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

First Person

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

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

In March 2019, India rejoiced, as IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was in Pakistan Army’s custody following the crash of his MIG-21, returned home. One of those celebrating this momentous occasion was Third Assam Regiment’s (Retired) Captain Vijender Singh Gurung, who had made the journey from Dehradun to welcome Varthaman at the Wagah Border.

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.

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 the Pakistani captors 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, 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,” said 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’s cousin Satyendra Singh Gurung also served along the LoC during the ’71 war, and recalled how being Pakistan’s prisoner affected his life after he returned.

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. But as weeks turned into months, the bond between captors and captives grew more convivial. “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 Aala Re!’”

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 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.”

Gurung’s cousin Satyendra Singh Gurung also served along the LoC during the ’71 war, and recalled how being Pakistan’s prisoner affected his life after he returned. “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.”

By 1976, Gurung had retired from the service without a pension, due to him passing out on Short Service Commission. It took the setting up of a fund in his name by his junior Lieutenant-General Ram Pradhan and Brigadier RS Rawat – who is chairman of Uttarakhand Ex-Servicemen League – to provide the funds he needed to survive in retirement. Even so, at the old age of 67, Gurung still needs to take up the occasional menial labour job to make ends meet.

Captain Gurung’s story is a painful reminder that while public adulation is short-lived, the consequences of the sacrifices our armed forces make in defending the nation persist long after the reporters and news cameras have left. In 1972, when he returned home to India, all eyes were on him. For now, they are all trained on Varthaman, a feeling Gurung knows all too well. “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.