Not as fortunate as Wg Cdr Abhinandan, 3 times ex-national badminton champion’s husband Flt Lt Tambay, PoW of 1971 war in Pak jail & her wife still waits

Damayanti Tambay

The Hush Post| 8:46 am |three-minute-read

Damayanti Tambay won the national women’s badminton thrice between 1968 to 1970 and subsequently won the Arjuna award. But that is not what she is now known for.

She is the wife of Flight Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambay. Tambay’s fighter jet like that of Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down by Pakistan and Tambay was taken a PoW (Prisoner of War) in the 1971 war. While Wg Commander Abhinandan was fortunate to be released, Tambay is still believed to be in a Pakistani jail.

India released 90,000 of the Pakistani PoWs of 1971 War. Pakistan still has many Indian prisoners. And successive Indian governments haven’t made concerted efforts it should have made for getting Tambay and others like him back. 48 years later, Tambay’s wife Damayanti still waits for her husband.

Damayanti first got the news from Pakistan Radio of Tambay’s jet being shot and he being taken PoW

It was a December evening when she sat by the radio and heard on Radio Pakistan that her husband, Flight Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambay’s plane had been shot down and he was taken as a Prisoner of War.

Ever since, the former national singles badminton champion has been to Islamabad as the manager of the Indian women’s badminton team for the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games, however, she was also on a private mission: To try and find out anything about her husband, with whom she had spent just a-year-and-a-half after her wedding.Damayanti

She says, “Let us assume there is one per cent possibility. But unless I try, how can it happen? Anytime I find a possibility, I try. I will not let it pass without trying because it is the least I can do,” says Damayanti, who worked as deputy director, physical education, in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Back then she was 22. Now she is 70. In the 48 years that fell in between, Damayanti has met several Prime Ministers, requested and petitioned many union ministers, written dozens of letters and penned appeals to the human rights commission. All in the hope that it might set in motion a diplomatic process that will eventually lead to the release and return of her husband, who was captured on the other side and is one of the 54 missing defence personnel still believed to be in Pakistan.

“Miracles do happen but somebody has to make them happen,” she says.

Earlier known by the name of Damayanti Subedar, she got married to fighter pilot Vijay Vasant Tambay in April 1970, before winning the third national title. Daughter of a Maharashtrian lawyer father and school principal mother, she moved from Allahabad, where she was born and brought up, to Ambala, where Vijay was posted.

Before leaving, he wanted to park his green Fiat in a safer place. It was a little dark and that’s the last she saw him, in that darkness

Those were happy days. But by November 1971, the word war was screaming into our ears each day. Ambala is a forward base of the air force. “I could see the troop movement,” she remembers.

War was announced on December 3, 1971. She says, Vijay’s entire squadron moved to Amritsar. Before leaving, he wanted to park his green Fiat in a safer place. It was a little dark and being war-time, no one was allowed to switch on the lights. “So we drove in the dark and parked the car in the cantonment garage. And he left,” she recalls. It was the last time she saw him and that too in the dark.

In the next two days, Damayanti witnessed the war at close quarters spending the nights in a trench infested with ants, hearing the burst of anti-aircraft guns and watching dogfights in the sky. Then, some air force officials came to her and said, “It’s not safe here, why don’t you go home?” With little option but to leave, she travelled back to her parents’ home in Allahabad.

She was trying out different stations on her transistor when she heard that her husband was among the Indian pilots who had been captured. He was carrying out a retaliatory strike at Shorkot Road, 72 miles east of Multan, when his plane was hit. The next day a telegram from the Indian government confirmed the news.

Damayanti’s first reaction was of relief. She was happy that her husband wouldn’t have to fight the war anymore. “I thought since he is captured, he is out of danger. And as a prisoner of war, sooner or later, he would be sent home. There was never any doubt that he will come back,” she says.

Her father-in-law, a secretary in the Maharashtra state government, had chanced upon a Pakistani newspaper which had published the names of five Indian pilots captured alive. And “Tombay” — misspelt by the newspaper — was one of them. That gave her further hope.

But with the passage of time, hope dimmed. After the Simla Agreement in July 1972, the two countries agreed to exchange PoWs. India had over 90,000 Pakistani PoWs. Both countries brought out two lists each of their prisoners. But Tambay’s name did not figure in either of them. Yet Damayanti was still optimistic. She, like many others, waited for a third list. It never came.

What angered her was the government’s unwillingness to act urgently. Once the Indian government had released over 90,000 Pakistani PoWs without ensuring that each of its own men was returned, it didn’t have the same bargaining power. “How did you not make sure that each of your men came back? How could you slip on this,” she asks. “I keep wondering why the government has not been able to do anything.”

She was not the only one with unanswered questions. Damayanti relates the story of Major A.K. Ghosh who was declared killed in action but his photograph appeared in an issue of Time magazine published in 1972 with the caption, ‘An Indian prisoner behind bars in a Pakistan jail.’

Hopes went up in September, 1983, when the two governments finally agreed to allow some relatives to travel to Pakistan and identify their own in the jails. From India, members of six families, including Damayanti, went. From Pakistan’s side, high commission officials were scheduled to go to Patiala jail to check out the prisoners.

“But a day before the identification in a Multan jail, we read a newspaper report in Islamabad which said that India had gone back on its words,” recalls Damayanti. Whatever the truth, the Indian delegation was sent back without being shown any defence personnel. The mission had failed.

It was a major setback. But Damayanti found a glimmer of hope again in 1989 when Jayant Jathar, her husband’s uncle, went to Pakistan as a manager of the under-19 cricket team. During a tea party in Gujranwala, he met the infamous General Tikka Khan (then the governor of Punjab) and pleaded with him to allow him to see his nephew just once. The general relented.

Jathar said in an interview some time ago that he was driven in a car from Lyallpur (now called Faisalabad) to a cell where a man, dressed in a kurta-pyjama, was reading a newspaper. The man, he recognised, was his nephew although he was not allowed to speak to him.

Damayanti is not sure whether anything will emerge out of her recent Pakistan visit. Many have said that they would try and help. As they have always done, and will always do. Damayanti wants her husband in whatever condition back. No one knows better than Damayanti the meaning of two words — wait and patience. Is someone listening?


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