Flight Lieutenant V.V. Tambay, Indian Airforce
Flight Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambay

Flt Lt V.V. Tambay's wife Damayanti Tambay is the Deputy Director, Physical Education, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Both of Damayanti's brothers were in the army(she later lost one of them in a defence exercise) and it was natural for her family to look for an alliance in the armed forces. She got married in 1970.

When the war broke out in 1971, Damayanti was 23 years old. She last saw her husband on December 3, 1971, in the Ambala Cantonment Area, where the family lived. Flt Lt Tambay told her "I may return, I may not return. Take care of yourself". Mrs Tambay had told her husband "Vasant, 'V' for victory. Carry on. The entire nation is behind you".

Ambala was bombarded in the war. The same evening Tambay's squadron moved to a forward area. The first few nights she spent in the bunkers and later moved to her parents' place. Subsequently they heard on the radio that his plane had been shot down and that he was missing.

Mrs Tambay recalling those turbulent days, said that she was informed about her husband's aircraft being shot down in Pakistan. "News was published by a leading Pakistan newspaper "Sunday Pakistan Observer" on December 5, 1971, that five Indian pilots were captured alive, and my husband's name was mentioned," she said.

A few years after the 1971 war, Time magazine published a story with five photographs of Indians lodged in Pakistani jails. One of the pictures was that of Flt Lt Tambay.

That was not the only evidence of her husband being captured alive. "My husband's brother met a Bangladesh naval officer T. Yusuf at Jamnagar in 1978 who had stated that Indian Air Force pilot V.V. Tambay was with him in barrack no. 6 of Layallpur jail of Pakistan. The Officer remembered that Tambay had a scar on the chin(which was true she confirmed). Also, one prisoner Daljit Singh who was repatriated from Pakistan on March 24, 1988, had seen V.V. Tambay in the Lahore interrogation centre in February 1978," she said.

The families waited for the POWs to be exchanged by both sides. The Simla agreement decided the terms of exchange and other issues. "Once the agreement was reached, everything was over. For the government the issue became very insignificant. All these people are just numbers to them. Surprisingly 600 square miles were returned to Pakistan our armed forces' sacrifices went waste," said Damyanti.

Then began a never-ending process of waiting, contacting the armed forces, the External Affairs Ministry and various dignitaries, to try and recover the POWs believed to be held in Pakistani jails.

In September 1983, a delegation of six relatives including Damayanti visited Multan jail in Pakistan on the invitation of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq. Unfortunately, they all came back feeling cheated. "We were allowed to visit only one jail and this jail had none of the defence personnel," says Warrant Officer(Retd) Ashutosh Ghosh, father of Major A.K. Ghosh. Damayanti recollects, "In a small cell there were some forty to fifty prisoners herded together. Most of them were in chains and some were tied to pillars." These were Indians allegedly caught for petty crimes like smuggling.

Tambay's father died within two years of his capture. He never recovered from the shock. His mother now lives with Tambay's brothers. "The first few years(after the war) were very traumatic. Howsoever strong you are you have never prepared yourself for these things. Despite the fact that there are so many people who feel for you, you really have to deal with the day to day struggle on your own," she says.

In the beginning Damayanti never thought that her husband would not return. Much, much later she began to wonder. Along the way, she met other people in a similar predicament. Among them was Dr R.S. Suri, father another of the POWs, who helped band the families together. They formed an informal grouping called Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association, which was led by Dr Suri.

The group has collected several evidences to prove that Indian defence personnel are till today lodged in Pakistan jails and holds meetings and has made representations to the government, to little avail so far. Until a few years ago Dr. Suri was the backbone of their common quest and kept their morale high. He passed away in early 2001, and so have many other of the family members, before they could meet their loved ones.

Mr M.K. Paul, vice-president of the Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association, said that we are trying to raise the matter at the International Human Rights Commission. "It has been a long struggle and we are only hoping that the defence personnel will be returned in whatever state they are in," he said. He has demanded that all defence personnel who are lodged in Pakistan jails must be treated at par with Kargil martyrs. "They should be considered to be on duty and pay for their service must be given to their next of kin," he said.

The families kept trying with successive governments - sometimes there would be a glimmer of hope and then darkness would descend again. As ordinary citizens, they could not do much to effect an action in another country, particularly one that was hostile to India. But they felt that they owed it to their sons, husbands and brothers to never give up, to keep on trying.

Mr Om Prakash Malik, a local advocate, said that the government must initiate steps to ensure that all those defence personnel who are still in Pakistani jails must be brought back home. Mrs Tambay says: "We wanted the Government to raise the issue with the UN Human Rights Commission since we have such concrete proof but the Government never did, and as individuals we could not do it. Our government has to learn to respect a those whose lives it demands as sacrifices. Or else ordinary people will not want to join the armed forces. But it appears we do not learn any lessons. Look at the Uphaar tragedy when I looked at the number of people lost per family, I felt my grief has been smaller. But have we learnt any lessons?"

Roop Lal's release in 2000, brought hope to the families. Roop Lal's release came about through the ceaseless efforts of his daughter and son-in-law and the labours of Asma Jehangir, chief of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. The Indian government was a mere spectator!

Damayanti Tambay says, "What do these politicians know of the pain of not having one's loved ones near one. Only I know how I spent every moment of the last 28 years. My husband was caught by the enemy fighting for our country, not for himself. Is it not the responsibility of this country's politicians to get him back"? "When I said this in a talk show, Pranab Mukherjee from the Congress got angry and said, "You are being very aggressive." I then asked him whether any of his sons, daughters or sons-in-law were in the armed forces. You tell me which politician's son is in the army? Pranab Mukherjee became quiet after that. If any of these politicians' sons had died in the war, or gone to the enemy's prisons, then they would have known the pain of the families of the defence personnel."

"I have been waiting all these years, I can wait a few more years," Damayanti said, "but what hurts is that no one seems to care. Not the government, not the armed forces, no one." The Indian Army denies the presence of any Indian POW. "We have checked and cross-checked through our official lines and also through our sources. And we do not have any such case," said a senior army officer. The army officer also pointed out that Roop Lal's case was different in the sense that he had been jailed on charges of spying.

Nevertheless, Tambay and the others retain a flicker of hope. "We don't expect anything from the Pakistani government, which would never like to admit that it is still holding Indian POW," said Tambay. "But we are now in touch with Asma Jehangir who was instrumental in getting Roop Lal released."

She added that beyond the politics of India and Pakistan, the governments must remember that there are human lives and families involved. "Tell me, after 28 years, what harm can any POW do? Why not release them so that they can spend the rest of their lives with their own families. That is all that we ask for," she lamented.

Tambay added that the relatives have been trying through various media, but in vain. She then looked hopeful, "Can the Internet help?"

On July 14, 2001, the families of four POW's held a Press conference in Agra to urge the visiting Pak President Pervez Musharraf to heed their plea and release all POW's. "We have no faith in the government," said an angry Damayanti Tambay when contacted by the media. Asked if she is hopeful, she shrugged, "It is better not to think or expect. Everyone thinks we are mad, that we are chasing an illusion. They forget that we do so because we have specific reasons for doing so. And as long as we are alive, we will hope and try, though we don't expect anything much," she said.

In Sep 2001, reacting to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's invitation to visit the country's jails and scrutinise records, Damayanti Tambay said, "It is not surprising that they are denying, but it is disappointing." "Records can be concocted. If Pakistan, or for that matter any government doesn't want to help, such issues cannot be resolved. So if the intention is not clear, these actions(invites) are serving no purpose." "They can be located anywhere, if Pakistan can help us locate them and repatriate them, it would be great," Tambay said referring to her earlier visit in 1983 when they were taken to a jail in Multan and showed "some 17-18 people, but they were all civilians."

In some ways Damayati Tambay is fortunate that she was able to build an independent career "I still thank God I can look after myself. I never had plans that I would work. These days girls grow-up to be career-minded, but it was not like that earlier. Anyhow I applied for this job and got it, based on my qualifications(Damayanti is an Arjuna Awardee in Badminton, in addition to the technical qualifications that she had for the job). There must be families without a stable income. Who looks after them?" she querries.

Damayanti is also fortunate that she has supportive friends and family but she still misses her husband and has chosen not to remarry, "I miss my husband someone to share things with. I may look at something and think, how he would have enjoyed it. I have to take all decisions myself. I am already trained for my old age, to live alone. Remarriage? I never thought it was necessary really. If a girl in today's world is strong, there is nothing for her to worry. All my staff are men for example there has been no problem."