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HindustanTimes Fri,22 Aug 2014

Karan Thapar

When life is cheap
Karan Thapar
December 01, 2012
First Published: 20:50 IST(1/12/2012)
Last Updated: 00:58 IST(2/12/2012)

If ever you needed proof that Indian governments take their soldiers for granted - requiring them to uncomplainingly lay down their lives but thereafter ignoring if not, actually, forgetting them - you can find it in shocking abundance in the story of Captain Saurabh Kalia and his five comrade soldiers who were captured by Pakistani forces whilst patrolling the Kargil area in May 1999. They were the first to report the Pakistani intrusion that subsequently led to conflict. But when they suffered for it they were, effectively, written off.

After 22 days in captivity their bodies were returned badly mutilated and with visible signs of torture. They had punctured eyes, pierced ear-drums, broken skulls and their genitals had been cut off. In addition, they had been shot through the head. Government ministers unhesitatingly called it "barbaric". There was no doubt this was a blatant war crime and an undeniable breach of the Geneva Convention.

But what did the government do? As little as it possibly could. And that's true not just of the NDA, in power at the time, but also of its successor, the UPA.

In June 1999 India summoned the Pakistani Deputy High Commissioner and served him with a notice of breach of the Geneva Convention. Shortly afterwards Jaswant Singh, then foreign minister, raised the matter with his Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz. And, yes, during a visit to Paris, Singh expressed his incredulity and horror to Chirac. But that's about it.

What's worse is that successive governments simply stonewalled attempts by Captain Kalia's father, Dr NK Kalia, to pursue justice. He wrote to three Presidents, who, after all, are Supreme Commanders of the Armed Forces, but only got a standard acknowledgement: "Your letter has been received and would be forwarded for necessary action." But if it was no action followed.

Frustrated and increasingly desperate, Dr. Kalia approached a variety of embassies and foreign organisations for help. In reply, the British High Commission said: "We are seeking from the Indian Army a full report of the post-mortem, unfortunately without any success so far." The Germans said they'd written to the ministry of external affairs but got no response.

The independent Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar took up the matter with SM Krishna but was told there was no response from Pakistan. What was left unsaid but, nonetheless, crystal clear is that India, both under the BJP and Congress, was not going to put pressure on Pakistan, directly or through third parties, to do something. It was just talk, nothing more.

So Dr Kalia has now moved the Supreme Court to direct the government to take the case to the International Court of Justice. As a result, this 13-year-old matter has found a fresh lease of journalistic life. I don't know how it will end but an opinion government sources - those ubiquitous but convenient secret voices that always provide clever excuses - are offering is that India is worried if it rakes up this issue Pakistan could retaliate by raising our own alleged human rights abuses in Kashmir.

Touche! We're no better than the Pakistanis next door. No doubt that's the truth but it's cold comfort for Captain Kalia's family or the relatives of his five comrade soldiers.

Consequently, today Dr Kalia plaintively asks: if this had happened to American or Israeli soldiers would their governments have responded the same way or pursued the matter more diligently? I think we all know the answer.

Views expressed by the author are personal


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