I would like to share a story, the story of a solitary dining table.
An empty ‘Table for One‘ is placed at the Cadets Mess near the entrance at the National Defence Academy (NDA) at Khadakwasla. It is laid out for a solitary diner with complete crockery and cutlery.
Whom is this placed for? Why the chair is tilted forward and the crockery is upturned, the empty glass, a rose, and ribbon? What does an unlit candle, a slice of lemon and salt on the bread plate symbolize?
This ‘Table for One’ is in remembrance of all those soldiers who fought in various wars but never returned – neither alive nor dead, hoping to welcome the homecoming of these men some day.
Nobody wants a war, but when faced with it, the brave Indian soldier is ever ready to take on the enemy. One such war was the 1971-India-Pakistan-War, where the Indian Army proved its mettle. Many a brave soldier lost their lives in the service to the nation, and many lived to tell the tale. But there were some who didn’t come back. The 54 Prisoners of War (PoWs) of the 1971 war, who never made it back home.
The placard on the table reads:
“The table set is small, for one, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner against his oppressors. The single rose displayed in a vase reminds us of the families and loved ones of our comrades-in-arms who keep their faith awaiting their return. The Red Ribbon tied so prominently on the vase is reminiscent of the red ribbon worn upon the lapel and breasts of thousands who bear witness to their unyielding determination to demand a proper accounting of our missing. The candle is unlit, symbolizing the upward reach of their unconquerable spirit. The slice of Lemon is on the bread plate, to remind us of the bitter fate. There is salt upon the bread plate – symbolic of the families’ tears as they wait. The Glass is inverted, they cannot toast with us this night. The chair – it is empty. They are not here.”
In the winter of 1971, a bloody 14-day conflict between India and Pakistan resulted in an Indian Army triumph and the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh. Our soldiers fought valiantly and it was a moment of pride for the entire country, as Pakistan signed the instrument of surrender.
In the wake of the Shimla Agreement, India repatriated over 97,000 Pakistani PoWs but shamefully failed to secure the release of 54 Indian PoWs. Just look at the tow numbers.
For self-glorification, Indira Gandhi and the ruling Congress forgot our Indian Soldiers, sold and compromised the “Interest Of India!” Why Indian PoWs were not demanded back and why Pakistan was not told to vacate the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir before the release of 97,000 Pakistani PoWs at that strategic time? This entire LOC Drama could have been solved in 1972 – during Shimla Agreement. But perhaps, Indira Gandhi was too much mesmerized by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Shimla Agreement was the biggest Diplomatic Disaster to have ever happened on earth!!
Despite proofs of Indian soldiers languishing in Pakistani jails and sustained efforts by their families to secure their release, nothing tangible has happened. The Government of India gave these 54 men the status of missing in action or killed in action. But time and again, evidence kept surfacing which proved that these men were alive and imprisoned in various jails of Pakistan. While a photograph of Major AK Ghosh behind bars in a Pakistani prison appeared in TIME magazine, Major Ashok Suri’s father received a hand-written letter from his son, asking him to contact the Government of India in order to secure their return to the homeland. Bureaucratic files moved, papers were pushed – but to no avail.
54 young men were condemned to rot in jails for having committed the sin of fighting bravely in a war that was not created by them. The trauma and torture that would have been inflicted on them cannot even be imagined. Their families were doomed, aged parents went to their graves with broken hearts and children grew up without their fathers. Many of these soldiers were married for not more than a year or two. Imagine the plight of 23-24year-old girls – who lived with her husband for a year and led the rest of her life fighting a callous government for securing her husband’s release.
How a nation can willfully and shamelessly forget its own people? But while the nation has forgotten these men, their fellow soldiers haven’t.
The Table for One’ is a poignant reminder that waits wistfully for them to return.