Captured Indian pilot is human face of Indian-Pakistan hostilities

Pakistanis reading about the shooting down of an Indian fighter jet yesterday. Islamabad says the captured pilot, Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (above), will be released today.
Pakistanis reading about the shooting down of an Indian fighter jet yesterday. Islamabad says the captured pilot, Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, will be released today.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Pakistanis reading about the shooting down of an Indian fighter jet yesterday. Islamabad says the captured pilot, Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (above), will be released today.
Pakistanis reading about the shooting down of an Indian fighter jet yesterday. Islamabad says the captured pilot, Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (above), will be released today.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Less than 24 hours after it was officially confirmed that Pakistan had an Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot in its custody, Islamabad made a dramatic offer to release him today, offering a window of opportunity to de-escalate tensions between the two South Asian neighbours.

"We have an Indian pilot. As a peace gesture, we will release him tomorrow," Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan told the country's Parliament yesterday.

This development comes after the initial euphoria in India over its successful cross-border strikes in Pakistan took a grim turn on Wednesday over Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's capture.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs had summoned the acting Pakistani high commissioner in India and lodged a strong protest against what it termed Pakistan's "vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force" and sought his "immediate and safe return".

These concerns were raised after a series of videos emerged from Pakistan on Wednesday showing the captured pilot. In one of these clips, the wing commander is seen being rescued by Pakistani soldiers from villagers assaulting him. He is later seen with his face injured.

Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that the pilot, who suffered a back injury, had fired in the air in self-defence and the army convoy carrying him passed through a village where locals were shouting pro-Pakistan slogans.

Another video shows him sipping tea and being quizzed by a Pakistan Army officer. He also praises the army representative who saved him from the mob.

Mr Varthaman was flying a MiG-21 Bison that is part of IAF's 51 Squadron, also called Sword Arms, based in Srinagar.

According to official sources cited in media reports, he had shot down a Pakistani jet that had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) but his aircraft was struck in the aerial exchange and went down on the Pakistani side of the LoC.

 
 
 
 

Indian media has reported that the pilot comes from Tamil Nadu, where his father, retired Air Marshal Simhakutty Varthaman, is said to live in Chennai.

An excerpt of a programme featuring Mr Varthaman that aired in 2011 on NDTV Good Times, an Indian lifestyle and entertainment channel, has also been dug up. In it, he is asked what the primary requirement for a good fighter pilot is. Mr Varthaman, then a flight lieutenant, says: "Bad attitude."

The pilot's capture has brought back memories of the 1999 Kargil War when another Indian pilot, Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa, was captured by Pakistan.

Following intense backdoor efforts by India, he was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross and returned to India eight days later.

In the same war, Squadron leader Ajay Ahuja was killed by the enemy in captivity.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General (retired) H. S. Panag, who led the Indian Army's Northern and Central Commands, thinks Mr Varthaman's release, though welcome, poses a conundrum for the Indian government.

Mr Panag tells The Straits Times: "Where was the need for all this high-charged drama when all it seemingly takes is the loss of one PoW (prisoner of war) and one aircraft to give up a strategy that this government has been advocating for the last five years?

"Mind you, if we pull back and de-escalate, the winner is Imran Khan."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2019, with the headline 'Indian pilot is human face of hostilities'. Print Edition | Subscribe