Border Lessons From Wing Commander Abhinandan's Ordeal

If nations are home to cultural and religious diversities, why can’t we relax borders and cure the territorial paranoia? Why prolong a colonial curse?

In the first video, we see an alarming scene of the injured pilot in a pond, surrounded by a mob. We know the story till then, from an eye-witness account in Dawn of Mohammad Razzaq Chaudhry, a 58-year-old political and social activist from Horra’n village.

The first thing Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhaman wanted to know after he landed was which side of the border he was on. The piece of land on which he fell did not have any distinguishing marks. The people around him looked familiar. They could have been from his own country. This familiarity puzzled Abhinandan. India and Pakistan are like a mirror cut into two, facing each other.

It was the political division of this familiarity that led Toba Tek Singh – the famous character from a short story written by Sadat Hasan Manto in 1955 – to be overcome by schizophrenia. Singh’s schizophrenia was born from the impossibility of distinguishing this nation from that. People who understood the difference failed to make him understand. To him, the reasons for Partition lacked rationale. Toba Tek Singh’s character raised a striking question: Is it madness to refuse, or accept Partition? It is both. It is madness to refuse or accept this madness.

Returning to the story, someone among the crowd of young boys, presumably identifying the pilot’s true nationality, told him he was in India. The boy’s mischievous response to Abhinandan’s confusion is reminiscent of Manto’s story. His act of deception was grounded in undisguisable familiarity. People from across the border were the same people, divided by political realities that proved costlier than cultural ties.

Abhinandan raised patriotic slogans, allegedly ‘Jai Hind’, perhaps to ascertain where he was, thereby breaking the spell and any possibility of humanity between them. Someone from the group shouted, ‘Pakistan army zindabad’. The name of nations rose up to divide them. Abhinandan asked for water, but it was too late for the crowd to reciprocate humanely. Emotions were unraveling beyond the Line of Control. Maps were redrawn. The pilot had to run for his life, firing his pistol in the air, as the crowd of boys chased him with stones.

They were no longer simply people to each other. They were enemies because they belonged to different nations. Is that a desirable price to pay to be in the world?

After Abhinandan came out of the pond, destroying all evidence of his mission, the boys tore upon him. Someone among the security forces, taking the bleeding pilot away, was heard shouting, “Don’t beat him, enough, enough.” The men who controlled the map put a leash on the surplus emotions of nationalist rivalry. After having a taste of the brutal violence that characterises the excessive paranoia of borders, it was time for the enemy to face the political authority of power.

Also read: Behind Enemy Lines: How Abhinandan Varthaman Survived After the Crash

It was a close shave in enemy territory. Nations are sleepless beasts with a paranoid excuse: neighbours are enemies. Nationalism transforms the image of the enemy into a beast. The idea of humanity under the discourse of nationalism territorialises – and destroys – the meaning of the human. We make ourselves beastly by turning the neighbour into a beast. We forget the enemy is human.

In the case of India and Pakistan, the enemy is not just human. The enemy is our double.

The Pakistani activist, Choudhry, winded up his story narrating how in a city 50 kilometres away from Horra’n, people showered roses and shouted slogans, as the Pakistani military convoy drove past with the Indian pilot in its custody. I wonder if anyone mourned the petals that were crushed under the wheels of those speeding vehicles. Guns and roses are violently contradictory metaphors. Roses symbolise love and peace. Not war.

In the second video, there is an obvious degree of excitement and activity in the room. Yet, the men in uniform appear restrained. The enemy has to help fill the form to register his sudden, unwelcome arrival. Abhinandan politely asks the men, “May I request a little bit of information: Am I with the Pakistani army?” The question reverberates with genuine concern in the face of extreme vulnerability. Namelessness is frightening. Names enhance intelligibility. The way Porus demanded to be treated like a king by Alexander, so did Abhinandan, from soldiers of the Pakistani army.

In the third video, the apparatus of power appears palpable in contrast to the intended message of the video that the pilot is in good hands. By fixing Abhinandan’s bruised nose, Pakistan wanted to save its own; fix its image. The invisible voice of an Army Major asks questions from Abhinandan to let Indians know he is being treated well with a “fantastic” cup of tea. Two enemies sounded close to friendship.

The invisible Major comes across like a college senior gently ragging you. When asked to specify his aircraft and mission, Abhinandan declines with firm politeness. Like an Abbas Kiarostami film, you see and hear one side of the frame, while you can only hear the other side. Power is exercised through visual imbalance. The captive is exposed, while the captor is behind the camera. It’s a little game to showcase a polite boss who’s treating the enemy well. The message of the video undercuts the presumption of brutality that is expected of the Pakistani military.

Also read: For Two Weeks, While India Debated War, the Prime Minister’s Busy Schedule

The real effects of war were not visible in the control room of war. They were more visible in warmongering television studios.

In the heavily edited fourth video released minutes before Abhinandan walked back to his home country, the Pakistani authorities made him publicly underline the military nature of his entry into their territory. He is also made to blame the Indian media for misleading people with inflammatory content. The retired Air Chief Marshall, A.Y. Tipnis, voiced a similar concern on the electronic media, speaking to NDTV, “We need to be muted in our narratives. We need to show that there is no jingoism from our side.” Truth is often truer than politics. No propaganda is more miserable than one that instigates war.

Abhinandan has been suitably praised for his calm demeanour, dignity and courage. It is ironic that the videos that provoked outrage in India, became the source of the nation’s admiration for its pilot. Questions of a more liberating future, however, remain: If nations are home to cultural and religious diversities, why can’t we relax borders and cure the territorial paranoia? Why prolong a colonial curse? Pakistani authorities edited Abhinandan’s statements. India, in contrast, must not tutor him and allow him to freely speak about the complexity of his experience.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).

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