The continued detention of about 90,000 prisoners affected Pakistan and India differently. Their racial composition was approximately 70 per cent Punjabi 20 per cent Pathan and Baluchi and 10 per cent Sindhi and others. West Punjab, the main recruiting ground, was badly affected. It was said that there was not a single family in the province which was not involved one way or the other. With bread winners detained in India, these families clamoured for continuance of pay and allowances for their upkeep.
After the conflict, India declared 1,006 personnel, believed to by taken prisoners of war, missing. Pakistan accepted the existence of only 639 as prisoners. Four of these died in captivity, and the rest eventually returned to India.
Politically, Bhutto, having taken over a shattered country, did not want the prisoners back to add to the many other problems confronting him and his country. But to muffle the voices of dissatisfaction he decided to look after the families. Tikka Khan, who had himself been a prisoner in World War II in German hands, went about this task with rare zeal. The families were given the full entitlement of soldier’s pay and allowances. Liberal concessions were offered for the education of their dependants’ children and proper arrangements were made for housing and attendant facilities such as purchase of rations and canteen stores. Welfare committees were formed and went from house to house on fact-finding missions. They dealt with individual and collective problems on the spot.
It must be said to the Pakistan Government’s credit that it looked after the prisoners’ families well, while on the Indian side there was only routine lip service. The measures Tikka Kha adopted satisfied the families at least for a while. On the other hand, India’s expenditure on the upkeep of the Pakistani prisoners was mounting, and with a sagging economy the Government found this hard to sustain.
Up to 31 January 1974, India had spent more than Rs 323 million on the upkeep of the prisoners. With about Rs 30 million required for the prisoners’ pay, their upkeep was costing India about Rs 10 million a month. Besides, the accommodation meant for India’s troops was occupied by the prisoners. Our troops were perforce living under canvas or other temporary housing arrangements. This was affecting their morale as the feeling grew among them that the prisoners were better looked after than they were.
Despite public professions to the contrary, India definitely attempted to use the continued detention of the prisoners as a bargaining counter for political aims, especially for problems connected with the recognition of Bangladesh. Prisoners were divided into two categories, those captured in the western theatre and others who surrendered in Bangladesh. After the Simla Agreement was ratified there was no justification for holding on to those captured in the western theatre, and these prisoners, along with the sick and wounded, including civilians and totaling about 2,653, were returned as they did not come within the purview of the joint Indo-Bangladesh Command. Initially, Bhutto was under strong political pressure at home to get the prisoners back, and the greater his apparent keenness to do so the better bargaining counter it provided India at the negotiation table. Shrewd politician that he was, Bhutto decided to play it cool on this issue. Having muffled dissatisfaction among their families, he accused India of using the prisoners as a human pawn in a political game. He asserted that under no circumstances could he be expected to sell Pakistan’s interests for their release. It would be an insult to the soldier’s patriotism, he argued.
To effect a major breakthrough in the triangular settlement in this regard, New Delhi and Dacca made a joint offer to Pakistan on 20 November for repatriation of over 6,000 women and children held in prison camps
As a result, the prisoners became a wasting asset for India. Bhutto made it known that he would wait till India got tired of looking after them, and his attitude became menacingly embarrassing for India. That is why the Indian negotiators failed not only to get Bhutto to recognize Bangladesh but also to settle the repatriation of the Bengali families stranded in West Pakistan. And in this respect the Simla accord did not yield the political gains it was aimed to achieve in the end.
There was also the question of Bihari Muslim families settled in Bangladesh who, because they collaborated with the Pakistan Army in the conflict, were finding the atmosphere there rather hostile, and at the same time the new Bangladesh regime was keen on getting rid of them. But all these questions had to wait till Bhutto found it expedient to recognize Bangladesh. As a result, the prisoner issue was delinked from the delineation of the line of control and the withdrawal of troops from the occupied territories.
To effect a major breakthrough in the triangular settlement in this regard, New Delhi and Dacca made a joint offer to Pakistan on 20 November for repatriation of over 6,000 women and children held in prison camps in return for similar facilities to Bengali women and children stranded or detained in Pakistan.3 This move was intended to demonstrate the readiness of the two countries to undo the consequences of the last conflict provided Pakistan was willing to reciprocate.
The size of the Bengali community in Pakistan was estimated to vary from 25,000 to 400,000. The number to be moved out was large indeed. Dacca wanted them to be handed over at the Indian border, from where they could be transported to Bangladesh. Overruling an earlier rejection by officials, Bhutto accepted the offer and in turn offered to release 10,000 Bengali women and children held in Pakistan. Bhutto’s acceptance was accompained by the hope that it would result in an early solution of the “humanitarian problem” of all prisoners of war and civilian internees.
The planners had visualized a mass exchange of 90,000 prisoners of war and the exchange of Bihar, and Bengali Muslim families between Pakistan and Bangladesh. They proposed five points of exchange where the Pakistan railway system provided connecting links, but their Pakistani counterparts accepted only one delivery point at Wagah for the exchange on both sides. The ostensible excuse offered was lack of logistical infrastructure in other places, but it appeared that Bhutto was not politically ready for speedy repatriation.
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 45, “POW’s Escape Attempt Crushed,” p. 11067.
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 42, “Violence at POW Camp,” p. 11031.
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No 52, “POWs Exchanged with Pakistan,” p. 11148.
The first exchange took place at Wag ah on 1 December 1972,1 when India offered 540 Pakistani prisoners of war, including 51 civilians, captured in the western sector. In return, Pakistan repatriated 617 Indian prisoners, including ten Air Force officers and 89 men of the Border Security Force, four of the Jammu and Kashmir Militia, and 17 civilians. India had still to seek a plausible explanation for its 274 personnel missing on the western front. On the other hand, Pakistan alleged that some 900 of its missing in the conflict remained to be accounted for.
But this was preceded by repatriation of the sick and wounded in aircraft provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in which some 320 Pakistani servicemen and civilians were exchanged for 70 Indian personnel. This was followed by the movement of women and children, but then came a stalemate. This appeared to irk India more than Pakistan. Once again, on the initiative of Mrs Gandhi, New Delhi and Dacca offered a package deal under which 195 prisoners of war and civilian internees would face trial in Bangladesh on charges of war crimes. The Pakistanis in Bangladesh were also to be exchanged for Bengalis forcibly detained in Pakistan. It was hoped that these proposals, if faithfully implemented, would further the process of normalization in the subcontinent and would go a long way in solving the humanitarian and other problems arising out of the armed conflict of 1971.
The Pakistan authorities reaction to this offer was reluctant and conditional acceptance.
The package deal fixed the end of May 1973 as the date of the trials. It proposed that a special tribunal comprising persons of the status of Supreme Court judges would hear the cases, which would be conducted in accordance with universally recognized judicial norms. Eminent international jurists would be invited as observers. The prisoners to be tried were charged with serious crimes, including genocide, breach of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, murder, rape and arson. The accused were promised facilities to arrange for their defence and to engage counsel of their choice, including foreigners.