By Palash Kumar
NEW DELHI, June 1 (Reuters) - A group of Indian families were headed for Pakistan on Friday to search for 54 men missing from the 1971 India-Pakistan war and try to solve what is one of the biggest wartime mysteries of South Asia.
For about 35 years, India has been asking Pakistan about the missing army and air force personnel.
Pakistan has always denied it is holding any Indian prisoners of war and this year President Pervez Musharraf offered to throw open the nation’s prisons to the families of the soldiers to help find them.
The families, including wives and brothers, are due to start their two-week mission in the eastern city of Lahore.
"This is going to be my last effort. The rest is up to God," said Damayanti Vijay Tambay, whose husband Flight-Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambay went missing after he took off on a fighter plane at the height of the war.
They will visit ten Pakistani jails, check prison records and meet all prisoners of Indian origin, an Indian defence ministry spokesman said.
India and Pakistan hold scores of civilians — mostly fishermen who stray into each other’s waters — as prisoners. In recent years, they have swapped prisoners to build goodwill.
Tirelessly over three decades, Tambay has knocked at every possible door in the hunt for her husband, claiming there is evidence her husband is alive — like his name appearing as an Indian prisoner in a Pakistani newspaper after his disappearance.
But all in vain. Today, all Tambay wants is closure.
"We are aware of the grim possibility (of them being dead) but we want a very convincing and fruitful closure to our case," she told Reuters in March.
"Tell us if Pakistan eventually shot them or they were killed trying to escape or they died of disease. But tell us what happened."
Indian government officials, who preferred anonymity, said there is little chance of any POW being found in Pakistani prisons.
"If they find even one man, it will be the scoop of the century," said one official.
"Do you think Pakistan will show anyone even if they have anyone? If they do, the entire edifice of what they have been saying for 36 years will stand on its head," added another official.
Tambay, who was 23 when her husband disappeared, still holds out hope and carries her husband’s old photographs.
"People may not be in good shape," she said. "If I see him and he doesn’t recognise me, I will show him his old pictures."
Bharat Suri, whose brother is among the missing, said their visit marks a new chapter in the history of India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars.
"I am very much hopeful and grateful to President Musharraf who has given us a chance," he said.