As tensions that have been brewing for over 70 years between neighbouring nations escalate, 13 days after the beginning of it all, everything hangs in the balance of one man – Varthaman Abhinandan.
A day after IAF fighter jets claimed to have hit a militant camp in Balakot in Pakistan, early dawn on Wednesday saw retaliation from the Pakistan Air Force. After an aerial engagement in Jammu and Kashmir's Nowshera sector on Wednesday, in which the IAF shot down a F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Pakistan claimed that it captured one Indian pilot, who was identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, a MiG 21 Bison pilot.
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.
After a morning of back and forth on government statements, reports by media across the globe, and social media responses calling for war and against it – the risk of war today is based on one Indian soldier in Pakistan’s custody.
The Indian government formally acknowledged that Varthaman has been captured by the Pakistani forces and said that it expects his immediate and safe return.
Social media brought him to the public
However, this exchange of information about the pilot didn’t just happen on diplomatic levels. With social media being omnipresent, this IAF pilot captured the attention of the world in a series of mildly disturbing videos. People tweeted, shared and like all of them, some calling for his return, some commenting that this was what India had to have been expecting after all. One of the first videos circulated show Abhinandan with facial injuries, blindfolded and distraught, asking where he was.
Another video shows Abhinandan in the open, where he can be seen being pulled and pummelled by people who look like civilians, even as army personnel try to pull him away from the mob. In a last video – the only pleasant one of the lot – Abhinandan applauds the treatment he received at the hands of his Pakistani counterparts, even going so far as to praise the tea he was offered.
The videos and Abhinandan himself went viral and #Bringhimhome was a trending hashtag at some point in the day. There is even a fake account created under the soldier's name on Twitter, tweeting that 'he' is safe and retweeting posts that call for his return. Celebrities on both sides of the border have tweeted about him, and about the tensions escalating between the nations.
However, this new age of instant information sharing could have easily escalated issues that could have been resolved or dealt with in productive diplomatic talks.
In the absence of a final video showing a safe and smiling Abhinandan could have left us all, from both sides of the border, teetering and for good reason - war.
India on Wednesday summoned the acting high commissioner of Pakistan and demanded his immediate and safe return. It has also been made clear to Pakistan that no harm should be caused to the Indian defence personnel, the External Affairs Ministry (MEA) said, adding it has conveyed strong objection to the neighbouring country at the "vulgar display" of an injured personnel in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention.
Son of a former IAF officer
The parents of Wing Commander Varthaman Abhinandan were engulfed by gloom after coming to know that their son had been taken into custody in Pakistan.
When IANS contacted his father, retired Air Marshal Simhakutty Varthaman, over telephone, he declined to speak. The distressed family lives in Chennai's outskirts.
Like his father, Abhinandan chose the Indian Air Force (IAF) and was commissioned into service in 2004.
His father was once the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Air Command.
Simhakutty Varthaman had shared his knowledge about the air force to film director Mani Ratnam for his Tamil movie "Kaatru Veliyidai" where the hero, an air force pilot, is captured by the Pakistan Army.
A person known to Simhakutty Varthaman told IANS: "I know the senior Varthaman. He is a nice person. I have not met Abhinandan. I know he is married."
Tread cautiously, Former IAF brass
India, having sent its message with Tuesday's air strike, should now refrain from any escalation and tread carefully keeping all diplomatic channels open as a Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was in Pakistan's custody and bringing him back was among the top priorities, former IAF officers said on Wednesday.
"India should keep all the diplomatic channels open. The situation would not have gone this bad had there been a dialogue. These politicians think they can eradicate terrorism. Even the United States has been trying to do the same since the 9/11 attacks, but it has not been able to do so," Air Marshal (retd) Ashok Goel told IANS.
"We need to tread very carefully and judiciously now. We don't know what kind of harm Pakistan may cause to the captured officer. There should not be an escalation from our side at least. The priority should be to get our man back," he said.
Another former Air Marshal advised India to try to get the captured officer back with both the parties having achieved their objectives.
"India achieved its aim by destroying their terror camp. Pakistan also saved its face by doing some sort of attack in which both nations lost an aircraft each. Unfortunately, one of our men was captured. We should make all efforts to retrieve our pilot," former IAF Chief P.V. Naik said.
Former Air Marshal M. Matheswaran said that while bringing back our man should be the priority, India must extort some action from Pakistan against terrorism before it fully engages in a dialogue.
"Of course, we must bring him back... But it's something that happens in an escalation. Our plane drifted into their territory and got captured... it is part of the conflict situation. We have to deal with it.
"But Pakistan needs to show some action. It needs to stop supporting the terror outfits and eliminate them," he said.
The already strained relations between India and Pakistan have been tested since Tuesday when the IAF, retaliating against the Pulwama terror attack that killed 40 CRPF troopers, bombed the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed at Balakot in Pakistan.
A clear statement from India
The Pakistani Acting High Commissioner was summoned this afternoon by the Indian MEA to lodge a strong protest at the unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan against India, including by violation of the Indian air space and targeting of Indian military posts.
Imran Khan, Pakistan's Prime Minister has reiterated the need for 'better sense' on both sides and has also spoken about his committment to talks required to tackle everything that stands as an issue including terrorism claims given actionable evidence.
"It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return," the MEA said.
All of these strong-worded demands make the truth all the more clear; the risk of war hangs on this downed pilot’s return.
- With inputs from agencies