First Person: Not All PoWs Return Safe Like Abhinandan Varthaman: The Case of Captain Gurung

Rahul Singh Shekhawat | Mar 5, 2019 | 5 min read

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On Friday, India rejoiced as a nation after Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was in Pakistan Army’s custody following the crash of his MIG-21, crossed the border to return home. And one of those celebrating this momentous occasion was third Assam regiment’s (retired) Captain Vijender Singh Gurung, who gave a warm welcome to Varthaman at the Wagah border.

“I wish him all the best and can say with certainty that his better half, besides a billion others in this country, are very happy to have him back home,” Gurung said.

Gurung, who was captured by Pakistan during the 1971 war, perfectly understands what Varthaman’s release means for the armed forces as well as India; the young officer, after all, is probably the first prisoner of war (PoW) to have been released by the neighbour so soon after capture. Gurung himself wasn’t so lucky — he spent nearly 13 months in captivity, before the International Red Cross Committee facilitated his release; even now, Pakistan has several Indian armed force personnel as PoWs, languishing in its many jails since decades.

 

Standing tall in the face of death

Narrating his decades-old story, Gurung, a resident of Johdi village in Dehradun, said, “I was posted as a lieutenant in Fazilka sector near the Line of Control (LoC) in Punjab during the 1971 war. Pakistani soldiers engaged in some skullduggery to capture me and six other personnel. They smacked my head with a gun’s butt and dragged me away wounded and unconscious to a hideout. Later, they got the other six there in the same fashion.”

Gurung added that they were blindfolded and shunted from one place to another — from Sulemanki Headworks to Multan and finally to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), from where he was released — while a major kept barking orders frequently, once going so far as to order his men to open fire on the captives; it was only Gurung’s bravery — he had shouted at him to stop treating fellow armed personnel in a degrading manner — that saved them all.

“When we were being taken in a truck to the first location [Sulemanki Headworks], we had come under civilian fire — people had found out who was in the truck and had started pelting stones. I didn’t get hurt, but those on the edges did,” narrated Gurung.

“On reaching the location, after they unbound my hands, a sergeant started whipping me, and all my protests of not to treat an army officer in this manner, something India never did, fell on deaf ears.”

Gurung said those initial months in the first location was when he underwent the most brutal physical and mental torture, with Pakistani officers frequently hitting him on the head with rifle butts.

And then, finally, he had had enough. “In Multan, during an interrogation session, when a soldier tried to slap me, I held his hand and asked him to stop behaving like that. My action took him so much by surprise that he actually stopped. I told them that if they wanted to shoot me, they should just get it over with and not repeatedly humiliate me in this manner. That was the turning point; this incident brought a complete turnaround in their attitude and treatment of me, and they stopped the beating and humiliation,” he recalled.

Gurung said there had come a point in his captivity when the officers even tried to lure him on to their side by promising to make him “a hero” in their country; he, however, resisted all bribes and offers and said he wanted nothing from that country.

“The officers there had nicknamed me ‘Chotu’; I had won their hearts with my singing talent. It all started on August 15, when I demanded that they let me sing patriotic songs to mark my country’s Independence Day. After I started, they watched me in rapt silence fascinated. They then started making their own requests of songs, asking me to sing their favourites, including ‘Govinda aalaa re...’”

 

Home sweet home

Gurung has fond memories of his welcome at the Wagah border on December 31, 1972. “There were posters and banners bearing my name with the title “The War Hero Captain” covering the streets. I was granted a 10-day leave and then deployed to Assam.”

According to Gurung, he sustained three serious injuries to his head during the war, which led to four years spent being in and out of hospitals after release. 

Varthaman’s release opened the floodgates of memories, Gurung admitted, while saying, “I am relieved Abhinandan was sent back home so soon, thanks to our government’s efforts; because I am a living testament to the atrocities the neighbour country inflicts on PoWs. Pakistan is a country with Satanic principles, which it has shown not once but many times.”

Gurung congratulated IAF’s air strike in Pakistan and demanded a massive military action against the arch-rival. He, however, warned the government to be vigilant because Pakistan was sure to “utilise Abhinandan’s release on international diplomatic platforms”. 

 

Brothers in arms

“My cousin Satyendra Singh Gurung, too, fought in the 1971 war. We were both posted in separate units on the LoC in Punjab,” Gurung added.

Taking over the narration from him, Satyendra Singh, an honourary captain (retired), said that while Gurung was recruited in the army as a second lieutenant and posted in Fazilka sector, he was stationed in Machi.

Revealing something that not many are aware of, he added, “Because he was hit on the head with a rifle butt so many times during his captivity, he had to battle mental illnesses later on, for a while.

“After retirement in 1976, he returned to Dehradun and has been living by himself. He was a passout of the Short Service Commission and there was no pension waiting for him. But thanks to the efforts of Lieutenant General Ram Pradhan (his junior) and Brigadier R S Rawat, who is chairman of Uttarakhand Ex-Servicemen League, a fund was set up in his name; it collected Rs 18 lakh and that’s what’s been helping him to survive,” Satyendra Singh signed off.

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