As the nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Liberation of Bangladesh I raised the issue of 54 missing Indian prisoners of war (PoWs) in the Lok Sabha on December 29, 2011. They had been in illegal Pakistani captivity since the 1971 war and have never been returned to India. This is despite India returning 91,000 PoWs. Responding to that special mention, then external affairs minister S.M. Krishna in a letter acknowledged that there are believed to be 74 missing defence personnel, including 54 PoWs, since 1971 in Pakistani jails. However, Pakistan does not acknowledge the presence of any Indian PoWs in its custody. He further added that the Government of India has repeatedly taken up the issue of release of missing Indian defence personnel, including PoWs, believed to be in Pakistan, with the Pakistan government through diplomatic channels and during high-level contacts. During the visit of the then external affairs minister to Pakistan in January 2007, the Pakistani government was persuaded to receive a delegation or relatives of missing defence personnel to permit them to visit prisons in Pakistan where they are believed to be incarcerated. A delegation of relatives visited 10 jails in Pakistan around June 1-14, 2007, but could not confirm the physical presence of the Indian PoWs.
However, five years later in 2012, a peculiar thing happened. A sepoy of the Punjab Regiment, Jaspal Singh, believed to be dead in the 1971 war, turned up alive in an Omani prison. He reached out to one Sukhdev Singh, a Punjabi carpenter, who had gone to Oman on a work visa in 2010. After his return from Oman in July 2012, Sukhdev, a resident of Dugri village in Rupnagar, informed the locals and officials that he was contacted by sepoy Jaspal Singh when he had gone to install kitchen equipment in the prison at Masirah Island. According to Sukhdev, when he was working in the kitchen, one Punjabi individual discreetly approached him and gave him details of his village, Pamour, in Fatehgarh Sahib district and said that he was sepoy Jaspal Singh of Punjab Regiment and that he was captured by the Pakistan Army at Hussainiwala near the Ferozepur border along with four more soldiers on December 4, 1971, after which they were all detained in a Pakistani prison for six years before being transferred to Masirah Island prison in Oman. Strangely, last month, in March 2017, the Indian embassy in Oman, in reply to a RTI query, disavowed that any Indian national was detained on the Masirah Island jail. Why on earth would Sukhdev have invented a yarn like this? Why did we not follow up on Jaspal? If the person whom Sukhdev met in that island prison was not Jaspal, then who was he? Is he still there or has he disappeared? Why is the silence of the government deafening?
Then there is the case of Sarabjit Singh, who was murdered by the Pakistanis in Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore on May 2, 2013, despite a very high-decibel and passionate campaign by his sister Dalbir Kaur for his release that had massive support even among liberals in Pakistan. Now turning to Kulbhushan Jadhav, the news about his death sentence came as a bolt from the blue. Ostensibly a Pakistani military court in some kangaroo proceedings tried him and handed down the death penalty. Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, in some rather abnormal hurry, has confirmed the same. This is notwithstanding the fact that Sartaz Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister, told members of the Pakistani Senate on December 8, 2016: “What the dossier contained on Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav were mere statements. It did not have any conclusive evidence.” What has changed between then and now, given the fact that Mr Aziz does not have a reputation of either shooting from the mouth or the hip? Does this kneejerk confirmation by the Pakistani Army Chief have something to do with the alleged disappearance of retired Lt. Col. Mohammad Habib Zahir of the Pakistan Army in Nepal a few days ago as is being widely speculated on the social and mainstream media?
The other thing that seems to be fairly evident is that Jadhav was not arrested from Mashkel Balochistan as was claimed by Pakistan. A theory that has been going around for a while is that Jadhav’s abduction is somehow linked to the action taken by the Indian Coast Guard against a Pakistani boat on the night of December 31, 2014. While reports in the Indian media suggested that this was another attempt by Pakistan to orchestrate a 26/11 kind of an operation, which also could be true, what is also speculated is that the boat belonged to a notorious Pakistani smuggler who in retaliation for the gutting of his boat by the Indian Coast Guard kidnapped Jadhav and handed him over to the ISI for monetary or other considerations. While all this would remain in the realm of conjecture what is uncontroverted is that Jadhav is a retired Indian naval officer who unfortunately is in a very life-threatening situation and it is our responsibility as a nation to do everything to bring him back home safe and sound.
What are the legal options available to him? Frankly, none. Theoretically, he can appeal to the Military Appellate Tribunal and then even to the Pakistan Supreme Court followed by a clemency petition to the President of Pakistan. However, in such matters, even the court and the President would just end up toeing the line of the establishment. Insofar as the Military Appellate Tribunal is concerned, the less said the better. Only two things will work: one “maybe” and the other “perhaps”. The “maybe” option is that India mounts a shrill high-decibel international campaign to secure his release. This would entail the involvement of inter-governmental organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations Human Rights Council, other UN instrumentalities and even organisations like Amnesty International that this government does not really fancy. However, given the manner in which the Pakistanis have played even the Americans over Osama bin Laden and still continue to have a fairly decent relationship with them, it is doubtful whether they will care more than a fig about the international community.
The “perhaps” option is for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pick up the phone and speak to Nawaz Sharif directly and tell him in no uncertain terms that such kangaroo court verdicts are simply unacceptable. The Indian high commission in Pakistan should also concurrently reach out to moderate sections of society, lawyers and other human rights activists, to start a campaign within that country for his release. India should make Jadhav a test case of its resolve to get our fellow citizen back home. Let him not end up like the 54 PoWs, alive but forgotten, or like Sarabjit Singh, brutally murdered. Let no partisan politics divide us....