Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman Returns to India

The IAF pilot was handed over to Indian officials at the Attari-Wagah border after a delay of several hours.

New Delhi: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who became the face of the two-day military standoff between India and Pakistan when he was shot down over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, returned to India on Friday night.

He was handed over by Pakistan to a team of the Indian Air Force at the Wagah-Attari border crossing between at 9.22 pm after a delay of several hours. The delay, Indian officials, said, was because the Pakistani military decided to shoot a video of the pilot “for propaganda purposes”. A highly edited video was tweeted by the Pakistan government’s press wing, but it was subsequently deleted.

Geo News released the video of the pilot but reportedly stopped airing it after the criticism it received.

After a medical check-up, the IAF took him to Amritsar to be de-briefed.

“Wing Commander Abhinandan has just been handed over to us as per standing operating procedure of Indian Air Force. We will now take him for a detailed medical check up. This check-up is mandated particularly because the officer has had to eject from an aeroplane which would have put his entire body under great stress. IAF is happy to have Abhinandan back,” said Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor.

Deputy Commissioner Shiv Dular Singh Dhillon said, “We have not asked the Pakistan authorities what the reason for the delay was” as it had been formally intimated to Indian authorities that captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman would be released around 3 pm, as sources within the Foreign Office had told Dawn News TV.

Around 45 minutes after his release, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted:

Minutes after Varthaman’s release, the Pakistani foreign ministry issued a press release claiming that the pilot was “treated with dignity and in line with international law”.

“Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan announced his return as a goodwill gesture aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India,” said the foreign office statement.

Acting Indian High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia on Friday visited the Pakistani foreign office to complete all formalities ahead of the pilot’s repatriation.

Indian air attaché Group Captain J.T. Krain had gone to Lahore along with the pilot’s travel documents, which he will need to return to India. The group captain was to escort Wing Commander Abhinandan back to India.

Abhinandan’s return to India is being portrayed as a “gesture of peace” by Pakistan.

While firing across the Line of Control dividing Kashmir eased on Friday, diplomatic relations between the two counties remain strained.

Earlier on Friday, the Pakistan foreign ministry announced that it will not be attending a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi this weekend, as India has no “legal or moral grounds to be present at the meeting”.

Circumstances surrounding Abhinandan’s capture

India on Tuesday, February 26, said it successfully carried out a “non-military preemptive” airstrike in Balakot, Pakistan, which specifically targeted a Jaish-e-Mohammad camp – the terror outfit that claimed responsibility for the February 14 Pulwama suicide bombing in which 40 CRPF soldiers lost their lives.

While India said it had successfully destroyed a JeM terror camp, Pakistan said there was no damage.

On Wednesday, February 27 – a day after the Indian Air Force (IAF) airstrike – Pakistani fighter jets violated Indian airspace in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch and Nowshera sectors and dropped bombs.

Pakistani officials initially claimed to have downed two Indian fighter jets in an aerial dogfight, but later clarified that only one had gone down in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and that one Indian pilot was in their custody.

Videos of the captured pilot, whose identity still hadn’t been officially confirmed at the time, started doing the rounds on social media soon after.

Later on the same day, India officially acknowledged that an IAF pilot, subsequently identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, had gone “missing in action” after an aerial skirmish between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets.

Also read: UN Chief: Release of Indian Pilot by Pak, ‘Very Much Welcomed’ Step

On Thursday, February 28, just after 4:30 pm, Pakistan’s prime minister announced that Varthaman would be released on Friday as a “peace gesture.”

Following the announcement, Air Vice-Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor said the IAF is happy that Wing Commander Varthaman is being returned to India. He said that his release is in consonance with the Geneva Conventions.

After news of his capture was confirmed, India had called for the “immediate and safe return” of the pilot and termed the circulation of videos showing his “capture” by Pakistan a violation of international law and in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

Potential détente

While tensions remain relatively high, India has signalled that it it will not take further military steps for now.

Indian officials handed a dossier on the JeM over to Pakistan on Wednesday night – an indication that the emphasis has already shifted from kinetic to diplomatic means – and refused to label the Pakistani incursion and attack on what it called “military targets” as an ‘act of war’.

This is presumably indicative of a de-escalation of the situation.