By Dushyant Shekhawat Feb. 28, 2019
During the Kargil War, IAF pilot K Nachiketa was shot down and taken prisoner by Pakistani forces, just like Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was during the Balakot airstrike. The two episodes are separated not just by two decades, but by a sea change in the attention they have received and the reactions of the public.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman will probably go down in history as the most tweeted about defence personnel in the country. Since reports surfaced in February 2019 that an aerial skirmish between the Indian Air Force and Pakistani Air Force led to an Indian pilot being captured by Pakistani forces, the safe return of our serviceman became the discussion of the day. This came as a welcome change from the warmongering that had preceded it. Those who were tweeting #BadlaKab after the Pulwama attack turned into ambassadors of peace with #SayNoToWar.
After a day of high tension, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that Varthaman would be released as a “gesture of peace”. The IAF pilot spent three days in Pakistani custody. Since the time he was captured, pictures and videos of the wing commander, most of which have been released by verified accounts in Pakistan on social media, flooded social media. His safe return was expected to bring about a positive change in how armed forces of both the countries view each other.
However, Wing Commander Varthaman’s capture brought back horrific memories of the Kargil War in 1999, when flight lieutenant Kambampati Nachiketa was taken into custody by the Pakistani army. Yet, there is a marked difference in the attention to which the two have been subjected.
More than twenty years ago, on May 27, 1999, the MiG-27 that Nachiketa was flying was shot down by a surface-to-air missile and he was captured by Pakistani ground troops after he ejected from the plummeting aircraft. It took eight days before he was returned to India, and his ordeal could not have been more at odds with the one Varthaman is currently experiencing.
After his return to India, Nachiketa described how he was viciously beaten by the troops who first apprehended him, until a senior officer stepped in to stop them. He also said that he had endured torture while in Pakistani custody, as his captors wanted intelligence about Indian military operations. The only similarity between the two cases was that both Nachiketa and Abhinandan were paraded before the Pakistani media, as evidence that Pakistan had captured an Indian pilot.
In two days, we knew a lot more about Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman than we know about any other defence personnel captured by Pakistan.
The two episodes are separated not just by two decades, but by a sea change in the attention they have received and the reactions of the public. In Nachiketa’s case, information from the frontlines was drip-fed to the general public through newspapers and the intermittent TV report, and his captivity added to the hostile atmosphere between India and Pakistan. In stark contrast, the entire episode involving Varthaman has played out in real time, with multiple videos and photographs becoming available on the internet as the situation continued to develop.
It all started with a video of the pilot blindfolded being questioned by the Pakistani armed forces. At this point, the deniers who couldn’t fathom that one of our pilots had fallen into enemy hands were quick to dismiss this as a fake video, doctored by Pakistan. Theories of “moustaches not being allowed” in the IAF did the rounds. Unfortunately, for those who would prefer a convenient narrative, this is the digital age, and there’s too much information available online to dispute the facts.
Not only were Varthaman’s service number, records, and old photos unearthed, but more videos also surfaced — one where Pakistani soldiers were seen rescuing the Indian pilot from a mob of attacking villagers, and another where he can be seen sipping tea while calmly conversing with a Pakistani major. And finally, more reports from the Pakistani media emerged online, detailing the quick thinking of the Wing Commander while being pursued by hostile villagers and Pakistani soldiers.
Within hours of his capture, Varthaman became the nation’s concern and #BringAbhinandanBack became a top trend. Even those from Pakistan demanded that he be released.
In two days, we knew a lot more about Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman than we know about any other defence personnel captured by Pakistan. The big game- changer here was social media. Had it not been for the videos circulating on Twitter and pictures being shared on Facebook, we’d know as little about Varthaman as we knew about Nachiketa when he was in Pakistani custody. Rumours would have gained a life of their own and would have probably led to more hysteria and panic.
Varthaman became face of the ongoing India-Pakistan tension in 2019 and it is unlikely that we will forget him soon. We’ve come a long way since Kargil, from a prisoner of war reminding us of the horrors of conflict, to Varthaman becoming a symbol of de-escalation. It’s ironic, but at a time when both India and Pakistan seemed closer to war than they had in decades, it was the warriors who showed us the way to peace.