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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 June 2007, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Families search Pakistan for lost PoWs
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Suman Purohit has an uphill struggle, and so do her 13 other companions who are searching Pakistani jails for their relatives, missing since 1971.

Suman Purohit and her husband Flt Lt Manohar Purohit before his last flight in 1971
Flt Lt Manohar Purohit went missing in action in 1971
"I had been married 18 months, and my son, Vipul, was three months old when the India-Pakistan war of 1971 began," she recalls.

Her husband, Flt Lt Manohar Purohit of the Indian Air Force, flew a number of sorties into Bangladesh, which was then called East Pakistan, and came home a couple of times for brief intervals.

"On 9 December, the fifth day of the war, he flew from Rajasthan sector into West Pakistan. He never came back after that," she says.

She was 23 years old then. She is now 59.

For 36 years, she has been searching for clues, and following trails to wherever they would lead. Relatives of as many as 53 other Indian defence personnel face the same ordeal.

Now Pakistan, which denies holding any Indian prisoners of war, has agreed to open its jails to relatives of the missing as part of peace moves.

But the relatives complain they are not allowed free access to barracks.

Instead, Indian prisoners, none of them from the 71 war, are presented to them for identification.

They have been given access to jail records.

But those records are written in Urdu script which none of the relatives can read.

Clues found

All these personnel were classified as "missing in action" and were never listed as prisoners of war (POWs) by either India or Pakistan.

"Many of us thought they were gone, dead. But there were many clues to the contrary that kept our hopes alive," says Rajesh Kaura, the chief executive officer of a Mumbai (Bombay)-based firm.

Rajesh Kaura
Rajesh Kaura believes his brother Ravinder is alive in Pakistan
He says his brother, Capt Ravinder Kaura, was captured by Pakistani troops from an observation post on the West Pakistan front. His wireless operator escaped and told the family.

Subsequently, there were many other clues to his being alive and his whereabouts.

A number of Indians, both military and non-military, released by Pakistan over the following years said they had met Capt Kaura in one jail or another.

Most relatives of the missing Indian service personnel have come across similar clues - anecdotal evidence from other prisoners, radio and newspaper reports, letters written by other POWs, and occasional photographs of the missing persons smuggled out of Pakistani jails.

For them, this evidence was backed up in April 1979 when a list of 40 people, apparently gleaned from returned prisoners debriefed by the Indian intelligence services, was placed before the Indian parliament.

Pressure on governments

A yoga therapist, Dr Ram Swaroop Suri, whose son was among the missing, got the addresses of all the 40 people and wrote to their families, bringing them together in a campaign that has spanned three decades.

"Mr Suri also wrote a letter to my sister-in-law, and this is how I came to join the Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association which he started," says GS Gill, a human resource professional from Chandigarh.

Mr Gill's brother, Wing Commander Harsaran Singh Gill of the Indian Air Force, went down in West Pakistan and his colleagues reported that he had ejected before his plane hit the ground.

GS Gill
Witnesses saw GS Gill's brother successfully eject from his plane
"It has been a long struggle," he says.

"We have been meeting every prisoner that is released by Pakistan, we have been pressuring the Indian government to help us, we have been keeping the members of the association informed about our progress."

At times, the going has been frustrating.

"We have been writing to the Indian government, which has been writing to Pakistan," says Damayanty V Tambay, the wife of Flt Lt VV Tambay.

"Our evidence has been going from one end to the other, and they always come back to us with the request to provide more evidence," she says.

Mrs Tambay, who is the sports director at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, had been married for one year when her husband's plane was downed in West Pakistan.

According to a written statement provided by the visiting relatives, "the Indian government often states that the relatives have accumulated the proofs and that the Indian government is pressurising the Pakistan government because of the insistence of the relatives. This weakens the case."

For its part, Pakistan denies altogether the presence of Indian military personnel in its jails. But the relatives are not satisfied.

Damayanty V Tambay
Ms Tambay has been pressuring the Indian government for help
"Some of them may have tried to hide their identity, or may have been held on spying charges," says G S Gill.

"They may even have landed at some mental asylum, or in a military facility such as the Attock Fort. We have no way of knowing. Only the government of Pakistan can help us.

"The longest of sentences come to an end in 36 years, including those of spies. Even if that is not the case, they should at least let us know," says Dr Simmi Waraich of Chandigarh, who is searching for her father, Major SPS Waraich.

But few observers in Pakistan can match their optimism.

The visits of the relatives to two jails in Lahore and Karachi have already proved futile. They have eight more jails to see in Sindh and Punjab provinces over the next 10 days.

For many of the relatives, this will be a nerve-wracking experience.

"I had a great hope of finding my husband in the Lahore jail. It was hard to walk out of there without seeing him. But hope will give me strength," says Suman Purohit.

There is strength in her clenched teeth as tears well up in her eyes.

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