Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘goodwill gesture of peace’ Thursday to announce the release of Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was a difficult political decision. But Imran Khan undertook some quiet and sensitive consultations with opposition parties and made the announcement in the joint session of Parliament.
Just two hours before this announcement, I posed a question to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Geo News: “Are you ready to defuse the tension by releasing the Indian pilot because it will give some face-saving to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi?”
Qureshi immediately gave a positive response and said, “We are ready to think about that.”
Qureshi also told me that the Indian government Wednesday sent a dossier on Jaish-e-Mohammed and that Pakistan is ready to talk about it. Both Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi made these peace gestures to India, just a day after shooting down an Indian fighter jet.
Since Khan’s announcement, many people in Pakistan have asked why PM Imran Khan was releasing Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman without any conditions or concessions. Some demanded that Pakistan swap the Indian pilot with the remains of Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru, who were hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
An yet, a large majority of Pakistanis not only first rallied for the Indian pilot’s release but are also now supporting the announcement made by Imran Khan — an announcement he made not from a position of weakness but from a position of strength.
“Bahadur Shah Zafar is not our model. The hero of this country is Tipu Sultan,” Imran Khan slipped this one, too, in what was a clear message to India: Don’t confuse our peace gesture with weakness because in the case of a war, we will not surrender but fight like Tipu Sultan until the last drop of blood has been spilt.
We also learnt that the United States, Chinese and Saudi officials also advised PM Imran Khan to take some positive action to defuse the tensions with India. The release of the Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman was the most suitable option for Pakistan. Imran Khan also spoke to the leadership on that issue, and not just the political parties.
It is important to note that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was not captured by the Pakistan Army. He was spotted and surrounded by some Pakistani youth of Horran village located seven kilometres from the Line of Control in Bhimber district of Pakistani Kashmir. The pilot emerged from his parachute safe and sound. He asked the locals whether he was in India or Pakistan. One young man tried to misguide him and said it was India. Abhinandan Varthaman then raised the slogan of “Jai Hind”. The youth got angry and shouted “Pakistan Zindabad”. The pilot realised he was in Pakistan and he took out his pistol. The youth pelted him with stones. Abhinandan Varthaman fired some shots in the air and tried to run away but was surrounded by a bigger mob. They roughed him up but the Pakistan Army personnel arrived in time and took him in custody.
Now Pakistan is releasing him in the hope for peace. Will Narendra Modi respond positively? Many people close to Imran Khan told me that a telephonic contact will soon be established between the two heads of nuclear powers in South Asia and everything will be all right. Personally, Imran Khan is not very optimistic about Modi. He thinks Modi is in an election mode and peace does not suit him at the moment. Modi may ask for something more. But the thing is, if Modi doesn’t respond positively to Imran Khan’s gesture of peace, then the international powers may get a window of opportunity to interfere in South Asia.
And so, it’s time for India and Pakistan to move forward. War is not an option. They must start holding talks on terrorism and other issues that concern them. Imran Khan must invite the international media, including from India, to visit Pakistan. They should be allowed to visit Jabba near Balakot where India made air strikes on February 26. They should be welcomed to carry out investigations and play an objective role.
In return, the Indian government can also allow Pakistani media to visit its country. It will help not only the governments of India and Pakistan, but also help their common citizens get rid of some deep misunderstandings.
The release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan can be a game changer. Let’s change the game.
The author is an award-winning Pakistani journalist. He tweets at @HamdMirPAK
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