This article titled “Pakistan returns Indian pilot shot down over Kashmir in ‘peace gesture'” was written by Michael Safi in Delhi and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad, for The Guardian on Friday 1st March 2019 21.16 Asia/Kolkata
Pakistan has returned an Indian pilot who had become the face of the worst military crisis between the two countries in decades, in a gesture aimed at demonstrating its willingness to de-escalate the conflict.
Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was shot down during the first publicly acknowledged dogfight between the countries in 48 years on Wednesday, was returned to India at the Wagah border crossing in Punjab on Friday evening.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, had announced his impending release in parliament on Thursday, calling it a “peace gesture”.
The pilot’s homecoming sparked jubilation in India. Large crowds gathered near the border post cheering, dancing and waving Indian flags in scenes broadcast live on major TV news channels, who counted down the hours to Varthaman’s return throughout the afternoon and evening. A Bollywood filmmaker has already applied to copyright the movie title Abhinandan.
Varthaman’s return had been scheduled for the afternoon but was delayed for hours without explanation, leading TV anchors to speculate something may have gone wrong. At around 9.15pm Indian time, he appeared on the Pakistan side of the border crossing, straight-backed and wearing a blue blazer and grey trousers.
The diminutive iron gates on both sides of the border slid open and Varthaman strode out onto the no-man’s land in between. For a moment soldiers from both sides came face-to-face. Varthaman shook the hand of an Indian officer, and another took him by the waist and walked him onto Indian soil. The two gates were slammed shut behind him.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, tweeted:
Varthaman’s parents flew from Chennai to Delhi on a midnight flight on Thursday, where they received a standing ovation from passengers. They drove to Amritsar, the closest city to the Wagah border, soon after touching down in the capital.
Around the time he was crossing the border, Islamabad released what appeared to be a heavily edited video in which Varmathan recounts his capture, praises the way he was treated and criticises the Indian media. “The Indian media always exaggerates. They embellish the smallest thing, present it as if on fire, and people fall for it,” the footage shows him saying in Hindi.
The fate of the pilot had become a major concern in India after a series of videos were released showing him being beaten by a mob near his crash site and then interrogated by Pakistani officers while blindfolded and wearing a bloodied uniform. He gave his name, rank and religion, but when prompted for more, calmly replied: “I’m sorry, sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”
The footage was widely circulated on WhatsApp and social media and broadcast nationally in both countries, including on India’s stridently nationalistic evening talk shows.
Pakistan appeared to seize on Varthaman’s potential to be a circuit breaker in the conflict by the evening, releasing a video showing the detainee drinking chai, saying he was being treated well and lauding his captors as “thorough gentlemen”. “The tea is fantastic,” he added.
India had lodged an official complaint about the “vulgar display” of the prisoner in the videos and demand his immediate return without conditions.
Kashmir, a Himalayan region the two countries claim in full but rule in part, has been the trigger for three India-Pakistan wars since 1947. The pair regularly trade mortar fire over the heavily guarded line of control separating the two armies, including on Friday as Varthaman was being repatriated.
The stakes of the latest flare-up have been heightened by an impending general election in India and the introduction of social media and cable news in both countries, which have created new and influential public lobbies.
False news and videos including of pilots killed or injured in earlier accidents and supposed footage of India’s strike on Pakistan that later turned out to be a clip from a video game were also widely circulated.
Modi, who is currently campaigning for re-election, trumpeted the strikes against Pakistan from the hustings on Friday.
“From 2004 to 2014 there were several terror attacks,” he said, speaking at a rally in Tamil Nadu state. “The nation expected perpetrators to be punished but nothing happened … Today, we are in an era where the news reads: armed forces have full freedom to do what they want.”
Varthaman’s release on Friday was lauded as a “titanic win for India” by more jingoistic elements of the country’s media, but Khan’s announcement puts pressure on Delhi to reciprocate in a way that eases tensions before it is has necessarily achieved its strategic goals.
The current crisis was sparked by a 14 February suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based militant group in the disputed region of Kashmir that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries.
Indian jets flew more than 50 miles inside Pakistan to strike what Delhi has said was a militant training centre in reprisal, the first attack on undisputed Pakistani territory since a war between the countries in 1971.
Indian government officials said on Thursday the attack was intended to raise the costs for Pakistan of continuing to allow jihadi groups to operate with free rein on its soil. India has previously practised “strategic restraint” in response to attacks by Pakistan-based militants, including a four-day bombing and shooting operation in Mumbai in 2008 that killed or injured nearly 1,000 people.
India wants Pakistan to take verifiable action to show it is cracking down on Islamist militia groups, an issue it says Islamabad has sought to distract from by creating the impression the two nuclear-armed countries are on the brink of war.
Pakistani jets struck Indian territory near Kashmir’s ceasefire line on Wednesday morning. Both countries say they shot down an opposing jet in the ensuing aerial combat, including Varthaman’s, which landed in Pakistan-held territory.
The clashes led to the closure of airspace across Pakistan and northern India, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded as airlines cancelled flights to the region or scrambled to find alternate routes.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, was asked by CNN on Thursday night if his country would arrest Mahmood Azhar, the leader of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Indian paramilitaries. “According to my information he is very unwell,” Qureshi said. “He is unwell to the extent he cannot leave his house.”
India has given Pakistan a dossier of evidence on the involvement of Azhar and JeM in the plot. Qureshi has said he would examine the dossier but told CNN that India needed to “give us evidence which is acceptable to the courts of Pakistan” before it arrested the militant leader.
Pakistan has not explained why more evidence than JeM’s claim of responsibility would be necessary.
The country’s climate change minister, Malik Amin Aslam, told Reuters on Friday he planned to lodge a complaint against India at the UN, claiming its airstrikes had destroyed pine trees in a forest reserve. “What happened over there is environmental terrorism,” Aslam said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010