New Delhi – He parachuted out over enemy territory. Fired in the air to keep back angry locals. Jumped into a pond and then destroyed documents by eating them.
That’s what Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, an Indian fighter jet pilot, reportedly did after his plane crashed in Pakistan territory on Wednesday. He also may have helped defuse one of the worst crises between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in decades.
Pakistan handed the pilot over to Indian authorities late Friday night. Under bright floodlights amid a heavy security presence, Varthaman crossed into India on foot at the Wagah border crossing in the state of Punjab.
A massive metal gate opened as Varthaman, dressed in a sharp suit, walked into India and shook hands with security officials. He came home to a rousing reception; hundreds of Indians waving the national flag and garlands awaited his arrival all day.
Varthaman’s plane was hit in the first aerial dogfight between India and Pakistan in nearly 50 years. He was subsequently captured by the Pakistani military in a particularly dramatic development to an already volatile conflict.
In a scene that could have been out of a movie, Varthaman parachuted out of his flaming plane and then asked the gathering crowd where he was. Upon finding out he was in Pakistan, he ran backward, firing his pistol in the air to keep back the angry young locals.
When they got too close, he jumped into a pond and destroyed sensitive documents and maps by swallowing some and soaking others before he was captured.
After two tense days, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Thursday that his country would return Varthaman as a "peace gesture." The move lowered immediate tensions between the arch-rivals.
On Friday, Pakistan re-opened its airspace partially to allow travel to four major cities. The country had closed its airspace on Wednesday following the escalation, causing disruptions to international air traffic. In India, the Election Commission said that national elections due in April-May would be held on schedule.
Experts said Varthaman, a 38-year-old from the city of Chennai, would undergo a detailed debrief and medical check upon his return.
Indians have watched every twist and turn in Varthaman’s saga this week. An alleged video of his initial capture shows him being dragged from the crash site as enraged locals attempt to hit him. A Pakistani soldier is heard asking people to stop.
A second, more controversial video that may run afoul of Geneva Conventions was tweeted by Pakistan’s Information Ministry. The clip showed the blindfolded pilot with a bloodied face, answering questions calmly while in Pakistani custody.
After the Foreign Ministry in India "strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel," the Pakistan military posted a fresh video saying the pilot was being treated "as per norms of military ethics."
Seen sipping a cup of tea, Varthaman declines to answer any question on his operation or aircraft details, while praising his treatment by the Pakistan army. Spoken like a "true soldier," his father Simhakutty Varthaman said in a statement.
Flying runs in the family: the elder Varthaman, now retired, was a decorated senior officer in the Indian air force who reached the rank of air marshal. In an ironic twist, Simhakutty Varthaman once advised a filmmaker who made a movie about a pilot jailed in Pakistan after being captured in war. In the movie, the hero is ultimately reunited with his family.
After the capture, his father had expressed hope for his son’s safe return and said the family was praying that he "does not get tortured." On Thursday night, the pilot’s parents flew to Delhi ahead of their son’s release. As passengers on the flight realized who the couple was, they burst out in applause and cheers.
Varthaman, the son, appeared on a popular Indian television show eight years ago with several other fighter pilots. The hosts asked the guests what the main prerequisite was to be a fighter pilot. "Attitude," said one. "Bad attitude," added Varthaman with a smile.
Even as India and Pakistan traded charges over the last two days, Varthaman’s behaviour in captivity united people from both sides of the border, mostly in praise. Videos of his capture and questioning were shared by thousands on social media. Pakistani citizens joined the chorus asking their government to return Varthaman as a gesture of peace.
This is not the first time that an Indian pilot has been taken hostage by Pakistan. In 1999, the rivals fought a brief but intense conflict high in the Himalayas. In that clash, known as the Kargil conflict, India deployed fighter jets but Pakistan did not.
During the fighting, an Indian fighter pilot named Kambampati Nachiketa was captured by Pakistani forces after his plane crashed. Nachiketa said he was tortured during his eight days of captivity, after which he was released.
In the war of 1971, when the two countries fought over the liberation of Bangladesh, India had taken over 90 000 prisoners of war including many security personnel. They were repatriated to Pakistan after an agreement between the two countries the following year.
The Washington Post