Imran Khan Calls for Better Sense to Prevail; India Protests 'Vulgar Display' of Indian Pilot

India officially confirmed that one pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who had gone to intercept the Pakistani planes on Wednesday, was "missing in action."

New Delhi: After India officially confirmed that one Indian pilot is “missing in action” after an aerial skirmish with Pakistani fighter jets on Wednesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called for “better sense [to] prevail” and renewed his offer for dialogue.

India has called for the “immediate and safe return” of the Indian pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, and termed the circulation of videos showing his “capture” by Pakistan as a violation of international law and in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

A day after India conducted airstrikes targeting a training camp in Balakot, Pakistani planes entered into Indian territory in Kashmir and dropped four bombs.

Social media was abuzz with images and videos released by Pakistan army’s media wing of a captured Indian pilot.

One video showed the pilot being punched on a river bed, even as a voice-over shouted, “enough.” There were also images of him being led away with blood streaming down his face.

Also read: After Pak Says It Has 2 IAF Pilots in Custody, India Confirms 1 Is ‘Missing in Action’

Another video was circulated of him sipping tea, as he fielded questions. The pilot, who had a black eye, said that he was “impressed” by his treatment by the Pakistan army and specifically mentioned a Pakistani captain who rescued him from the locals who were trying to accost him.

India officially confirmed that one pilot, who had gone to intercept the Pakistani planes on Wednesday, had not returned. There was no name mentioned at the press conference, where a short statement was read out by the MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar along with senior Indian Air Force officer, Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor.

Kumar stated that Pakistan’s attempt to target Indian installations “were foiled successfully.”

The subsequent unfolding of events resulted in the pilot going missing.

The sequence of events

“The Pakistan Air Force was detected and the Indian Air Force responded instantly. In that aerial engagement, one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian Air Force. The Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side. In this engagement, we have unfortunately lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts,” Kumar said. 

Just half an hour after the Ministry of External affairs spokesperson had read out his statement, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was on television.

He started by expressing sympathy for the “pain” suffered by relatives and loved ones after the attack at Pulwama. “I know how their people have suffered. For [the] last 10 years, Pakistan has also lost 70,000 people [to] terrorism. For the last 10 years, I have visited hospitals… seen bomb-blast victims losing their legs, eyes and so I understand what those who have lost their lives, the injured and their relatives go through,” said Khan.

The Pakistani leader recalled that he had offered “any kind of investigation” to India after the Pulwama terror attack which left 40 Indian security personnel dead on February 14.

He repeated the Pakistani statement that Indian airstrikes were expected since it is election season.

“After the Indian action took place, we had discussions with the Army chief and Air force chiefs. We didn’t take action then as we didn’t know what kind of damage had happened,” he said.

Khan asserted that Pakistani airstrikes were not aimed to have any “collateral damage.” “We just wanted to show our capability. That we can also go inside your [Indian] territory,” he said.

Also read: The Airstrikes Had Three Targets, But Hit Bullseye in Just One

Khan claimed that two Indian MiG fighter planes “crossed the border in retaliation” after the Pakistan planes went inside India. “They were shot down. I can tell you now that pilots are in our custody,” he said.

Both the Pakistani Prime Minister and the army spokesperson have claimed that more than one pilot is in their custody, while New Delhi says that only one Indian air force office is “missing in action.” In the evening, Pakistan army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor clarified that only “one pilot” was in custody and he was being treated as per “military ethics.”

After asserting that Indian pilots had been held, Khan asked, “Now how do we go from here? We should use our wisdom now”.

Claiming that all wars “have happened due to miscalculation,” he cited how World War I, the Vietnam war and the War on Terrorism had stretched on for years, even as governments had expected swift military offensives which would have been completed in weeks.

“I ask India: with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation? If this escalates, it will no longer be in my control or in control of Narendra Modi.”

Reiterating the offer of talks, Khan concluded, “So, I invite the Indian government again, I said that after the pain that you have suffered from Pulwama, to have dialogue on terrorism. Better sense should prevail. Let’s sit together and settle this with talks.”

The five minute and 26 second speech was much anticipated in New Delhi, as there were expectation that it would provide clues as to Pakistan’s intention.

Sources note that there seems to be scope for de-escalation. Both sides seem to indicate that they do not plan to take any further steps through their armed forces.

Sources also point out that even India’s statement on the Indian pilot had been very carefully worded, to ensure that there wasn’t an aggressive tone.

Diplomatic developments so far

Unlike his February 19 statement, Imran Khan mentioned that the Pulwama terror attack and the grief felt by the kin of the dead and injured, several times on Wednesday. India’s first criticism in dismissing the February 19 address to the nation was that Khan had failed to acknowledge the Pulwama attack. “[The] Prime Minister of Pakistan has neither chosen to condemn this heinous act nor condoled with the bereaved families,” said the MEA press note last week.

India and Pakistan summoned each other’s deputy high commissioners to lodge their respective protest. New Delhi had recalled its envoy from Islamabad temporarily for “consultations,” with Pakistan following suit.

Pakistan had summoned Indian diplomats over the cross-border firing.

Later in the day, Pakistan deputy high commissioner went to the South Block where he was served a demarche.

The protest letter was on the “violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan Air Force and targeting of Indian military posts.” Describing it as an “unprovoked act of aggression,” India claimed that it was in contrast to the “non-military anti-terror pre-emptive strike on the JeM terrorist camp in Balakot on February 26, 2019.”

“It is unfortunate that instead of fulfilling its international obligation and bilateral commitment to take credible action against terrorist entities and individuals operating from its soil, Pakistan has acted with aggression against India,” read the statement from the Ministry of External Affairs.

The Indian government had conveyed that it “reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism,” the statement further noted.

Regarding the Indian pilot, the MEA “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions.”

Demanding his “immediate and safe return,” the demarche also advised Pakistan to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody.

Meanwhile, on the issue of terrorism, India expressed regret “at continuing denial by Pakistan’s political and and military leadership at the presence of terrorist infrastructure in territories under its control.”

A dossier was handed over to the Pakistani side with specific details of JeM complicity in the Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan. It was conveyed that India expects Pakistan to take immediate and verifiable action against terrorism emanating from territories under its control,” added the statement.