Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced the release of captured Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman + , calling it a “peace gesture” and the first step to open negotiations. The officer will be repatriated on Friday.
“We have Indian pilot in our custody. As a peace gesture and as a first step to open negotiations, I announce that we will release him tomorrow,” Khan announced during a joint session of Parliament. Abhinandan is expected to cross the border between midnoon and 1 pm.
Sources suggested that Abhinandan, whose fighter jet was shot down over POK on Wednesday while chasing one of the F-16 fighters of PAF which had entered Indian air space, may be handed over to the Indian high commission. He will cross over from the Wagah border, an occasion that is sure to spark celebrations.
The release of the IAF pilot came as a relief to India and might provide an opening to the two countries to edge away from the brink temporarily, but India is unlikely to ease the pressure on Pakistan to take action against the Jaish-e-Mohammed leadership any time soon.
The Indian side remained unconvinced about Khan’s sincerity, pointing out that his “peace gesture” was not voluntary but was prompted by international pressure following Islamabad’s failure to use Abhinandan as leverage for de-escalation by India within 48 hours. India made it clear to Pakistan that the pilot would not be a “bargaining chip”.
“We told them that we will not negotiate and that Pakistan had no card in him,” a senior government source said. This message was amplified by the international community, particularly the US, which worked the phones with Pakistan both on Thursday and on Friday.
Just a couple of hours after the Pakistani PM’s statement, a tri-service press conference, while welcoming Abhinandan’s return, stressed that they would remain in full readiness and a de-escalation would not be possible until Pakistan had taken action against the perpetrators of the Pulwama attack.
Earlier in the morning, Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi indicated they might free Abhinandan if India agreed to de-escalate. That was rejected outright by New Delhi. The Pakistani “offer”, expressed at a briefing for journalists by the Pakistani foreign ministry in Islamabad, was reiterated by Pakistani diplomats in New Delhi.
In fact, Pakistan officials even said they were not sure Abhinandan’s case fell under the Geneva Convention, which could have meant Pakistan could have treated him like a common prisoner with none of the rights of the Geneva Convention.
India’s flat refusal also carried a warning that Abhinandan should not be hurt or harmed in any way. On Thursday, videos circulated by Pakistan showed him being beaten and manhandled, before they put out a video showing him having tea and extolling the hospitality of the Pakistan army.
The first indication that Abhinandan might be released came from US President Donald Trump who told reporters in Hanoi that he expected “reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India”. Qureshi even dialled Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi who, according to an official readout, cautioned Pakistan about not staying with international norms.
Government sources said they were clear that this was not about an individual, that India was fighting a larger battle against terrorism. The MEA issued two demarches on Wednesday night, one to the acting Pakistani high commissioner here and the other by the Indian mission in Islamabad — demanding that Abhinandan should be unhurt and returned without delay.
One of the things, the government was concerned about was the steady ratcheting of public pressure which came out in hashtags like ‘bringabhinandanhome’. For many, it was a throwback to the Kandahar hijack drama where families, mobilised by putative politicians and TV channels, conducted rallies and protests outside the PM’s residence. This put the then Vajpayee government under intense pressure and it buckled, leading to the infamous trip to Kandahar with Masood Azhar and two others. The government did not want something similar to happen this time.
The government ruled out a repeat, saying it would not give in to Pakistan’s pressure tactic. It was also confident that Pakistan would not be able to keep the wing commander for more than a couple of days. “He will be back latest by Friday,” a senior government functionary said.
In the past 24 hours, websites and online platforms have removed videos of Abhinandan being beaten and blindfolded to avoid the sympathy for the pilot from turning into pressure for the government. “This is what Pakistan wants,” a source said. The capture of the pilot temporarily moved the focus of the narrative from terrorism, which was the reason for India conducting the strikes on February 26. The challenge for the government is to bring the narrative back to terrorism.