As videos of a bloodied Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman began to surface on social media Wednesday, India gasped in dismay at the capture of its ace IAF pilot by Pakistan. From being attacked by civilians soon after ejecting from his burning MiG-21 jet, to confidently answering questions from his captors even as he was blindfolded and injured, the public exposure to his condition indicated that he may just survive the ordeal. This, in many ways, is what will ensure his protection.
All combat flyers who are trained to operate in enemy territory know that if they are ever shot at, the first few hours after ejecting safely are critical because that is when their chances of being killed are the highest. They can be lynched if they fall into the hands of a mob of local civilians. The Wing Commander was almost killed, if a video doing the rounds on social media is true. They can also be manhandled or shot dead by enemy soldiers of other ranks who are often just as bad as a mob.
The fact that Wg Cdr Abhinandan has survived that stage and landed in the custody of senior officers of Pakistan armed forces means that he is now in relatively safer hands. The IAF pilot is now in the custody of those who are aware of the implications of violating the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian laws and are therefore expected to exercise the kind of restraint, which a mob won’t.
Pakistan, however, has not strictly observed the Geneva Conventions as is evident from a video in which he is purportedly being hit and taken away hands tied, bleeding and humiliated. Yet, the very fact that Pakistan has publicly admitted to capturing him as a result of an armed conflict on the Line of Control (LoC) means that it will be difficult for them to detain him for a long time.
The four Geneva Conventions apply to all cases of armed conflict between two or more signatory nations even in the absence of a declaration of war. It applies to situations of hostilities that have all the characteristics of a war. The downed pilot – a military soldier – is therefore protected against torture, insults, violence and intimidation and is entitled to medical treatment for his injuries.
Given the international spotlight on Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s capture and Pakistan’s need at this juncture to establish itself as a reasonable and responsible nation, which respects international humanitarian norms, returning the IAF pilot with honour and dignity will be the right thing for it to do. Not returning him safely will further tarnish Pakistan’s image internationally.
It is worthwhile to remember that during the Kargil conflict in 1999, Flight Lieutenant (now Squadron Leader) K. Nachiketa was returned eight days after his capture because of a similar media scrutiny and international concern. But Squadron leader Ajay Ahuja, who was on the same mission as Nachiketa and whose aircraft was also shot down, was believed to be killed in the heat of the moment by Pakistani soldiers as soon as he ejected from the aircraft.
Although both Pakistan and India demonise each other’s military in popular culture and in the media, both sides are known to have displayed a soldierly camaraderie towards each other’s captives once they reach military garrisons. For instance, Air Commodore (Retd) Kaiser Tufail of Pakistan who interrogated Nachiketa later said that it was more like a friendly “crew room” conversation between two fighter pilots. Few know that senior Pakistani air force officers sent Nachiketa a cake on his 27th birthday, which fell during his period in captivity.
India also returned eight soldiers of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry who were captured during the conflict in Kargil. Indian units even exhumed bodies of some Pakistani soldiers in subsequent months and returned those that were quietly claimed by Pakistani military units at the local level. For the most part, Pakistan kept up the façade that the Kargil incursion was carried out by terrorists and not its army regulars and refused to claim the bodies for several years. These were buried by the Indian side with dignity. (Source: Author’s research for a forthcoming book)
There is also some relief that the Indian Wing Commander has not been categorised as a terrorist or a spy, which is what Pakistan sometimes does with military captives when it wants to get around the protection given to a captured soldier under the Geneva Conventions. Many of the 54 missing Indian defence personnel of 1965 and 1971 wars – India accuses Pakistan of holding them back after the wars ended – are believed to have undergone a change in categorisation from prisoners of war (PoWs) to spies.
It is important to note that Pakistan has never admitted to keeping them and their names did not appear on the list of PoWs exchanged by it when the 1971 war ended and the process of repatriation began in 1972. All those who were accounted for as PoWs by Pakistan were sent back.
Missing defence personnel or PoWs are generally detained by the enemy to serve a purpose, which could be either bargaining for release of their own soldiers, or securing strategic advantage. In Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s capture and subsequent public display, Pakistan has more or less achieved what it wanted to –scoring a point and assuaging its domestic constituency. Holding him further will not serve any useful purpose except to attract international opprobrium.
Chander Suta Dogra is a senior journalist and author. Her forthcoming book on Indian prisoners of war is due to be published this year by Harper Collins.