In many of our Himalayan towns, especially the ones that still have army cantonments, it is not uncommon to find the graves of British soldiers who served in the imperial army. Similarly, the graves of Indian soldiers who fought for the British during the world wars can be found in Europe and other places. The issue of dead soldiers and repatriation of the bodies is an emotive issue and so it is heartening to note that the Indian government finally gave the US clearance to carry back the excavated remains of soldiers and artefacts of a US Air Force B-24 bomber and a C-109 aircraft that had crashed in Arunachal Pradesh during World War II. These allied airmen ferried about 650,000 tonnes of fuel, munitions and equipment over the eastern Himalayas from 1942, when the Japanese cut off the main land route through Myanmar.
The issue of repatriation had figured in the joint statement issued last year during the visit of US President Barack Obama to India. Last week, US defence secretary Ashton Carter, who was in New Delhi on a three-day visit, oversaw the repatriation ceremony. One set of remains was recovered in Arunachal Pradesh between September 12 and November 17, 2015. Another set of remains was handed over to Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) by a third party from the same region. Over the years, the demand for the search and repatriation of the remains of the US airmen had also got support from senior Indian Army officials and several politicians.
Sadly, the UPA had stopped the recovery of the remains following objections by China, which claims Arunachal Pradesh to be its territory. Other than conceding the long-standing demands of the families of the missing airmen on humanitarian grounds, the Modi government’s decision to allow the recovery also negates China’s dubious claims on the Indian state. The US government says that over 500 aircraft are still listed missing in the China-India-Burma theatre of World War II. Hopefully, the government will allow them to continue the search. A DPAA official said the remains found at the site could fit into “a ziplock sandwich bag”. But for families of US soldiers even that much will mean the world.