A Neverending Wait

If you’ve been newly married and your soldier husband either goes missing in action or is taken prisoner during a war, how long would you wait for him to return?

For many Indian women, the answer is: a lifetime. And beyond.

Paramjit Kaur, a woman living in the Western Indian state of Punjab, waited thirty-five years.

Her husband, Kashmir Singh, who was arrested in 1973 by Pakistani authorities on charges of espionage, and who has since been on death row suffering in Pakistani jails, is set to return to India. He has received a pardon from Pakistan President, General Pervez Musharraf, and is finally going home to his wife and to the grown up kids he does not know. Even sadder, he is said to have become mentally unstable after years of solitary confinement.

India and Pakistan – the latter being created after India won independence from the British in 1947 – have fought three wars: in 1965, 1971 and more recently, in 1999. And there are claims that both countries hold, even today, prisoners of war from those conflicts – something both deny. In the last four years, both have released prisoners, mostly been civilians who had strayed on the wrong sides of the border so it’s no wonder the families of the missing continue to hope they’ll be found.

Last year General Musharraf, in an effort to prove his country wasn’t holding prisoners, invited relatives of Indian soldiers, who went missing after that 1971 India-Pakistan war, to visit Pakistani jails and check for themselves. Not surprisingly, they returned dejected, and heart broken, and still without answers concerning the whereabouts of their loved ones. Many knew not to expect much, but went looking for answers to get some sort of closure, like Damayanti Tambay – who was twenty-three when her husband disappeared and was apparently taken prisoner. But, despite years of effort, she never heard from him or found out what happened to him later.

By that measure, Paramjit Kaur is lucky, if you can call it that, because though there have been some unusual exchanges of POWs in the past, there are still many who wait, and will probably keep doing so – even in vain.

Kashmir Singh, learning he had been pardoned, wanted to get his suit ready to meet his wife. And his relatives wait eagerly too (though his mother died two months ago after praying for years for his return).

It’s been a long wait, a wait that’s over for him but not for hundreds of others – both in India and Pakistan – who may never cross that border to go home.