New Delhi: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan Wednesday called his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi for a dialogue, while stressing on the needlessness of a full-fledged war.
However, it remains to be seen if the Pakistani forces will now release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian Air Force pilot captured after his MiG-21 Bison was brought down Wednesday, as they did during the Kargil War with Group Captain Kambampati Nachiketa.
A video being shown by the Pakistani media, from which a screengrab has also been shared by the Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations, shows Abhinandan sipping tea, commending the Pakistani military for its conduct, and politely declining to answer the questions asked of him.
What happened to Nachiketa?
The IAF played an unconventional role during the Kargil War. It conducted ‘Operation Safed Sagar’, whereby its main role was to support ground operations, establish tactical superiority over the Pakistan Air Force, destroy the supply routes for Pakistani forces, and ensure secure air space.
During one of these activities on 27 May 1999, Nachiketa, 26 years old at the time, was engaged in a fight, when all of a sudden the engine of his MiG-27 fighter “flamed out”.
He ejected while his plane was spiralling down but was captured as he had landed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. He was saved from Pakistani fire by a senior military officer, but over the next few days, faced immense torture and interrogation.
Another pilot, Ajay Ahuja, flying a MiG-21, was shot down.
At the time, just like Wednesday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs had said the pilots were ‘missing in action’.
Interrogation and release
Nachiketa was interrogated by then-director of operations of the PAF, Group Captain Kaiser Tufail. However, on a parallel track, intense diplomatic negotiations and discussions ensued between external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz.
“Although the interrogation had started and I was aware I may not see a tomorrow back in India, that hope was always there: That I’ll be back someday. I was tortured,” Nachiketa told NDTV in an interview in 2016.
“Frankly speaking, I was not a source of real information for them. I’m sure they wanted to get to hear some things from me which could help them. But the only thing was, being an air force pilot, I didn’t have much access to the army’s plans.”
Finally, on 3 June 1999, almost eight days after his capture, Nachiketa was handed over to Pakistan’s International Committee of the Red Cross, which then sent him back to India through the Wagah-Attari border.
While much credit was given to the two foreign ministers, it is also widely known how then-Pakistan Air Force chief Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi helped in ensuring Nachiketa’s release.
Qureshi, who was the first prisoner of war in 1971, was saved by Lt Gen. H.S. Panag, then-Adjutant (officer responsible for operational staff work) of the 4th Battalion of the Sikh regiment during the war.