Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on Thursday that captured Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be released on Friday as a “peace gesture”.
The quest for peace between the two countries is of course paramount, but there is another excellent reason for the Pakistanis to free the captured Indian pilot. Their gesture could have far-reaching beneficial spin-offs for the strife-torn Kashmir.
By sending the pilot to India hale and hearty, the Pakistanis would have fulfilled an unusually odd demand from India’s ultra-nationalist TV channels and their sullen military analysts who have asked Pakistan to abide by the Geneva Conventions in dealing with the Indian captive. The Indian government has also cited international conventions in their communique on the incident.
There are benefits for both sides, but that Pakistan is heeding international humanitarian laws should hearten the Kashmiris most.
A brief background
A brief background is required here. There was a time when ethnic violence in Karachi would draw criticism from Amnesty International and the Indian spokesman would cite it to slam Pakistan. The latter would trash it as western propaganda. When Amnesty described the use of torture in Jammu and Kashmir, the boot would be on the other foot. Pakistan flagged it and India trashed it.
For all the care Pakistan may be taking in treating the captured Indian Air Force pilot with the professional courtesy he deserves, it was still remiss. According to the Geneva Conventions, to allow video clips of him being quizzed to slip into the irresponsible hands of the social media is not permissible. The clip many of us received in India did disservice to his captors and it was bad form to release it.
On the flip side, Pakistan should smile that the perennially callous Indian anchors have requisitioned the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) involvement in the captured pilot’s treatment in Pakistan. There is a sudden clamour for the Geneva Conventions to be applied, which allow international humanitarian laws to kick in.
Why should Pakistan be happy to send the IAF pilot back promptly? Because the Kashmiri people would take heart from the fact that ultra-nationalist Indians are finally putting their faith in the professional neutrality of an international organisation they shunned in Kashmir, the northeast and elsewhere.
The involvement with the pilot’s rights in Pakistan should help the ICRC and the international community in pushing for greater access to prisons in Kashmir and other Indian detention centres to observe the state of incarcerated militants and civilians.
Could the Indian pilot’s unlucky sortie become a catalyst for greater respect for human rights of soldiers and civilians caught in domestic or cross border conflict in India and Pakistan?
The ICRC doesn’t usually share its findings publicly, and it takes up issues of concern primarily with the host government. It was through the Wikileaks revelations published in The Guardian in 2010 that the world learnt of US cables from Delhi that were based on the ICRC’s secret briefings about the criminal disregard for human rights in India.
The US embassy reported that the ICRC had concluded that India “condones torture” and that the torture victims were civilians, as militants were routinely killed, according to The Guardian report.
The ICRC staff told the US diplomats they had made 177 visits to detention centres in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India between 2002 and 2004, and had met 1,491 detainees. They interviewed 1,296 of these privately. In 852 cases, the detainees reported ill-treatment. A total of 171 described being beaten and 681 said they had been subjected to one or more of six forms of torture.
In 2017, the pictures and video of a Kashmiri civilian, Farooq Ahmad Dar, tied as a human shield to the front of a vehicle driven by Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, became viral on internet, stirring a major controversy. It was claimed that such an action violated the Geneva Conventions.
Wing Commander Abhinandan’s early return to India in accordance with the same convention should have a salutary effect on those who didn’t believe in human rights or humanitarian law until now, but seem to have changed their mind for good.
Jawed Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist.