here."

A dark-feathered humming bird has flown in through an open door from the balcony. Its wings beat loudly and insistently.

Damayanti Tambay pauses for a moment and glances from the television to the small creature and back.

We open a window. And the bird flies free.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

'Lost' Indian prisoner comes home
04 Mar 08 |  South Asia
Country profile: Pakistan
01 Mar 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: India
08 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific