Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan
Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, stands under armed escort near Pakistan-India border in Wagah, Pakistan in this March 1, 2019 image from a video footage. Image Credit: Reuters

The release of Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan on Friday, who was captured on February 27 as his aircraft crashed following an aerial mission beyond the Line of Control (LoC), is the much-needed breakthrough in the critical stand-off between the two countries that has the world on edge as the two neighbours in the Indian subcontinent seemed to be headed for a military conflict.

The return of the pilot at the Wagah border, the principal crossing between the two countries, is the cue for India and Pakistan to de-escalate tensions, and heed the counsel of the international fraternity of nations, including the UAE, that has urged both countries to exercise restraint and pursue non-military avenues of engagement.

This crisis, that precipitated as one of the most grim possibilities of conflict not witnessed since 1971 when India and Pakistan went into a full-scale war, is an unmissable opportunity for both countries to gather fresh resolve and set in motion a long-term process of smoothing out the many contentious issues that have dodged them for decades.

Since India’s February 26 predawn strike on Balakot, Pakistan, in retaliation for the February 14 Pulwama terror attack in Indian-administered Kashmir, there have been looming concerns over the consequences of escalation. And any way you look at it, India and Pakistan do not stand to benefit in any way by prolonging this stand-off. India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj spoke of India’s concerns over terrorism at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference that concluded in Abu Dhabi yesterday. But she also spoke of the strength of values and their role in achieving resolutions.

In announcing Pakistan’s intention to hand over the captured pilot to India, Prime Minister Imran Khan termed it a gesture of peace and expressed a desire to de-escalate tensions.

Pakistan has extended the olive branch to India, and the latter would do well to accept it and step back from the brink. The potential of the moment, clearly, is hard to miss and rather than continue with the old rhetoric and be burdened by more discord that has stymied their cooperation for decades, both countries must use this opportunity to actualise the intentions they profess.

This is entirely possible if they accede to the imperative that this adversity has presented them with.